Finals, Jaw Pain and Negatvity

As I pull into the driveway, my mind races with all of the things I need to do in the next 24 hours. It’s the dreaded finals week and there are simply too many things, I decide.

It’s not until several minutes later when I’m sitting upright on my bed with papers strewn everywhere and my laptop heating up when I notice it- I’m starting to get a headache. While I’m usually stubborn enough to try and “wait it out,” this time I instantly walk to the kitchen and reach for the Tylenol. There is  no way I’m going to let a headache keep me from acing this exam tomorrow, I thought. But when I opened my jaw to take the pills, I was met with pain much worse than my newly discovered headache.

I soon realized that my teeth had been clenched shut so hard and for so long that I no longer realized it was happening and it was now causing me a headache. I tried an old trick that i had learned to see how bad the situation was, “curve your fingers and try to stack three knuckles vertically into your mouth. If you can’t do that, you’ve got a problem,” the Youtuber had said.

My face reddened with pain and embarrassment when my mom walked in right at that moment. It felt like I was trying to beat the Guinness world record for “Number of Fingers Forced Into Mouth” (the record is 30 fingers as of 2011, so close). The strain it was causing was painful and I couldn’t believe that I had led to my own demise by simply clenching my teeth all day.

I took a break from my studies and started to search the web for how to un-clench my jaw and get rid of all this soreness. I found one boring, long, but incredibly helpful video. Luckily, by the end of the video my jaw felt relaxed and I was no longer clenching my teeth.

It dawned on me long after finals week that TMJ pain (which is what the internet had informed me I was experiencing) is similar to despair one can feel after feeding on negative thoughts all day. Paul encourages us to focus on the positive: things that are good, true, etc., but how often do we really do that when we let our thoughts take the driver’s seat for a while?

I know I find myself repeating negative thoughts when I let my mind wander. These thoughts pile up during the day so that by the time I get home from work or class it’s almost impossible to climb out of the stress-filled pit  I’ve dug for myself.

One technique I am using to combat these thoughts can be found in “The Power of Habit” and it is a pair of terms called “awareness training” and “competing response.” Awareness training involves just what you might assume, training yourself to be aware when you are doing an unwanted activity. So whenever I say something negative to myself, I mark a notch on a notecard. At the end of the day, I’ll be able to see how often it happens and I’ll have a better idea of what triggers it because I am paying closer attention.

Competing response is where I replace negative thinking with something else. For me, I am going to try to memorize as much scripture as I can. For now, I will meditate on what Paul says in Philippians 4:8.

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

The second I start to think something negative, the thought will be replaced by these words and positive thoughts until eventually, positivity will be the norm.

But just like TMJ pain, realizing my jaw is clenched during the day only gets me so far. At the end of the day I have to do certain exercises that loosen my jaw so that I don’t clench harder when I’m sleeping or when I’m not paying attention. The same goes for negative thinking. Reading a few bible verses here and there is only good for the short term.  I need to devote time to prayer and bible study that goes beyond just skimming the surface. Once I have done that, my relationship with God will help me make positivity and hope a lifestyle and negativity a healthy exception to the norm.

One Simple Thing You Can Do to Revolutionize Your Prayer Life

Sometimes when I sit down to pray, I have no idea what to ask for. It’s not as if my life is perfect and everything’s peachy. It’s just that there are so many things on my heart that my mind can’t begin to sort through and to lift them up to God in a coherent, meaningful way.

Recently prayer had gotten to be so difficult for me that I had gaping holes in what should have been a flourishing and daily conversation with God. I knew I should be praying way more than I was, but I let the fear of failure hold me back. I had tried too many times with little success to connect to God… so a tiny part of me kinda gave up.

I recently discovered a technique that changed everything. A technique that could help me sort through the clutter and make sense of my thoughts before I went to God. A technique so simple that I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before.

The idea stemmed from a habit I developed this past semester. Often during the school year I would get overwhelmed with juggling what seems to be hundreds of projects, reading assignments and social engagements. It would always be so refreshing to stop in the middle of whatever I was slaving over for ten minutes, open a new Word document amidst the 25 documents already open and just write down everything that needs to be done. This habit becomes more and more prominent during finals week when everything I do can be put onto one overwhelming list of “Things to do before the semester ends.”

It suddenly dawned on me one day, why don’t I use this for my prayer life? So I got out a fresh piece of paper and my favorite pen and set the timer for ten minutes. I went a bit over the time limit frantically jotting everything that was going through my head. Eleven minutes later, with a cramped hand and an empty brain, I was tempted to dive right into prayer. Instead, I opted to let the words sit there for a minute. I wanted to fully feel the effect of letting all my worries drain from my brain to scribbles on paper. I savored the feeling of a weight being lifted from my heart and meditated on nothingness for as long as I could stand it.

When I finally looked down again, all I saw was a long, messy list of random thoughts taking up both sides of a lined sheet of paper. My first thought was that I could never in a million years remember all of it in prayer.  It seemed that all I had accomplished in doing this exercise was taking my racing thoughts and displaying them somewhere concrete.

I quickly decided that the best way to do damage control was to break up my list into colored, relevant categories. For my own purposes during this session I placed them into “Praise,” “Worries,” and “Goals/Dreams.” These sections might be different for you and I’m sure they’ll be different for me tomorrow. They just seemed to best fit all of the information I had thrown onto the paper in a way that made sense to me.

Once I had done that I looked back on the highlighted colors and tried to gather the main themes from them. I found an empty space on the back of my paper and separated my three categories into columns. I then simplified my highlighted thoughts into a few bullet points for each section. That way, things were summarized a bit and didn’t seem like they would be as hard to remember or focus on during prayer.

Once my supplications were organized into simple but meaningful categories I was almost ready to approach God in prayer. But i gave myself about five minutes to just let it all soak in. I didn’t want to rush this. I had been rushing prayer during the in-between times of life and not giving God the full, thought out conversation He deserved. After all, the goal isn’t just to have a prayer life but to have a meaningful prayer life. Those, I have learned, are two very different things.

After I waited a little while, I somehow felt ready. It had been so long since I had been genuinely excited to talk to God. It had become a bit of a drudgery recently because I didn’t feel like I was “good enough” at it and I wasn’t coming back from my prayers feeling renewed or closer to Him.

But this time was different. I found a quite place and calmly addressed God in prayer. It was unbelievably easier than it had been in a very long time, simply because I had taken the time to write down all of my concerns, organize them into meaningful sections and then meditate on them before starting. Instead of rambling I was finally able to tell God what was really on my heart and sincerely thank Him for all that He was doing in my life.

Afterwords, I couldn’t help but feel relieved that I had finally been able to lift my concerns up to Him. Sometimes it just takes an extra step- organizing your thoughts onto paper- to get the message where it needs to go.

When Failure Surprises You

I dragged myself out of the lecture hall feeling relieved that the nightmare was over. My head was spinning. I had been awake since four in the morning, cramming for an exam that seemed impossible to pass. I felt defeated. I was always the nerd who was excited to take a test after carefully planned study sessions and a good night’s rest. I never imagined turning into the zombie college student who barely had her life together. The one who visibly forgot to comb her hair before the exam and chuckled nervously when her friend asked her if she was ready to take the test.

“How could this happen?” I found myself wondering. I felt helpless. I had spent the previous two days focused solely on the test material, completing all the practice problems with three people trying to teach me various concepts. It seemed to come so naturally to them. Even my friend who had expressed concern over his ability to finish even one practice problem was teaching me the material by the end of our study session.

I couldn’t help but compare this experience to my high school study habits. When it came to math and science, I always excelled. My classmates assumed that I was simply “smart” and good at this stuff. Only I knew about the countless Friday nights I spent at home studying or the hours I spent with teachers who were willing to help after class to make sure I understood the material. I was obsessive about learning. I had this gusto to master concepts, to be able to solve problems on my own after working hard to understand how they worked. This was me.

Somewhere between graduating fifth in my class and entering my junior year of college, I lost this part of me. School was no longer as exciting as it used to be. I didn’t recognize myself as I began to resent going to class and completing homework. I did what I had to in order to keep my grades up, but there wasn’t any passion behind the papers I wrote. I became increasingly passive about school. It was quickly becoming the norm for me to come to class unprepared with my expensive textbooks sitting in the corner of my bedroom unopened.

A few days after the exam, I stumbled across this verse: “Be not deceived. God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that he shall also reap.” Galatians 6:7

A rush of embarrassment flooded me as I let the words and their implications sink in. I had spent more time laughing at my friend’s jokes as we “suffered” through class than trying to grasp the material. The practice problems given to us the second week of lecture were forgotten about until forty-eight hours before the exam. My book had yet to be opened and I hadn’t bothered to review my notes once since penning them.

While I had been busy feeling like a victim and complaining to all my friends about how “hard” my class was, I hadn’t even been trying. There’s no wonder why I felt I had barely passed the test, everyone knows you can’t try to learn three weeks of material in two days. It seems so obvious in retrospect that I had been trying to push the blame outward, trying to blame it on my brain’s affinity for the soft sciences and fear of the hard sciences rather than my lazy choices.

I had let the material pile up until it was too overwhelming to conquer. I set myself up for failure. But this type of failure is sneaky. It wasn’t like one day I threw all my notes away or sabotaged myself in one run. The failure came in small, tiny missteps each day like not taking the time to review my notes for ten minutes after class.

Lately I had developed an “all or nothing attitude.” I would either study for a class or not study. I would pray or not pray. I failed to start so many things because they seemed too overwhelming. But God understands our struggles and the fear that drives procrastination. He tries to talk some sense into us through biblical examples like Paul.

Paul says in his letter to Philipi: “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect, but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended for Christ Jesus.” Paul knew he wasn’t perfect, but he kept going. He “pressed toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God.” He did not let fear of failure stop him from acting but instead sowed the seeds of progress by taking small steps in the right direction each day.

So take that tiny step, even if it’s saying a short prayer before cracking open that textbook you’ve been too scared to start because you feel too behind. You may find it’s not nearly as difficult or as scary as it seems when you take it in small doses. Most importantly, remember that God understands our struggles, even if they seem silly like making the wrong choice and watching too many episodes on Netflix when you should have been studying.

 

Being in the World, Not of the World

“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” Romans 12:2

One Wednesday night my Dad led bible study at my church and posed a simple and familiar question to our congregation: What does it mean to be in the world but not of the world?

Physically, we cannot escape the world. Almost everything we do is dictated by our body’s ability and environment. We have to get up every morning for work or school, pay bills, plan out a future career and prepare for the next five or six decades we will spend on this earth.

But as Christians, we are expected to be “set apart” from those that surround us.

I always took this at face value. It meant things like staying away from the bar scene, abstaining from sex before marriage, and not associating with people who mock God.

That’s the direction I expected my dad, who had taught me these very things, to go with his lesson that night. I nestled down into the pew and got ready for my father’s familiar voice to solidify what I thought was the final word on what Paul had to say in his letter to the Romans.

I was a little startled when he instead began describing the night of my birth. Not knowing where he was going with this, my face reddened as the elderly people sitting near me turned and winked. I tightened up, waiting for the embarrassing anecdote he was sure to share at the expense of my ego.

To my surprise, he instead focused on himself. He described, in the best way one can, the experience of watching my mom bring new life into the world. He illustrated how a long labor makes the world feel incredibly small, that the only thing that exists is you and your wife in that room, battling nerves and excitement as your lives change forever. Then there’s a sense of calm and beauty after the storm. Staring into the face of your newborn creates a mystical, unforgettably warm experience, he explained.

His story took an odd turn as he described how weird it felt to go outside after I was born. Fresh snow was layering the ground and people were carrying on with their lives. It was perplexing to my father, whose life had just changed, to see the world carrying on as if nothing had happened. So immersed was he in his own life- changing moment that he temporarily forgot about the world right outside the delivery room.

That displacement was a result of allowing himself to slip into a world of his own. My dad’s entire focus was on my birth, my mom, and the future of his new family. Other stressors were completely tossed to the side, so being thrown back into the snowy outdoors required a bit of adjustment.

What my dad reminded our bible class that night, is that as Christians we all need moments when we are truly not of the world around us

Some days may be harder than others, nobody is perfect. If you are not used to spending this secluded time with God on a daily basis, it can certainly be intimidating. But that is the entire point of the transformation mentioned in Romans 12:2. Day by day, prayer by prayer, we are going through a transformation into something more Christ-like. Something not of this world.

I really like how C.S. Lewis penned this concept:

“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.

 Each time we sit down with God’s word, we are choosing to make ourselves less involved in our earthly world and more involved with the realm of peace His word provides. It can be a boring, lifeless experience or as joyful and life-changing as bringing a new child into the world. It is up to us.