True Beauty Part 1

“Or would I want to feel that feeling that Mary gave us? And that Mother Teresa gives. Wow! Look at you. You’re amazing, you radiate, you glow! I would go home, if someone had said that to me, and that would sit with me forever.”

Ask Dr. Mario: Boys’ Competitiveness

My first question from the “Ask Dr. Mario” tab! I put that up so I can field questions from the growing community of listeners of Always Hope! Yet, it is important to clarify that this should not be used for counseling requests since my team reads these forms and I cannot assure confidentiality. If you are in need of counseling, please email me directly at drmario@sacasacounseling.com. However, my availability is limited but I can make referrals when needed.

Alright, here is the question:

“As a father of boys, how do you balance physical play with safety? I have three boys and I’m always trying to find the line between healthy roughhousing and unhealthy aggression. Also, how do you moderate their competitiveness and teach them how to harness it in a healthy way? Also, who was your favorite roommate in college and how much do you owe him for being the one who had to listen to Sonic Flood seventeen thousand times as you learned to play the guitar?” – Matt S.

Yeah, I know who this is from. Thanks, Matt, for the question! Sorry that you had to hear “I Can Sing of Your Love Forever” a bazillion times as I was pretending to be a worship leader in college. God will repay you in heaven!

Your question is a great one. I have four boys and Kristin and I struggle with this, too. It is indeed a balancing act. The first thing to remember is that competitiveness is a good trait to possess. Since our culture has moved towards “everyone gets a medal” we have lost the value of competition. The point of competition is to help us develop confidence. Fair competition teaches us how to be gracious in victory and humble in defeat. Moreover, it turns out that competition is actually healthy for boys’ brain and emotional development. According to this study, boys (age 9-11) who participated in team sports had larger hippocampuses (which governs emotion and memory) and lower depression rates.

Think for a moment about those NatGeo documentaries about baby monkeys or lion cubs. We see them play fighting, horseplaying, climbing on everything, and just causing mischief in general. These young animals do this because it tests their limits and they begin practicing the skills they will need as adults. A monkey needs to learn how to climb and swing fast so they can get away from a predator. A lion needs to learn how to fight if it wants to lead a pride someday. It’s the same thing with our boys. They need confidence and competition is often the vehicle that forces them to bring out their best and develop it. Certainly, competition becomes a problem when it leads to bullying and belittling, but in-and-of-itself, it’s a necessary component to fostering a healthy life.

Back to your question: how to find balance with this in a testosterone-dripping male environment? First, never make them feel bad for winning or excellence. We always welcome our kids’ friends at our house and my oldest had a few of his teenage buddies over. They were ribbing each other as boys do and were teasing the one boy who is at the top of their class. It was good-natured, but I could tell he was feeling sheepish about being smart. So, I told him, “Never apologize for your greatness, if that makes other people feel uncomfortable, that’s their problem.” I’ve told my boys the same lesson through sports and other activities. The world will do enough to tear them down and I don’t want to be any part of it.

Boys are looking to establish a pecking order among their peers, they can quickly size up who’s older, out of their league, or somebody that is close enough to be a threat. In a house full of boys, where they are of different ages and spacing of those years, this can be a challenge. The oldest might feel the need to compete with the one right beneath him, but not the youngest, since he poses no real challenge. As a parent, you want to know how those dynamics are playing out in your home. Who is threatened by who? Who is really competing with who?

Unfortunately, the youngest is usually at a disadvantage in the pecking order of the house, but there is a lesson there for him, too. I recently signed my middle two for a basketball training program and put them in the same grade level. My third grader is currently practicing with sixth graders. I asked him what he will need to do to work out with the older boys and without skipping a beat, he said, “Be tougher!” Heck, yeah, son! That’s a life lesson right there! What we need to do as parents is encourage less competition directly with each other because it’s not fair for the younger ones (unless there is some type of handicap in place to level the playing field). They need competition among peers who are similar in age and talent to properly develop confidence. This is something Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book David and Goliath. (However, even though my middle one is training with older kids, he will not compete on that travel team. I know better.)

Parents need to find the unique strengths of each of our children and put them in environments where they can excel. Sports might not be it, but what about music, art, gardening, robotics, martial arts, etc. Find the things that allow them to shine and put them in places where they can experience success. It might take time to find it, but everybody has a signature strength. This is so crucial because rarely does one person excel at everything, so they need to know that they have confidence in one area as they face the difficulties of another. Math might be really hard, but reading comes easy. They still need to do the math, but at least he can approach with some sense of not being a complete failure because of it.

Once you identify those strengths, we need to show our support as a family. When one has a basketball game, we all go and cheer him on. When one has a big concert performance, we are there to cheer him on, too. There is no favoritism. Let each of your boys know that the whole family is behind them and supporting them in their endeavors. Learning this will help minimize jealousy among each other, because they can trust that when it is their turn to have the spotlight, someone will be there to celebrate them.

This is harder to do when there is an overlap in talent. For example, if they play the same sport. (Can you imagine being Seth Curry? Always living under the shadow of his broth Stephen and his dad Dell. God bless him). Still, they need to find their own way of playing the game, regardless of what his brother is doing. They may want to play a different position, just to find their way. (I’m thinking of Cooper and Peyton Manning, here. But Eli played quarterback that worked out alright for him.) Let them know your sons know that there is enough playing time to go around if they are good enough to earn it.

If you pick up any hint of jealousy, nip it in the bud asap. Pull your son aside, tell him you love him, and that part of being in a family is that we support one another. Sometimes it will be his turn to be in the forefront and sometimes it will be his brothers’ turn. Ask him how he feels when his brothers are not at his events? Or when they are being mean about it? Help him identify with that negative feeling to see that his jealousy would hurt his brothers the same way.

Don’t always be too quick to intervene, you have to let them figure it out, too. If you’ve been clear with them about what your expectations are, then give them a chance to demonstrate it. But if you notice that things are getting out of hand with their competitiveness, talk to them and remind them what your expectations are as parents. Be clear with your rules and the consequences for breaking them.

Assess if they are just getting bored and need a new challenge or project. Boys always need something to do and will turn to fighting as low-hanging fruit. If you are seeing a lot of negativity, it’s a great opportunity to ask if they feel challenged enough by what they are doing in school.

Tenacity and grit are lost virtues. Our boys need them to be the men God is calling them to be. You know your kids better than anyone else, you know when the lines are getting crossed, and what needs to be done to help them develop their confidence. Love them as their father and they’ll carry that love within them regardless if they win or lose.

A book that I would encourage you to read on this topic is Raising Boys by Design, by Dr. Gregory Jantz and Michael Gurian. The later is a foremost expert on male studies who has written much about the growing disparity between boys and girls in our country. He is not a Christian but partnered with Dr. Jantz to articulate his research in a way that is compatible with Christianity. It’s good for parents of boys to help manage our expectations and to know what is normal in their behaviors. Boys are typically louder, more fidgety, more aggressive, and more physical than girls. It’s okay! It’s who they are. (Go figure, having a brain soaking a testosterone ladened brine actually means something!) Dr. Louann Brizendine’s The Male Brain is also a great read to better understand how a boy’s brain develops over the course of his life.

God bless and be good!

To get your question answered on a future blog post or episode of Always Hope, please click here.

What is Hope? Part 3

This is the final part of this series on hope. This won’t be the last time that I’ll write about hope but at least for now, you know what I’m talking about when I use that word. Hope is a graced virtue that allows us to live with a realistic optimism about life. Life is fundamentally good. Our lives are fundamentally good. Our experience of life is fundamentally good. Hope is what reminds us of that truth when our subjectivity gets overtaken by the hardships and anxieties of life.

So, what does hope look like in action? That’s the question that I want to answer in this post.

First, I’ll say that as a counselor part of my job is to help encourage people in the midst of their challenges. I’m there to be a voice of reason and encouragement, to guide them through their pain with clarity and patience.  I am always honored when someone opens up and shares their life’s story with me. Yes, I have the expertise on the counseling theories, but what gives me the confidence to help people is that I too have suffered and internally wrestled with these doubts and thoughts for years. As I have tried to make sense of certain events in my life, I know that I can guide others through their pain, too.  

One of the worst things we can do in the spiritual life is comparing crosses, because we usually do it in a way that belittles our own experience. Having perspective is okay, but diminishing our experience is not. Embrace and kiss the cross, is what my old spiritual director would say (the great Monsignor Crawford). I say this, because the suffering in my life has not always been the easiest to define. I don’t have cancer. My parents loved me as a child. Kristin and I have never had a miscarriage. Our kids are fairly normal (so far). I say this because I think many of us feel this way. “I don’t have a big tangible event to claim, yet I still feel pretty miserable.” Why is that? Because life is still pretty darn hard.

I feel like I had a pretty normal childhood. I had my conversion in college and gave my life to Jesus at 18, desiring to live the life he wanted for me. I graduated. I got married. We did missionary work. We had our first kid. I went to graduate school. I started my career. But somewhere in my early 30’s things got tough. It’s like life just smacked me in the face and said, “wake up!”

It was the first time that the things I had put my hopes in failed me. It was the first time that I had been hurt by believers and members of the Church. It was the first time that my eyes were open to the insidiousness of evil inside of the human heart. Evil is not always apparent; even to the person committing the transgression. It was the first time that the poor decisions I had made came to bite me and lead me close to financial and professional ruin. It was the first time that I really tasted burnout, cynicism, despair, and hopelessness. My suffering was caused by a mix of my own naïveté about life, trust being ruptured by close friends, false expectations, and a misunderstanding of how grace works.

I’m not a depressed person by temperament. Some people are more inclined to sadness and melancholy, I’m not one of them. So, when I started seeing that emerge inside of me, it scared me. In my 20’s, I never understood how someone could become cynical. Now, in my 30’s, I get it. I tasted it and did not like how it made me feel. I wanted no part of it and made decisions to remove myself from bad environments and have chosen to live a more deliberate and intentional life. I prayed. I read. I studied, because I wanted answers to my suffering and I wanted to be part of the solution for others. That desire is what drives this show.

One of the treasures I read during this time was C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, his personal recollections following the death of his wife Joy Davidman. He offered many great images for his pain, but one that I want to share here is his use of “the house of cards.” He said that we take a lot of time creating a house of cards (as an analogy of our relationship with God). We become pretty proud of what we built, thinking that it is the Lord, but then something happens that knocks that house of cards (and the presumptions that it is build upon) down. What the experience of suffering reveals is that that house of cards wasn’t an entirely correct understanding of God, so it is His right to knock it down. God loves us enough to straighten out our understanding and expectations of him. He wants all of us! Nothing less will do! In that vein, suffering is often the vehicle He uses to call us to that deeper conversion. That is mercy.

I have come to believe in that process in my own life and desire to share that with others. That’s why I care about hope. That’s why I want people to live with hope. It’s easy to punch in the numbers, add up all the bad things that have happened in life and say that life sucks. Despair is easy, as the French poet Charles Peguy stated, in The Portal of the Mystery of Hope. We don’t always know what God is doing in our lives, but we do profess his goodness and love; therefore we have to believe that things are being allowed for a reason.

So, whatever your suffering is, cling to hope. Bring your pain to the Lord. Seek the answers that will help it make sense for you. Find rest. And above everything else resist that unholy succumbing of despair and cynicism. God is with you and he is leading you through it all.

Thanks for reading this three part series! Let us continue to pray for one another.

What is Hope? Part 2

In the first part of this series on defining hope, I focused on the theological and spiritual aspects of hope; how hope is a virtue anchored on God and intimately united with love. (It’s a great read, check it out before moving on to this post). To briefly summarize, hope is a belief that things will get better. It is not the same thing as wishful thinking, which is naive and short-sighted; hope rests on an eternal goodness that gives perspective to our current struggles. For this post, I want to focus on the disposition of the one who has hope. What does living with hope do to the interior psyche of a person? How does it help in living a more fulfilling life? (I am a counselor, after all, and these types of questions always fascinate me.) Living with hope does a few things to the individual that possess this virtue. It provides a healthy-optimistic view of the world, it gives meaning in life, and it leads to right action. All of which are positive indicators for living a good life.

Psychologically speaking, optimism is an unwavering personality trait that regardless of the circumstances you still see life as good. The opposite of optimism is pessimism, where you see life as fundamentally flawed. According to Dr. Martin Seligman, in his book Authentic Happiness, the optimist is the person who sees bad events in life as temporary and isolated incidents, blips on the radar. He is able to understand and explain these bad moments. Moreover, he finds meaning and purpose in them. He can maintain perspective while not succumbing to the pains of life. The pessimist is the opposite, he is the person who sees the world negatively and dismisses the good events as temporary and isolated. The good moments become the blips on the radar for the pessimist. The optimist has hope, the pessimist does not. As a result, the optimist generally lives a healthier life than the pessimist and is not as prone to depression.

The traits of optimism and pessimism not only impact the individual but her social life and relationships. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s hard to get motivated to go out with friends or do some charitable work when you feel depressed or scared. As a result, pessimism can lead to self-absorption and rumination of negative experiences. It can become a nasty self-fulfilling prophecy. (We all have moments of this in life, but it becomes clinical when it is pervasive or due to trauma.) A simple way of testing where you fall on the optimism-pessimism spectrum is to think about your thinking: How often do you find yourself ruminating on past negative events or current stressors? How easy is it to recall recent gratifying experiences? How likely are you to dismiss a compliment? How likely are you to focus on worry and anxiety? There are concrete steps you can take to shift your thinking from focusing on the bad events and recalling hopeful memories. I encourage you to listen to episodes 14 and 15 of Always Hope on redemptive suffering and Catholic mindfulness, respectively, to further dive into these approaches.

The person with hope has a deep sense of meaning and purpose in her life. As I stated in the previous post, the fullness of hope rests on God’s promises of eternal salvation. Nothing short of heaven can fulfill our deepest longings. Fr Jacques Phillippe, in the chapter “Expect the impossible” in A Beautiful Hope, stated that hope is linked to desire and God will purify our hope and desires. Inevitably, there comes a moment when hope in the “lesser things” (see my previous post) fades and all that is left is a burning desire for God alone: not his church, not his gifts, not his favors, but Him and Him alone. We tend to lose hope in those moments of suffering, but that doesn’t have to be the case if we can continue to unite our pains and trials with Jesus and be patient with our emotions as we wrestle with our despair. (Two great autobiographical accounts of this purgative process are A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis and He Leadeth Me by Fr. Walter Ciszek.) Remember that God often allows us to suffer to draw us closer to himself, not to push us away. It is in those moments that we reach the limits of our human capacity, embrace our poverty, and cry out for salvation. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 5:3). The person with hope lives this promise. Her face is set like flint against the hardships of the world. He is able to turn the other cheek and learn to bloom wherever God has planted him. The person with hope becomes a beacon to the world that sin does not have the final answer and that love has already triumphed!

When we anchor our hope on God, and when we have shifted our desires to understand how that hope is actualized within us, now we can be people of right action. So, hope is also linked to the pearl of virtues…wisdom. Let me explain this in a story. Recently, I was having a conversation with my friend, Fr. Josh Johnson, who quoted a homily by his bishop (Michael Duca of Baton Rouge), who said that hope allows us to know what to pray for. Sometimes in the hospital rooms, families are praying for their loved ones not to die, when the more appropriate thing would be to pray for a peaceful death. Even in death, we have hope. (What a truly beautiful Christian thought…that death becomes the vehicle that unites us with our creator!) It would be “wishful thinking” for the family to continue praying for the person to come back to life when the greater miracle is that their loved one is closer to God after death than before it. Again, hope leads to wisdom. Even when we have to make changes in our current circumstances, like finding a new job or leaving a bad relationship, we can only truly know how to move forward when our desires have been purified and possess the clarity on what that next step should be. (More on this point in the next post).

So, cling to hope brothers and sisters! Let your hearts rest on Jesus, so that your mind may be clear enough to do the tasks before you. Let hope fill you so that we can be the light God has asked us to be in this world.

The final part of this series will be up soon! Stay connected with me on Facebook and Instagram (@drmariosacasa) so you don’t miss it!

What is Hope?

I launched the Always Hope podcast back in October 2018 to help you see how living with hope will improve your life and relationships and better equip you to navigate cultural issues. It is a joy doing the show, but there is a lingering issue that continues to arise in my mind. I have failed to define my terms! Namely, the most important word of the show… hope. (My inner academic feels ashamed right now.) Therefore, in the next few blog posts, I’m going to define how I see hope from both theological and psychological lenses.

What is hope? In a nutshell, hope is the fundamental belief that things will get better. It is an interior disposition that is tied to both endurance and courage. It is the ability to hang on in the hard times and, simultaneously, the ability to make real changes in life when needed. Hope is a virtue that leads us to happiness and peace. It is good to live life with a belief that no matter what happens things will get better. The opposite of hope is despair: the belief that no matter what happens things will not get better or will get much worse. Simply put, despair sucks and is terrible for your mental health.

We need hope but more importantly we have to place our hope in the right things, because hoping is a vulnerable process. What happens when the thing we hope for doesn’t work out? Our expectations get crushed and we get hurt. What happens when we constantly open up and get disappointed? Well, then, eventually we stop opening up to not take the chance of getting hurt. This is why in AA circles, they say “hope and sh** go hand and hand.” That’s why it is crucial to not just have a willy-nilly hope, but one that is truly anchored in something that will never disappoint. We have to place our hope in something that will ultimately bring us authentic happiness or everlasting peace.

This is why hope is more than just a human virtue, it is a theological virtue. Hope is most fully actualized when it rests on God, who is the object of our hope, and the source of it. We have hope to the degree that we are able to see God’s goodness in the difficulties of life. Heaven is where we are headed and the taste of it along the journey of life is what keeps us going. As Christians, we believe in a God who became a man to teach us what it means to be fully human and then he died on the cross and rose again to give us the grace needed to actualize that vision of humanity.

Our hope squarely rests on the reality of the resurrection. It is the answer to the riddle of death. If God himself could die (which is just about the worst thing that could happen) and then overcame that atrocity in a miraculous event, then couldn’t he save us from our sin and struggles, too? If he is a personable and loving God? Because of this belief, hope is intimately connected with faith and love, which round out the three theological virtues. “…And so faith, hope, and love remain, and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13). Without love and charity there cannot be a fullness of hope. Without faith, we cannot access the grace needed to live with hope.

Can we have hope without faith? Yes, of course. Anyone can have an optimistic belief that things will get better or find ways to create meaning and purpose in life. Yet, I’m with Benedict XVI who said in Spe Salvi, that without faith, our hope will be placed in lesser things whose peace is temporary. We look for a new job, success, achievement, we buy a new gadget, or seek to make some other change hoping that it will bring us peace and happiness. Or we look for substances or certain behaviors to bring us momentary feelings of calm and relief. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t desire success or look for ways to improve our life, I’m just saying that we still need something bigger to anchor those changes and direct our decisions in a way that brings real hope. Change for the sake of change is not real hope.

Can we have hope without love, though? I don’t think so. Even our hope in ‘lesser things’ should be motivated out of love for peace and consolation to be real. Love is the greatest virtue, it is the one that remains for all of eternity. Love is the supreme good that brings meaning in life. Firmly stated, without love we will despair and turn away from goodness. Eventually, without love, we will grow to hate the good things in life; like the Grinch hating the Whos and their joy of Christmas. An inability to face the goodness of life because it hurts too much is a severe pain indeed. Love is the purpose of life, it “decides everything” (quoting Fr. Arrupe) and we really need it to have hope.

I’ll end this post, by reflecting on a movie that drives these points home, The Shawshank Redemption. This is a movie about how hope can be lived even in the most despairing of places. Andy’s hope allows him to endure the challenges of prison life, yet it is the same hope that helps him plot his escape. The Mexican paradise is his hope that allows him to believe that goodness has not been lost in the world. (Of course, the beach is a metaphor for heaven, which is Paradise itself!) He also is motivated by his love for his friend, Red. Andy’s desire isn’t just to be in Paradise alone, but to be there with his friend. (Is this not a metaphor for the the Communion of Saints!?) Like Andy, let us place our hope in things that are truly substantive. Let us hope with faith and love so that we can have peace in life.

Stay tuned, part 2 of this series on hope will be out soon! Follow me on facebook or instagram (@drmariosacasa), so you don’t miss it when it comes out!

Mystery, Modesty, and Romance

When I was a college student, the director of the Catholic Student Union at Florida State University, Br. Sam Gunn often had words of wisdom to us college kids and the one that I want to write about today concerns dating and romance. At the end of a weekly gathering, Wednesday Spirit Nites, Bro Sam got up and wrote on a whiteboard three simple words, “Mystery, Modesty, Romance” and said something like, “If you don’t understand what this means, then figure it out.” That’s all he said and the night ended.  

This was nearly 20 years ago and I haven’t stopped trying to figure out what he meant. His words were exactly what us college students, stuck in a hook-up culture, needed to hear… when sex becomes cheap and casual, true romance is dead. Basically, in order to have true romance there must be something worthy of pursuing, a great good worth seeking, and a mystery worth discovering. Every person is a mystery and true Eros is the type of love that draws us closer to one particular person with wonder and desire. So, how does one safeguard their mystery from false Eros? Modesty.

Modesty is not synonymous with puritanical prudishness, which purports to cover-up out of fear or because erotic desire is bad. That’s just wrong. Authentic modesty is rooted in a profound understanding of your goodness and knowing that only someone truly worthy has the right to see it. “Don’t throw your pearls before the swine,” Jesus said in Matthew 7:6, resist the pressure to show off what you got, choose modesty. Without modesty, there is no mystery, and without mystery, there can be no romance. MODESTY IS SEXY! (Yes, you are reading that correctly!) Without it, we perpetuate a culture of cheap and empty encounters that degrade human persons of our dignity nor will ever bring satiation to our everlasting desires.

Here’s a quick Theology of the Body lesson that makes these points clearer. John Paul II stated that the body alone is capable of making the invisible visible. The body reveals the person. The goodness of a person’s soul is revealed through the body. Yes, this is a mystery, but the mystery is part of the reality of who we are as people made in the image and likeness of God. To dedicate one’s life towards the exploration and understanding of another person’s deepest mysteries is called sacramental marriage. Only when I have made a covenantal vow to love you until I die, have I earned the right to your most intimate parts (physically, emotionally, and spiritually). It all works together.

The funny thing is that even though Br. Sam stated those words for college students to encourage modesty, as I continue to reflect on them now as a married man, I find that these are also the keys for continued marital romance. I have a deep disdain for the cultural narrative that states sex and romance die after marriage. It’s just not true! In the book, The Case for Marriage, the authors state that according to research married couples report a higher frequency of sexual encounters and higher satisfaction with those encounters than their non-married counterparts. (Take that hook-up culture!) Still, that narrative exists because there is some truth to the challenge of not losing romance in the midst of the craziness of life, work, and raising kids. We like to compartmentalize tasks in our minds to make things more efficient and so we can swiftly move through our day, checking one box off after another. The problem here is that our spouse (or sex with our spouse) should never just be a mere check off the list of things that need to get done. Counselors have a fancy technical term for when that happens in marriage, it’s called Boredom (which is the opposite of sexy).

In this context, the temptation for married couples is not revealing the mystery too quickly (like lusty college students), but the opposite, feeling that you have solved that mystery. Once you state that you have the other person figured out, that is when romance dies, because there is nothing left to pursue. Eternal mystery means that even after 50 years of marriage, there will still be some truth, goodness, and beauty inside my wife that I would not fully understand. There would be some mystery still worth pursuing. Repeatedly finding that newness is crucial to keeping the romance alive. Because newness is sexy. For married couples, the advice usually given to spice things up is euphemistically couched in the term “novelty items.” I caution that because the high of trying a new product is always temporary. It is a bit misguided to expect consumerism to solve bedroom boredom because novelty is primarily a disposition of the heart, not a new toy.

Married couples, this Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to find new ways of reconnecting. Instead of the same old date night, try something different. Do an adventure together. Start a new project. Do a work of service together. Something that gets you working as a team again and gives you the opportunity to see your spouse’s strengths shine again. Discover something new about who he/she is. And whatever the date is, choose to avoid talking about the duties or checklists of the day, but the hopes and longings for the future. When was the last time you talked about the bigger questions of life? When was the last time you and your spouse wondered together? Reconnect with that sense of wonder for the person you married and use that as fuel for the marital embrace.

Dating and engaged couples, this Valentine’s Day, choose modesty and preserve the goodness of your mystery. Take this as a time to continue learning how to love one another and enjoy this season of discovery in your relationship. Every season is a gift and possesses its own challenges. It is hard to believe that now, but you will understand that in time.

St. Valentine, pray for us!