When Feeling Bad is Good

When feeling bad is good for you

Barbara Kass

Just as our bodies signal us to tend to our physical well-being, so our emotions act like messengers to mind our emotional well-being. When we are rested and energized, we can take on life’s challenges with ease. Feeling tired indicates we need to retreat and relax. Likewise, feelings of joy, contentment, and love say “everything is fine” while feeling angry, anxious, or depressed make us uncomfortable and think “something is wrong.”

The happiness road beckons all of us yet trying to follow that path by avoiding painful emotions is a gateway to living a less-than-authentic life. Meeting difficult emotions face-to-face is the foundation of resilience and can help guide our lives. When struck by a spark of rage or held immobile by despair or fear, we must ask ourselves: What purpose does this emotion serve for me? What am I trying to tell myself? How can this emotion best guide my decisions and actions in the next moments?

In his book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, author James Martin points out that any emotion can overwhelm us. We might feel a joy out of proportion to a particular event or moved to tears for something insignificant and wonder: What is wrong with me? In those distinct moments, we don’t quite feel right. There is a certain emptiness, a longing, a desire to connect with a larger understanding that seems just outside of our reach. Martin calls those moments invitations from God asking us to communicate with the greater power of our origination. And if we connect with the power that gave us this life – the power that wants us to have a good life – we know we are getting the best counseling available.

I frequent a blog, Domini Canes, where a recent post reminded me that we look to God for answers through prayer, but prayer is not a man-made action. Rather, prayer is a gift, a door eternally open to connection with God. We are both the seeker and the sought.

Our lives shout at us through our feelings and in the silent circumstances of our deeds. Your emotions will tell you everything you need to know about your journey. As you sift through the results of your decisions and actions, look at how your trials made meaning in your life and know the presence of God within you.

When the Unthinkable Happens: A Loyola Student’s Amazing Recovery from an Ischemic Stroke

I could only imagine the thoughts that were invading his mind as he lowered himself to the bathroom floor and dialed 911.  My friend/classmate, who I will call Al to respect his privacy, was scheduled to graduate from Loyola University Maryland in four weeks, with a Masters of Science (“MS”) degree in pastoral counseling.  He had taken the National Counselor Examination (“NCE”) that morning, and was still in the building, when tragedy struck.  For the next two months, Al exchanged the classroom for the physical and occupational therapy rooms, as he relearned how to perform basic activities of daily living (“ADLs”), with the goal of regaining his independence. 

Al had suffered a stroke, specifically a right anterior cerebral artery ischemic stroke.  This stroke did not create facial distortions, nor did it affect his mind.  However, his left side was weak, and in addition to an inability to control the affected muscles and limbs, he experienced pain and intermittent muscle spasms.  What the stroke did not affect was his positive attitude and sense of purpose.  And as I read his daily posts on Facebook, and the e-mail updates from his wife, I developed an appreciation for his faith in God and his personal power.  I had no doubt that recovery would occur, and it would happen quickly.

The daily updates were, in essence, progress notes.  Each day offered a reason to celebrate, and on the rare occasion that a relapse occurred, getting back on track was almost immediate.  I knew Al was an active member of his church, and as I followed his progress, I recognized that his relationship with God played a more essential role in his recovery than I had originally imagined.  One evening during a visit, we discussed his faith and how it related to his current situation. 

Al’s faith is rooted in the sovereignty of God.  He is certain that God was responsible for his illness, and he supported his belief with the Biblical teaching that all of our days are written and established before one of them has happened.  Therefore, he accepted the stroke as a marker on the road he was destined to travel.  I suggested a comparison with Job where God allowed the devil to persecute him.  Al did not agree, simply stating “because Christ has ransomed us.”  He said that God’s purpose is to glorify his son, and that God is dedicated to transforming each believer into the image of Christ.  Al also hoped that his illness would benefit someone, and his stroke would not be wasted.  I assured him that he had inspired me, and if I ever were to become ill, I would find a positive role model in him.

After almost 5 weeks, Al transferred to Encore at Turf Valley  to complete his final phase of inpatient rehabilitation.  Encore is located across the street from his church, and he was able to attend Sunday service.  As I sat with him during his last evening at Encore, I wondered what, if anything, in our Pastoral Counseling program could have prepared him to negotiate his life-changing event with such a positive attitude.  Al had acknowledged earlier feelings of despondency, and his fear of being handicapped for the rest of his life.  However, his faith helped him to set aside those thoughts and focus on healing.  And as I looked into his eyes as he spoke, I understood that I had found my answer.  Al’s ability to use his faith to effect healing was pastoral.

Al is at home now, and after two months of being cared for by others, he is testing his independence.  On his first day at home, he posted:  “Today, I am at home.  I made a pot of coffee.  I had breakfast, cleaning up after myself.  I am using a walker around the house, trying to remember to go slowly and to stay safe. But, I’m smiling.”  Al’s sense of purpose, his personal strength, and his faith in God continue to be strong, and have helped him through difficult times.  He still has a way to go to complete his healing, but his prognosis is good.  As I look back on Al’s journey, I am proud to have been his classmate, and to call him my friend.

Self-care through maintaining balance

Today, my day went something like this:

‘Alarm clock, rush, rush, traffic jam, work, work, work, and more work, traffic jam, work, work, work, drive, drive, home, more work to do.’ Sound familiar? The day was so busy that I just wanted to shout, “Stop! Just stop and take a break!”

I know, I know. That is just how your day went too, right? Take a minute with me, close your eyes and take a deep breath. Any better yet?

Life can be so chaotic, so busy, and so full of activity that we often forget how important it is to take care of ourselves. We get so caught up with all of the things that we have to do that we don’t even notice how unbalanced our lives have become. Our society is so fast paced that it is hard for many people to catch their breaths – me included. It is at this time that I stop to reflect on some wise words I have recently read:

“Care must be taken not to be driven in one’s career to the extent that everything else loses value and accordingly does not receive the attention it should.” – Dr. Robert Wicks, in The Resilient Clinician.

I received Dr. Wicks’ book as a gift from the Loyola University Pastoral Counseling Department during a free ‘self-care’ workshop. One of my fellow blog writers has put together an excellent post describing the events of the day. Many thanks JoAnn! To read about our day of self-care, click here.

The Resilient Clinician offers helping professionals practical advice for avoiding burnout through working to maintain balance. Although the text is designed for those working in the mental health profession, the words of wisdom contained in the book are useful for anyone who (like me) is feeling a bit overwhelmed by the pressures life has to offer. Dr. Wicks goes in depth into many different topics from recognizing signs of burn out to developing strategies for self-care. I highly recommend reading the text whether you are a clinician or are simply feeling the physical and psychological effects of stress.

In Appendix E, Dr. Wicks challenges the reader to check balance in the following areas:

  1. Stimulation and quiet
  2. Reflection and action
  3. Work and leisure
  4. Self-care and care of others
  5. Self-improvement and patience
  6. Future aspirations and present positive realities
  7. Involvement and detachment

Today, I am going to just pick one off the list. I’ll start with number 1 simply because I am too tired to be all that original at the moment. I have had plenty of stimulation today. When I leave all of you, I am going to take 15 minutes of silence and just listen to the quiet.

Why don’t you join me? Your brain will thank you for it.

Summer Bucket List

The Summer Bucket List

We normally think of bucket lists as an extravagant to-do lists of grand scale. Well the summer bucket list: is a bit more accessible and can be completed before you start class in a few months.

  1. Be Physical – Ride a bike, hike a mountain, fly a kite, swim a few laps. You have been exercising your brain, now it is time to exercise your body.
  2. Be Vocal – Tell someone that you love them, like them, appreciate them or that you are glad that they are in your life. Family members, co-workers, friends and even professors are all great candidates.
  3. Be a Chef – Find an awesome recipe, go food shopping, dig out pots and pans and have fun! (Also make sure a fire extinguisher is handy).
  4. Be a Star – Sing a song, LOUD! You can sing in the car, in the shower, in your house, but let loose and let the world embrace your creative expression!
  5. Be Spiritual – Attend a Synagogue, Church, Mosque, Temple or wherever you worship and feed your spiritual center.
  6. Be at Rest – Get some sleep! Whether you listen to one of those nature sounds cds or buy a new memory foam pillow, do whatever it takes get some sleep, at least 7 hours worth.
  7. Be a little less Intelligent – Read a book that does not have any citations, references or any word with more than three syllables. Call it brain recovery.  
  8. Be Spoiled – Treat yourself to a guilty pleasure and don’t feel guilty! Drink a milkshake, eat some chocolate or even watch a movie with no discernible plot and have popcorn with extra butter. Whatever your pleasure, treat yourself; you deserve it!
  9. Be a Tourist – This area has wonderful landmarks, interesting places and marvelous museums, so release your “inner tourist” and enjoy them. 
  10. Be Helpful – Help someone else out without looking for anything in return. Helpings others is the gift that keeps on giving.  

Now these activities are great, but some don’t work well together. Singing a Phil Collins song at the top of your lungs while sitting in the warrior position in a yoga class is probably not the best idea. Neither is “being at rest” in the middle of channeling your inner Iron Chef in the kitchen. Waking up to the smell of OVER-blackened chicken and peppers is not a great experience. (Thank goodness for the fire extinguisher). So avoid those disasters and embrace your summer, it is already half over!!

More than Lip Service | Obama, Gay Marriage, and Unconditional Love

Fall and Spring are so nourishing at Loyola.  I find myself excited by the things I learn, the challenges I’m given, the classmates and professors who help me grow.  Then summer comes.  I take one class, maybe two, and the thrill of it all is packed into a few short weeks before I have no choice but to take a break.  And yet!

Last week Barack Obama spoke up in favor of gay marriage.  In that moment of his standing up for those who are marginalized, the excitement that normally comes to me through my courses set my heart once again on fire.  Why?  Because I saw a man who has been given great power – and with it, great responsibility – use that power to give voice to the voiceless, to show respect to those who are outcast, to preach acceptance and love not in a sermon but in his simply choosing not to discriminate, not to hate.

This is what Loyola is teaching me.  It is what Jesus – and the Jesuits who founded Loyola University Maryland – have always taught:  love unconditionally.  No wonder my heart is aflame when class is in session!  Learning to love is essentially getting to know God, Who is love.  The disciples asked regarding Jesus, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He talked to us on the road… (Luke 24:32)?”  I often refer to my experience at Loyola as my journey…I am walking with Him on this road and my heart is indeed burning.

Yet this summer my heart is burning again as I watch a man with so much power over others attempt to give that power to those without.  I took Intro to Pastoral Counseling a few semesters ago with Dr. Stewart-Sicking.  He had us not only reading about empowering others through our counseling but also through fighting the systems that keep others on the margins.  We were compelled to do service learning – I did mine at Bon Secours Hospice in Richmond, VA – so we could better understand those who are most in need of compassion – and action.  It gives me hope to see the leader of the free world risk so much (it is, after all, an election year) in favor of compassion.  Perhaps the citizens of his country will be inspired to risk the same.

I am taking only one course this summer although I dare say I am immersed in a second.  It is the course of Life, prerequisite:  Love.

Loyola’s Most Influencial People

Time magazine recently had an article naming their 100 most influential people of 2012, which made me start thinking about the different professors I have experienced through Loyola’s Pastoral Program and how they have influenced my life.

In the early part of 2009, I attended an information session about Pastoral Counseling at Loyola’s Columbia Campus.  Different speakers shared their experience in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola.  I will never forget how I felt when Dr. Ciarrocchi, a professor in the Pastoral Department, spoke at the meeting.  His very presence embodied the spirit of Loyola.  I was so moved by how he described Loyola’s Pastoral Program that I knew in an instant that I had to become a part of whatever he was talking about.

On orientation day for the new Pastoral Counseling students, we were grouped according to the program we were joining.  I was confused as to which group I should join because I wasn’t sure if I was going to pursue my masters degree or take the classes I needed in order to be licensed.  I received my Masters in Clinical Psychology from Towson University in 1997 and it felt like a lifetime had passed since that time.  Dr. Fialkowski, director of M.S. admissions in the Pastoral Counseling Department, had recommended that I look into the Certificate of Advance Study program which would allow me to take the classes missing from my masters that were required for a Maryland license. 

I was very emotional on orientation day, scared to take this big step back into the world of graduate school and wondering if I had made the right decision.  At the beginning of the session with Dr. Ciarrocchi, he asked us what it was that brought us to this program.  When it came time for me to share, I surprised myself by breaking down in tears.  It had only been a year since I lost my brother to cancer.  Losing my brother propelled me to really reflect on my life and what I wanted to accomplish in my time here.  Dr. Ciarrocchi’s loving presence exuded from him while he comforted me and gave me the time and space I needed. Dr. Ciarrocchi fought a long battle with cancer which ended in the fall of 2010. He was the first professor I would have at Loyola and his being has left a forever imprint on my life.

Remembering Mary Marguerite

On May 3, 2012, I was watching the evening news and learned that an Episcopal priest and an administrative assistant had been shot, at their church, by a homeless person.  No names were given.  Over the course of the next week, more information surfaced.  Apparently, the shooter had a history of approaching the church for assistance but became agitated after being told he had to limit his visits to the food pantry so others could benefit as well.  He killed the two women and then killed himself.

At first, I felt horrified that such a tragedy had occurred, but I was able to distance myself.  I could offer prayers for the repose of their souls and prayers for their families and friends, but I did not know anyone involved.  Or so I thought.  When the names of those involved became public, the pain became personal.  I knew Mary Marguerite Kohn.  She was my friend.

Mary Marguerite, or MM, was a graduate of the PhD program in pastoral counseling.  While she was preparing to defend her dissertation, she spent hours and hours in the doctoral lounge entering data and reviewing and revising her work.  At that same time, I was using the office directly across the hall to help with the copy editing of Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion.  MM would come in frequently to visit with me and to offer support because she knew I sometimes got impatient with the pace of the academic requirements.  The process seemed to take so long!  She told me many times that perseverance was the key to success and to keep plugging away.  She set a wonderful model in that respect.

After she graduated, she became an affiliate professor at Loyola and at Fordham and sometimes consulted with me about online education.  She had a great love for her students and was deeply invested in their success.  I recall an extended email conversation about the cost of materials for one of her courses where she examined every possible way to keep the costs down and the quality high.  In addition to her kindness, I remember her intense energy, her easy laughter, and her generosity.  While I feel very sad about her death, I am also very, very grateful that I had the chance to know her.

Eternal rest grant unto her, oh Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon her.
May her soul and the souls of all the
faithful departed, through the mercy
of God, rest in peace.
Amen.

Finding my vocation at Loyola

Many students in the Pastoral Counseling programs were attracted to Loyola specifically because they are encouraged – and even guided in how – to approach counseling through the lens of their faith.  I am one such student.  My journey began in the MA program after several people had asked me to be their spiritual director.  Having no qualifications to do that, my answer to them was no.  However, I felt God asking me to become qualified.  I am a consecrated virgin in the Catholic Church and I understood my new calling as a way in which to reach out to others considering their own vocation.  What I realized very early on was that my new calling is really a way in which to live out my own vocation.  I switched over to the MS program at the end of my first semester, anxious to become a licensed clinical professional counselor…a career I would have never guessed I’d be in.

            I am a Christian.  I believe God is love and Jesus is God.  Therefore, Jesus also is love.  When I took my vows in the Order of Consecrated Virgins, I became a “bride of Christ,” as the rite declares.  As such, I believe I must also be love.  Before starting at Loyola, I thought I was doing pretty well at being love.  I was very accepting and respectful of others – of their faith traditions, sexual orientation, ethnicity, personal stories.  Or so I thought.  Classes like Contemporary Religious Perspectives, Psychopathology, and Diversity Issues in Counseling opened my eyes to the many ways in which my heart had been closed.  I began to see how many limits I had been trying to place on my limitless God and I was given tools to break apart that box I was trying so hard to fit Him in. 

            I am constantly amazed at how other people understand God.  In this program I have encountered Buddhists, Muslims, Baha’i, Orthodox Jews, Hindus, Protestants, and Seventh Day Adventists.  I have been blessed to hear them share the God they know so well.  I see their God and my God are not as far removed from one another as I once thought.  God, as I know Him, looks much different than He did the day I married Him.  He is more beautiful and more loving than I gave Him credit for.  And the more I meet Him through the program, I am falling in love with Him all over again.