The cockroach that killed a Giant

This isn’t quite the story with the good ending, but it must have happened in my loungeroom for a reason! In Aesop’s Fables, the mouse chews through the hunters’ net and lets the lion go. In this case, the smaller somehow managed to kill the larger.

I have an aquarium at home which I love (although the live amazon sword plant is a bit irritating because it won’t grow). In the four foot tank swim danio’s, flying foxes, neon tetras and a beautiful blue lone Siamese Fighter (note to self – get some girls for him).  Being a fly fisherman, I love seeing fish hit insects on the surface, particularly if that insect is an imitation I’ve tied and it’s on the end of my line. In between fishing however, I’ve taken to swatting house flies and dropping them in the tank. Generally one particularly aggressive Giant Danio motors up and snaffles it, chewing hard as it swims off. The smaller fish usually don’t get a look in, unless the Giant is off his game, or two are dropped in at once (he only has one mouth).

The house flies were fine, until we started dropping in small cockroaches. These would get picked at until they fell apart and were digestible by the fish. It’s all a bit of fun of course…. and the giant danio just keeps getting bigger. In fact, he’s the biggest fish in the tank, and spends most of his time motoring from one end to the other chasing all the other fish around. We also suspect that he personally accounted for around sixteen of the neon’s. Poor things.

A couple of days ago, one of the kids noticed the Giant floating motionless upside down – dead. Upon inspection, the killer was located. It was a small cockroach, jammed down his throat. He’d literally bitten off more than he could chew. It’s crazy I know. Why would a fish eat something that is so big, they can’t swallow? Surely something in nature would program into its brain some kind of ability to estimate size? And that’s when I realised – It was a metaphor for my ministry career.

I think in most churches, the pastor is the biggest fish in a small pond. It’s only stepping outside the church that I realised how small a pond it was that I was tearing around in. I mean it seemed large because the workload was overwhelming, because we were dealing with hundreds of people, volunteers and staff, but really it was small. And like the Giant, I was rushing from one end of it to the other, chasing all the other fish around.

By the time we went multisite, I had that much on my plate from God to governance, and management to ministry that it was like biting off more than I could chew. I was the giant that swallowed the cockroach. I was chewing as hard as I could and working so many hours and weekends, but still couldn’t manage, until I burned out. That bad-ass cockroach strangled me and left me floating upside down in my little pond.

In the end, my emotions and mental wherewithall gave out. I guess in life, we can only have so much on our plate. We can only bite off what we can chew. Any more than that, and we’re liable to do ourselves an injury.

On the upside, the Giant annoyed us. He would literally herd the other fish and chase them due to his size advantage. He’s gone now, and so has my career and ministry. But the upside for me, is I’m discovering how to live, how to slow down and pace myself. And I think I’m a better person for it all.

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Emotional Language

I’ve noticed that my nine year old son often gets negative and frustrated. He regularly comes home from school irritated and saying things like “I hate school, I have no friends, the teacher is unfair” and other broad sweeping generalizations. Some days he tells me he doesn’t want to go to school, and once he told me he’d like to die. He can also get quite angry with his little brother and sister at times too. Sometimes he seems to have so much pent-up emotion that it’s obvious, he really has no idea what to do with it. He’s feeling it, but it’s overwhelming him.

There are two scary things about his moods and mindset when things don’t go the way he expects. The first is that he seems to be very much like me when he’s frustrated. I guess that’s understandable. We inevitably reproduce who we are in our kids – good and bad. When he’s looking like mini-me, you’ve no idea how much that presses the buttons of his mother. The second, is that I think he, being the eldest has been exposed to the conflict in our marriage the most in terms of his awareness of what’s going on. The venom, the arguments, the freeze-outs and stonewalling, the simmering tension, I think, has taken its toll on him.

It’s obvious that he, like me, doesn’t seem to know how to handle his emotions. It’s really only in the last few years, I’ve been coming to grips with my emotions, so I’m trying to pass this on to him, so he doesn’t end up like me.

An emotional language, is the ability to identify and describe your feelings. Women are naturally good at this. Their ability to describe how they’re feeling is much more nuanced than men, because they’ve had more practice for a lot longer. Ask a man how he feels about something, he might say “I feel good about it” or “I don’t feel too good about that”. Hardly specific or useful.

Last night, I helped my son journal his emotions. He’d had a bad day at school. I asked, how did you feel? Angry, irritated, frustrated, sad, annoyed, disappointed? I’m trying to give him an ability to accurately name his emotions. Then I asked what he was thinking when he had those feelings. “It’s not fair, we weren’t told about the changes, I wanted to do something different”. I’m trying to help him see the connection between thoughts and feelings, so that eventually he’ll learn to challenge his thoughts, to try and lift negative emotions. I asked him what were some alternative thoughts and we brainstormed together.

I asked him how long those negative feelings lasted and what changed them. I’m hoping to teach him mindfulness, where he’s aware of his feelings in the moment, and he’s grounded and is aware when negative emotions are fading. I want him to get to know the things that lift his emotions so he can be more strategic about using those things.

Finally I want him to understand that emotions rise and fall over the course of a day, or a week. We have low emotions and high emotions all the time. I helped him to see that his mood was good around tea time and afterward – so he doesn’t globalise and say “the whole day was bad because of what the teacher did this morning”.

Emotions go up and down depending on how we view the events of the day as they unfold. Being grounded and aware of them and being able to name them is the art of mindfulness. Challenging our views and thoughts about certain events can help manage our emotions. Knowing those things that can boost or lift our emotions is important, and you can only discover them by being mindful. Also realizing that emotions come and go and that experiencing a full range of emotions is part of the richness of the human experience keeps what we’re experiencing in the moment in perspective. Our current mood won’t last.

I hope that by teaching him a nuanced emotional language, that it will become part of a toolbox that strengthens his resilience and well being. The alternative to having a good emotional language, is denial and suppression and those tricks failed me miserably. I hope he can avoid the mental illness that I’ve experienced.

Emo Vocab

I can’t speak authoritatively about women (I try to because I’m a smarty pants) but I reckon women have a better emotional vocabulary than men. The describe nuances of emotion better than men and that vocab gives them the ability to understand and express their emotions which is much healthier than us men.

Emotional authenticity is vital to emotional health. Men see the red oil light on the dashboard but not the red light on the emotional dashboard because we aren’t “in touch” with our emotions in general. If you ask a man what’s wrong he’ll probably say in an agitated voice “NOTHING’S WRONG!”, meaning something’s wrong but he just doesn’t know how he feels about it. When pressed he’ll say “I’M JUST ANGRY” and it’s the situation that’s making him angry. Try and talk about the anger e.g. where it comes from and he won’t know. He’s just angry. But the reality is he’s either afraid of something (he’ll never admit to that of course) or he’s hurt, threatened, disappointed, sad, worried or all of the above.

Somehow we need to help men develop their emo vocab. I’m starting with myself and my boys. Why do the gals have to have all the fun debriefing with their girlfriends leaving us to grunt at each other?