Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Family Vacations: Opportunities for connection and God’s grace

            My friend, Andrea Lemke-Rochon, is the youngest of five sisters whose ages span 17 years. This past spring, for the first time since she was an infant, Andrea spent a week with them—the five were invited by their aunt to be guests at her timeshare in the Bahamas.  While the setting was gorgeous and the weather was perfect, what was most significant for Andrea was the uninterrupted time the five had together.
            “We all agreed to unplug for the week, so we wouldn’t have distractions,” Andrea said. “We had no phones; we ate together; we sat on the beach and looked at the water; we spent time with each other. It was lovely.”
            While ads for vacation destinations may lead us to believe that the perfect vacation is all about choosing the right place, the truth is that the value of a vacation has less to do with the sights we see and more to do with the people we see those sights with. The root “vac” in “vacation” means “to empty.” At its core, a vacation is an opportunity for us to empty ourselves of our regular responsibilities. In their absence, we can better be present to those who we are vacationing with.
A vacation, done well, gives us the time and the space to connect more deeply with each other.  That connection can be completely non-verbal—a shared experience of jumping in the waves or flying down a rollercoaster drop. It can include learning something together—a history tour or museum visit.  And a good vacation doesn’t have to be one hundred percent cheerful fun; it can include an afternoon for an important, but difficult conversation. In planning a vacation, a more important question than “Where do we want to go?” is “How will we connect with each other?”
Connecting with Immediate Family:
            Soheil and Lisa, Badran, parents of three daughters, have noticed that their vacation stories hold a more solid place in family lore than other memories. “Whether it’s collecting sand dollars on the beach or finding that ice cream shop on a hot day, it’s the memories from vacations that always come up during family dinners,” Soheil said.
            Again, the idea of “emptying” plays its part in family vacation. As much as parents may need to escape work, kids need a break from the pressures of school, extra-curriculars and friendship drama.
            We went to a dude ranch in the middle of Colorado last summer,” said Emma Gillette, mother of three grade school kids. “No internet, no WiFi, no TV, no screens at all. It was amazing – it was a real ‘reset button’ for our family, and has made me reconsider what kind of vacations we'll take going forward.”
The Power of Extended Family:
            The advent of transportation and technology has led to more families scattering, with grandparents, aunts and uncles not as involved in a child’s day-to-day life.  Vacationing with extended family gives children the opportunity to become close to those they don’t see regularly. My uncle Mark, a father of five adult children, settled with his family in Nebraska in the 1970s, having grown up in Chicago and Milwaukee. Each summer, when I was young, the Scobey side of the family would get together at a reunion picnic in Chicago, at my aunt and uncle’s home on Crescent Lake, near Rhinelander, or at our family’s home in Whitefish Bay — this was the only time I saw my Nebraska cousins. “Through these trips, our kids gained an understanding the people who shaped my life over the years,” Uncle Mark explained. “It was a chance for them to see physical differences and similarities of relatives, and how locations where their relatives lived were similar to or different from their own home.”
Connecting with God’s Grace
            It is easier to feel the grace of God when we are present to the moment. For Andrea, who took the trip to the Bahamas with sisters, a moment of God’s grace was found in a jewelry shop with her oldest sister, Kathy, who had recently lost her husband.
            “It would have been Kathy and Ray’s fiftieth anniversary this year, and Kathy wanted to find a piece of jewelry to commemorate that,” Andrea said.
Kathy and Ray had spent their married life in the town of Aurora, Wisconsin, named after the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. “As Kathy browsed in the little jewelry shop, she found a beautiful ring and noticed that the line of jewelry was called Aurora Borealis, because the stones in the line had the same colors as the Northern lights. We just stood in the jewelry shop and cried together. God was in that moment.”
            As the first whiffs of warm weather hit, and Bill and I look toward the summer and plan time with our family, the wisdom of all these stories of the good vacations stay with us, reminding us we don’t need an exotic location or luxury accommodations. What we need is simply time away. Time for our family to “vacate” — to empty ourselves, so as to refill with love.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What's your ACE score?

Jesus’ ministry could be boiled down to two elements— teaching people
to love each other, and healing the sick through the love of God.
            Two thousand years later, science has caught up with Jesus.
In 1998, a seminal study by the Center for Disease Control established a strong causal connection between a lack of properly executed love from caregivers during childhood, and incidences of serious illness later in life.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, published in the Journal of Preventative Medicine, was conducted by giving a questionnaire about adverse childhood experiences to 17,000 mostly white, middle to upper-middle class people in San Diego. Various categories of adverse childhood experiences were studied: physical, sexual or psychological abuse; violence against the mother in the home; and living with household members who were substance abusers, mentally ill, suicidal, or ever imprisoned. Researchers found that more than half the respondents to the questionnaire had at least one childhood exposure to one of these seriously adverse experiences, and one-fourth reported two or more. When they studied the health of participants, they found that participants with higher ACEs scores had correspondingly higher incidences of chronic autoimmune illnesses, liver disease, alcoholism and depression.
Subsequent studies on adverse childhood experiences have corroborated the findings, showing that in addition, a higher ACEs score correlates to higher incidences of obesity, diabetes, stroke, some types of cancers and some types of heart disease. One a scale of one to ten, where each adverse childhood experience equals one point, having an ACEs score of four or more increases the risk of emphysema or chronic bronchitis by nearly 400 percent and suicide by 1200 percent. People with an ACEs score of six or higher are at risk for an average 20-year shortened lifespan. Higher ACEs scores also correspond with social problems --  higher rates of drug use, teen pregnancy, smoking, being a victim of rape and perpetuating domestic violence. Children with high ACEs scores are prone to rage and outbursts in school, often have trouble paying attention, get lower grades and are more likely to fail a grade and drop out.
Brain research is demonstrating what Jesus understood when he gave us the command to love-- that the experience of trauma (of being hurt, rather than loved) has a physical effect on the body. When children are traumatized, their bodies respond in a physical way, even into adulthood. Prolonged activation of the stress response systems disrupts the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increases the risk for both physical and mental illness.

With only a third of the US population having an ACEs score of zero, indicating no significant trauma, we can begin to understand that much of society’s troubles may have its roots in unhealed childhood trauma. Most people, regardless of ethnicity, religion or socio-economic status, carry an invisible cross of at least one or two significantly painful parts to their childhood. And 13% of people walk around with the toxic stress caused by four or more adverse childhood experiences.

            We are just 19 years out from the publication of the ACEs study—in the world of science, 19 years is a short time. It’s barely enough time to get the word out about the study’s results. But in the past 19 years, in response to the ACEs study, research has emerged on resilience. Children who have experienced adversity in childhood but who go on to develop resilience have better outcomes. How do we build resilience? The research points to one-on-one connections. When a person with a high ACEs score has a relationship with someone who offers him or her understanding and compassion, a bit of resilience is born. Those people with high ACEs scores whose parents struggle but who are fortunate enough to have strong one-on-one connections with teachers, healthy friends, relatives, coaches, mentors or pastors, fare the best.
            Jesus’ ministry of healing was all about one-on-one connections based on understanding and compassion. He sat with people; he touched them; he reacted with compassion and love for them. He even wept with love. And then he healed them.
            We are offered the same opportunity as Jesus to be healers. During our day, everyone we encounter (including ourselves) has an ACEs score ranging from 0 to 10 —everyone has a story of childhood. Every interaction we have with another is an opportunity to build that person’s resilience. Every action that includes understanding and a belief in the good of another can bring about healing. And that goes for showing compassion and understanding toward ourselves, as well. Those who have high ACEs scores, but who learn self-compassion, also build resilience.
Those around us who we find most challenging to love may have a reason for being so prickly-- childhood trauma can wrap itself in anger, as a form of protection. And when offered healing and compassion, these hurting folks may not find the wherewithal to respond with gratitude. When Jesus healed the 10 lepers, only one came back to say thanks.
            In the next decade, public health practices may shift in response to the ACEs study and what it predicts. Further study may crystalize best practices and techniques for doctors, mental health professionals, teachers and those in social service. We, as a society, may learn ways to foster large-scale resilience development; we may even discover opportunities to reach families early to lower ACEs scores from the beginning. But even as this happens, true resilience will still be built one person at a time, in moments when that person feels understood, loved and recognized.
            For us, as followers of Christ, the ACEs study and the follow-up research on resilience intensifies what we already know. Our call has always been to love and to heal. And now we have the data to prove why it’s important.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Pro-life bumper stickers make me uncomfortable

Pro-life bumper stickers make me uncomfortable.
            They don’t make me uncomfortable because I’m pro-abortion. I agree with the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of life at every stage. I do not believe in the death penalty; don’t believe in euthanasia and rarely think that war is the only answer to an international problem.  Rather, my discomfort with some aspects of the pro-life movement in general, and the Catholic piece of it in particular, arises from my perspective as a foster and adoptive parent. I see too little of a connection between the pro-life movement and the foster and adoptive community.
            Each year, in Milwaukee, the city in which our family lives, there are between two and three thousand children who need placement outside of their homes because of allegations of neglect or abuse by their parents. Each year there are about 900 active, licensed foster homes in Milwaukee able to receive those children. The rest of the foster children are placed with unlicensed relatives or in group homes. In all medium to large cities with substantial populations of children in foster care, many the families who step forward to foster are too often marginal themselves, and without the necessary resources to meet the needs of the foster children placed with them. Children then are moved from home to home as foster parents find they cannot handle the behavioral issues of the traumatized child.  Heathy, financially stable families who would be able to provide a safe home for foster children often look at the emotional complexity of the task and decide that they are not able to commit to the undertaking.
            While I understand that not every Catholic family is called to foster or adopt, a Catholic pro-life identity must include a highly visible commitment to those children who were not initially aborted, but whose current life of neglect and abuse leaves them vulnerable and at risk.
            The pro-life voice is well-known in the Catholic community. Some Catholics vote according to this issue, singularly. But what if we could become equally well-known for our commitment to providing safe families for foster children? What if the Catholic pro-life community would become conversant in trauma-informed care so as to better minister to young victims of abuse and neglect? If alongside their work to change legislation regarding abortion, pro-life groups would work within the foster care arena, the movement would gain necessary credibility. A commitment to foster care, when put next to a commitment to end abortion, demonstrates an understanding of the complexity of the abortion question. It underlines our Catholic teaching of the sanctity of life— life threatened within the womb, but also facing just as serious danger outside the mother’s body. At a recent Catholic conference I attended in Chicago, there were four booths dedicated to the anti-abortion aspect of the pro-life movement. Yet, I didn’t see even one booth—or even one small part of a pro-life booth— dedicated to recruiting new foster parents.
            Although Adoption, not abortion! makes a catchy bumper sticker slogan, the issue of adopting would-be aborted children is not as simple as it might appear. Of the more than a hundred thousand children currently awaiting adoption in the U.S., almost half are African American, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Of this group, severely disabled children and black boys must wait the longest for adoption. At the same time, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s statistics show that more than a third of the U.S. women each year who choose abortion are black. When we, as church, tell these women to put their children up for adoption, do we back up our words by pointing to families open to adopting black children? Right now, the answer is no — there is a shortage of parents willing to adopt African American children, and our words are hollow. 
            I recognize that some pro-life activists might bristle at the idea that they are not doing enough for children. Many of these people give tremendous amounts of time and energy trying to prevent the tragedy of abortion and the emotional fallout it causes for women. I am not suggesting that they stop. But I am suggesting that we, as Catholics, begin to look at the issue of abortion in a less simplistic way. I’m suggesting that we open our arms even wider—that we challenge each other to create a line of households ready and waiting to accept unwanted, abused or neglected children. I am suggesting a movement that includes within the pro-life community families who have fostered and adopted and who walk the difficult road toward healing and wholeness with their children. I’m suggesting that our pro-life activists work as hard on legislation protecting foster children and preventing further abuse as they do on legislation surrounding abortion. And when we do this, when the word “Catholic” is linked with foster care just as surely as it is with “pro-life,” then we will be able to hold our heads high when we tell others to “Choose life.” Because others will have our assurance that life will be protected, once it is chosen.