Archive for the ‘emotional support’ Tag

Befriending Myself   4 comments

I woke up this morning with spare change on the clock to get to church on time, but my soul was out of sorts, so I lay still, sensing its pulse instead of pushing myself out of bed.  For the last decade I’ve honed the skill of listening to my feelings without judging them, but I’m only gradually learning to then respond with compassion, a crucial second step.  Since I spent most of my life judging my feelings and driving them out with shame–calling them stupid or weak or petty–it was a giant step for me to learn to accept them as legitimate and meaningful, and it took years of stiff work.

That tenacious acceptance opened a huge cache of information about myself, a way to sort through my junk and set the furniture back on its feet.  But with my cognitive bent, I’m slow on intuition, a key conduit to feelings.  I often get stuck in my head, my thoughts going in circles like bugs around a rim, emotionally trapped, unable to move forward until I understand it.

I failed to realize that understanding someone and embracing him are quite distinct, and I don’t need to diagnose him in order to love him.  Empathy can be profoundly healing even without an emotional biopsy.  When I focus on fixing a “problem,” I default to analytics, but I can’t support the feelings when I treat them as the problem, a roadblock instead of a signpost.  A hug is often better than a flow chart, not just for my wife, but surprisingly for me, the thinker.

When I’m busy dissecting feelings, I can forget compassion, especially for myself.  Love seems a distraction from analyzing and engineering a solution… unless love IS the solution.  “1+2 = love” does not make sense because feelings cannot be reduced to equations or formulas.  But if love is not the answer, then perhaps I’m asking the wrong question, and if I’m not ending up at compassion, then I’m really off track.  How would it shape my experience of life if I lived for love, not just for others, but for myself?

I know how to be a good friend to others: to listen, love, be gentle and patient, kind and thoughtful.  But I don’t treat myself that way.  I bully myself.  I push and prod, roll my eyes, belittle pain, ignore my needs, devalue my efforts.  I’m a really bad friend to myself.

So this morning I lay in bed, fully present to God and myself, ignoring the clock, being patient and gentle and sympathetic to my struggles like a good friend should.  I took a feel-good shower instead of skipping it and rushing to church, and I discovered that being a better friend to myself made me a better friend to those I met.  I’ve found a new buddy, and I think I’m going to really like him.

Saving Trust   1 comment

My achievement demon was finally beaten (as I posted), but it was a double-team effort, not a solo act.  Berly deserves special praise for her unusual trust and courage to stand with me in this battle as she lived out our fundamental commitment to support one another’s personal struggles.  It is a long story, a good story, one well worth telling, but too big for a blog.  The only way for me to escape my work-driven value system was to resist its demands, which meant choosing a job which was good for my soul but bad for my pocket.  I have been employed part-time and seasonally for 40 months as our savings slowly dwindled.  I have looked for other employment, but not aggressively, taking it at the pace my spirit has needed.  

Imagine how much trust and courage this has required of Kimberly and how badly I needed this trust when struggling with my own self doubt.  She has said many times, “we may lose our home, but we must not lose our souls,” and so we have continued to make the hard choice of trusting God to keep us afloat financially while we take the steps we have both needed to make room for our weary hearts.  Think how much Kimberly must trust me not to be selfish, not to take the easy way, not to use my struggle as an excuse to slack off, and to instead accept that I am doing all that I can within the sphere of my emotional strength, making the best choices I know how in harmony with my spirit.  We have built this mutual trust by sharing honestly, often, about our deepest heart issues.  We trust one another not to use our neediness to get an advantage over the other.

My win over this perverse accomplishment-based value system is not full or final.  I cannot suddenly begin to live as though I’m now free of its influence. as though this lifelong weight can no longer distort my self perception.  Don’t look for miracles here or you will be disappointed.  I am in recovery mode, and it will be a long, slow rehabilitation.  It will take whatever time it takes, and trying to hurry it would undermine the process.  But you can be sure that Kimberly and I will stay faithful to the path before us.

Posted January 22, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Spiritual Overdrafts   2 comments

fireworksI am an artist and poet at heart.  I’m not referring to my abilities, but to my perspective and energy.  I have powerful visceral responses to all things creative, whether by God or fellow humans, and my mind bursts into a flurry of thought shooting out in all directions like a fireworks display.  Within minutes, each separate thought has branches and sub-branches like a cauliflower head bursting into bloom in my mind.  It is exciting, invigorating,  delicious.

dusty roadBut when my spirit is tamped down by depression, I stumble along with just enough energy to lift one foot at a time between long halts to rest.  Everything around me is dusted with dullness like the shoulders of a dirt road.  I can see and appreciate beauty, but it does not sink into my heart to awaken life.  As a young man I was so full of energy and purpose and hope, but I spent it all on “virtuous” sacrifices that broke down my spirit rather than building it up.  I did not live out of the spontaneous delight of who I was but out of the driven obligation of who I should be.  I did not live from the joy of God’s love, but from the fear of his frown.  I lived out of the law and not out of the gospel.

Emotional energy is much like a sponge–once dried out, it loses its powers of absorption.  Without some emotional reserve to start, I cannot soak up the encouragements around me.  I see them, but cannot feel them at any deep level.  They do not renew me.  Because it takes time for the good to soften my soul, I need an oasis in which to rest, an environment rich with living waters, but in my experience those spots are rare and brief, and so the desert winds parch away the rain that falls.  I catch and hoard my little cupful, but it does not last long.  Had I lived from the start out of my true self and in the riches of God’s grace, the energy I used for good would have been a renewable resource.  But I feel as though my forest is chopped down, and I must start over, scratching out life from the dust.  I see hopeful saplings of emotional growth, but the full rewards seem still a long way off.

saplings

Posted December 7, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal

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Is It Really Worth It?   3 comments

I have hinted at the positive direction that Kimberly and I are headed, but some might wonder if it is really worth all the pain and struggle.  Believe me, we asked ourselves the same question many times, and for the first year or two of marriage I regularly wondered in the middle of a conflict if we had made a mistake in getting married.  But we couldn’t help ourselves.  Neither of us felt there was much benefit in a shallow relationship, and the only alternative we knew was to keep going deeper in honest understanding, acceptance, and respect for ourselves and one another.

As we worked through the foundational issues in our conflicting worldviews, some pretty amazing things happened within each of us and in our relationship.  

UM... UH... SO ABOUT MY ISSUES.

Nothing has ever affected me so powerfully as being accepted for who I really am right now in all my brokenness (not for what I do, who I project I am, or who I one day will be). It did not come easy for either of us, but I cannot remember a single major conflict in the last two years and Kimberly has difficulty even remembering the hard times.  Of course we were on the fast track, often talking 3, 4, even 5 hours a day trying to understand our fear, pain and depression, and each of us had already spent many years working through our own issues.

I could say that it was the best thing to happen to me since I heard the good news of Christ, but that would make it sound like a different thing than the gospel, and Berly is just my clearest experience of the gospel.  I discovered God’s grace through her in ways I had never known it before.  I want to encourage you with snapshots of my personal healing and growth as a result of our relationship (the changes in Berly are her own story to tell).

You Did WHAT?!

Let me start with my anger.  I had been taught in youth that anger was either good (“righteous indignation”) or bad (“the wrath of man”).  The difference lay in whether or not the one who exasperated me was truly wrong or guilty.  If he was, then my anger was justified, if he was not, then my anger was aberrant.  When I got mad, it was someone’s fault–me for illegitimate vexation or him for illegitimate behavior.  The most important thing was to discover who was at fault and have them repent.  The matter was thus fixed and the relational conflict resolved.  If I thought he was at fault, and he refused to admit it, then I would forgive him.  To avoid condemnation, I worked hard at justifying my temper and blaming the other person.  I was good and he was bad.  Being “right” became  very important… it was the only way I could save myself from the shame of sinful anger.

Kimberly was afraid of my anger, and given my perspective, when she shared her discomfort, I only heard this as judgment of my anger and reacted defensively.  But she did not have my take on anger: She was not blaming me, wanting me to agree with her, or asking me to change.  She just wanted to share her feelings with me (which I could only hear as a demand for change).  Because she respected me, wanted to understand and accept me, she kept affirming my feelings, even though they scared her, and I gradually came to trust that she really did accept me when I was cross, that she thought my anger was always “legitimate” because it was revealing to me my heart, not the guilt of the other person.  As she accepted my defensive feelings in this way, she wanted to understand me better, so when she asked about my aggravation, it was not to correct me,  “fix” my rage, or gain ammunition for shaming me out of it.  She had compassion for me and my experience of anger.

In this harbor of safety where I slowly grew less defensive about my temper, with less need to use it to protect myself, learning to have compassion for myself, I started to discover what lay beneath my frown.  From what was my temper guarding me?  To hear these deeper throbs of my heart, I had to embrace my feelings with compassion .  If I had to protect myself, it meant that I was afraid.  With Kimberly’s help, I learned to have compassion for the fear behind my anger instead of shaming myself for it.  Only with this gentleness could I feel safe enough to explore my anxieties.  Berly always justified my fears, affirming that they always had a very good reason, I just had to uncover it.  Discovering the roots of my fear (which often was a long process) led me to find the substructure, the actual beliefs on which I lived my life, and often they conflicted in some way with my stated theology.

Again, Kimberly’s grace and acceptance gave me the support I needed not to shame myself for these faulty beliefs, but to see myself as the victim of these legalistic lies and to be led by grace into believing grace for myself, to discover that God’s grace was the healing for my fears.  My fears were not the enemy.  They were doors into grace: “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved,” in the words of John Newton.  I had always thought this was a one time event brought about by the amazing grace of the gospel… as though I didn’t need the gospel of grace all through every day.  I think working through my fears is a life long process of growth in grace, applying the gospel to each wound as I need it, believing each day more fully that God loves me completely, always, and without any strings attached.

Posted October 30, 2011 by janathangrace in Personal

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The Pain of Genuine Relationship   Leave a comment

ME: YOU GOT A PROBLEM? I GOT A SOLUTION!

I could share many troubles that jumped Kimberly and me because of conflicting needs.  One of the most painful and intractable is based on her focus on acceptance and my focus on improvement.  Because of our families, personalities, and experiences, we have each fine tuned our coping strategies to survive threats to our emotional well-being: she is a people pleaser and I am a people fixer.

BERLY: I AM HERE FOR YOU

In relationships, she provides emotional support and I provide practical solutions.  I am pretty good at empathizing, but that is not my goal.  My goal is to help folks find a way forward.  Kimberly is encouraged to see folks move forward, but that is incidental since her goal is to “be there” for others.  I seek change, she seeks stability; I want action, she wants presence; I need hope, she needs patience.

Naturally, when our coping mechanisms do not “work,” do not protect us, we each feel deeply threatened at our core.  You can see where this is going.  I feel loved when someone understands my struggle and adjusts to my needs; I feel rejected if my friend does not change.  Kimberly feels loved when she is accepted as she is; she feels rejected when her friend asks her to change (i.e. is not okay with her as she is).  The message she regularly heard from me was “You are not enough” and the message I regularly heard from her was “I don’t care about your needs.”  Each of us, by trying to defend our needs in relationship to each other, simply hurt the other one more.

If I were to write my real thoughts about these particular differences while dating, I would say, “I want to change for the better, she does not; I seek improvement, she seeks stagnation;  I am an optimist, she is a pessimist.”  In my younger years I would have pointed out the many Bible verses that support my perspective and shamed the other person into compliance.  I am quick to blame, Kimberly is quick to accept, so she probably did not have these thoughts, but she would be justified in thinking, “I accept others, he rejects others; I am patient, he is impatient; I see people as individuals, he sees people as projects.”   Thankfully, Kimberly and I respect one another and highly value honesty, understanding and acceptance.  I see real benefits in her perspective and see how I fall short in those areas.  She sees real good in my strengths and is grateful for it.

However, this does not change decades of reinforced feelings.  When these dynamics popped up, it was very painful for both of us.  For a long time, her perspective made no sense to me and my perspective made no sense to her.  When our needs were not in conflict, we freely expressed our love and acceptance, and so over time we became more trusting of each other.  That gave us the emotional space to slowly learn each others’ languages.  Most of this happened before marriage, and though our feelings still smarted a great deal, we understood our issues and were committed to working through them.  In fact we realized that in an amazing way, even our conflicting emotions were a great benefit to us and our relationship… but more on that later.

Pain Opens the Door to Love

I Have to Clean WHAT?!   2 comments

HAPPY HAPPY, JOY JOY!!

I suppose an illustration at this point might help clarify our marital dance.  I have many to choose from!  Like most American women, Kimberly has a higher standard of cleanliness (or lower comfort level with dirt) than her husband.  So how do we determine what is “fair”?  Do we decide that her standard is “right,” and that I should do 50% of this?  Do we decide that my standard is right, and that if she wants it to be cleaner, the rest is up to her?  Or do we settle on something in between so that both of us are doing more than we feel is fair?  There are many other considerations–who has more time or energy, which tasks do each of us prefer or hate, how much emotional cost is involved, is resentment building up because either of us feels the other does not care enough about our feelings to do more?

We try to talk… or rather I try to negotiate and Kimberly tries to share (I’m a fixer, she’s a relater).  It seems to me completely useless to clean underneath or behind the sofa.  No one sees it, not even us!  But she feels it!  It bothers her.  Now here comes the rub.  When she tells me about her emotional needs, she is simply sharing.  She just wants me to understand, listen, empathize.  She’s not indirectly asking me to change, but that is what I hear: her expectations, what she thinks I should do.  That’s what “sharing needs” always meant in my family of origin if the person we were telling could actually do what we wanted.  So I argue against her unreasonable demands (as I see it), but she is not coming from a place of expectations, so my resistance to her sounds like I am rejecting her feelings, telling her that she should not be bothered by the dog hair under the loveseat.

She completely separates sharing about her needs from my obligations regarding her needs, but I instinctively unite them, so the only way I have of protecting myself from demands that seem unreasonable is to talk down her feelings (which are loaded with expectations as I suppose).  If I could separate empathy from obligation as she does, I could listen compassionately without feeling threatened that my needs are being shoved aside.  But my feelings are so deeply ingrained around this relational dynamic, that even after I intellectually grasp where she is coming from, even after believing she really is not imposing expectations (both of which took years for me), I still struggle with my deeply ingrained emotional reactions.

However, the more we talk, the more our mutual understanding and acceptance grows.  Since I am released from a sense of obligation, I have much more emotional space to empathize, and my love for her responds easily and gladly in this context of freedom, vulnerability, and trust.  Now I can choose to clean under the sofa and actually feel good about it, because I am motivated by love rather than obligation.  Still, we give each other the right to take care of our own needs, so if I feel burdened by the thought of vacuuming, I let it go, and Kimberly, because she genuinely has no expectations, is glad for me to do so.  This does not mean I love her less, I simply have a need just now that it would hurt me to neglect.  We have learned that if we do not honor our own needs, we not only suffer personally, but ultimately hurt our relationship as well.

Cleaning under the sofa might be a trite issue for many, and if the feelings it raises are slight, then resolution is easy.  It doesn’t really matter who cleans, and the issue of “fairness” is rather meaningless since nobody is asking the question.   The real conflict for us was not over a five minute cleaning job.  That was simply a porthole into the deep waters, the very fundamental question of every human heart, “Do you care?  Am I loved?  Do my needs matter to you?”   Emotions are surprisingly consistent and accurate in telling us what really does matter to us, though the “why” is often hard to interpret and is often best teased out in a supportive, accepting relationship.  I am so incredibly blessed to have such a relationship.

SORRY! IT'S ALL MY FAULT!

Fixing Emotions   4 comments

Like most men, I want a fix.  When I am agitated or discouraged, I want help to escape, and I expect this to come not from empathy but from fixing the problem that is causing those feelings.  If I am afraid of losing money, help me protect my money, and my fear disappears.  If someone is irritating me, get them to stop, and my irritation will fall away.  I didn’t wait to ask myself with compassion, “Why am I afraid, what is going on in my heart?”  That was obvious… the situation was causing my bad feelings.

When my wife shared her feelings with me, I offered solutions instead of empathy, just like I wanted for myself.  But in trying to offer solutions, I was making her feel worse.  When I said, “There is no reason to be afraid because_______” I was trying to relieve her fear, but she heard me say that her feelings were illegitimate. It took me forever to change my approach, and I still struggle with it.  It seems to me that if I empathize with her feelings, I am giving her more reasons to feel sad or fearful or bad, and I want to rescue her from those feelings.  But as I tried to understand her perspective more, I gradually realized that I too needed empathy for my feelings rather than solutions to “fix” them.  I needed it as much as she did, because empathy invites me to be compassionate to myself, and with this active self-support, I discover the wound that underlies my feelings.  But I didn’t want discovery, I wanted relief.

DIDN'T I SAY I COULD FIX IT?

I am a very good fixer, and when I fix situations so that my unhappy feelings are lifted, I feel better, but I learn nothing about myself through those negative emotions.  As a result they came back just as strongly when the situation returns.  Instead of emotional renovation, I was constantly working on repairs… the same fixes over and over.

Here was the sticking point for me in receiving Kimberly’s compassion.  I could not imagine genuine care that did not result in her help or accommodation.  If she truly empathized with my situation, she would surely act–help with the dishes, refill the gas tank, spend more time with me.  If she didn’t give tangible assistance as able, she was simply uncaring no matter what her words said.  If she did not help meet my needs, it proved she didn’t really care.  And her lack of care stoked my fear that I was not worthy of care.  My only option was to pressure her into acting to resolve my feelings and renew my sense of worth, and I usually did this by shaming her for not doing more.  Kimberly reacted to this, as you might expect.

Over a great deal of time sharing and thinking I slowly realized that what I really wanted and needed was her love and genuine concern, and I was closing her down to that by blaming her and demanding that she change.  When folks pushed in front of me or cut me off in traffic or ignored me, I thought I needed them to change, but my real underlying need was simply to have someone care about my feelings.  That made all the difference.  If my wife bangs the cupboards because she slips or thinks I’m downstairs or finds the door sticking, I feel no agitation.  Knowing the whole context makes me realize that her behavior does not result from a lack of consideration for me.  I may be irritated at the situation, but not at the person.

But what if the person knowingly kept doing those things that troubled me?  I simply refused to believe they cared if they didn’t change.  My need + your love = your accommodation (and vice versa).  How could you possibly say you care if you make no effort to “improve”?  I felt bad and it was their fault, they were responsible for my feelings.  But if others control my feelings, I’m in trouble because I am then their emotional slave (or we are mutual slaves, which is the essence of co-dependence).  Kimberly finally broke through this block in my thinking, but the process was very painful for both of us.

Posted August 11, 2011 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Thought: How We Treat Our Emotions   4 comments

We all know we have some influence over our emotions, and there are various reasons we may find it beneficial in particular situations to manipulate our emotions: if emotions are impairing our functioning on some crucial matter, if we cannot control our expression of emotion and that expression is damaging others, if we don’t have enough space (time, safety, etc.) to process our feelings just now.  In such cases we are not ignoring our feelings or pushing them away, but we are asking them to wait for a bit until we can address them.

If as a rule we listen and support our feelings and what they are telling us, then the exceptions I suggested above won’t undermine our spirits.  If as a rule we try to control our emotions instead of listening to them empathically, it is as healthy as trying to control your spouse—the more “successful” you are at this effort, the more damage is done.  It took me a very long time to begin to deal with my emotions based on the principles of grace instead of the principles of law.

I can manipulate my emotions by suppressing them or by aggravating them and neither approach is healthy.  It is one thing to listen graciously and patiently to my anger until it has told me all it needs to say; it is quite another to pump up my anger.  When I use various means to exacerbate my feelings, I am being just as untrue to my genuine emotions as when I refuse to hear them.

I find that the best question to ask myself regarding my feelings and my response to them is “why?”  Why do I feel so angry?  Why do I feel the need to stimulate them further?  I used to ask myself these questions in condemnation, just as my irate mother used to ask us: “What is WRONG with you?!”  This was not asked in a comforting way to find and relieve our suffering.  The natural follow up to such a question was, “Just stop it!”  And that really was my attitude towards my own feelings.

OUT!

When I was in India, I kept throwing my unwanted emotions out the back door, only to realize too late that it was not the back door, but the closet door, and the shelves collapsed under the weight of my ignored emotions, driving me into deep depression.  Trust me, when you ignore or shame your emotions, it does not fix them or get rid of them, it just forces them to keep working behind the scenes where they sicken and weaken your spirit.

Response Part 2: Supporting Without Enabling   Leave a comment

Elisabeth’s comment raises at least four additional issues in my mind.  The most apparent one, I think, is the distinction between enabling (as AA uses the term) and supporting. When people take too little responsibility for themselves, offering blanket assistance may not be the most helpful thing to do for them.  We need to take this into consideration so that we do not inadvertently hurt or weaken others by our aid (such as parents do when they over-protect their children).

When folks are in need, love calls us to discern how best to serve them.  It seems to me, the better we know someone, the better we can identify his or her true needs (so perhaps the best way to serve them is to get to know them).  The difficulty lies in determining whether the crutch I offer will aid or hinder healing, and I have many potential problems in sorting out this quandary.

I tend to expect of others what I expect of myself, but this is a dangerous measure.  Each of us has unique struggles and strengths, clarity and confusion, emotional surplus and shortage, speed of growth in different areas.  If I don’t even know my own heart well, how can I presume to know another’s?   I tend to expect too much of folks (and others’ tend to expect too little of them).  Without realizing it, I tend to help or deny help to others for the wrong reasons (because it feels good to be needed, because I am proud of my abilities, because I feel obligated, because I resent the inconvenience, because I am suspicious of their motives).  I rarely if ever respond out of pure love.

How can I tell when folks are being negligent, failing to do what they can easily do, or whether they are in genuine need of a hand up?  Without even deciding that question, I know of a number of vital ways we can support others.  We can accept them for who they are, we can feel and express empathy for their sense of need, we can listen and ask questions, we can offer encouragement and insight from our own similar experiences, we can be honest about our hopes and concerns regarding them and the strengths and weaknesses we bring to the table.  I have discovered in relationship to my wife that what I need more than anything else is someone to understand and accept me as I am.  It is far more important than the help they do or do not give me.

The Comfort of Caring Hands

Posted July 25, 2011 by janathangrace in thoughts

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What Do You Think?   6 comments

In a message to a friend I wrote the following some time back.  I would love to get everyone’s thoughts, to get a dialogue going.  Are you game?

When I said that different folks are helped in different ways (and by different kinds of people), I meant that even the downcast are each sad in his or her own way, with unique history, issues, perspectives, coping strategies, resources and the like.  When I was struggling in Calcutta with deep depression, a well-wisher sent me a copy of “Spiritual Depression” by a noted evangelical writer.  The author’s premise was that depression always arises from a lack of faith.  I have discovered in my own life that depression and sadness may be a demonstration of a much deeper faith.  Many people are too afraid (i.e. lack the faith) to allow themselves any unpleasant feelings.  They constantly keep such feelings at bay by various means of escape (entertainment, overwork, even reading the Bible).  It often takes a great deal of courage (i.e. faith) to acknowledge one’s unpleasant feelings, and if we push those feelings away, we will never discover what they are trying to tell us about ourselves.

So many folks are also afraid that not challenging their friend’s moodiness will encourage him either to mope and cling to his depression (a “pity party”) or to use his depression to manipulate others.  These two unhealthy responses do occur.  On the one hand, no one is completely honest, even with themselves, about their feelings.  So some folks use depression to avoid their true feelings because of fear of acknowledging their anger or sadness or pain (just as other folks use cheerfulness to avoid their genuine emotions).  On the other hand, they may use their depression to try to control others.  The solution for both types of folks is not to push them out of feeling sad, however, but to help them discover their true feelings beneath their depression while maintaining good boundaries relationally and emotionally (i.e. not yielding to manipulation).

Some folks want you to cheer them up from their sadness, either because they are not ready to face their deep unpleasant feelings or because their sadness is superficial and probably only circumstantial.  (After all, no one likes to feel depressed—everyone would rather always be genuinely cheerful if it came with no negative side effects.)  They may in fact need “cheering up,” though in my perspective even these folks are usually more benefited by an expression of sympathy for their sadness, at least initially and tentatively: an offer to be with them in their pain, if they wish, instead of helping them to avoid it.

Posted July 10, 2011 by janathangrace in thoughts

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