Sunday, July 31, 2011

Do You Believe You Are Responsible for the Mess in Congress?

     If you are like many gifted individuals, you tend toward taking great personal responsibility for your actions. This includes responsibility for the consequences of those actions. So far, so good. 
     But how does this ingrained high standard apply in a case with as many moving parts as the Congress of the United States of America?
     If you voted, you most likely elected at least one person in Washington who is embroiled in the national embarrassment that is our current budgetary decision-making process. Is this costly impasse a direct result of your personal vote?
     Philosophically, you could build a convincing argument to support the position that you are, indeed, personally responsible for the mess in Congress. Here's where it breaks down, though: the government of the USA is not philosophy class. It is a human-built and human-operated system that relies on the good faith of individual participants in order to fulfill its mission. 
     You did your good faith part by participating in open elections to select individuals to represent you in Congress. I am assuming due diligence on your part before you entered the polling place. Often, we find ourselves in the position of voting against one candidate as opposed to voting for another, as a direct result of our conscientious consideration of the issues and principles endorsed by candidates for public office. Nonetheless, I assume your voting was informed by personal resolve to understand what your vote would mean. You are an educated voter.
     I would argue that your responsibility ends there. You are not responsible for the choices an individual makes once that election takes place. You cannot predict with 100% accuracy how any specific candidate, once elected, will perform.
     Therefore, I do not believe you are responsible for the extreme abdication of responsibility we see in Congress at this moment. Senators and Representatives are flying free, making a mockery of the system you upheld by placing your vote, because they are assuming their personal position is equivalent to the position of the people they represent. If that were so, most Americans would be cheering the debacle in Washington. Instead, with most of the rest of the world, we stand by in horror and disgust to see our country undermined by egocentric power mongers.
     Do I sound biased? I admit it. I am biased against self-indulgent elected officials. My concern is with individuals who may feel personally responsible for, and therefore guilty about, what is going on in our capital. Try to release those feelings. You placed your trust in your elected officials. That trust was abused. And that is not your  fault. To say so in the real world is to blame the victim.
     We have a choice. It is consistent with my definition of the role of personal responsibility in a democracy. We can choose to vote against every single member of Congress who is involved in the current chaos.
     It is not a clash of ideas or a clash of values that we are witnessing. It is a clash of personalities, egos, vested interests, and other degraded aspects possible in human interactions. Otherwise, solutions would have been reached well before this crisis appeared like an infected boil on the face of our nation.
     We can start over. We can hold our newly elected representatives to high standards, and continue active scrutiny of their behavior. We can demand good faith from them. And we can promise to show them the door if they show us their backsides, the way the current members of Congress seem to be doing.
     We must pay attention. We must then act. That is our responsibility.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Amy Winehouse: Death Stalks the Addict

     You cannot deny her talent. Her deep contralto voice was spellbinding. Unfortunately, she died today at the age of 27, with most of her music trapped forever within her.
     Her song Rehab rocketed her to the top of all the charts. In it, she laments the fact that all her friends tried to get her to go into a drug rehabilitation program, but she said, "no, no, no." Clever song. Catchy. And that gorgeous voice. But by saying no to rehab, she was also saying NO to facing reality, which is the driving problem that underlies all addictions.     
     We all have problems, which can sometimes knock us off our feet. If we face them, struggle with them, resolve them, then we grow, and actually gain wisdom. The addict, on the other hand, says, "um, no, I'd rather just escape."
     As a psychotherapist, I strongly believe that there is a problem in any kind of society that views rehab as a rite of passage. From what to what? It's often, as in Amy Winehouse's case, just a respite between one phase of active addiction and another. What kind of model is this? Where's the personal responsibility?
     We watch train wrecks in slow motion as celebrities implode before our eyes. But it's not just celebrities. Many of us have personal lives scarred by the addictions of another, or even by our own.
     It's not enough to go to rehab and get clean. An addict must commit to facing reality, with all its wonders, bumps and warts, in order to put aside addiction. It has to be a conscious decision. Addiction is stronger than will. You cannot beat it by saying you will beat it. And you cannot view rehab as a spa vacation. Like sticking to a diet, commitment to remaining clean is hard. It takes will power. It takes resolve. It takes help from others. We all know you can't lose fifty pounds and then go back to the Godiva box. You have to alter your fundamental approach to how you live.
     Amy couldn't summon the courage to face the reality of her own life, rich as it was with gifts, talents, fame, and fortune. What a loss. And what an object lesson.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

How Schadenfreude Can Motivate You -- even though it feels naughty

     Seldom do we admit it. We show our compassionate faces in public. But what is that spark of delight we feel when someone else hits a rough patch?
     We've all done it. A friend who has everything going for her suddenly gets a serious diagnosis. A coworker who is headed straight for the corner office gets sidetracked by a messy divorce. Are we sorry? No. Instead, we feel a burst of glee at their misfortunes.
     The German word Schadenfreude is, in my opinion, another example of the perfect way the German language works: Der Schaden is damage, and Die Freude is delight. Put them together and what do you have? The conflicted situation in which we recognize another's pain while feeling pleased about it.
     Not surprisingly, psychologists link Schadenfreude with personalities who also feel envy and jealousy. The greater the one, the greater the other. But for most of us, it is a fleeting response, and we generally overcome it fairly quickly.
     For that reason, we can use it to our advantage. Next time you feel it, think about this: for one thing, you can see that bad things happen, but for the moment (at least) they're not happening to you. That is something to be grateful for. Secondly, you can feel encouraged in your own bumbles when you see something bad happen to someone who has the world in the palm of her hand. Success seldom follows a straight line.
     And because Schadenfreude allows you to cut yourself slack at the expense of another's misfortune, you can then extend that same compassion to the person whose suffering brought on your Schadenfreude in the first place.
     Speaking of Schadenfreude, I'd like to remind you of something you already know: no one is as put together as she may appear to be. Everyone has pain and trouble, though some people are better at hiding it than others. At root, however, we are all fragile creatures, and we need all the compassion we can get.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

You Are Not Annoyed

     You have that afternoon drowsiness that feels delicious. You lie down to take a nap. Close your eyes. Sink into the comfortable bed.
     The neighbors' gardeners arrive. Stoke up all their fire-breathing equipment. Gas fumes waft through the light shafts coming through your window. Dust follows. A big dog starts to bark. A jet roars overhead. And the gardeners are shouting to one another in order to be heard over all the racket.
     You sneeze and sit upright. Curse a little. If in that moment you were aware of such things, you'd notice your clenched jaw, your shallow breathing, and an overall tightness in your body. But you're not aware, because all you can think about is the gross injustice of the noise fiesta outside in conjunction with your desired nap. You spring out of bed.
     Now you're sleepy and cranky. You decide to go to the damned supermarket and get the damned shopping done. En route, you curb your instinct to flip off the driver next to you at the red light. Sure, his stereo is shaking your car off its tires, but you remember road rage... Instead, in the nanosecond between the changing of the traffic light and the movement of the car in front of you, you manage to honk your horn twice.
     Your day isn't likely to get any better. Why? Because you're reacting to everything going on around you.
     Imagine this:
     You're lying there drowsily when the neighbors' gardeners arrive. Cacophony ensues.
     You stay perfectly still. Listen to the sounds of the equipment. Think of the fact that you are able to hear it. You realize from all your past experience that nothing lasts forever. The gardeners will finish their work, and then leave. Imagine the contrast! How sweet that silence will be once it arrives. The dog barks. He's doing exactly what you would be doing if you were a dog: you'd bark at the noise, too. The jet adds another layer to the noise, but also to your environment in general. People going places, some thrilled about it, some sad. All the people, all the possible destinations, all the possible reasons for being on any particular aircraft at any particular time...
     You are able to remain relaxed because you are directing your attention yourself to the things you are able to control. When you are thinking about the people on the plane, you are not thinking about the gardeners who are now going about their work, and will soon be finished.
     In this scenario, you are not reacting: you are responding. And by responding, you control the effect that environmental stimuli have on your body and your mental state.
     Does this sounds simplistic to you? You can test it. Here's how:
     Next time something annoys you, become aware of it. Ask yourself the following questions:
  • Will it last?
  • Is it intentional?
  • is it personal?
  • What is best for me right now?
     Odds are, the annoyance is temporary. It is not intentional. It is not personal. And the best thing for you to do is accept those three qualities and consciously decide what you are going to do about them.
     You can go through the mindfulness steps outlined above, mulling over the experience of the noise and its layers. You can get up and read in another room where there is less noise until it abates, and then take your nap. You can go to the supermarket, and then return to take your nap.
     Or, you can choose to stew in your own juices about something that is outside your command by taking it personally, and acting as if it were a permanent condition, something done intentionally to annoy you.
     Viktor Frankl taught us about choosing how we respond to what life offers us. His great work Man's Search for Meaning is a beautiful examination of what it means to be human, and how responding to one's environment instead of reacting to it activates the seat of human dignity.
     We can choose to react, or to respond. In choosing to respond, we also choose how we are going to feel at times when things could appear to be conspiring against us.
     It takes practice to remain mindful in the face of things that otherwise might annoy you, but you can do it, if you so choose.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Art: Fun for Your Brain

I just returned from the beautiful city of Portland, Oregon, where I gave a presentation at the Mensa Annual Gathering entitled, Help Me, I'm Gifted!

As part of the presentation, I hoped to offer participants the opportunity to look at what might be considered serious art without all the trappings of art historical accuracy, museum settings, or the impending threat of a quiz.

The first painting I showed was by Pablo Picasso, a Spanish painter who produced this particular work in Paris in 1903. I provided a minimal amount of background information, similar in amount and style to what you see if you visit a museum and read the card accompanying a work of art: called The Old Guitarist in the United States, and on exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute, this painting is also commonly referred to as The Man with the Blue Guitar. 

The Mensa audience quickly suspected the guitarist was blind. Why? Look at his eyes. They are closed tightly, in a sort of way that gives the impression of being permanent. And surely enough, Picasso originally called this painting Le Vieux Guitariste Aveugle. I don't know why we dropped the word blind when we started calling it The Old Guitarist in English.

Participants in the Mensa group noticed one aspect of the painting after another: the tattered clothing, the odd position, the elongated limbs, the utter sadness portrayed, and -- the fact that the only thing in the painting that is not painted blue is the guitar itself.

So why do people call this painting The Man with the Blue Guitar, I asked?

Because of the musical sounds that guitar would make. Because the whole feeling of the painting is so sad. Because Picasso was blue when he painted it. Because I'm blue looking at it.

They had fun with it. They didn't behave as if there were a right answer, or a correct interpretation. Blue Period, Schmeriod. No one was judging.

The fact is that in the past, the only people who've pointed out to me that the guitar is not blue were children, who are generally better at pointing out the Emperor's New Clothes than overeducated adults tend to be.

I showed another painting, a city scape by Giorgio de Chirico.

This painting evoked such good humored response that when the group felt finished with it, they asked me to show the third painting, which I had stated I'd leave out in the interest of time.

So I showed it at the end.

It was Banquet Still Life, an oil by Abraham van Beyeren, 1653-55. It hangs in the permanent collection of the Seattle Art Museum. Painted during the peak of Holland's Golden Age, it shows the remains of some sort of a feast.

In a word: Pronk. This is a great Afrikaans word that means showing off.

The Mensa group had fun with this one, too. What is the curtain in the background? The artist is saying: Look what I can do! All the fancy surfaces and textures! The silver pot seems particularly well articulated. What is that stuff in the bowl in front of it?

The final slide was the capper: a close up of that silver pot. It shows a reflection of the artist himself. Pronk, indeed!

Have fun with art.

It teases your brain if you look at it freshly, barring any actual knowledge you may have about the painting, the content, the historical period, or the artist. Just let your mind wander. You will see things you've never seen before. And you know what? That's perfectly wonderful.

We are taught to take art so seriously. The problem with that kind of thinking is that it creates haves and have nots, leaving out everyone who doesn't study art history. It can make you feel as if you don't have the right to an opinion or an impression, as in I don't know anything about art. I'm here to tell you you don't have to know anything about art in order to have an opinion, and to have fun with it. Even if you are encyclopedically informed, feel free to let your mind roam once in a while. Why hold back?

Do you honestly think the artist was thinking Serious Art and Art Criticism and This is My Ultra-Realistic Period when he pronked everyone by painting his own portrait into a commissioned work?

And who's to say Picasso had enough money to buy other colors during his Blue Period? He was a poor artist. Maybe all he could afford was blue paint!