Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What Makes a Good Support Network?

One of my semi-developed opinions (I have lots, free for the taking!) is that Laestadianism's superpower is its support network. I think about it whenever someone says "I would leave if I could." Well, why can't they? Nobody is holding a gun to their head. They aren't held captive by Spiderman's web.

Not physically, no.

But those of us who have broken those chains know very well their strength.

We did not evolve to live alone. None of us was born or survives without the help of others. Those who leave their old social group must find a new one or risk "failure to thrive," like Harlow's baby monkeys who were isolated for months and emerged broken, or died.

Isolation, even when chosen, can make us sick, depressed, and stunted in our growth. Yet so much about our modern lives keeps us from connecting to one another in any significant way.

I've been thinking of this as I prepare for major surgery later this month. Medical studies show it is not just practical support (information, care, nutrition, etc.) but social support that leads to better outcomes for the surgery patient. I have asked friends for help, for positive thoughts, for prayers.

Prayer works not because it moves the hand of God (or we wouldn't need surgery at all) but because it moves the hearts of patients. When we know there are people pulling for us, we are more optimistic about the future and more committed to self-care. Love is powerful medicine.

I found this advice from the Mayo Clinic relevant to us exes:

Benefits of a social support network

Numerous studies have demonstrated that having a network of supportive relationships contributes to psychological well-being. When you have a social support network, you benefit in the following ways:
  • Sense of belonging. Spending time with people helps ward off loneliness. Whether it's other new parents, dog lovers, fishing buddies or siblings, just knowing you're not alone can go a long way toward coping with stress.
  • Increased sense of self-worth. Having people who call you a friend reinforces the idea that you're a good person to be around.
  • Feeling of security. Your social network gives you access to information, advice, guidance and other types of assistance should you need them. It's comforting to know that you have people you can turn to in a time of need.

Cultivating your social support network

If you want to improve your mental health and your ability to combat stress, surround yourself with at least a few good friends and confidants. Here are some ideas for building your social network:
  • Volunteer. Pick a cause that's important to you and get involved. You're sure to meet others who share similar interests and values.
  • Join a gym. Or check out the local community center. Start a walking group at work or at your church. You'll make friends and get some exercise.
  • Go back to school. A local college or community education course puts you in contact with others who share similar hobbies or pursuits.
  • Look online. The newest generation of social networking sites can help you stay connected with friends and family. Many good sites exist for people going through stressful times, such as chronic illness, loss of a loved one, new baby, divorce and other life changes. Be sure to stick to reputable sites, and be cautious about arranging in-person meetings.

Give and take: The foundation of social networks

A successful relationship is a two-way street. The better a friend you are, the better your friends will be. Here are some suggestions for nurturing your relationships:
  • Stay in touch. Answering phone calls, returning emails and reciprocating invitations let people know you care.
  • Don't compete. Be happy instead of jealous when your friends succeed, and they'll celebrate your accomplishments in return.
  • Be a good listener. Find out what's important to your friends — you might find you have even more in common than you think.
  • Don't overdo it. In your zeal to extend your social network, be careful not to overwhelm friends and family with phone calls and emails. Save those high-demand times for when you really need them. And while sharing is important, be wary of "oversharing" information that's personal or sensitive, especially with new or casual acquaintances and on social networking sites.
  • Appreciate your friends and family. Take time to say thank you and express how important they are to you. Be there for them when they need support.

The bottom line

Remember that the goal of building your social support network is to reduce your stress level, not add to it. Watch for situations that seem to drain your energy. For example, avoid spending too much time with someone who is constantly negative and critical. Similarly, steer clear of people involved in unhealthy behaviors, such as alcohol or substance abuse, especially if you've struggled with addictions.
Taking the time to build a social support network is a wise investment not only in your mental well-being but also in your physical health and longevity. Research shows that those who enjoy high levels of social support stay healthier and live longer. So don't wait.
Start making more friends or improving the relationships you already have. Whether you're the one getting the support or the one doling out the encouragement, you'll reap a plethora of rewards.
What is your experience with support networks? Do you have advice for those who are worried about leaving the church?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Surviving the Holidays

While the holidays are stressful for everyone (even good stress is stress), being around relatives whose religion you’ve left can be uniquely challenging. 

How does a former Laestadian cope? 

Drawing on my own experience and others, I've come up with some tips that may be helpful. Mileage will vary, of course. Feel free to disagree and add your ideas in the comments.

1. Consider Your Options

You have no obligation to be with relatives over the holidays. If you left the faith recently, opting out of family holiday may be the best option, as it takes strength to stay unruffled among people who consider you lost (or wicked, or crazy). They haven’t had time to get used to the idea that you are gone, and may still harbor hopes that you'll return with a well-timed rebuke. Nurture yourself instead. Coddle your emerging identity until you feel settled, and can actually look forward to seeing them. 

If you want to be around some relatives and not others, or go to one gathering and not another, it's your choice. Don’t feel bullied into being with people who mistreat you. Honor your instincts; they are there to guide you. 
Honor your instincts; they are there to guide you. 
On the fence? You might consider travel, or celebrating at a friend’s house, or volunteering with a service organization. After leaving the church, I spent a few holidays alone and then, a few with friends, a valuable lesson in diversity. If you're like me and felt a bit cheated by the somber holidays of the church, embrace your freedom to deck a tree, listen to schmaltzy carols, attend the ballet, go to a candlelight service, or just eat Thai food and watch a movie.

However, consider that even if your family disapproves of your leaving, they haven't lost their love for you. Now that you are no longer in church on Sundays, they may truly long for the chance to be with you. My favorite thing about the holidays as a little girl was when my big sister came home. The happiness and lessons I would have missed out on, if she had stayed away! 

If enduring a little discomfort lets you lavish love on younger siblings, or see a relative from out of state, that may tip the balance for you. Only you can decide.

2. Set Limits

If you decide to see your relatives, set a time limit and make a back-up plan, in case you want to leave early. I've found that two hours is a good limit for my husband and kids, who (not being as familiar with Laestadianish), get tired thinking of small talk that won’t offend. If going solo, a couple of days is perfect for me. It's okay to be begged to stay, and it's okay to say, sorry, I can't. 

You may want to set a limit on how much to spend on travel and gifts. The reciprocity that Laestadian families regularly practice, trading phone calls, texts, visits, photos, cards, gifts, and favors, often stops abruptly for those who leave the church. That will sting, but don’t wreck your sanity trying to figure it out or fix it. Just remember that they are protecting themselves more than punishing you.
Just remember that they are protecting themselves more than punishing you.
Give only when you can do it with a full, free heart, with no expectations of return, and refuse to become a martyr. The Laestadian training in self-denial is unlearned this way (slowly, alas, I'm still working on it).

3. Let Go

There is a Buddhist saying that hope and fear are two sides to the same coin, and both cause suffering. Instead of fearing the worst or hoping for the best, shoot for equanimity. Then come what may, you'll be okay. 

If you have not “come out” yet as a nonbeliever, the holidays may present the opportunity. There is no right time or way. Only you can know when it feels both safe and worthwhile. Perhaps you will feel compelled to correct someone who mistakes you for a fellow believer or asserts as universal a personal truth, or condemns non-Laestadians to everlasting hell.

Some people are direct in self-outing; others less so. Some never come out. Some decide to forgo or alter the traditional greeting, some say "I no longer believe" or "I don't go to your church anymore” or “I would rather not talk about it” or any number of things. One friend, in revealing his heart, asked a missionary simply, "Do you think Gandhi is in hell?"
Unless you are being personally attacked, don't take Laestadian-talk personally. 
Stay grounded. Unless you are being personally attacked, don't take Laestadian-talk personally. Resist what we were taught as Laestadians: to judge. Everything. 

Try to relax in the knowledge that there is so much more to a person than ideas, and in any case, you are not responsible for theirs. With patience and creativity, you will find things to talk and laugh about.

If you find yourself trapped in a gossip session, find the nearest escape route: "Sorry, I have to pee" is a common one. So is "I'd rather not talk about that." In a religion with rigid standards for conduct and the attendant hypocrisy, gossip is valuable currency. Coated with concern for those being discussed, it is embarrassingly easy to slip into. Resist! Indulging in gossip is like holding onto anger: it's as if you're drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

4. Don’t Try to Fix Them

Sharing our views without judging those of others takes a level head and practice. We represent by our very presence, as an "ex," a rejection of Laestadianism. We don't need to rub it in. We can be kind. It would be nice if our loved ones affirmed our reality, or felt safe enough to confide their own doubts, but it isn't necessary. 

Martha Beck says: “Don’t violate your own code of values and ethics, but don't waste energy trying to make other people violate theirs. If soul-searching has shown you that your mother's opinions are wrong for you—as are your grandfather's bigotry, your sister's new religion, and your cousin's alcoholism—hold that truth in your heart, whether or not your family members validate it. Feel what you feel, know what you know, and set your relatives free to do the same."

Feel what you feel, know what you know, and set your relatives free to do the same.

Resist the urge to argue.  If you can't keep yourself from arguing, excuse yourself. This is where your back-up plan comes in handy.

Be true to yourself. Be loving.

This is your responsibility and privilege as a member of your family, which you will always be, even if you are never invited back. Even if you lose them all tonight in a flash flood. Being true and being loving are actions you will never regret.

5. Make Peace

Whatever our beliefs, we can define the season so it creates peace in us and in those we encounter. We are wonderfully fortunate, as 21st century Americans, to have a choice in how to celebrate, when countless billions throughout history have not, and many still, around the world, are bound by custom and law. 

With so much to experience and be thankful for, the dumbest thing would be to sit at home and wallow in self-pity (but I'll confess, I've done that, too). 

So let's feed someone. Sing. Be of use. Visit family or not.

Make peace in unlikely places, because we can.

We're free!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Dance Like a Former Laestadian

"I grew up in a culture that does not permit dancing. Why, I can’t reasonably explain to you, but it was unacceptable so I never did it. I was uncomfortable moving my body, had no idea how to shake my hips, and didn’t know what to do with my hands. Armenians, on the other hand, love dancing. They dance at every occasion—for hours on end."
I've been meaning to post an excerpt from Traveling Ev's engaging post about her learning to dance while in the Peace Corps, but it slipped my mind until today's news story about the seven Iranians sentenced to six months in prison and 91 lashes for making a "Happy" dance video.


A Tehran court found the video "vulgar." (Watch it and judge for yourself.)

Then go to Ev's blog and read her story. I love how she is using her new skills in her new life, and am quite envious. One to four times a week?! I love Zumba, and dancing with my husband to live music, but neither are frequent occurrences. I need to work on that.

What was your first experience with dancing?