THE HALLMARK FIX

I have a confession to make: 2020 is beginning to wear on me, and I suspect I am not alone.  I’ve really noticed it for about the last two weeks or so, and it is so vague it I can hardly describe it.  Ennui comes to mind…weariness with the world in its current state.  I feel irritable and out of sorts.  As a psychologist I have tried to check my thinking because I know how much our thoughts influence the way we feel.  But why do I feel so down about things?  Because for the most part we are now living our lives as normally as we can.

 

We were pretty strict about being locked down when the quarantine first began.  After all, we are supposedly in the high-risk group.  But I got really tired of not being able to see my family, so on Mother’s Day I declared that our house was “open” and the whole clan came over.  Being with my family helped immensely.  Then slowly we began to find our new normal, although there is nothing that feels “normal” about wearing a mask.  We are coming and going, doing things like grocery shopping, eating out, trips to Lowe’s and the nursery, but we haven’t been in any large crowds.  I’m not sure there have been any large crowds to be in.  Our church has still not completely opened, but we are moving in that direction.  We have only been physically to church twice and maybe that is part of what feels so off, even though we have stayed connected electronically.  My friend groups and other organizations are meeting via Zoom, and I have met friends for occasional lunches, coffees, and dinners.  So why do I feel so off kilter?

 

I don’t have to tell you what is going on in our country.  Just turn on the news (something this former news junkie can hardly do any more).  The level of hate is something I have never seen among fellow Americans before.  It just makes me sad, and I don’t see any end in sight.  So one thing that has lifted my spirits is Hallmark’s Christmas in July.  Yes, I have been watching Christmas movies, in fact, I just finished one.

 

What is it about those Christmas movies that make me feel better?  The same 20 or so actors regularly appear in plots that are so predictable (and unrealistic) even I could write one.  Boy meets girl, they usually don’t hit it off at first but later begin to fall in love (with an almost-kiss) until there is some sort of misunderstanding that sends one of them packing.  However during the last fifteen minutes they get things straightened out, have a real kiss, and it snows.

What I love the best are those charming, picture-perfect Christmas towns.  There are quaint main streets filled with mom-and-pop shops (or shoppes), carolers, cider, and always snow.  Not dirty, slushy, day-old snow, but pure and pristine snow that doesn’t even make the cars dirty.  The part that always gets me are the Christmas Eve pageants, choir performances, or school plays.  Don’t these people have to be at Grandma’s on Christmas Eve?  Doesn’t anyone leave town?  This is where Jerry reminds me, “It’s only a movie!”

 

There is a psychology to why these movies make us feel better; in fact there is a psychologist who has studied it.  Dr. Pamela Rutledge is the director of the Media Psychology Research Center at Fielding Graduate University.    Dr. Rutledge says one of Hallmark’s cinematic shortcomings is the thing our brains love: predictability.  And oh, how we crave predictability in these chaotic times we are enduring.  And we forgive the unrealistic story lines because they allow us to suspend our own reality for two hours.  These movies allow us to experience a variety of positive emotions such as connection, empathy, love, warmth, and compassion that serve as a buffer to the stress of real life.

 

However, the feel-good doesn’t last very long.  As much as I love me a good Hallmark Christmas movie, there is something much better.  I know what to do when these negative emotions start to get to me.  I go to the One who has the answers.  I turn to the Bible, prayer, and my spiritual books.  I have been reading through a beautiful little devotional book, The Red Sea Rules: 10 God-Given Strategies for Difficult Times (thank you, Paula Carter).   There are study questions at the end of each section, and one reached out and grabbed me the other day.  “If you knew Jesus was literally standing beside you right now, how would you feel differently about your current Red Sea problem?”

 

That question has made a big difference, because of course, Jesus is here right now, in the person of the Holy Spirit who lives in every Believer.  Nothing about the world situation has caught Him off guard.  He’s got this.  When I feel worried or depressed it is usually because I have forgotten that He is present, right here with me.  Yes, the world is stressful right now, and may become even more difficult in days to come.  But Jesus is walking with me.

 

I did a little Word study on the presence of the Lord.  Here are some of the verses that spoke to me:

 

The Lord is near to all who call on Him… Ps. 145:18

 

The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything.  Phil. 4:5-6

 

Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.  Gen. 28:15

 

These verses and many more allow me to reset, to gain equilibrium.  The world may seem to be spinning out of control, but I can rest.  I feel much better.  God is right here.

 

 

Lessons from Obedience School, Part 2

 

We had our second obedience class with Max and Ruby last week, and Jerry and I are learning as much as the doggies are.  As we have been discussing our lessons, we have realized a large part of getting our dogs to obey lies in giving clear commands.  They are really quick to respond when we use the commands and techniques our trainer Merit has instructed us to use.

 

When we pulled up to Top Dog Ranch last week, Max and Ruby jumped out of the car and ran eagerly to the door.  “Oh good,” I thought.  “They like it here.”  Well the fun stopped right at the front door.  I have to preface the explanation by describing the facility.  It’s really big, nice, and new, and it is built something like a gym, with high ceilings, a large open space, and hard flat walls and floor surfaces.  Perfect conditions for loud, reverberating noise.  Our dogs are having private lessons so we didn’t notice the sound much on our first visit.  But this time Merit was finishing a lesson with a large dog with a BIG bark that ricocheted off the walls and had the effect of stopping our dogs (especially Max) in their tracks.  They put on the brakes and did an about face towards the car.  So that fear set the stage for the rest of the session, but it was very instructive for us to observe.  Max immediately wanted to jump in my lap, but following Merit’s instructions from our previous lesson I told him, “off!”

 

Sidebar here: In full disclosure if we had been on our own, I would have let Max stay in my lap and would have cuddled him to sooth him.  I misunderstood something Merit told us in our first lesson, so I addressed it with her.  I thought she was telling us we loved on our dogs too much.  After all, I told her, they were “hired” to be lap dogs, and that is one thing they do really well.  She clarified that we can love on them as much as we want, but while we are doing training (at home or at Top Dog) they need to be obedient and we need to be the leaders.  So Max and Ruby have to keep four paws on the floor at Top Dog.

 

We worked on two things during our lesson: walking without pulling and sitting on command.  We have always used retractable leashes because we thought it would be a good chance to let our dogs run.  We have a very small yard so there is not a lot of opportunity for exercise except for treeing squirrels.  Car rides do not count as exercise.  Max is the worst at pulling and lunging on the leash, and when he does, he invariably gags and hacks.  I am afraid he will someday hurt himself, and he has never made the connection, “When I lunge at the leash it chokes me.”  Or sometimes they lag behind and we have to tug at them.  So at Merit’s instruction we bought six foot mesh leads, and oh my gosh, do the four of us get tangled doing it that way!  Hence, the need for lessons.  The idea is for the dogs to walk with a loose leash at our sides.  In order to facilitate this Merit had us buy anti-pull harnesses that squeeze their chests when they try to pull ahead of us.  When that happens, we are to stop, creating an anchor.  When they realize we are not going forward they will turn and look at us.  At that point we praise them for looking at us (‘Good look!), and walk a few steps forward before giving a treat.  We are introducing the command, “Easy,” and the goal is, as they improve, we will only need to say “easy” to remind them to stay by our sides.  (Well, at least that is the theory.)  If they lag behind, we stop and use the “Let’s go” command.

 

This lesson is packed with spiritual implications.  How much easier life is when I walk with Jesus, at His side.  Not lagging behind, being stubborn, or wanting to go off in my own direction.  And not getting ahead of Him.  That command, “easy,” really spoke to me.  I was reminded of the verse in Matthew 11:30 where Jesus tells His yoke is easy and that His burden is light.  I’m thinking a yoke must be a little like that no-pull harness.  It won’t squeeze as long as I am staying by His side.  The previous verse speaks to me as well:

 

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your soulsMatthew 11:29

 

We are to accept His yoke and to learn from Him.  He is not harnessing us to hurt us or to make life more difficult; quite the contrary.  He wants to make our walk with Him easy.  Not easy in the way the world would define easy.  But when we stay close to His side, and keep our eyes on Him, even the hard places become easier, and we can find rest.

 

I noticed that when Merit would take Ruby by herself, Max became anxious and kept looking for her.  That reinforced Merit’s conclusion that Ruby is the alpha dog.  I used the commands we learned last week, “settle” and “look,” to get him to relax.  And remember, the stage was already set for anxiety by the big barking dog.  “Just look at me, Max.  I’ve got this.  You are safe.”  Isn’t that what Jesus says to us?  “I’ve got this.  Just settle and keep your eyes on Me.”

 

After walking, we worked for a while on “sit.”  Again, part of the lesson is getting them to keep their eyes on us.  When they look at us and sit, they get a treat.  Ruby caught on really quickly, but Max not so much.  He kept standing.  Merit explained that when a dog is anxious he wants to stand, to be ready for action.  And she said when he is anxious and standing, it is difficult for him to hear our commands.

 

Wow.  When I am anxious it is harder to hear from Jesus.  Because my own anxious thoughts keep filling the airway.  And even though I may be sitting, I am standing on the inside.  I am plotting my next move to get me out of the situation that is causing the anxiety or discomfort.  And my ideas are not the best at these times, because I am in fight or flight mode.  But I have learned that if I settle, keep my eyes on Jesus, and wait for Him to speak, I then know what to do.  He will lead me to the place I need to be.  I love Psalm 23 in the New Living Translation.  Look at verse 2:

 

He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams.

 

This is what He wants for me.  He doesn’t want to hammer me with a bunch of commands and rules.  He just wants me to walk easily beside Him and keep my eyes on Him.  Life would be so much simpler if I would just learn to obey.  I wonder what I will learn in our next class.

 

Lessons from Obedience School

 

Last week Jerry and I began something we should have undertaken a long time ago.  We started a series of obedience lessons with Max and Ruby, our two rescue dogs.  Now just look at those little faces for a minute?  Do they look like trouble?  While we love these dogs dearly, they have some bad habits.  Habits that have gotten worse during the quarantine.  As a psychologist, I was curious to see if causation is at work.  Are others noticing behavior changes during this time?  Sure enough, a quick Google search revealed that I am not alone.  Animal behavioral specialists are taking a good look at what is going on with our animal friends.  So we decided that we needed to enroll in obedience school.  Even if Max and Ruby don’t get trained, WE can learn some new things to do.

 

Let me give you a little background information on Max and Ruby to add context.  When the last of our Shih-Tzus died, we decided that we would not have any more dogs.  We knew it would be hard because we have always had dogs in our home, and most have been Shih-Tzus.  And actually, having no pets turned out to be a blessing in disguise because about six or eight months later Jerry became very ill with necrotizing pancreatitis and was in the hospital for months, mostly in intensive care.  I spent hours and hours with him and having a pet that needed care waiting at home would have been an additional burden.  Finally, Jerry was able to return home and gradually began to heal.  After he had been home for a while, he was well enough to take some doctor-prescribed walks.  It was then that we thought maybe a dog that also needed walks might be good motivation.  We decided that this time we would rescue rather than buy from a breeder.  That turned out to be a great decision because in spite of these behavior issues, Max and Ruby have been wonderful dogs.

 

We knew two things going in: we wanted an older dog and we did NOT want a male.  We ended up with not one but two puppies, a female and a male.  We knew that the mother dog was a Shih-Tzu and we are thinking dad must be some type of terrier.  We wondered if they might be a little intimidated coming from living in a crate at a vet’s office to our house, but no, they trotted in like they were finally home!  It was like, “What took you so long, Mom and Dad?”  It’s like they think they chose us.

 

In the beginning we thought Ruby was the alpha dog.  She was bigger, although Max soon passed her in weight and height.  She also seemed to be bossier.  But after a few months we decided Max was the alpha dog.  From the beginning they have been barkers and jumpers.  And we haven’t been able to curb those behaviors at all.   Barking at the windows, barking at the front door.  If a leaf blows by we have to bark at it.  Evidently yelling at them to shut up and quit barking only exacerbates the problem, because they think, “Oh good, now we are all barking!”

 

Over time Ruby became fearful of almost everything, especially men.  And especially men carrying equipment.  Our yard guys and any type of service men send her into a barking frenzy, with Max joining in.  She will NOT go out in the back yard without us, because she was once dive-bombed by a hawk.  So anything with wings (bird, housefly, butterfly) scares her.  Max loves the back yard but wants us to keep the door cracked so he can come in at will.  But Ruby won’t have it.  Don’t we know a giant condor might fly in and kill us all?  She also hates the vacuum cleaner, thunderstorms, and well any kind of loud noise.  Don’t even say the word “squirrel” out loud; in fact, don’t even spell it.  And she gets very anxious if we leave her for a trip.

 

These are the behaviors and traits we described to our trainer, Merit Day, on our first visit.  She had some interesting observations after listening to us and watching them.  First surprise: although Ruby is the most anxious, she is actually the leader.  And according to Merit, some of her anxiety is due to her need to protect us.  She feels like most of the burden is on her to alert Max, and then us, to danger.  So Merit gave us some new rules and I have to say, we are already getting results.

 

We worked on getting them to look at our eyes, even while we were holding a treat.  She wants them to respond to the command “Look.”  They are to keep their eyes on us and not be distracted by the treat.  The next command was “Settle.”  This was said in a gentle, but decisive voice while we pressed firmly on their shoulders.  We are to stand between them and whatever stimulus is bothering them.  This is best done with outstretched arms while telling them to settle.  We are to provide direction and demonstrate that we are in control, especially when they perceive danger.  They need to know that we understand the situation and that we’ve got it covered.  She also instructed us to provide daily times when they are to physically follow us.  It’s amazing how quickly Max and Ruby are responding to these new commands.

 

I was sharing all of this with my daughters when Kristie said, “That’s just how we are to be with God.”  Bam!  Why didn’t I see that right away, but of course she is correct.  God doesn’t want us to live in fear and anxiety.  I have heard it said that “fear not” appears 365 times in the Bible.  That’s one for every day of the year.  And He expects us to follow Him.  God will stand between me and danger.  Deuteronomy 31:8 instruct us this way:

 

The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.

                

 

There are many passages about keeping our eyes on the Lord.  But a famous example occurs in the gospels relating a time when the disciples were caught in a nighttime storm on the Sea of Galilee.  The see Jesus in the distance, walking on the water, and in a bold move Peter asks Jesus to tell him to come to Him.  As long as Peter kept his eyes on Jesus, he was doing well.  But when he began looking at the waves he began to sink.  In Hebrews 12:2 we are told to fix our eyes on Jesus as we run our earthly race.  In the original Greek that word “fix” means to look away from something else and look distinctly at Jesus.

 

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that God chose me, not the other way around.  By the power of the Holy Spirit I was able to respond to his call to me.  And He didn’t just choose me; he rescued me.  He saved me from spiritual death and gave me eternal life.  He placed me in a new family, gave me a new home.  All I had to do was accept His payment for my sin.    

 

As I think about these things I have decided that the Christian life is one long obedience lesson.  In these frightening times of coronavirus, riots, and uncertainty, I will do better if I settle, keep my eyes on Jesus, and let Him lead the way.  Stay tuned for next week!