Web Camel Transport 51

The Orange Question

July 23, 2017 (Image Breaking Out by Sally Tharp)

If you and your spouse or partner had to live in a rustic cabin for a week, with little variety to eat, just predominantly oranges, and you had an hour to pick all of them out from a large orange warehouse, what qualities in the oranges would you select, in order that you optimize your satisfaction that week?

 I developed The Orange Question as a strategy for inviting couples, coming in for therapy, to imagine, envision, and feel empowered to select, from all existing possibilities, those qualities which would most satisfy their desire for a good week together.

In a literal sense, oranges satisfy nutritional needs for survival.  But, in a metaphorical rendering of the perfect selection of oranges, we want additional qualities, such as deliciousness, fragrance, juiciness, that move the common orange well beyond its status as mere staple.

Surviving together as a couple, for five, ten, or twenty years, already represents a meritorious level of success in many things, like task-sharing, negotiation, cooperation, financial stability, co-parenting if there are children, communicating about logistics, and so forth.  But, unless one is a Zen master, most of the mundane business of everyday life generates little that feels romantic, imaginative, exciting or inspirational.  We humans, ever restless in our metronomic swings between the desire for familiarity, and also for novelty, for security but also delightful surprise, can get stuck in ruts of boredom or anhedonia when we just subsist, lazily plotting how to kill time between requisite efforts.

Couples, other than those living in extremes of substance dependence, psychological chaos, abuse or criminality, come apart when their multiple modes of connection have atrophied and only a narrative of cohabitation and complaint remains. When couples seek therapy, we often make efforts to untangle the morass of complaints, in order to achieve a better understanding of how each party interprets the behavior of the other.  And misinterpretations account for a vast number of exchanges that escalate into angry outbursts and emotional skewering.  While processes for coming to understand each other better, and developing one’s emotional IQ about the other person are very useful, therapy sessions may devolve into a swamp of despair if they do not also introduce the imaginative rendering of future chapters that, if not bursting with flavor, yield at least some mellow opportunities for satisfaction.

The Orange Question, and other questions like it, invigorate the muse that most of us house, garbed in hope, playfulness, curiosity and inventiveness.  Hypothetical questions, just like a Rorschach test, throwing the I Ching, or responding to a poem or a piece of music, extend to the responder a reflective template upon which to project the self as a character in a different story—sometimes the exceptional tale that’s poised on the bottom lip ready for launch.

Rina wanted juicy oranges, some ripe and some ripening, and oh so sweet.  And Joe said they must be easy to peel.  No pits; neither dried out nor mushy.  Rina added succulence and freshness; that they must find the best ones.

Another couple, Rose and Shep, offered their collective responses:  Make sure to get enough for survival, some ripe, some ripening, no bruising or flattening, flexibility to cut or peel, nothing in a bag, everything exposed, round, undamaged, big, bright color, tastes good, appealing to look at, juicy, colorful.

Having congratulated each couple for coming up with so many desirable characteristics, I then asked them to listen to my reading of the qualities they mentioned, and as they heard each one, to then ask themselves whether that quality, now abstracted from ‘oranges,’ had any relevance to the marriage they wanted to experience.  Were, for example, juiciness, sweetness and ripeness relevant?  Did a sense of freshness appeal?  Were there aspects of their relationship in which being “easy to peel” or “without pits,” served to boost satisfaction?  How relevant was ripening in the relationship as an engine driving better partnership?

This morning I read this quote:  “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” written by the poet, Muriel Rukeyser.  Of course, ‘atoms’ are also story-words, our lenses for what we can know of these unnamed phenomena. Do we not marry the universe with verse because we know how to love in language?

Steve Gaddis, a masterful Narrative therapist speaks of very careful, effortful “scaffolding” or “laddering” questions by the therapist that lead the client deeply into her own experience, both emotionally and thoughtfully.  Instead of enactment therapies, like Psychodrama or Internal Family Systems or Gestalt therapy—which can be cathartic—narrative therapy asks detailed questions including those of a sensory nature—Where was he sitting?  How old was he?  What were you feeling?  What were you hearing? Was he looking you in the eye? Are there other remembered stories like this?

When we examine and tell the tales of our past or present experiences in a holistic and detailed way, or hear those of others in all the specifics, then, as under a microscope, a world of possibilities emerges that, perhaps, we had not seen or utilized previously.  These in-the-moment experiences of re-seeing, rethinking, and re-considering, wake us up from soporific assumptions and desiccated stories that have lost all vitality.  The asking of “laddered” questions, much like utilizing the Socratic method, function like an electron microscope, or at least a magnifying glass to reveal what has previously been glossed over with the cataract of complacency or defensiveness.

In spite of my therapeutic orientation as a more relational than solution-focused (alone) therapist, there’s a similarity between the Orange Question and Steve De Shazar’s famous Miracle Question, developed for Solution Focused Therapy. It was called, in 1988, a “thought experiment.”  It goes something like this:  If, by some miracle, you go to sleep tonight and wake up with your problem(s) already solved, how does your life now look without that problem?  How do you now act and feel? What is now amazingly different?

Byron Katie produced her famous four questions to unlock the stories that bind us in self-torture, stuckness, and helplessness.  First, write down the evil thought, the harsh judgment, the worst-case scenario and then ask these questions about it:  1) Is it true?  (that your spouse hates you, or that your boss always has unfair expectations, that your sister is nothing but selfish, that none of your kids appreciate you., etc.) You need to sit with that question and let the experience of it circulate through your whole body.  2)  Can you absolutely know it’s true?  Is this something that you have the authority to know, as in the contents of someone else’s mind. This second question plumbs downward past our vast lachrymatory, through our layered onion skins of interpretation to arrive at the translucent membrane through which the relevant reality shines as a nascent, as-yet-untold tale. 3) We are asked to experience the turbulence, the shuddering, the precipitous feelings and quickened sensations that arise as we sink into the quicksand of our demeaning, damning stories.  When we believe these are our only stories, they hold us hostage in an airless chamber.  This is the embodiment question.  4) We imagine ourselves in the same place with the person or situation that troubled us, now unshrouded by our stressful story about it.  “Who would we be without that thought?”  How would this freedom feel?  Do our lives feel better with or without our damaging story?

Finally, Byron Katie asks us to perform a “turnaround,” when we examine and experience within our minds and bodies the “opposite” of what we believed.  And we find three or more examples of the truth of the “turnaround.”

Katie’s “turnaround” is kin to Narrative Therapy’s “exceptions,” as well as to De Shazar’s morning-after-the-problem-is-solved.  And, also, to Gestalt’s awakening of the dance between foreground and background in which positive and negative configurations can tickle our senses—blend and blur or alternate the capture of our attention.

The Socratic Method teaches by questioning. Although we absorb so much knowledge in school and from our parents via the lecture method, from infancy on, we learn most robustly by co-generated actions on, and in our world. At first, we learn our world as the barely differentiated landscapes of our body and our mother’s body. Later we question the acorns, stones, grapes, Tupperware, brushes, and sister’s long hair by picking up and dropping, pulling, mouthing, carrying these objects, and later still we question intention, motive, cause and effect.  We develop associative thinking, make connections, and construct the nature of the world in which we live.  We open it.  We close it.  Sometimes we close it too prematurely and our ideas go into isolation and lockdown.  All thinking is relational—name to object; co-development of ideas between persons; isomorphically related concepts from one field to another via cross fertilization of knowledges in our own minds; even gossip.  The end of our questioning marks the end of the road where, as pickings for its teeth, death consumes what’s left of us.

“This scrupulous and exhaustive form of inquiry in many ways resembles the scientific method. But unlike Socratic inquiry, scientific inquiry would often lead us to believe that whatever is not measurable cannot be investigated. This ‘belief’ fails to address such paramount human concerns as sorrow and joy and suffering and love.” (Paul, R. and Elder, L. (April 1997). Foundation For Critical Thinking, Online at website: www.criticalthinking.org  and excerpted from Socrates Cafe by Christopher Phillips) A fine laddering of questions in which a belief, and its believer must run an obstacle course of unusual circumstances, situations embedded in complex contexts or hypothetical counter-explanations, offers that exquisitely painstaking and painful knife edge of differentiation that renders the outcome of such questions both hard won and prized.  Upon this kind of parsing we pivot, perhaps in relief for letting go of self-damning explanations for our failures and unhappiness, but also in pain for shedding the protective wall of our decay and indifference.  Detailed questioning of our limiting beliefs creates psychic distance from them.  The experience creates breathing room between a sense of self and one’s problems.  A stuck problem, once opened to viewing from multiple vantage points, opens itself for solvability or even solubility as it dissolves completely within the context of a newly imagined story.  To a large extent we author our own lives, develop our own troubles, and yet, enjoy the capacity to imagine our way to juicier, sweeter oranges.

Guest Saddle:  Upon what resistant problem would the light of questioning shine most brightly in your life?  What dried up ‘orange’ in your life could use an infusion of juiciness and sweetness?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Web Camel Transport 46

The Happiness of Association

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Swami Vivekenanda, an Indian Hindu monk who died in 1902, was quoted as saying:

“The rain drop from the sky:

If it is caught in hands, it is pure enough for drinking.

If it falls in a gutter, its value drops so much that it can’t be used even for washing the feet.

If it falls on hot surface, it perishes.

If it falls on lotus leaf, it shines like a pearl and finally, if it falls on oyster, it becomes a pearl. The drop is same, but its existence & worth depend on with whom it associates.

Always be associated with people who are good at heart.”

Our associations bring us up close and personal to other beings—people and animals as well as manufactured and natural environments where qualities of architecture, air, water, noise, light, spatial dimension, and so on, converge.  We will never be alive in a vacuum, so we cannot be completely impervious to our surroundings, although great variability exists in how much we absorb or how sensitively we experience the interpersonal and environmental elements around us.

As in the above quote, different associations co-construct the use or meaning of a rain drop.  The rain drop has no absolute, inherent meaning or function.  As the rain drop associates with its interactive environmental partners, meaning and function unfold as an expression of the association.  How we behave, think and feel as people, often takes on characteristics in response to those with whom we associate.

My litmus paper test for a great relationship results in liking the “me that I am with you.”  In other terms, we tend to like people who we feel bring out the best in us, whether in the workplace, in our neighborhoods, in our couples or with our friends.  We tend not to enjoy hanging out with others when we feel less than our best—when our argumentative or cranky or judgmental facets come to the foreground.  If I enjoy feeling smart or funny or feisty or understanding or helpful or curious about others, or admiring of others, then I enjoy interacting with those people who co-create those personal experiences for me.

Intuitively, parents feel clear about this and often, to the disgruntlement of their adolescents, forbid their children to hang out with peers whom they see as troublemakers or “bad influences.” What a teenage boy might elect to do, as an associate of his parents, might differ dramatically when he immerses himself in a group that enjoys playing pranks, sometimes just this side, or the other side of legal.

Although there are differing theories of “crowd” or “herd” mentality, some common elements include the submergence of individual identity into the shared identity of the group.  The contagiousness of the energy in the group, like being born out to sea by a series of powerful waves, moves us along and may, temporarily influence us to behave in ways we might not, were we to have reflected on our own.  Over the years I have seen many young people who would never have thought of bashing their neighbors’ mailboxes had they not been with a group of their friends in a speeding van, awash in beer and laughter.  It is very difficult to distinguish oneself from a powerful encompassing influence.  Our desires to be insiders rather than outsiders, to belong, and to feel accepted, also contribute to going with the crowd.

Gangs also represent powerful groups with whom a person might associate, generating a sense of identity as part of an entity greater than oneself, and therefore more powerful, and perhaps more successful materially or in terms of a status to which one can aspire.  Like a fraternity one does not have to live in isolation.  One can feel known, can belong, feel accepted, and there’s a context for aspiration to unfold.  As many have written, the downsides to gang membership—violence and early death, drug dependence, a lack of real traction in the greater society, etc.—make it a mostly dysfunctional alternative to more positive associations.  Having said that, family dissolution, poverty, lacks in education and opportunity as well as few positive role models and mentors can make any positive associations out of reach if not non-existent for some youth.

In two powerful novels, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and King Rat, by William Clavell, individuals in a context dissimilar to the one in which they were raised, take on status, motivation and behavior that would not have shown up otherwise.  In the first instance, British boys on a deserted island form their own society to maintain some order and to work together.  Increasingly, chaos takes over with violence, superstition, and murder.  In King Rat, an American corporal and prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp in Singapore during World War II, takes on a powerful status within the camp that he never had nor would have had in his civilian world.

The positive power of associations, on the other hand, gets expressed in cohesive sports teams and work groups who accomplish things well beyond what would have resulted from isolated individuals working independently.  Often a pep talk precedes a game or an inspirational speaker jazzes a sales force to aspire to new heights.  This energy offers a positive contagion and spreads throughout the group.

Historically, agricultural work groups often sang songs together to unify their repetitive processes, as well as to lighten the load of such exhausting work.  Collective singing alleviates isolation and monotony.  The cohesive group focuses on the pleasure and meaning of the songs. Rhythmic chants or songs on vessels also kept rowing crews together.  Their synchronization propelled the boat along.  Today coxswains provide a similar unifying, pacing count.

Associations—singing groups, exercise classes, writing groups, brainstorming cohorts, etc.—also put wind in our sails.  We get a boost from our compatriots and harness their energies to our own.  The synergy helps us when our personal energy would otherwise drop.  We go one more step, produce another page, or try once again to get the harmony just right.

Environments too have associative components.  In a theatre or chapel we keep quiet.  At a nightclub we dance up a storm and yell to our friends over loud music.  In a classroom we respectfully wait our turn to speak.  Where we go and where we live often begin to fit us like old clothes.  Whether a tent in the trees or a mansion, when we live or work someplace long enough, we might develop a real fondness for the place that houses us, or houses our efforts.

April is National poetry month, and I was so struck by this gem of a poem by C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933).  I will quote the whole introduction to the poem from poem-a-day, sent via the internet from Knopf:

“Daniel Mendelsohn writes in his introduction to Complete Poems, by C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), that he lived in a seemingly dull and ordinary fashion: “The cluttered, déclassé surroundings, the absence of aesthetic distinction, the startlingly conventional, to say nothing of middlebrow, taste: Cavafy’s apartment, like his job, gave little outward sign of the presence of a great artistic mind—the place from which the poetry really came.”

In the Same Space

House, coffeehouses, neighborhood: setting
that I see and where I walk; year after year.

I crafted you amid joy and amid sorrows:
out of so much that happened, out of so many things.

And you’ve been wholly remade into feeling; for me.

Cavafy’s feeling-infused surroundings reminded me of the year I lived in a small yellow, and yellowing room, in the eaves of the farmhouse on Mica Farm.  Sun had bleached most of the wall paper but for brownish stains where leaks from an old roof had toyed with it.  Some old wicker furniture—a chair, a stool—had cracked, flaking off some of the white paint.  The bed sagged and creaked, the mattress literally desiccating into dust.  From the windows under the eaves a vast expanse of meadow to a woods in back, and across the horse pasture in front, apples trees and then the road.  We had only planned on staying for two months, at the most, while waiting for the all-important certificate of occupancy so that we could move into the new home we were building. I cried when we left.  The shabby room with its wide planked pine floors had somehow entered my heart, and its quiet perch over the spread of land under it, nested me gently and I had come to sleep well there.  I realized that almost any place can come to feel like home, even a single room.

An association is an energetic whole that contextualizes its component parts, the size and the power of which varies a great deal.  Associations can have materiality—families, workplaces, neighborhoods, places of worship, recreational groups, teams, and so forth.  But we can also associate virtually and psychologically, with particular systems of religious or political doctrines or social, cultural and tribal beliefs.  The complicated part is that each component is both modified by and modifies the other constituents in a way that can only be understood as creating a unique phenomenon or system with its own functioning, traits and energetic output.  This cannot be dissembled as a summation.  The adage, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” captures this idea.

Marsha Linehan, the master mind behind Dialectical Behavior Therapy, developed a unified set of concepts to help people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.  Highly sensitive persons who respond and react intensely to emotions might experience “dysregulation”—a difficulty calming and soothing amplified affective states.  DBT promotes integrative notions like “rational mind” and “emotional mind” coming together in an overlap called “wise mind.”  Informed by both feeling and thought, it is possible to accept what happens in life, as well as the consequent feelings that arise from those situations, but to lightly free oneself up from being ruled by those feelings.  The philosophical term “dialectical” generally describes the possibility of a new result, concept, or understanding, arising from opposing, or seemingly opposing points of view.  Sometimes known as ‘thesis’ and ‘antithesis,’ these polarities in thought, cause creative friction when opposed, often generating unique possibilities and outcomes.  In the Hegelian notion of dialectic things are seen as contradictions.  Other terms that describe a dialectic are proposition and counter-proposition.

In DBT, one dialectical notion concerns the idea of “radical acceptance” of oneself as one is, of one’s emotions, and the slings and arrows of life, while, at the same time, “changing” one’s behavior and approach toward these.  On the surface, if one accepts oneself, how would the need to change arise from that?  The dialectical tension between these two creates opportunities to hold oneself in high regard while continuing to embrace greater empowerment (over the emotional and behavioral outputs generated in the context of disappointing, hurtful, or otherwise upsetting events or interactions).

Even our words live within matrices of association, and often breathtaking poetic images and metaphors wake up our consciousness to new experiences by taking words from different matrices and juxtaposing them. I was remembering the book, The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler which talked about matrices of association.  Take a word like “shade,” in a poem called ‘From Blossoms’ by Li-Young Lee.  ‘Shade’ lives in a matrix of associations like light and dark, perhaps trees and foliage, clouds, etc.  But in the poem Lee offers us a delicious rendition of eating peaches (“peaches” from a matrix of associations having to do with fruit, etc. and ‘eating’ has its own set of associations):  “O, to take what we love inside, to carry within us an orchard, to eat not only the skin, but the shade. . .”

To eat the shade of the day.  How extraordinary, novel, uplifting, expansive.   To carry an orchard within us.  We can feel our imaginations soar as we take in the sense, the meaning, the connections we haven’t made previously in our lives.

James Joyce wrote sometimes in a “stream of consciousness,” where thoughts tumble out as idiosyncratic associated contents.  “Thought is the thought of a thought.” (Chapter 2, Ulysses).  Journal writing, and even the mental chatter that goes on in our heads most of the time have repeat concerns and themes but also ramble on in paths, however circuitous, that describe our associative capacities.

As we go through life, we have ever greater numbers of experiences that reinforce or modify our thoughts, opinions, impressions and feelings about many things.  You could say that our previous thoughts and experiences get enriched or altered by succeeding contexts of experience which, like concentric circles, redefine the contents at their centers.

Just like our literal associations with other people can grow, forming more vast and complex networks (we all know about the value of networking professionally/occupationally) so can our intellectual and emotional associations grow and mature.  Creative solutions to life problems as well as to challenges in engineering, science, and the arts, often come from cross-fertilization.  Cross-fertilization is identical to the notion of previously dissociated matrices of words or thoughts, now coming together to create something entirely new.

Our associations can happily inspire us, buoy our energy, drive and determination; can contribute to a whole greater than we can build on our own, and also prompt us to rethink and re-examine our thoughts and feelings.  On the downside we can get carried along on a negative stream of thought, belief, and action.  When that occurs, changing our associations can help us advance new perspectives and develop ourselves in more positive ways.

Camel Saddle:  Who do you count among your closest associates and why?  In whose company do you feel like your best self?  What beliefs do you hold dear?  What beliefs might you question in light of new experiences and newly associated people, ideas and feelings?  In what groups or communities do you experience the most synergy?

Web Camel 45

It RRRReally Works: The Layer Cake of Communication

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Even if we became the most articulate, classiest speakers ever, it would not totally solve the problem of “poor” or unproductive communication between any two people—a couple, a boss and employee, two friends, a parent and child.

Communication is behavior, but more like a layer cake of behavioral outputs that rivals the complexity of an orchestral composition.  We have the powers to conceal or reveal, to exaggerate or trivialize, to assign meaning selectively, and to spin.  We can also manipulate, persuade, leverage, blackmail, threaten, or even brainwash.  We are always “selling” our story, even when we are selling the real, organic, true story.  Even when we aim for honesty, transparency and disclosure as operating principles for our own lives, we cannot help but interpret what happens in our worlds through our own subjective lenses.  People who have an extraordinary ability to empathize can entertain multiple stories as interpretive options, even when different from their own.

We utilize these verbal strategies or storytelling modes to advance the outcomes we hope to attain as well as to avoid unwanted outcomes.  For example, John doesn’t tell his wife, Sally, that he has another out-of-town conference because he wants to avoid her anger—at the demands of his job, at the lack of John’s assertiveness with his boss, and because of the stress of dealing with their three small children alone after a full day of work for her.  John is a good man, a hard worker, and loves his wife and children.  He already feels upset about his sheepishness in standing up for himself with his boss, and so, in subtle and not so subtle ways, he attempts, perhaps unconsciously, to manipulate his wife’s emotional output because when Sally gets angry and frustrated, that really upsets John.  Sally too is good at minimizing the breast tumor with which she was diagnosed so that her mother of 80 wouldn’t worry too much.  It is operable, treatable, with a high probability of an actual cure, but she has no guarantee.

When we speak with other people we express ourselves from our own point of view because we are the protagonists on our life’s stage.  Whether in conflict with anothers interest or assisting them in their aims, we have the tough job, when communicating well, of trying to understand and articulate our own wants, needs and opinions while, hand in hand, we also understand the wants, needs and opinions of the other party.

In addition, as in the example of John and Sally, our personal narratives and our history of emotional experiences greatly influence what we choose to communicate as well as how we communicate.  In large part, effective communication involves the co-creation of mutually beneficial outcomes and positive emotional experiences or experiences which uplift, educate or enlighten, even when painful.  Unproductive communication may include using others as targets for our unleashed anger, frustration, resentment or other stress; hurting another person’s feelings to get revenge for perceived affronts, or to temporarily make ourselves feel victimized, elevated or to simply let off steam. So an important layer of communication emphasizes its function as a complex expression of information, values, feelings, opinions, aims, and both cultural and personal narratives—the core stories of our lives.

On the surface, communication contains musical and choreographic elements in addition to words, like volume, inflection, speed, accompanying bodily gestures and facial expressions as well as amount of eye contact, and spatial proximity between conversants. The environment also plays a role in which dyadic communication takes place—a doctor’s treatment room, an office, a living room, a mountain top, a crowded public place, etc. The defined roles of each participant in a discussion (doctor-patient, lovers, friends, parent and child, boss and employee) establish the relevant conversation etiquette, as well as the fund of allowable topics.  Since etiquette and socially appropriate topics may vary across cultures, inter-cultural communication may require some additional education and sensitivity to avoid conferring offenses where none were intended.

A lot of available material on communication offers strategies for effective communication, as well as cautioning us on deleterious exchanges.  John Gottman, a psychologist who has studied couple’s communication for decades can reliably predict a couple’s demise based on some core premises:  that couples must have a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative exchanges as well as the ability to communication without the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.”   He defines these as criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

“Criticizing” attacks or puts down the person with whom we are speaking.  In my office, I often see criticizing as the result of power struggles in which people get locked into a paradigm where someone needs to win at the other’s expense, or when someone must be right and the other wrong.  This black-and-white mentality can blind us to an alternative paradigm in which multiple perspectives can offer enriched understandings or interpretations of a situation.

“Contempt” or derision constitutes a form of attack on anothers self or character by name-calling or other insulting language as well as gestures and facial expressions like eye-rolling or derisive laughter.  Belittling, humiliating, shaming, and character assassinating come under this heading.

“Defensiveness” in my opinion, stands as the most prominent barrier to productive communication.  I believe we humans come into the world hardwired to protect ourselves from perceived physical and emotional attacks. It requires hard work to master the art of non-defensiveness;  to remain open minded and curious about what someone else thinks (particularly about us) without gearing up for battle. Defensiveness can appear as cross-complaining (turning the tables, as in, “but you always leave the lights on upstairs.”) or making excuses or attacking back or disagreeing without trying to see the other person’s point of view.

Gottman’s last “horseman” is “stonewalling,” the cold shoulder, walking out and slamming the door, the silent treatment, disconnecting emotionally.

Because communication is a form of behavior with verbal and non-verbal constructs, the “four horsemen” exemplify the kind of behavior we call “acting out.”

On the surface level of discourse, the acronym, RRRR, may help to prompt generally productive, effective communication:  Receive, Repeat, Reflect, Respond.

Receiving communications from others with full attention, openness and curiosity is a prerequisite for good communication.  Without listening well—focused on the speaker rather than on what one wants to say—one simply can’t respond well.  Defensiveness can prevent us from being good listeners:  We are so primed to feel attacked that we are already preparing our firing squad before fully comprehending what is being said to us.  But we can practice listening better by adjusting our bodies—releasing tight shoulders, breathing more deeply, slowing down our processing speed, giving ourselves permission to take the time we need to respond so that we can use our post-listening time for building our responses.

Repeat back, in some fashion, what has been said to you.  When we reiterate what we understood, you satisfy your conversational partner’s desire to feel heard and understood.  I believe that the desire to feel understood is one of our fundamental interpersonal desires.  Whether or not someone agrees with us, when we have an experience of feeling understood or sympathized with, then the wheel is greased for us to reciprocate.  Sometimes “repeating back” is referred to as part of an “active listening” process.  In this process repeating back may require additional questions of the initial speaker, not to advance one’s own agenda, but to simply clarify or unpack the initial speaker’s point.

Reflect:  Absorbing what someone says, openly and with full attention, and validating your understanding of their communication, is best followed with a moment of reflection.  During this time, we process and digest our understanding and compose what we think, feel, and ultimately want to say in response.  Responses are different than reactions, because reactions often emerge half-cocked, ill composed, and lacking in attunement. Gottman’s four horsemen are sub-species of reactive communication.  When we reflect, we allow our brains/minds to link our feelings and thoughts and values productively.  When we speak, from a rootedness in our integrity, the result is often the best possible, particularly in a trying conflict or other situation.

Respond to the other speaker, even if you disagree, with the best you can offer.  If you have taken the time to reflect, your best may include your values of kindness and consideration, of allowing the other person’s concerns to influence you, of dignifying their communication with respect, and of putting forward your own thoughts and feelings with sincerity and clarity regardless of the outcome.

For myself, I often affirm that I will communicate/act to the best of my ability and remain open to all outcomes.  Because we cannot control all outcomes, trying to manipulate them underhandedly often backfires—we lose credibility and the trust of others—and undermine the possibility of effective communication down the road. On the microcosmic scale of our own interpersonal conversations as well as on the macrocosmic scale of political and media communications the same principles hold.  If we learn that we cannot trust or believe in what someone says, or they are neither transparent nor forthcoming, then we continue to feel stressed and unsettled.

As one of my clients often says, “What we say and what we do is who we are, and who we are, we are forever.” I’d like to give us a bit of legroom, as masterpieces in the making, to continue to master the art of non-defensive, impactful and productive communication.

Camel Saddle:  How does insecurity or defensiveness tend to skew your communications to others?  Do you avoid, minimize, speak in vague terms, or attack?  What aspect of your communication do you seek to improve? What do you want your communications to others to reflect about you—honesty?  Clarity?  Directness?  Consideration for others’ opinions? Etc.

 

Web Camel Transport 44

In Praise of Fear

Friday April 7, 2017

We tend to give fear a bad rap.  People committed to mindfulness or spirituality often tell me how angry they feel at themselves, or guilty, when they experience fear.  But fear, perhaps our most primitive programming, alerts us to perceived danger.  At the DNA level, the cellular level, and the conscious level, survival motivates us most prominently.

Fear, a powerfully intense emotion, both expresses and reveals to us a potentially life threatening situation to which we require the appropriate orientation—one of alertness, attunement to environmental cues, and readiness for action.  Everything else recedes in those heightened moments of fear when all of our energies unite and deploy us into fight, flight, or freeze mode.

For most of us living in the Western world comes the luxury of pursuing a satisfying life beyond the basic attainment of survival, food and shelter (which makes the poverty of some in a rich country all the sadder).

We want not only to subsist, but to live life to its fullest, and to that end we imbue our families, our other relationships, our work, and our situation in the world at large with meaning.  We crave a sense of purpose, and hope to make some helpful footprint in the vast and unfathomable expanse of time and ancestry.  Just as our aspirations supersede survival, so does the potential for fear accompany us along the way.  We fear not just the loss of a food supply, but the potential of losing out on a plum job to the competition. We fear a fall in social status, not being picked for the team, getting less than an A or B on a paper in school.  We fear social humiliation, rejection, or that our contribution will not be good enough, or that we will not be attractive enough or measure up or get ahead.

The desire for a full and rich life, as an elaboration of the instinct to survive, comes with its counterpart, a more elaborate set of attendant fears.  Want and worry go hand in hand.  Worry, anxiety and fear we generally experience as uncomfortable, but, like excited motivation, these feelings activate us and often play a key role in helping us to succeed when they don’t rise to an overwhelming level of complete distraction or paralysis.

Fear isn’t really our problem.  It’s how we cope with fear and what we do after fear has warned us of possible impending doom that can undermine us.  To start with, a negative narrative about fear, as if it has no right to a presence, presupposes a largely incorrect assumption that we humans can and should only feel “positive emotions;” that somehow “fear is bad;” and that if we feel fear then we must be less evolved than our more mature and spiritually developed counterparts.

We might turn this around by respecting fear, ours and others’.  Fear is by its nature a measure of challenge.  Some of us measure risk or challenge more accurately than others.  For some people, fear amplifies or overstates the level of risk or challenge.  On the other hand, for some people–say someone cavalierly using a circular power saw without protective eye wear or gloves, or someone whose doctor says COPD or lung cancer is immanent if they keep smoking–fear underperforms in its alert messaging.

If we can imagine our fear like a protective and loyal dog who barks at a stranger or strange circumstance, this may help us to identify fear as an ally, albeit a sometimes overzealous one.

In Cognitive Behavior Therapy, there’s an intervention in which we identify our “irrational” fears.  I object to the use of “irrational,” because no one has ever told me about a fear that has no logic to it.  It is possible for a plane to fall from a sky.  It is possible one’s symptoms could be cancer.  It is possible you will fail to get the job.  It is possible you’ll get romantically rejected.  It is possible you could drop your baby.  It is possible someone followed you in the store. But when fear feels strong—adrenaline rushing, muscles tense, shoulders hugging the ears, breathing shallow, etc.—then fear overstates the case.  Intense fear makes the possible seem probable.  Possibilities are definitely not probabilities.

Intervening with ourselves by learning to calibrate our fear can help us respond to stressful situations less intensely.  We only want to use the most efficient amount of emotional  fuel to deal with the situation.

What often amplifies fear has to do with our long held narratives about our lacks—of competence or fortitude or fitness or approval rating. With fear’s volume turned up, thinking through problems gets more difficult, or even taking one step forward can seem insurmountable.  We may even tuck the overdue bill at the bottom of the pile of papers to avoid facing it.  Similarly, people whose anger flares hot, provoked by even the smallest of inconveniences, may have to work hard to recalibrate.

One client, Bill, a young man in his mid-twenties, finished a certificate program, got a job in his field and moved into a studio apartment of his own.  Shortly after that he had a fender bender which, even with doing part of the fixing on his own, required the loan of a car from his father for a week and a hundred dollars from his mother.  Having been the subject of parental criticism in the past as well as currently, Bill barraged himself with negating comments: “I’m a failure;” “No one in my family has any respect for me.  I’m just a f-up to them;” “I’ll never get anywhere at this rate.” These thoughts came with a deep depression and suicidal ideation. While I sympathized with Bill’s current misfortune, I noticed his black-and-white thinking.  Bill’s narrative turned an undoubtedly stressful situation into a complete catastrophe, and because he had driven the car and gotten into an accident he saw himself, as not only the cause of this accident, but a worthless human being.

I asked Bill to take a deep breath, to bear with me, and to let me know what he honestly felt were his accomplishments of the last two years.  When he had finished telling me his exemplary list, I asked whether he had noticed the black-and-white thinking that had erased from his mind all these great things, and made it seem like he’d done nothing deserving of praise.

I asked Bill whether it might feel useful to him, to ask himself, “What is the gray here?” when he found himself spiraling down.  When we next met several weeks later, Bill seemed quite a bit cheerier.  His vehicle was fixed, even though it needed more work—which would cost more money on his starter wage—but he said he had been asking himself about the “gray,” and realized that even though he didn’t have a brand new free car, at least he didn’t have an undriveable one. The gray wasn’t all that bad since in a few weeks he would be paying back the loan to his mother.  He had also spent time with a friend who thought it was pretty “sick” that he had his own pad and a great full time job in his field.

Recalibration may involve developing the facility to note when a small present situation triggers a larger response to a past problem.  Fear or anger revs up in the moment, just in case what happened in the past stands a chance of recurring—the present partner will also leave us, the boss will call us in to let us know our job has been eliminated, the phone call will produce horrific news, etc. For people who have been unfortunately traumatized in the past, “triggering” may happen frequently.  Anything—a sound, a sight, a smell, an interaction—can all cause triggering.  At times, trauma makes it particularly difficult to distinguish present stressors from past ones in the moment something is taking place.

Intense fear prepares us for worst case scenarios and often overpowers our ability to stay fully present and engaged in the now.  Our heightened response, like road rage, an expression of the influence of older narratives playing out in our minds, as well as our general level of stress.

Of course, our brilliant imaginations consider multiple case scenarios so that none will take us unawares. This is a gift.  But remembering that past and present can collide emotionally may help us to ramp down overblown fear responses to present situations that don’t warrant them.

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a creation of Marsha Linehan’s for working with people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, “dysregulated” emotional output can respond to the use of DBT skills—journaling, changing the scenery, listening to music, soothing self-talk, etc. When practiced over time, these strategies gain utility.

Mediating the emotional output of fear with powerful, and often short (and short-circuiting), thought-input helps, as a kind of re-storying about ourselves (our character within our story).  As an example, when fearful ask yourself: “How would a calm and wise person act in this situation?”  When angry, ask yourself: “What would a patient and wise person do in this situation?”  Similar questions help in two ways.  First, by slowing down our experience so emotions don’t get on a runaway train.  And secondly, by maneuvering us toward a reservoir of conscious resources and past situations that would be helpful in the current situation.

Once we have stepped over the threshold of fear to engage ourselves in the venture ahead—tying a tourniquet to save someone’s life, taking the test, acting our character’s part onstage, parachuting from the aircraft, getting married, going to another country alone, learning something new and difficult—our engagement in the process, our supremely focused attention, allows fear to recede into the background.

 

“I have learned that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear.”  Rosa Parks

It would be remiss not to say that emotions, and particularly fear, are infectious.  In a crowd of scared people, we feel scared.  The definition of emotion is movement outward.  The energy of fear can grab us by the neck, squeeze the air from our lungs, and cause our hearts to thump loudly and fast like a drum beat loud enough to alert everyone around us.  Because fear is so primal an emotion, and because it flags things that matter to us, we can easily get manipulated to do things, say things, or behave in ways that would otherwise surprise us.              While I, in no uncertain terms, do not want to turn this psychological article into one about politics, it seems noteworthy from a therapist’s office, how many clients feel fear about things that matter to them and their families through the lens of the collective bigger picture—will their jobs remain secure, will they have health care, will their children get a quality public school education, will there be arts experiences for their children who paint, play the violin, or dance.  Will one’s sexual orientation or gender, or ethnicity, or country of origin, undermine their rights in this great nation.  Will the air remain clean for the baby on the way, and for that baby’s baby born sometime ahead?

We fear things, both close to the chest and at large, that seem threatening to our healthy lives and livelihoods, to our safety and security and to that of our children. Our vulnerability around fear leaves us open to manipulation, thought insertion, and fear mongering.  Mediating fears that go beyond our individual and family lives, fears that concern more collective concerns, often require us to seek the comfort of others and the inspiration of those who can help us see potentials beyond the provocations of our fear and inspire us with the power of collective voicing and collective actions.  Whether for our own lives or for the lives of those around us, taking action on something we hold dear, turns down the volume of our fear.  Only if we experience helplessness and hopelessness will fear have unfettered reign.

If you play a role as a parent, a boss, or another authority figure, it may be beneficial to remember that scaring someone into something—dominating their behavior by cultivating their fear—does not have as much power, in the long run, as helping others to use their own powers of thought, reflection and compassion as cultivators of productive behavior, at home, in school, in the workplace, and in society.

Camel Saddle:  What worthy challenge scares you the most?  What are your tendencies in terms of coping with this fear?  Do you avoid, procrastinate, get angry, self-condemn, feel depressed, get distracted?  On what exceptional occasions have you faced or conquered this fear?  What encourages you the most?  What is some useful self-talk to get you up close and personal with what you most want and most fear?

In the movie, ‘We Bought a Zoo,’ Benjamin Mee says, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

 

 

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Yes Happiness

Wednesday March 15, 2017

“yes is a world     and in this world     skillfully curled    live all worlds.” ee cummings

A favorite little phrase, and packed with meaning, cummings’ stanza expresses the stamina of yeses to open doors of possibility.  When we say “yes” to meetings, adventures, trying our hands or our minds at something that scares us, then wondrous vistas and opportunities as well as creative expression await our arrival through those doors of YES.

When we say “yes” to something that might thrill us but also produce anxiety, we will have gone through an emotional maze of reasons why we might want to avoid such a challenge, or bar ourselves from the attendant risks involved.  But finally, perhaps with trepidation taking the backseat to curiosity or ambition, we take the leap of faith.  We say, “yes!”  Most great human ventures come with risk.  The oft stirred cold feet of betrotheds, standing at the threshold of their marital life together, as an example.  Or the wary investor about to press “buy” on these promising mutual funds.  Or, the shy actor auditioning for his largest role yet.  Or the quiet employee seeking fairer compensation for her diligence and brilliance.  Or the person scared of heights facing the rock wall finally.

When we have wrestled with all of the “no’s,” and “yes” has claimed the victory, then we decided on “yes.”  We align ourselves with “yes,” and that “yes” represents our best self, pushing the envelopes in which we have wrapped our dreams and aspirations, our hopes and our curiosity.  This is a decidedly different kind of “yes” than the yes of our people-pleasing selves.

Some yeses, when they issue from a place of people-pleasing, happen on autopilot, reflexively, reactively.  They have nothing in common with victorious yeses which are proactive, and often hard won.  To have a good “yes,” one must have a good “no.”  If “yes” exists as the only one of those two words in our vocabulary, then yeses, habitual yeses, can take over our lives and dominate our efforts and how we spend our time.

Except in rare circumstances, even if you are one of those people for whom serving others constitutes your main purpose, no one needs to service others at the expense of oneself.  When serving others—saying “yes” to others—on a routine basis means depleting your personal resources of time, energy, emotional and physical well being, then saying “yes” has turned into a bad habit.  The consequent and inevitable anger, resentment, and feelings of deprivation that yes-people experience illustrate a misalignment in relating to oneself.  If you find yourself too busy, too fatigued, too stressed, or too harried or overworked to do everything you need for your self-care and well being then your life raft looks like NO!!!  “No” to others when “yes” to yourself has a dignified place in your embrace.

One young woman, Sally, said she felt angry at herself for being such a people pleaser who put herself last.  “I’m not cheap about spending money on others for gifts when I want to show them my love and appreciation.  But I find every excuse not to buy something for myself.”

She had recently started a boot camp class and needed exercise clothing.  Yet, “I made every excuse for why I should save the money instead.”  Sally had a talent for evaluating the benefits of purchases and I certainly didn’t want to discourage such useful reflections.  But at the same time, she acknowledged that she placed great value on her health.  Appropriate exercise clothing was part and parcel of accomplishing that goal rather than a frivolous purchase.

Often, virgins at giving a “no” to others, require a concrete reason to say “yes” to themselves.  It is far easier to protect one’s time, energy and quality of life if you have something you really want to do, like Sally’s wanting to take the exercise class.  Another client, who thanklessly, both at work and with her elderly parents, spent all of her time and energy, found it nearly impossible to set any boundaries on her altruistic output until she wanted to take a class in psychology, something she had wanted to study for years.  Between class attendance, studying, and homework, she finally found herself capable of guarding her own resources of time, energy, and emotional output.  She had a reason to say “no” to others.

But shouldn’t our rest, our peace of mind, our freedom to be spontaneous or to relax be reasons enough?  It may take some time to work up to embracing those more abstract notions of wellbeing.  But people-pleasers have to start somewhere, and it often begins with simply slowing down the automatic process of saying “yes,” and instead, going through a decision making process.

Because Sally had the ability to think through the issue of the exercising clothing, she saw that this purchase would manifest an investment in her health. She felt able to tolerate the discomfort of making these purchases for herself. Sally and I discussed the often misunderstood notion of selfishness among people-pleasers.  People-pleasers tend to associate anything they want or do for themselves as selfish.

In my view truly selfish people almost always put themselves first, even going so far as to discount or diminish the needs and wants of loved ones as well as failing to consider whether or not higher order principles or values might prevail.  Extremely selfish people have taught themselves not to care too much about the impact of their selfishness on others.  Sometimes, in the background of such a person, deprivation—of love, of attention, of care, of things—shaped experience, and the prevailing narrative of the world took on a dog-eat-dog theme.

Some selfish people function like battering rams.  Battering rams prove difficult to deal with, particularly for people pleasers who, eventually, might find themselves at the very limits of their envelopes to keep saying “yes” to a person who constantly exploits their kindness and generosity.  Even people with the ability to say “yes” and “no” find battering rams difficult, since the need to constantly apply boundaries gets inconvenient if not exhausting after a while.  People who, sadly, ask too much of others, eventually find doors closing in their faces, subjecting them to feelings of rejection and abandonment, without realizing how they have co-created the problem.

Taking a healthy and buoyant interest in oneself I call self-interest.  I encouraged Sally, and encourage those like her in that respect, to revel in healthy self-interest.  To be interesting to oneself in all of one’s possible expressions exercises one’s fullest capacity to live wholly and well. Sometimes it proves difficult to balance one’s self-interest with caring about the interests of others, but keeping that question alive fosters emotional freedom and decision-making capacity.

Someone who shares and also listens well, who gives to others but receives from others with enjoyment and appreciation, who gladly does service to and for others but does not shy away from asking for favors on occasion, models sterling emotional freedom.

Compassion fatigue is the professional equivalent of what many people experience on a daily or weekly basis in their personal lives—an overextension of one’s servicing of others’ needs and wants to the detriment of oneself.  Sequelae often include feeling drained, exhausted, wiped out, resentful, exploited, trapped and frustrated.

To deeply want what one wants, but to be able to take into consideration the impact of those wants on others and on the planet, and to make decisions on the basis of that, as well as on one’s highest principles, results in the best possible yeses and the best possible no’s.

Camel Saddle:  Are you a person who tends to say “yes” out of habit?  If you were to think more carefully about your yeses, would you revise any of them?  Or, do you say “no” with an equal lack of careful thought?  How would you like to recalibrate your yeses and no’s to be more fully aligned with the ways you want to show up in your life for yourself and for others?

 

 

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Purposing Happiness in the Old Grist Mill

Saturday, February 4, 2017

 

Existential questions—what is the meaning of life?  What is my purpose?  What makes me happy?—have generated thousands of exploratory books and papers that sit on the real and cyber shelves of bookstores and academic journals under categories such as Philosophy, Psychology, and Self-help.

A recent conversation with a client, Leandra, got both of us thinking more deeply about ‘purpose.’ How do we find it?  Is it even something to be found?  How do we understand the meaning of purpose in our individual lives?  Is our narrative about what constitutes purposeful pursuits limiting or expanding for us, and is this narrative subject to editing?

Leandra, a highly intelligent, professionally employed woman, found her job rather stultifying.  It paid the bills, allowed her to live in a nice house in a nice community.  It made use of her advanced degree. She could do it well, but without any moments of pizazz. It required a lot of discipline on her part to harness herself to the tasks involved.  Although other activities, outside of work, held interest for her, she complained of an inability to stick with anything.  She tried guitar lessons, dance, pottery, rock climbing.  Initially all seemed to kick start some real enjoyment and engagement, but inevitably she would discontinue.  Without any continuity, she fell into a numbing process of searching for the activity that would finally capture both her imagination as well as her commitment, and compensate for her boredom at work.

For a while I scratched my head.  Why did Leandra short circuit her involvement in any of these avocations which she supposedly liked?  Did she lack discipline or commitment to anything besides work and her family?  Did she simply get bored easily?  Would she continue to peruse the smorgasbord table of life’s offerings until she found something of greater attraction still?

Finally, she pondered what made her lose interest, and came up with the notion that, at some point she would ask herself what use this activity had. If she decided it lacked utility or purpose, other than self-indulgence, then she would lose steam or completely drop the activity.  In our continuing conversations, we considered whether purpose might be less about our evaluation of the status of an activity—as useful or important–and more about how we engage ourselves in whatever we do.

If one’s purpose isn’t found in the smorgasbord of life’s offerings, but in how fully we offer ourselves to the work we choose, then purpose involves a personal process of developing our investment, our dedication, and our increasing mastery to something.  That kind of attention illuminates, hones, and connects us more and more meaningfully to that with which we place our hands, minds, and hearts.

The activity itself—its vitality or offering of purposes—exactly mirrors our evaluation of it.  When we are “in the flow,” and fully engaged, then we are investing that action with purpose and meaning.  We become full of the activity and the activity becomes full of us.

The purposing of life expresses us at our most creative.  As Victor Frankl said, “we are meaning making creatures.”  And happiness thrives on such investment; not only our sense of pleasure, but our satisfaction in self-expression, as well as in making a contribution beyond ourselves to others.

Happiness is more of a how than a what; how we live life, as well as love, appreciate and invest ourselves in what we do and those with whom we share our sorrows and our joys. The purposing of happiness happens on the wings of commitment, engagement, exquisite mindset, willingness, openness to experience, and so forth.

In contrast, a bottle cap opener has no inherent purpose—though perhaps the steel’s active electrons “purposefully” move heat and electricity through their dance.  We invest bottle cap openers with utility.  We manufacture them to amplify the hand’s strength (Oh gosh, and the teeth for some brave souls) and better calibrate the angle of leverage.  A bottle cap opener, like any inanimate object, requires human intention and action to make a positive difference in our functioning.

My mother died in September of 2016, just a few months ago, leaving her legacy of optimism with me and my sisters.  Legacy comments, though casual, often sounded like this:  “It may be hard for you right now, but you’ll figure it out,” or “But you’ll keep trying, I know you.” Or, “Can’t you adjust your perspective?”  And often, “Well, make sure to take care of yourself.”

This latter comment has finally sunk in.  The fundamental embodiment of our developing capabilities and intentions requires us to take care of ourselves.  Whether we are purveyors, conduits, channels, transmitters, embracing arms, or fonts of love, knowledge and rides to soccer games, our constitutions require nourishment, sleep, exercise, breathing room, inspiration, and renewal.  This is not just ‘a thing.’ This is the real thing.  We are animate and live on borrowed time.  Our lives are on short loan from the universe so we must spend down our energy and time wisely.

The moment after my mother received her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, as gently as possible from the young oncologist she would meet only once, she could not remember the term, ‘pancreatic.’  She kept asking us to repeat the name and knew her denial process kept it from her.  Even as she lay bedbound during those last few days of her life she perked up.  “Sometime I want to write an essay on denial.  It’s amazing how I can’t remember the name of this cancer.”  An infinite regression of denials? Or is this purposing happiness, to see her ‘denial’ from an alternate perspective.

When all else failed—to conquer a problem, rectify an injustice, get the guy, get the job, win the award—she’d say, “It’s all grist for the mill.” The ultimate in recycling, upcycling, in turning lemons into lemonade.  The ultimate in purposing happiness. At the last moment, there are still things to ponder, to write, to contribute. Even if we will not be around to finish them.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941) wrote, “We live in the world when we love it.”  We are most alive in our world when we love it.  Love is that purposeful energy that renders the grass its greenest green, and makes us call the sounds of a bird ‘music,’ and the laughter of our babies inspirational.  One of my clients, Glyndi, says, “If I know you I love you.”  Love, and purpose, are connectors.  We connect ourselves to our world with love, and invest our devoted attention to the ever-evolving harmony-and-chaos of our lives with purpose.

When we love, we feel open, excited, willing, ready, available, forgiving, insightful, understanding, capable, curious, motivated, courageous, revelatory, cooperative, generous, and connected.

Another voice supporting the notion that purpose is in the “doing” of something rather than the “what” we are doing, Mark Manson (Sept 18 2014 https://markmanson.net/life-purpose), writes movingly about parenting.  Any parent has impact, is an “influencer.”  Here is a quote from his online article:

“Parenting ineluctably demands that one address the greatest, founding philosophical question: What is a good life? As we go about answering it live in our words and actions over long years, we will at least know that we have been spared the one great fear that otherwise haunts us and usually manifests itself around work: that of not being able to make a difference. There will not be the remotest danger of lacking impact, only of unwittingly exerting the wrong kind. We will be the biographers, coaches, teachers, chefs, photographers, masters and slaves of our new charges. Our work will lend us the opportunity to show our worst, but also our best selves in action: it is the particular words we will find, the touch of our hands, the encouraging look only we will be able to give, the swerve towards lenience or the brave defense of principles that will make a decisive difference to the sorrows and joys of another human being. Who we are every day, the specific individuals we will have matured into, will have an unparalleled power to exert a beneficial influence on somebody else’s life. We will – in our role as parents – be terrified, exhausted, resentful, enchanted and forever spared any lingering doubt as to our significance or role on the earth.”

Just like a simple bottle cap opener requires application to activate its purpose, so too do we generate purpose, and the satisfactions of feeling purposeful, from the application of ourselves to whatever we are doing.

Perhaps, those of us who have jobs we love, and do things we love, have an enormous privilege—to feel contributory, even if in a small way, even beyond our own families; to feel engaged fully; to feel lifted and inspired and masterfully in development with what we do. Not everyone has the luxury of pursuing what calls to them, or the opportunities for education and mentorship or encouragement. But when we invest ourselves fully in whatever we are doing we meet ourselves at the places where our strengths, intelligence, and inclinations manifest themselves.  This is where we find direction.  All experiences are grist for the mill, and that purposes happiness.

 

Camel Saddle:  To what activities do you fully apply yourself?  In what do you get so lost that you are found in your most creative and activated expression, fully alive in the moment?  To what might you pay more attention, in order to generate more purposeful direction?  What thoughts do you spin that hold you back from your loving, attentive and purposeful connections?

 

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Joyful Sadness:  The Happiness of Both/And

Friday, January 27, 2017

As my mother lay dying, my three sisters and I moved into her house for the twelve days between her cancer diagnosis and taking her last breath.  She grew sleepier by the day, finally confined to her bed, no food for over a week and then she refused even the sips of water we offered every hour or so with a straw.  Her oral medications were switched from pills to liquid forms.  But when she opened her eyes or focused for some moments, she knew we were there.  Several times she said, with a slight smile, “I hope you are enjoying getting to know one another.”

We human beings have multiple capabilities, including the ability to feel several emotions at the same time.  Sometimes that seems confusing, chaotic, contradictory, or inconvenient.  But this is the gift of a large and complex brain, and a largely complex set of abilities to analyze and appreciate the different aspects of the human situations we co-create.  According to the famous autistic expert on animal behavior, Temple Grandin, most animals feel only a single predominating emotion at a time.  Your dog wags his tail when you come in—happy.  Or fears you in the moment when you express disappointment in his toileting accident.

On a daily basis we might experience moments similar to these:  “I am so relieved to get my tooth crowned now but the sound of the drill terrifies me;” or “I was ecstatic to see my sister but annoyed that she took her sweet time getting here.”  Or, “I felt so grateful that my boss gave me the raise, but I got impatient when he yacked my ear off about his new vacation home.”  Or, “I really didn’t want to invite her, she’s an attention hog, but I felt too guilty not to.”  Or, “I was ecstatic that my daughter got invited to the prom, but so tired I didn’t love picking her up at 1 AM.”

Participating intimately in my mother’s later stage illness, dying and death, opened an appreciation for the beauty and the difficulty that our mixed emotions can produce.  My mother, herself, offered prime examples. Even prior to her diagnosis she struggled with the mixed feelings that arise in the aging process, when the roles and responsibilities with which one’s identity is so bound up, have to be relinquished to the younger generation.

A woman of great independence—and widowed since the age of 42 when our father died—she had had some difficulty passing on the baton for many things, like hosting family occasions.  Finally, after several years of complaining about the exhaustion of entertaining, while on the other hand finding it impossible to give up the matriarchal role, she yielded the ladle and roasting pan to us.

Instead of cooking, she offered advisement, recipes, and family stories to spice up our homes as we segued, as subtly as possible, into our collective new role as the hosting generation.  The handing over of tasks and roles one has played dutifully and with great ceremony does not come easily to everyone, and to our mother it did not. These roles and tasks defined a large part of her self-identification.  Along with the roles of host and matriarch, come other aspects of identification such as physical strength and stamina.  The loss of any function is difficult for most people, including the need to treat one’s body as more delicate and breakable, as slower and less graceful than in one’s younger years.

When my mother felt too ill to fend for herself, she said she would accept our care, even deserved it. In a strange way, her illness became an occasion of sorts. We gathered together.  On her generosity, we relished a Chinese meal at her dining table while she lay in her bedroom enjoying the sounds of our talking and laughter. We let her know of our appreciation and she smiled, then went back to sleep.  My sisters and I slept over there in twos, or three of us, and finally all four, helping to clean our mother, wipe her mouth and her brow, change her diapers, reposition her, and refresh the sheets and blankets. Rub her hands and arms and upper back when she could still enjoy the “love.”

A couple of times she said, while reaching for my hand, “I’m not ready.”  That was all.  As if there were something I could do to alter the burden of this ending chapter.  All I could say was, “I know.” And witness her leaving–unfinished, unprepared, in disagreement with her cancer’s terms.  But I wanted, so desperately, to change her outcome, and felt so powerless to do so.

“I thought I had a few more years,” she had said earlier, when she learned of her pancreatic cancer. In moments of denial the word, “pancreatic” eluded her, even with the mnemonic of “something in which you fry eggs.” Still, she could not get beyond, “pan.” But said she would one day like to write an essay about such denial.  Her own experience of the cancer interesting to her, peaking her curiosity, as she continued to express her voluminous curiosity about our personal worlds and the world at large.

We did not feel ready for her to leave us.  But we also hoped she would go soon when the cancer made a mess of her body—edemic, leaking, purpling, blocking, paralyzing, and punctuating with pain–and determined to shut down all the miraculous organs that for 88 years had supported each of her eagerly waking days.

Finally, only the brain and the heart and the ferocious lungs powered on, attached to their beautiful living body, even as that body washed off the human shore toward the vast sea of nothingness and, for us, such heart wrenching grief.

We both wished her to live, and then to die as her suffering, and ours, increased. As the inevitability of her dying soaked the sheets and our hands and our lives with tears, we gathered around her bed, as her eyelids lifted open for a moment, to witness her last breaths, and to gently place her limbs in a comfortable position.  We watched as silence permeated every cell of her body, this body in which each of us had grown toward birth, attached and unknowing.

The extraordinary hospice nurse who visited, counseled and helped us in these last weeks, spoke of experiencing these moments as a joyful sadness.  Really, a one word experience—“joyfulsadness,” the both/and of it inseparable.  To be lovingly of service in these most intimate ways, to help usher our mother from this life into stillness, honored her.

And then, my mooring gone, I felt lost and uncertain in this world without my mother.  Sad and disoriented, I felt like a stranger in my own life. Even though I have my own family, the experience of belonging dislodged like a foundation crumbling in an earthquake.

Our urgent or extreme human situations are rarely black-and-white.  Often chaotic, with multiple aspects, we feel pulled in different directions emotionally.  Caretakers of ill loved ones frequently find themselves worried, under-slept, hypervigilant, zealous, and also angry, resentful, needy and so forth.  This is a completely typical emotional mess!

Nowhere will we find more both/and’s than with regard to parenting.  We feel both elated and exasperated when Johnny runs into the house with his soccer victory trophy in one raised hand and his muddy cleats on the white rug.  When Suzy gets too shy to continue dancing in her end of year recital we feel deep empathy and raging embarrassment as well as guilt for having raised a genetically shy child, or not having coached her enough in thinking of her audience in their undergarments while onstage.  We feel angry with our adolescent son or daughter for undermining our authority by getting into a disrespectful dispute with the school principal but we admire and feel proud of their grit and passion.

In a 2014 Psychology Today article online, Leon Seltzer, PhD, writes: “All feelings–vs. thoughts–have a certain physiology to them. You cannot experience an emotion without at the same time experiencing a corresponding bodily sensation (or sensations). And each of your emotions reside in a particular place(s) in your body–their “native home,” as it were. Unless, that is, you feel an emotion so intense and overpowering that it’s all over your body–perhaps like a heavy, almost suffocating, wool blanket, or an electrical surge, or a violent internal earthquake.”

I woke up one night to go to the bathroom and as I passed the windows I thought, Mom is missing the moon.  Spectral, pale, the ghostly white moonlight seemed not to move.  It did not flow or sweep or swim or stream into the room.  Suspended, as if between breaths or in some undecided state the light, simply there, accompanied me as I walked, somewhere between sleeping and waking fully, across the floor boards and the Persian prayer rug and then between the two closets and past the mirror on the door.  It did not follow me nor take shape.  It did not weigh me down.  The light seemed, more like a primer, an undercoat, the anonymous preparatory, diligent emptiness before the first words of a poem, or the brush of a painting.

I missed my mother as she would miss this and many other moons; and felt glad for the quiet aching.

Camel Saddle:  What is a both/and moment for you with a partner, a child, a parent, a work situation, how you balance your life?  How does it work for you to honor each of these sometimes colliding or competing emotions?