When Struggling, Start at Zero

Keeping Sane and Productive in an Insane World, Principle # 7: “When Struggling, Start at Zero.”

Last year, our family went through some very difficult times. No matter how bad it got, there was one thing that continually helped me regain sanity. Starting at zero.

What does that mean? It means that you imagine that you have nothing that you have. You imagine that you might not have any of it. Then, you mentally add it back bit by bit until you feel gratitude swelling up in your heart for all that you have.

What are some of those things? I might not have a wife, but God has given me a wonderful one. I might not have children, but I have seven of them. I might not have friends, but I have many of them.

When it comes to God, I might not know Him. Yet He has forgiven me and accepted me through the cross of Christ. That is enough, really. If I had nothing other than that, that would be enough.

But I have so much more. Doing Uber, I have met many people who do not have cars. I have a couple of them. I have freedom to move around. I have a home. That home has running water and a heat pump and electricity. I have means to communicate and receive information on my phone and computer. I have music and books.

I was born in America. It has its issues, but there is an opportunity to make money, if you need to. If you are healthy, you can work here. Speaking of that, I do have good health.

Where I get stuck is when I get some specific vision of what good things should be like. Then, when that situation doesn’t come to pass, it feels like there is nothing good. This feeling is loud and strong sometimes, but it does not reflect reality. When I start at zero, I realize that there are all kinds of good things that I already have that I might not have had and do not deserve more than others who do not have them. This helps my heart move toward gratitude and thankfulness and away from despair. So, that’s why I have this rule: when struggling, start at zero.

Our brains present an interesting paradox. When it comes to bad things, we worry about them and go over them again and again. When it comes to good things, we don’t even hold them in our mind for ten seconds.

Rick Hanson, in his helpful book Hardwiring Happiness deals at length with this paradox from the perspective of brain science.

Hanson notes that our brain “has a hair-trigger readiness to go negative to help you survive” (20). He describes the way our brain works this way, “when the least little thing goes wrong or could be trouble, the brain zooms in on it with a kind of tunnel vision that downplays everything else” (21). In contrast, Hanson notes, our brains hardly give any attention to good experiences. “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones” (27). Think about it, he says: “how often do we stay with a positive experience for five, ten, or twenty seconds in row?” (27).

We just don’t take in the good. We get stuck in the bad.

How do we start to balance this out? How can we do a better job of taking in the good things that are already part of our lives? We can start at zero in our minds and add all the blessings back from there. This doesn’t ignore the bad. It just helps us take in the good.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I hope this is a helpful concept that will help keep you sane in an insane world. This is part of a series on 40 principles for keeping you sane and productive in an insane world. These are principles that I collected over the years battling for sanity and productivity while serving as a Pastor for 19 years, raising seven kids, earning higher degrees, traveling the world, and trying to be a good citizen. You can read more of them here.


Photo by Simon Maisch on Unsplash

Why I Am Extremely Thankful to Live in America

I love Egypt. I went there last year, and I loved it. I loved the history and the tourism, but I really loved the people. That was the biggest surprise of the trip, how much I loved the people and how much I learned from them. I think there is much that Americans can learn from the people in Egypt as I wrote about here.

However, going to Egypt made me see America with new eyes. I appreciated many of the things that I had taken for granted. Here are ten blessings that make me extremely thankful to live in America. I made this list shortly after returning from Egypt last year, but I fleshed it out for July 4th. Here they are, but they are not ranked in order of importance.

  1. The availability of jobs and economic opportunity. In Egypt and many other places, you often have to work very hard just to survive. In America, you can work hard and thrive. You can get ahead. There are virtually innumerable opportunities to advance. You can work one job during the week and add extra hours on the weekend. America affords amazing opportunities to make money and get ahead for almost anyone who wants to and has the ability.
  2. Toilets that work and in which you can flush toilet paper. The first night I was in Cairo I was somewhat surprised to learn that you can’t put toilet paper in the toilet. It will clog the public water system. It’s something that simple and that we take for granted, but the ubiquity of good water and plumbing systems is a huge blessing.
  3. Regular trash service. In Egypt, the trash often sits there for a long period of time. I have been in many places where they simply pile up trash because that’s what they have to do. We have systems for these things, and they are reliable and efficient. It is a huge blessing that we don’t have to figure out what to do with all the trash we generate.
  4. Completed buildings. One thing that is surprising in Egypt is how many uncompleted buildings there are. It gives them a tax advantage not to complete their buildings. As a result, they don’t finish them. That makes total sense in terms of their family interest, but it doesn’t look good. I’m thankful that we have so many completed buildings. It looks much better.
  5. Plenty of space for single family houses. It’s amazing how we take for granted the fact that we can enjoy single family houses separate from one another. In much of the world, houses are crammed right next to one another. In America, with hard work and often some help, you can own your own single family housing. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to enjoy your own outdoor space. It is very common here. Approximately 70% of Americans live in single family housing. Many who don’t want to and eventually will.
  6. Abundant education opportunities. While it is true that the rich often have more educational opportunities, education is very democratic in the U.S. People have access to good education. This is not always true around the world. In other countries, the good schools are for the elites. We have much better opportunities here.
  7. Ease of learning English. The overwhelming majority who live here have the opportunity to grow up speaking English either in home or in school. This is a blessing that we have that not everyone has that we often take for granted, but it opens up all kinds of doors around the world. It’s really a marvel that we have the opportunity here to learn without much effort the most widely used language in the world.
  8. Abundant food. When I have gone to other countries, I have had the opportunity to eat a lot of great food. It makes me sad, though, that in many of those countries, people do not have access to that kind of food. In America, we have an abundance of cheap food. We are major food producer. If we are out of one thing, we can substitute it with another. It is a real blessing to have food security.
  9. Freedom and opportunities for women. In many other countries, the opportunities for women are much more limited. Here, women can do whatever they want. They can say what they want. There is relative equality in the home. They can go into the world and work in whatever field they desire. I am thankful for these opportunities.
  10. Orderly driving. I live in an area of the country that can have “crazy” traffic by American standards. However, even the craziest traffic here is extremely orderly compared with many other countries. It may be busy, but people drive in an orderly way. It’s rather astonishing really.

This list came from the thoughts that occurred to me after traveling, but there are many more things I could list. I am extremely thankful to live in America with all its blessings, opportunities, and freedoms. In some ways, I can’t believe that I had the blessing of being born here. It’s such a great opportunity. I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had to travel to help me see the things that are here that I take for granted. July 4th is a day worth celebrating and reveling in. Happy 4th of July everyone!


Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Freedom and opportunities for women.
Orderly driving.

Reflections on the United States After Visits to Egypt and Mexico

This year, I was blessed to spend two weeks each in Egypt and Mexico. It was the first time in 25 years that I had travelled outside the United States or Canada. My major takeaway from my trips to Mexico and Egypt was a new appreciation for the blessings we enjoy in the United States. The U.S. has its weaknesses, to be sure, but we have a lot of strengths, and our prosperity allows us the resources to work on our weaknesses. What are those strengths?

Before I talk about America’s strengths, let me talk about the strengths of Mexico and Egypt. First, let me talk about Mexico. I knew that Mexico is more prosperous than many Americans think. I went to Cancún and Guadalajara. Guadalajara is right in the heart of Mexico. It is surprisingly prosperous. Its plazas or shopping centers can rival or outdo those of the United States.

One day, an Uber dropped me off near a lower-end plaza. I was waiting for a friend to finish with a meeting. So, I looked for a good place to wait. I was there by the road, and I looked across the street. There was a Starbucks, just one of many that I saw in México. I was actually standing in front of an Autozone. Down the street, there was a Denny’s, because a Grand Slam is a Grand Slam in any language. Walmart and Sam’s Club were everywhere. Mexico is more like the United States and more prosperous than one might suppose.

What is striking about México is the insecurity. Every house seems to have high walls. There is often barbed wire on the top of the walls. Nevertheless, I talked to numerous locals, and they assured me that it was safe to walk in the street during the day in Guadalajara. I had no problems as I did so, though, admittedly, I only did this a couple of times.

In terms of economic conditions, Mexico and Egypt are somewhat similar. The dollar goes a lot further in those countries than it does back home. Egypt did not seem as prosperous as Mexico, though. The conditions seemed more challenging (see this interesting comparison here).

What struck me most about Egypt was the friendliness of people. Everyone was ready to connect with you and be your friend. People would greet you with kindness. For example, I would ask them if they were having a good day. All over, they would say things like, “I am having a good day because I get to see you.” Now, the cynic in me was tempted to think that this was because of American money. However, three things showed me that this was not the case. First, I observed that they always treated each other with the same warmth. Second, when we stayed at a hotel during the celebration of the Feast of Eids, we met numerous upper middle class or upper class people. They were just as friendly as the poorer people had been. They took us under their wing and wanted to be our friends. Third, in Mexico, Melinda and I met two Egyptian women who lived in the United States and were vacationing in Mexico. They were the same way, they wanted to connect with us and were happy to be friends with us. I’ve never been to a place where it was easier to make friends. Continue reading “Reflections on the United States After Visits to Egypt and Mexico”