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Arresting Anger - Preventing Violence - Strengthening Families

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Changing Tools (excerpt)

Posted on November 15, 2013 at 12:34 AM Comments comments ()
A tree saw - that’s the only instrument Dr Payne ever carried; the only one he ever needed.

To the folks of Nyevia, he was the island’s only brain surgeon. Sure, it was well known that his procedures usually produced more than their fair share of blood and gore. If patients were lucky enough to recover, their recovery would always be a long and difficult ordeal. Persistent infection and lifelong profound scarring were almost taken as a given but, for Dr Payne’s patients, he was their only hope and last resort.

For 14 years Dr Payne would have his successes and failures, and no one could dispute that he was improving over time as he became more skilled in the delicate use of the tree saw. He was, in fact, a master of the art; perhaps the world’s finest tree saw-wielding surgeon of all time.

At first, when he began to hear reports from the other islands about the use of the “scalpel,” Dr Payne was sceptical. After all, how could such a tiny instrument really have the muscle for brain surgery? And how long might it take to train himself from scratch in the use of a new tool? How could it be worth throwing away all those years of being the best at something? Surely it was better to stick with what he knew, and not allow some passing fad to complicate things?

The first time Dr Payne succumbed to using a scalpel, he didn’t even realise he had made an incision. Where was all the blood which usually accompanied this kind of work, he wondered? It seemed all too easy, and he could see that stitching was going to be a dream. Before long he also noticed a few other changes. Wounds were healing a whole lot quicker than before, and infection was now a rarity. Patients reported less scarring than they might have expected. Survival rates became a pleasant surprise. “This scalpel thing,” mused Dr Payne, “could really take off.”

I’m sure it would come as no surprise to learn that Dr Payne never did return to his trusty tree saw. Like you, I and the majority of the human race, Dr Payne tended to avoid any extra work which did not produce a positive outcome. He also avoided inconvenience unless it was absolutely necessary, and pain unless it was producing some kind of profit (his own pain that is). That’s why Dr Payne was initially not interested in adopting this new “scalpel”; because doing anything new always involves some degree of inconvenience, new work, and often pain.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

As a twelve-year-old boy, I used to enjoy working on my bike - tightening the nuts, adjusting the brakes, and generally trying to keep it maintained the best way I knew how. I had an old shifting spanner which was good for just about everything, since I could just keep adjusting it to fit each and every nut; from the large ones on the wheels right through to the tiny nuts on the brake cables.

At times it was frustrating that the shifter kept slipping off the nuts, scarring my knuckles and putting rounded edges on the nuts. But as far as I knew, this was the tool for each and every job. Like Dr Payne, I was not looking for another tool. I was happy enough with what I had.

One day a teenage neighbour who was more mechanically savvy asked me why I was not using a spanner. I can still remember his words to this day: “You don’t dig a hole with a teaspoon when you can use a shovel.” I reluctantly tried using a set of spanners, and have never looked back.

That day I learned a valuable lesson about myself and about human nature:

"we will continue to use any tool which is working for us, even if it is not the right tool, and even if it may be causing other problems for us or those around us"

What about you? If you take a moment to stop and think, can you identify any broken or blunt tools which you keep picking up? Do you have any habits or behaviours which continue to cause problems for you, and yet you somehow continue to pick them up again and again? Some of us might even be wondering whether we will ever be able to be free of our particular troublesome tools.

For some, a blunt tool might be an addiction which helps us cope with a lot of internal pain we are going through. For others, a blunt tool might be a relationship we are using to feel secure, or even a person we are taking too much responsibility for because it makes us feel like a “good person” when we help them. Sometimes rage or abuse can be the tools which people reach for in order to be heard, respected or taken seriously. For some, obsessive-compulsive, anxious or controlling traits can be the levers they use in an attempt to feel in control of some small part of their own “out of control” world.

For many of us, a blunt tool may have been the best tool a parent had to hand down to us. Some become family heirlooms, faithfully handed down from generation to generation. For some of us, the tool may have just been something which we desperately grabbed for during a pressured or traumatic moment; perhaps when we were too young to know how to respond in the way that a rational adult might do.

The really good news I hope to convey is that irrespective of how blunt or broken your tools are, what type or shape they come in, and where you found and first picked them up, the same key principle applies to you as to everybody else:

When you at last find the best tool for the job, you will never return to the old tool, since doing so would only be choosing to accept something unnecessary and inconvenient.

Just like Dr Payne, your innate human bias towards laziness is not only your problem; it will also turn out to be your saviour. We are not only too lazy, but also too clever to continue using a redundant tool. The truth is, you have not yet discovered the best tool for each and every problem, situation and relationship which you are going to encounter. There are better tools out there waiting to be found, picked up and trusted.

The question is, how will you know when you have found them? "Changing Tools" is about knowing where to look for better tools, how to recognise them when you find them, and what your broken and blunt tools can teach you about yourself.

This has been an excerpt from the new book "Changing Tools." If you would like to continue reading and purchase copies for yourself or for friends, you can order them right here.

Why is it So Hard to Forgive?

Posted on July 29, 2012 at 1:19 AM Comments comments ()
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
Lewis B. Smedes

Jesus Christ tells a great parable about a certain king who wanted to reconcile accounts with his servants. A certain servant owing the king ten thousand talents was unable to pay his debt. Faced with the prospect of having himself, his wife and family sold into slavery, he begged the king for mercy, and mercy was granted to him. The story then goes on to tell of how that servant found another fellow servant who owed him a much smaller amount, but would not show the same mercy which had been shown to him; instead commanding that his creditor be thrown in prison until he pay every last denari of it. Upon hearing about this, the king became furious and reversed his decision to grant his pardon to his wicked and unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35). It's a powerful story about the power that unforgiveness has to keep us stuck in our own personal prison; largely due to our own inability to let go.

I think why I love this story is because it's been my story so many times throughout my life. I can relate to the great challenge of releasing someone from a debt that they really should rightly owe to me for what they did. Just as in the parable though, there is often no way someone can repay their debt to you. After all, how can you "unbetray" someone's trust? How can you "un-hurt" a person you have deeply wounded; perhaps even physically? How can you "unshatter" something you have broken beyond repair, or "un-say" powerful words you have said?

I think what makes forgiveness so hard for us is that we often find it difficult to come to terms with exactly what happened, what is owed to us, what is reasonable and what is unreasonable to expect of ourselves and the other person if we do choose to forgive.

To begin with, forgiveness is always about 2 things: one rational and one emotional. Firstly, it's about releasing a debt (either real or imagined), and then (whether we like to admit it or not), it’s also about releasing hatred... yes, hatred.

Hate is a strong word which many of us are taught never to level at anyone. It is a particularly confronting emotion for us to discover in ourselves, and one which most of us would simply rather not see.
For people hoping to portray a good image of themselves as loving, caring or kind, it is often hard to admit that that feeling that we feel is actually hatred.

So what if we just call it for what it is and admit that sometimes things people have brought from us a hateful reaction? Whilst it may be greatly uncomfortable for us, beginning to admit and to own our own hatred places us in a position to choose whether or not we want to keep it.

If to love means to want only the best for someone, even at the expense of what is good for us, then hatred will require no less of us in the pursuit of wishing the worst for someone. Like trying to hold a beach ball under the surface of a pool, there is a lot of energy required of the person who chooses to hold onto hatred. Debbie Ford is quoted as having said, "Unforgiveness is the poison you drink every day hoping that the other person will die."

It’s my suspicion that, more often than not, we choose to hold on to the debt and the hate because we have made forgiveness harder than it needed to be by adding unnecessary conditions to it. I would like to suggest that if forgiveness seems like a mountain that’s impossible for you to scale, you might do well to make sure you are even “on the right mountain.” Here’s a few pointers which I have found helpful for clarifying what forgiveness should look like:

·        Forgiveness does not depend on my having to first have an apology from another person. In fact, my forgiveness should not require anything from them at all; it’s something that I decide to do, and it’s very personal. Neither does forgiveness depend on the other person changing their behaviour, repenting, or even recognising that they have done anything wrong. It is purely a matter between me and God.
·        Forgiveness does not have anything to do with trust. Trust is my gift to others, and is dependent on how they have treated me in the past. Trust is not blind; trust can be earned and trust can be lost. Trust is always built a lot more slowly after it has been betrayed once before, and sometimes might never be rebuilt. This does not mean that I have not forgiven somebody. Forgiveness is about releasing them from the debt of what they have done, not about opening myself up to be abused again.
·        Forgiveness does not mean that I forget the offence or stop hurting. Whilst God says that He can forgive and forget, it is not biologically possible for me to be able to do that; you see, I am not God. The best forgiveness that I can give somebody will actually be the debt that I cancel even though I do still powerfully remember, and do still feel the hurt.
·        Being angry does not mean that I haven’t yet forgiven. My anger is in response to behaviours and events which are not right. Hatred, on the other hand, is about contempt for the person that they are connected to. There is a big difference, and sometimes it is important to draw upon a better kind of anger in order to bring healthy change to our lives and relationships.
·        Creating boundaries around my heart, my soul, my body or anything else which is mine is not a sign of unforgiveness. Healthy boundaries are a sign that I am guarding my heart in the right ways, just as the Bible suggests.
·        Sometimes there will be hard consequences for the actions of those who have hurt me. It does not mean that I am hateful or unforgiving if I do not rush to rescue them from those consequences. In fact, sometimes the other person will benefit greatly when I step back and allow consequences to bring growth and change into their life. As long as I am not taking some sadistic joy in watching them suffer the consequences, this is not unforgiveness either.
Finally, forgiveness is not an event; it is a process. Sometimes I will need to release someone and forgive them several times an hour. The fact that I have to keep forgiving the same offence over and over in my head does not mean that I didn’t really mean it the last hundred times; sometimes that’s just what progress looks like – that I keep forgiving anyway. You might find, as I have, that the duration between having to put it down at the foot of the cross again and again increases over time; maybe once a week, then once a month. Finally, one wonderful day you realise that, although it still hurts, the offence has now moved from the present to the past; the hate has gone, and you are truly free.

What IS "Responsibility-Creep?"

Posted on August 5, 2011 at 2:06 AM Comments comments ()

“Responsibility Creep” refers to the gradual shifting of responsibility from one person or group of people to another, without notification, and sometimes without the consciousness of either party.

When my children were small, I could not count the number of times when they would run off to play, hand me their shoes or jumper and run away shouting, “Can you hold these?” Whilst most of the time I didn’t mind taking the clothes from them, it took me a lot longer to realise that, in doing so, they also expected me to take full responsibility for them from that point until the next time they needed them.

If the clothes were left at the park, it was very clear to my children that I was the last one with them and that this was entirely my fault. Perhaps there was an element of truth to this too. In any case, I eventually learned the great skill of putting my hands behind my back at these times; a skill which still serves me well as I walk past time-share salespeople, spruikers and even do-gooder folks with clipboards who beg me to sign their latest petition…. (Sigh). If only it was as easy everywhere.
These days, you could probably venture into a staff kitchen at just about any workplace in Australia and, more often than not, you will find a little angry sign saying “PLEASE WASH YOUR OWN DISHES;” perhaps even sarcastically adding “your mother no longer works here!” Whilst some of us might find it an interesting phenomenon that one or two people tend to wash everyone else’s dishes, you can bet that not everyone finds it amusing.
Of course, in many workplaces responsibility creep is no laughing matter. Take the case of a manager who has been in a large firm for a number of years. As the company grows, so does the workload. New staff will inevitably look to him as the most obvious person to ask about problems. On the other hand, the company CEO will also look to this person’s years of experience and increasingly view them as the most reliable person to delegate tasks to.
The result of this is that, unaddressed, the manager’s workload will sooner or later become unsustainable. Whether the manager becomes jaded, begins looking for other work or has a personal or family breakdown, none of these outcomes are good for him or good for business. In this case, it is worth noticing that responsibility-creep actually represents a disincentive for competence. This is to say, it’s like the manager is being punished for being good at his job.
Whilst in the workplace the alternative of incompetence (or becoming poor at your job) is not always an option, the same may not be true of families. Since it’s a good deal more difficult to get fired by your family, being lousy or incompetent at particular tasks can actually prove to be a quick route to a life of ease. If a teenage son does a poor job of mowing the lawn and ruins the mower in the process, he may quickly achieve his end-goal of never being asked to do it again. Unfortunately, the same may also be true of husbands and wives around issues of household chores, budgeting or parenting.
Perhaps the most dangerous relationships are those in which one person becomes responsible, not only for the needs of the other, but also for the emotions of the other. If someone has ever said to you, “you made me angry” or “you made me feel guilty,” then the power to control their emotions is a lot of power to be giving you. The truth is, of course, it is not power that they are giving you, but responsibility.

Grown-ups usually prefer to be in control of their own emotions, and it is supposed to be only children who sulk or have tantrums if things don’t go their way. You cannot truly make another person feel anything, and it is only a person with a manipulative agenda who will try to convince you otherwise.
Those in abusive relationships sometimes take a long time to learn that trying to take responsibility for another person’s moods and feelings is like chasing a rainbow. However hard you may try to walk on eggshells or to be a people-pleaser, responsibility will only creep further and further into your own territory until it eventually suffocates you.
Roughly four-thousand years ago, a very wise king penned some valuable advice for those trapped in this, the sharp end of responsibility-creep:
“An abusive man must suffer the consequences of his actions.
If you rescue him, you will have to do so again.” (Proverbs 19:19)
Whether the responsibility-creep you are living with is related to domestic abuse, the workplace or just a careless family member, the principle contained in this proverb is profoundly helpful. It is not words alone, but cold hard consequences which bring change to situations of blurred responsibility. Nevertheless, words are an important starting point as far as identifying what is going on and how you are feeling about it.
If you do find yourself stuck in any kind of situation of responsibility-creep, I trust you might find the following steps helpful:
  1. Decide not to be a “rescuer” who picks up responsibilities for others
  2. Decide not to “rescue” the other person by your silence
    • By not talking to them about what is happening
    • By protecting their methods from being seen by others
    • By not talking to others who could be helping or supporting you
    • You cannot win a game from your powerless position within the game. You will need to step outside of the game, name and expose the game.
  3. Decide not to rescue the other person by your compliance
    • Staying in the game means that you are happy to continue playing. You cannot say something is unsustainable while you are there  busily sustaining it
    • Exposing the other person to their natural consequences may require separation, resignation, arbitration, or some other respective drastic action; one which makes it clear that you are not going to keep on playing.
  4. Focus on the long-term outcomes
    • it is not sustainable
    • Exposing the other person to their own consequences is the most authentic and kind move of all; it’s no favour to stand in the way of another person’s personal growth
    • These steps may not always bring the changes you were hoping for, but they are a far better chance than continuing to slowly sink

The Old Man's Table

Posted on May 27, 2011 at 1:28 AM Comments comments ()
Once upon a time, there was an old man who loved to collect antique furniture. For years, the old man had rented a split-level house, where the sunken lounge room was a two-inch step down from the dining room.
Every weekend, the man loved to go antique-shopping at one of the numerous old-wares stores in his village. On one such weekend, the man found a stunning antique table made of Tasmanian oak, with beautiful turned legs. The table was a large family table, and it was not until he had paid for it and had it delivered that he realized just how long it actually was.

He soon discovered that the table was so long that it was not possible for it to fit in either the dining room or the lounge room, but that the legs would need to span both rooms. Unfortunately, due to the sunken floor, this would mean that the legs would be two inches higher on one side than on the other, but this seemed a small price to pay for the table he had now fallen in love with.

Over the coming weeks, the man would discover that the slope of the table was a little inconvenient. On a few occasions, if he was writing a letter or doing a crossword, pencils would keep rolling down onto the floor. Similarly, oranges would often roll out of his fruit bowl by their own accord. On one occasion, however, a glass of milk actually slid down the table and spilt all over his trousers and the carpet below. The old man was filled with anger, stormed out to his work-shed, and returned with a saw in his hand. The old man then began sawing down the legs on the high-side of the table, so that it could be forever level, and cease causing him problems.
Since the old man had immediately covered the table with a tablecloth, he never gave the sawn legs another thought, but merely went about his daily business. On the other hand, dinner guests who had never seen the table would occasionally pretend to drop their cutlery, just to take a look at how it was able to cope so well with his flooring.
Seven whole years would pass before the old man’s landlord would appear to inform him of the sad news that his rented house was to be sold and that he would need to find another one. The old man did not know where he would live next, but he did know one thing: he would be taking his beloved antique table. With even your limited knowledge of the old man, I wonder too whether you know what kind of house he went out looking for. Can you guess?
The reason we all know that the old man would be looking for a split-level house is that this is the way that each of us is programmed to think. Like the old man, each of us has grown up in a home which has some unusual features (some people would call these dysfunctional traits). Similarly, each of us must find our own way to cope with our dysfunctional families and to survive in them. Since we are children at the time, usually it is us who must adjust ourselves to fit around the dysfunctional elements.
Like the old man, we then get on with our life as though these adjustments were normal and as though our families were also normal. Since we have lived in our adjusted and sawn-off state for so long, by the time we are adults, we will feel more comfortable and normal in crooked relationships that fit around our brokenness than we will with people and relationships which may be more balanced and healthy. This is why some people seem to keep finding themselves in the same kind of unhealthy relationships time after time after time.
To people who have come from dysfunctional families (and that's most of us), normal relationships can actually feel quite uncomfortable. In some cases, even dangerous relationships (because they feel more familiar to us), might be a lot more comfortable than the unchartered waters of normalcy. It does us all good then to stop and quietly reflect on the following questions; examining ourselves as best we can:
What kinds of things did you have to adjust to in your family of origin?
What part of yourself did you have to saw off in order to fit?
Do you think this affects your current relationships in any way?
This blog post is an extract from Circuit Breaker, Chapter 6 - "Opening Your Mind."