A Spontaneous Overflow of Powerful Feelings

A lot of people have a lot to say about poetry and what it is. I like what William Wordsworth said: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”

I’ll be taking a short hiatus from my blog, only until next week sometime, so I thought I would leave with some more of my old poetry. I hope you all enjoy it!

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Desert Healing

The desert-red earth bleeding.
Symbolic.

I kneel on the red-orange sand,
look up to the blue-gray clouds above
and confess my sins.

I wait.
I dig my hands into the dirt,
dry, hope the rain will come,
and wait.

Nature’s heart beats . . .
beat . . .
beat . . .

Finally, the sky thunders, rebuking me,
and water falls from the overflowing clouds,
the red sand trickles down my fingers
like blood–Nature holds many symbolisms.

The rain washes away the dryness
and takes with it my confessions.
Cleansing, purification.
I rise and am forgiven.

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Observation as a Human

I don’t mind the cold that permeates the air
in late fall, early winter—we need something
to bit us and remind us that we
are human.

Which is why I slow down instead of speed up
walking over the leaf embedded street
as the coldness winds its nipping fingers
up my body.

I let it embrace me with the dark night
that’s circling around me like a pack
of wolves and embellish the fact
that I am human.

Let’s Talk Personal Responsibility

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Some time ago I was reading another mental health blog about what living with bipolar on a daily basis is like. I found it very interesting because bipolar is one thing I’ve never dealt with in my own life. I have known a few people with this illness, but most of my “knowledge” was hearsay. There were over a hundred comments on the post, some from others who had bipolar who were agreeing with what had been written or adding their own struggles. Others were grateful she had been open, so they could understand the illness better. Then there was one woman who left a comment saying how sick she was of people with mental illness being lazy, feeling sorry for themselves and using the illness to get out of all responsibility. She related how she had had to quit her successful job to move back in with her aging parents because her sister with bipolar would do nothing to help and that their parents let her sister get away with everything. While it was perhaps a harsh and overgeneralized judgement to make, I also saw her point. As someone who has lived with mental illness off and on for many years and as someone who used to live with another person who had mental illness I feel qualified to talk about this subject.

As I have already made clear from other posts mental illness is real. As real as any other illness. You can’t tell someone who is suffering from depression to just simply choose happiness anymore than you can tell someone suffering from asthma to simply choose to heal their bronchial tubes. Just because someone with depression is depressed, just because someone with anxiety is anxious, just because someone with OCD is obsessing, just because someone with bipolar is depressed, anxious or/and obsessing doesn’t mean that they are lazy or feeling sorry for themselves. However, I do believe in personal responsibility. I don’t believe that our ability to choose, our gift of agency, is completely denied us simply because we have mental illness. It is up to us, or those around us who care about us, to do everything we can to help—the same way someone with asthma or family and friends of that person would want to help them with their illness.

A family member of mine has very extreme OCD. He had a few different doctors/therapists say he had the worst case of it they had ever seen in their careers. He’s spent the last thirteen to fourteen years in and out of hospitals and jail because of it. I lived with him during some of these times, and while my heart ached for what he had to go through, my blood also boiled at how unwilling he was to at least try. What got me even more was how his parents let him get away with everything—just like the woman who left a comment on that other blog. It’s been the same old story for the last thirteen or fourteen years. He has a complete breakdown, does something crazy like driving donuts in a farmer’s field and gets thrown into jail, or during a psychotic episode he does something violent like attacking his own mother and gets put back in the hospital. While there, they get him on the medication and the therapist he needs. He’s even been court ordered to do these things. Each time he gets out, he swears he’ll be different, that he’s changed, that he can handle life, and each time he refuses to take his medication (I saw him dump his meds down the toilet once), and he refuses to go see his therapist or do the things they have counseled him to do. I watched him play his parents like a well-tuned violin so many times! And like him, each time they would swear this time would be different, this time they would enforce the court order, make him call in his medication, make him see his therapist, and each time they gave into that lulling tune he played. Each time, they would claim that no one else in the world could possibly understand what he was going through, what they were going through, and that no one else had ever suffered the way they all had. And then the cycle repeats.

This family member is almost thirty-three, still living with his parents, no education, can’t ever hold down a job and has no clue how to live on his own. I, and other family members, have asked his mom what’s going to happen when she and his dad die. The question is always skirted around or met with an angry, “I don’t know, all right?! I don’t know!” Well, I know. He’s either going to end up on the streets, in jail or in the hospital the rest of his life. Probably all three. Why? Because all responsibility has been lifted from him. Yes, I get that he has mental illness. I get that it is extremely debilitating. But I bet there are people reading this blog who have experienced the same thing or have known someone who has experienced the same thing. Everyone wants to believe that they are unique. Guess what? We aren’t. Once you start opening up, it’s amazing to find how many other people are like you. And steps can be taken to improve quality of life and quality of life for the future.

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Obviously, I’m not God, I don’t know everything, but again, I have lived with these people, I have experienced my own hell of mental illness combined with the hell of a failed marriage, getting divorced, becoming a single parent, and I can say that doing nothing but feeling sorry for yourself will get you nowhere. I’d like to think that if it were my own child, I would do whatever I could to look out for my son’s future. Yes, it might be hard, it might be hell, it might tear my heart in two to see my child suffer as I ripped the bandaid off, but wouldn’t it be better to let him struggle while I was still here to help him, comfort him, walk with him instead of simply carrying him, rather than to leave him completely alone and unable to fend for himself when I was no longer there?

Yes, mental illness is real and it is hard. We don’t live “normal” lives. We can’t. And even the “help” doesn’t necessarily cure us. But there are things that can help—now and later, and it is up to us and those around us who care about us to take responsibility for it the way someone with asthma should assume responsibility for their illness. So, if you are someone struggling with mental illness, do what you can to find help. It may be little, and it may be hard, but you can do it. If you live with or love someone with mental illness, do what you can to help them or nudge them in the right direction. It may be little, and it may be hard, but you can do it.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Part Two)

This is part two of my friend’s experience with OCD.

I was living hundreds of miles away from my hometown. From my parents. From everything I was used to. I had a new baby girl and a three year old son that I devoted myself to every day.  The early years of motherhood are usually marked with sleep deprivation, questions about proper parenting technique, constant well-child visits, and trying to find balance between all of the roles we, as parents, have taken on.

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For me, however, these years were marked with an extra balancing act- how to deal with my new diagnosis as a woman living with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, otherwise known as OCD. I knew by this point that I wasn’t an evil person with harmful thoughts, but I had no idea what was an obsession and what was a perfectly normal way for a mother to protect herself and her family. My first therapist was a wonderful therapist, but she was more effective at listening to my struggles than in offering suggestions to combat my OCD.

Unfortunately, my illness had impacted my marriage for quite a long time, even before I had children. My husband is a very patient man and a good man. He had put up with my illness from the beginning, but it was taking its toll.  We sought out marriage therapy through our church’s counseling services.

I mentioned to our therapist my struggles with OCD and how I was unsure if they played into our lack of marital bliss.  The therapist strongly suggested that I set up an appointment with his colleague at the college he taught at.  This colleague had clients fly in from across the country to see him. He was considered an OCD specialist and had studied with founders of the OCD Institute.  I was blessed enough to be within driving distance.

With a lot of thought and some pushing from my husband and our marital therapist, I started exposure therapy with the OCD specialist. That is when my life began to change for the better.

The idea behind Exposure Therapy is that the more you are exposed to what you fear, the less power the fear has. The process is called “habituation”- you grow more comfortable over time. I was to show my OCD that these fears were not going to happen.  Furthermore, I was to refrain from doing my compulsions to help ease those fears.

For example, one of my obsessions dealt with using sharp objects around my small children. My OCD would say “What if you lost control and harmed your children?”  With my therapist, we decided on the following exposure: I would hold a knife every single day for a certain number of minutes.  Standing near my children with the knife was too scary to begin with, so I stood near my husband, holding the knife for the number of required minutes.

My husband thought this exposure was hilarious and didn’t feel threatened at all.  He also took his additional homework from the therapist very seriously.  To deal with my obsession of intruders, I was forbidden to lock up the house at night.  My husband was the only one who could lock up at night.  To make matters worse, he was encouraged to only half lock a door or to intentionally not lock up sometimes.  I would stand two feet away from the front door every night, petrified, as I noticed the doors were not locked, nor were they likely to be locked.  My husband would quietly chuckle as he urged me to go upstairs and sleep. Part of me knew that my objections were not rational, but I would often lie in bed, fighting the urge to go down and lock those doors myself!

For me, one of the reasons exposure therapy was effective was because it came with a sense of accountability. I faithfully recorded the level of fear the exposure had produced every night. I would report my levels every meeting with the OCD specialist.  Without his assistance, the therapy would not have worked for me.  I needed his checking-up on me and his guidance in creating exposures.

Over time, the smaller fears were gone.  I could chop items for dinner near my children. I no longer booby-trapped the home or walked through a lock-up routine twelve times. I was able to start working through stronger obsessions. I grew stronger every day.

I stopped seeing my OCD specialist after two years, right before we moved back to my home state.  Though my OCD was much, much better, it was still not completely gone.  At the end of “A Beautiful Mind”, John Nash knows which characters are created by his mental illness, but they still walk alongside him, silently pleading to be acknowledged.  So it was with my OCD.  A thought would make me nervous, and I would start contemplating a compulsion to temporarily “solve” this fear.

But then I would walk myself through this new thought.  Is this me talking, or is this OCD talking?  It took a long, long time to make this distinction.  It was not always clear either.  Especially as a mother, who is always concerned about her children.

Life has gone on.  I have two more wonderful children.  My marriage survived, though we had to go through therapy again. Today, I do not struggle with OCD.  You can attribute this to different things, such as the fact I no longer have pregnancy hormones, the successful completion of exposure therapy with a qualified specialist, or to religion, to which I owe a lot of my recovery.  I don’t know why this trial has been taken from me, though I am extremely grateful. But, knowing that this disorder is genetic has me watching my children carefully. I hope that they will not suffer as I did.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Part One)

I have my first guest author today! I am so excited! A very good friend of mine from high school was willing to share her experience in living with OCD. This is one of the things I hoped for when starting this blog–that it would inspire others to share their stories as well. Here is her story.

It was a winter day ten years ago. I found myself in a therapist’s office for the first time, terrified that I was going to harm my one-year old son. The appointment had been set up by my bishop, in whom I had confided in recently. The bishop explained that while he didn’t think my son was in any danger, he thought an appointment would bring me some peace of mind.

I filled out a questionnaire and sat nervously. The therapist had the results quickly.

“You have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, otherwise known as OCD.”

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Tears of relief immediately flooded my eyes. I was not a horrible person. There was not a wicked, impulsive person that could leap out at any time, ready to harm my son. All of the lengths I had gone to as I tried to protect my little family had an explanation. The explanation was that I had a mental illness.

Many people joke about having OCD.  As they rearrange pictures, they will say “Oh, my OCD is coming out.” As they like to have things in their home “just so”, they will say “Oh, I’m a little OCD about that.”  For people who genuinely have OCD, their lives are filled with anxiety.  They do not simply like to have things “just so”, it is an actual mental necessity.

People may wonder if I was like the character Adrian Monk, of the TV show “Monk.” Detective Monk had to count poles, refused to shake hands with others and had a completely sterile house.  My reality is far from Monk’s.  I am a less-than ideal housekeeper. I don’t like hugs as a personal preference, but I don’t mind shaking hands or using something that has been touched by someone else.  I don’t obsessively count sidewalk tiles or poles lining the street. There are others with OCD who do these things, but those were not my struggles.

Everyone’s triggers for mental illness are different, as Tacy has mentioned on this blog.  Sometimes there is no trigger at all. For me, my OCD was heightened by pregnancy, and a lot of my obsessions related to my new responsibilities as a mother.  I worried constantly about my little son’s safety.  Before he even came, I would walk the 900 square foot basement apartment, checking for all hazards that could harm us.  Every night, I would go up the stairs to lock the entry door.  Walk down the stairs. Take a right into the kitchen. Unplug the appliances (fire hazard or electric shock). Hide all knives and scissors. Continue into the bedrooms. Lock all windows. Remove all tripping hazards from the floor. Cycle complete, right?

No. I would immediately think, “What if I missed something? I don’t want the one thing I missed to be what kills us.” Then I would do that exact cycle again. Movement for movement.  Twelve times.  I would have done it all night long, but I had decided that twelve was an appropriate number. I could go to sleep, still nervous, but able to rest.

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When my little son came, my contamination obsession began. He was born at the beginning of RSV season, and the doctors do a fabulous job instilling fear into their patients about the dangers of RSV. Not only did I keep my young son away from church, most stores, and family members with a sniffle for six months, but I had to keep my hands really clean for him.  Wouldn’t it be awful if I was the one to get him sick?  I washed my hands constantly and used hand sanitizer.  My hands grew red and dry.  Even my friends began to notice my hands, though they didn’t know about any of my other struggles.

I would worry constantly about food poisoning.  I would call up my supportive Mother constantly, asking “I bought this a week ago. Is it still good?” I threw out an entire pot of Mac ‘n’ Cheese that I had deemed unfit.

While the diagnosis lifted a huge weight, my OCD still reigned supreme in our home. We moved to another state within a year of my diagnosis. I had another baby. I was less terrified of this quiet, sweet little girl, but I still set out to protect both of my little ones. I roamed my new home twelve times a night, following a pattern of compulsions to “protect” my little ones. I felt horror when I used sharp objects around them. I washed my hands less, but still over-analyzed our food. Whenever I read an article of another mother hurting her children, I would become convinced I was just as capable of the same harm. When crimes were reported on the news, I would instantly question my whereabouts. “Jessica, where were you at 1:23am last night?” Of course, I was in my bed a city away, but my OCD nearly had me calling to police to confess of the crime I had never committed!

These are just a few examples of many fears that dominated several years of my motherhood. Precious years with my babies that I will never have back. I was blessed to find an effective therapy, which I will discuss in my next post.  Please know that if you are living in a constant state of fear, you are not harboring a dark person inside of you. If you find yourself having to complete certain routines or rituals to prevent harm, there is a better way to calm yourself.  You are NOT your fears.

 

Journal Poetry

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I’ve talked about things that can help with mental illness. There are the conventional methods like medication and therapy, and then there are individual methods—things that each person has to figure out on their own. One of the things that really helped me with my depression when I was in high school was writing poetry. Poetry was a form of therapy for me. The ability to express my thoughts, feelings, emotions on paper didn’t take my depression away by any means, but I think it helped lighten that weight and darkness I was always living with. So I thought I would sometimes share some of my poetry. It isn’t good—like it would never earn me the title of poet laureate, but it’s another one of those examples of showing that you’re not alone. I always thought I was alone all those years ago—that no one else understood what I was going through. I now know that’s not true. Maybe some of you will be able to relate, and for some reason, that alone can bring a sense of peace and comfort.

Let me preface this first. I consider my poetry like a journal. I once wrote this: I write two kinds of poetry—journal poetry and observation poetry. I call it journal poetry because it is simply a journal entry put into the form of a poem. I call it observation poetry because it is observations of the world around me written like the way I see it—with beauty, as art. At least I try to write with beauty and art. As with journal poetry, it is simply observations put into poetry form.

All of what I’m going to share today was written when I was a senior in high school. That was a long time ago! Around seventeen years ago. Something to remember is that just because this is how I felt once doesn’t mean I necessarily feel it anymore. One of my favorite songs is Feelin’ Alright by Traffic. Due to copyright laws I can’t use the lyrics, but you can look them up here. In the third verse author Dave Mason says not to get lost in what he’s saying, that he did mean and feel what he said at the time, but that was then, not now. I love the way he phrases it. It’s always been some of my favorite lyrics ever. So, here it is—some of my old poetry. And yes, that is a picture of me writing on a boulder at Bryce Canyon National Park!

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No Title                                                                                    

Never as good as I want to be.
Never as good as those who don’t even try,
so why do I try?
Never fitting in where I want to –
I’m alone.
Never writing like anyone else,
and Anyone Else is who Everyone wants.
Never as good as I want to be.
Never as good as those who don’t even try,
so why do I try?

Sifting Through Time

sifting through time
fingers going through white and black
memories evoked by hand’s touch on a tree
paper cut pain – not from the cut; the paper
sifting through time
black smudges on white

Meant to Be

I don’t understand why God wants me to be alone,
but I guess that’s just the way He works.
Some things are just meant to be a certain way,
but that doesn’t stop it from hurting like hell . . .
’cause it does.

And not to end on a completely depressing note, here’s a slightly happier one.

 Pastel Colors

Pastel colors dress April’s evening sky.
Pastel colors are the dress I now wear inside of me.
Simplicity.
That’s the story the sky is telling;
that’s the story I try to portray to the world.
Simplicity and contentment are good enough for this moment,
for moments are only moments – coming and going as they please,
and life leads up to other things at a later time.
And April’s evening sky tells this story,
so I try to dress the world in pastel colors.

Just Sharing My Own Viewpoint

It was another one of those times at church I had to bite my tongue and keep quiet. It was another one of those lessons on trials that I view differently than my LDS friends. It was another one of those days that I was reminded of how different I feel. And yet, as I’ve opened up about mental illness, I’ve found so many people who have gone through similar experiences and who have felt the same way. That’s why I think it is important to open this dialogue and get a discussion going. In so doing, we can find that we’re not as alone as we think.

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For many years I’ve gotten the impression that many members of my religion view God as a Zeus-like character who’s watching the world from above, throwing down lightning bolts to make things happen. Or perhaps a better description would be as a puppeteer manipulating the events of our lives. If you were to ask any of them if this is the way they view our Father in Heaven, I’m sure they would promptly deny it, but from the way they talk it sure sounds that way to me. A perfect example is a question posed in Sunday School yesterday. We were discussing trials the early saints went through on their trek across the plains to Utah, and the teacher asked why we think God gives us the trials that we have. See? Puppeteer up there deciding who should have to go through cancer, who should have to deal with a child being born with an illness, who should have to watch a loved one struggle with addiction. Obviously the list could go on and on and on. From my viewpoint, to believe that God gives all of us our trials and decides who should go through what cancels out the concept of agency.

My religion teaches, and I believe, that one of the reasons we are on this earth is for the ability to choose for ourselves. God wanted a place for His children to go where they could exercise agency rather than be forced to do His will. He is a Father who loves us and watches over us, but allows us freedom to choose. I’ve always believed He also allows life to happen—that that was part of the plan. In my mind, it doesn’t make sense that this same God who doesn’t force us, would force everything else in life. Yes, I do believe that there are some things in life that are meant to happen. I can see evidence of that in my own life, but I also believe that some things just happen—yes there are coincidences. Life happens, and it isn’t always the result of a manipulating puppet master.

No one immediately answered the teacher’s question so he gave an example of someone he knew who had accidentally backed over and killed a young child. His trial was having to live with that, but the story was also about how he had learned about forgiveness through it because the child’s family forgave him. Years later a drunk driver hit into his car, killing his wife and two children who were with him. So this man could look back and finally understand why he went through the trial he did—so he could learn about forgiveness so he could forgive the man who killed his family. It was supposed to be this inspirational story, and it’s great that the man learned this valuable lesson and was able to apply it in his own life. However, I cannot believe that a loving Heavenly Father would manipulate events to cause a man to kill a child, and thus a family to lose a child, just to teach this one person about forgiveness. It sounds a bit ridiculous, right? And yet, if you believe that God gives us all of our trials, this is what you believe.

Let me share my beliefs. Like I said, I do believe some things are meant to happen, but when it comes to trials or hard things in life I also believe that most of them come about simply because that is life. Life is hard. Difficult things just happen. I also believe that some of our trials are the result of our own bad choices—situations we put ourselves in because we were selfish, angry, unwilling to ask God or listen to His promptings, etc. I also believe in a ripple effect.

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Life is a pond and all of our choices are like rocks being thrown in. Each rock makes a ripple that stretches farther than the place it hit. The choices we make in life, the action we take, affects others in the same way. That’s why I believe it is so important to think before we act, to realize that there can be unseen consequences to our actions.

So, rather than believing that God caused a man to run over and kill a child just so that, through his trial, he could learn about forgiveness, I believe that it was a result of choices, actions, and just a horrible, horrible accident. It isn’t about the hardship God gives us, but about how we choose to deal with what happens in life, how we live with it, learn from it and help others because of it. Actually, I believe this is true of all our experiences in life—not just bad, but the good, as well.

Two Things You Should Know About Mental Illness

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I’ve been a slacker. I wanted to publish a new post every Monday morning. But my mental illness reared its ugly head this past week—or three ugly heads. Depression, anxiety, OCD. Like three heads of a hydra, spitting their poison at me. One alone is hard enough to deal with, but when all three attack together, it’s really hard to motivate yourself.

There are two things people should know about mental illness. Well, obviously there are more than two things, but I want to talk about two today. The first is that mental illness isn’t always consistent. Even when someone has mental illness, they can have good days. That doesn’t mean their illness isn’t real. I had a friend who had cancer. She found out about it when she was pregnant with her first baby. They were able to do localized radiation while she was pregnant, then started full chemotherapy after her baby was born. She fought it. She fought it hard. And for awhile it looked like she was going to beat it. She was doing so well, then suddenly it came back, and two weeks later she was gone. Mental illness can be the same way.

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I have depression. I deal with it on a daily basis. But that doesn’t mean I am depressed all the time. Last Saturday was a great day. My kids spent the weekend with their dad so that morning I headed up to the mountains. It was exactly what I needed to reset and recharge. It was so beautiful. So still. So peaceful. Like the hand of God was resting there as He watched over the rest of the world.

That night I had dinner at my brother and sister-in-law’s. Great food, great company, great conversation. I laughed so hard while I was there! It was the perfect end to an incredible day. Unfortunately it wasn’t the end.

After I got home, I started thinking about some other things going on in my life. Thanks to my OCD I couldn’t stop thinking. So many thoughts and feelings kept getting rehashed in my mind and by the time I went to bed late that night, I felt absolutely terrible.

Sunday morning I woke up feeling like a vice grip had been slowly tightening around my heart all night. I knew I wouldn’t make it through more than a few minutes of church without breaking down and balling so I just didn’t go. I went back to bed then went for a long drive up into the mountains. I tried focusing on the beautiful scenery, the inspiring music I had playing, but I still managed to cry much of the time I was driving. When I got home, I took another nap then spent the rest of the afternoon and evening vegetating—and crying uncontrollably. OCD wouldn’t let me stop thinking about certain things—things that give me anxiety and the anxiety made me feel awful, depressed.

I’ve slowly gotten back into my “normal” routine the last few days. My mental illness is there, as always, but more in check than it was. Everyone has up and down days—that’s just life. Well, it’s life with mental illness as well. It really is a roller coaster, so just be prepared.

The other thing I want people to know is that there doesn’t always have to be a reason. Traumatic experiences, difficult life events, can trigger mental illness, but just like multiple sclerosis, the cause can be unknown. It just happens. It just attacks. Don’t ever assume that someone can just get over their mental illness because there is nothing causing it. Would you ever tell someone with MS to just get over it? Sometimes my depression kicks in—or kicks me down—for no reason at all. Life can be great, yet for some reason I feel sad, down, like I’m living in a dark, lonely world. And it’s not because I want to feel that way. It’s not because I’m simply letting myself get down. It just happens.

Something I’ve been hearing a lot of lately is the phrase that it’s okay to not be okay. All over social media people have been sharing stories of others who have come to this realization. I came to this realization about my mental illness a long time ago. It’s great to understand how it applies to yourself, but also as important to extend the same to other people who aren’t okay. Instead of judging why someone wasn’t at church, let’s cut some slack and realize that there could be something going on we don’t know about. When we ask other people how they are doing, we should mean it! Don’t expect the typical answer of a smile and, “I’m good!” all the time. If someone wants to say they aren’t okay, let’s listen! Let’s let each other cry and have bad days. Let’s be there for each other, the way Christ would be if He were here. Let’s love each other, the way He taught us to. Don’t you think the world would be a better place if we could all do this? I do.