Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Seeing Beyond Your Pain

Photo courtesy of Mauro Barsi
     It is easy to feel as if there is a cloud of pain crushing  us when we are feeling down. Our vision becomes narrowed,  and we see only what is directly at hand. There is no future, no past - only now, only this sad and difficult moment, this sad and difficult situation.
     I offer this photo taken by a friend of mine in Italy as a reminder that life is bigger than the immediate feelings of compression by problems that ail us. Just beyond that cloud, there are blue skies. Just beyond that cloud, there are beauty and love immeasurable. These things are present in the same moment as the pain that blinds you to their presence.
     It is an act of faith to see beyond the cloud. It requires a mindful and intentional pause in order to step back, as if with a wider angle lens, in order to take in the larger framework of your life. But gaze into this photo for  moment. If all you choose to see is a mountain with a cloud atop it, a cloud that blocks  the sun, then perhaps it is time for you to take stock.
     Are you aware of the blue sky? Are you aware of the great beauty, the great potential, that surround you? Can you place yourself in the larger world of possibility, beyond the constraints of any problem you may be facing in this moment? Can you feel love outside the boundaries of your pain?
     Yes, you can.
     The world in its beauty, the world full of love, awaits you.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Finding Peace in the Autumn Garden

The aster in autumn
     It is possible to see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour, as William Blake suggests. We can invert the vast and concentrate on the small, though it takes some effort to do so in this noisy world.
     It becomes easier as days shorten and the sun's rays fall lower on the horizon: autumn in the garden is a quieter time, the time when small things come to the foreground.
     There are extraordinary events taking place in your own garden right this minute. The spider's web drips with early morning dew and awaits the stumbling flight of an insect losing body heat as the days turn chilly. Groundcovers in shades of green are now blanketed with jewel tones from the trees above. Where buds once formed, now there are acorns. If you don't have a garden of your own, take a stroll in a nearby park. All this will reveal itself in the details of change that surround you.
     We expect permutations of orange, rust and maroon, veils of gold and brown in the garden in autumn. But then we come across a shock of violet, where golden-eyed asters are bright as errant amethysts and bob on the cooling breeze. Even more surprising is the shy and delicate pink of autumn crocus where it keeps company with brown mushrooms and fallen leaves at the base of a sturdy tree.
     All is not quiet, however. The squirrel with the fat cheeks will screech the minute she stashes her hazel nuts, and the gathering crows will sound warnings to all birds preparing to migrate: the way is south and the time is now.
     To paraphrase Blake, what immortal hand or eye could frame such a world as what we see before us? What is this universe? Hold this question in awareness as you go through your day, and hold it despite all the mounting evidence in our raucous, consumerist world that to do so is to indulge in a flight of fancy. But pondering these things gives you room to consider the meaning of your own life. It can help you see your own purpose, your role, and what you value. Then, as the gentle rays of the afternoon sun fade, remember that night will come, and it will blanket you with stars that seem particularly brilliant at this time of year.
     Autumn is a time of turning inward, a time of forgiveness, a time to let go of all past efforts that have not born fruit. It presents an opportunity to rest, just the way the garden rests, before new undertakings which are soon to come at the turn of another year.
     So hunker down: take care of yourself and all you hold dear.
     Breathe in the deep calm of the season.
     Relax as you exhale.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Giving the Gift that Costs You Nothing

     There is a gift you can give anyone at any time. It is one of the most valuable things a person can receive. And it won't cost you anything.
     What is it?
     First, let me tell you a story.
     I knew a young woman who was very bright. She came from a difficult family background, with alcoholism, sibling cruelty, and financial insecurity clogging her passage through childhood and adolescence. She went off to college and did well, separated for the first time from the quagmire of her family. She was a strong student, naturally highly motivated, and graduated with honors. After college, however, she began to lose her bearings. Without the structure of academics, she felt adrift, unsure of her own worth and her place in the world.
     At one point, a colleague at work announced that she was going to take the Law School Admission Test and then begin applying to law schools. "You should take it, too," her colleague told her. "You're smart enough." And so the young woman took the LSAT with her friend.
     She achieved a nearly perfect score.
     You can imagine her colleague's response, after seeing her own very average test results. "That's not fair," she said. "It was my idea. My dream. You wouldn't have even taken the test if I hadn't begged you to go with me! Who do you think you are?" That friend didn't have much time for the young woman after that, shunning her as if she had stolen something from her that was rightfully hers.
     The young woman applied to law schools anyway, more from a sense of duty to her high scores than from any sense of capability or worthiness. She wrote a compelling essay that outlined her own concerns about questions related to the convergence of law and medicine, and she submitted it with her applications.
     The finest law schools in the country sent her a welcome letter, inviting her to attend. But the young woman kept this information to herself. She certainly didn't tell her colleague, and no one else had been aware she had even been considering law school.
     But slowly, gradually, she began to see herself in a new light. Notions of attending law school, spreading her wings, rising to her level of competence began to show up at the corners of her consciousness. Could this be possible? Could she really go to law school? Become a lawyer? Work on issues related to medical-legal ethics? Her heart pounded at the thought of such engaging work.
     At a family member's birthday dinner she approached the subject of law school during a lull in the conversation and mentioned that she had been offered admission to several schools. She received comments such as these:
                "What would make you want to do something like that?"
                "How would you ever pay for it?"
                "I can't imagine you as a lawyer."
     And then the conversation drifted toward more familiar topics, such as the game, relatives who were not at the table, and other subjects that became just so much background noise to the young woman, who felt as if she had just opened a vein by bringing up law school, and had been put quickly in her place, and then ignored, erased like writing in the sand when the tide resumes.
     This young woman did not go on to law school. Because why would she want to do something like that? How would she ever pay for it? She couldn't even imagine herself as a lawyer anyway.
     So what is the gift I mentioned at the beginning of this post?
     Sometimes even the strongest and most capable, the best and the brightest, need additional wind under their wings in order to fly. You can provide it. Your attention, your support, your words of encouragement can mean much more than you realize. Listen carefully to the people in your life. You will hear and be able to identify in the unspoken words the places where the doubts live. This is where encouragement can take root and grow, thriving in the most unlikely conditions.
     Your words of encouragement can change the course of a person's life.
     Is there a greater gift one person can give another than support for the realization of her own goals?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Identifying Your Plans and Their Obstacles: Building a Ladder for Reaching Any Goal

Double Helix Goal Ladders
     We set our goals with great fervor and often with great precision. We want to organize our finances by a certain date. We want to meet someone and fall in love. We want to get a job that showcases and challenges our greatest gifts. The goals are in place.
     Time passes. Things come up. As John Lennon tells us, life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. In other words, these goals you're making are often sidelined by day-to-day living and all its demands and requirements.
      If your New Year's Resolutions consistently end up in the sad dust bin of your personal history, I have an idea that might help. Even for lesser resolutions, there are a few things you might consider in order to make them actually come to pass.
     There is a reason that great and worthy goals often swirl endlessly in the eddies of our lives. The main reason is that we often fail to start with the goal and build backwards, until we identify every step necessary to reach it. Want a great romantic relationship? Wanting it is not enough. Wanting it is not a goal. Wanting it is a wish. In order for it to become an actual goal, you must first address some actual questions: What are the steps between where you are now and where you want to be that are absolutely necessary in order for you to reach that goal? What separates your life as it is right now from your life as you want it to be?
     If you systematically identify the rungs of the ladder you must climb in order to reach the place you want to be, then you have actually begun to convert your wish to a goal. You have identified the steps you must take. But that's not enough. There are two sets of realities you must take into account in order to reach your goal.
     In the process of developing your goal ladder, you must also build a parallel structure to the steps you must take toward accomplishment: this is the series of inevitable obstacles that are bound to emerge and block your progress. If you are not fully aware of the existence of these potential obstacles and their ability to sabotage the best of your intentions, they will, in fact, do so.
     A good image to illustrate the point I am making is the well known structure of DNA: the double helix. For our purposes, one side of the ladder is made up of the steps toward the identified goal. The other side is made up of the obstacles that keep us from reaching that goal. Climbing each rung means you have successfully identified and navigated the intermediate steps required for reaching your goal. It also means you have identified and overcome each obstacle in your way.
     It is simple, in that you can hold the visual image of a double helix in your mind as a template for making your plans. But climbing the rungs of the ladder you create will take discipline and faith in your ability to get where you want to go. It isn't magic. It isn't something some people are born with and others lack. It requires of you a systematic awareness and application of the big picture involved in meeting any goal you set, large or small.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Using a Popular Song from Your Youth as Emotional Therapy

     The popular songs of our life are rich with associations. Listening to a song you loved in high school (and we didn't just like our favorite songs in high school, we loved them: all passions ran high during those years), for example, can evoke memories so intense you feel you are there again: you recall exactly what you are wearing, what the halls of your school smell like, your chemistry lab partner's green sweater, even the way the light shines through the windows and onto the hardwood floors, where you look while searching for the answers during an impromptu oral quiz in your English class. In my case, I recall with absolute clarity the pervasive scent of chocolate in our afternoon classes, which drove the nuns crazy (they didn't know we used Hershey's Cocoa Butter on our legs during lunch break as a tanning aid).
     There is another way, though, that the popular songs of your youth have power. They can be used therapeutically.
     Here's how:
     Think of a song, for example, that you love and associate positively with the first bloom of your first love. This might be your first our song, or the one that was playing when you had your first kiss. Settle into a quiet place with your laptop, go to YouTube, and find that song. Plug in your ear buds and close your eyes.
     At first you will have the rush of all the associations I mentioned earlier. But if you linger a minute, and go deeper, you will also begin to sense that you can also recollect the feelings associated with those very golden memories of early love. At that time, your whole body tingled with energy when you saw your beloved. At his or her touch, you were electrified. Your eyes grew wide. Your heart beat faster. A joy rose within you that made you feel you could burst. Oh, how you loved this person! Oh, how wonderful that love felt! And you can feel those feelings again in these moments as you listen to the song. You can feel the love, the respect, the trust, the admiration.
     You have just discovered that all those feelings reside within you still, and they can be tapped and brought to consciousness through the simple method I have just described.
      There are a few caveats that need to be observed for this process to work.
  1. First of all, when choosing the song you want to use, be certain you have only positive associations with it and with the person connected to it in the moment when it was popular in your daily life. 
  2. Also, be specific. Don't think of a group you liked; instead, choose a specific song that has particular meaning to you. 
  3. Finally, be prepared to turn it off the minute you feel anything negative. Select another song and start over, or select another time to do this exercise, perhaps when you are more free to focus on the process.
     Why do I suggest going backwards in order to feel good in the present? Because when you are feeling sad or depressed, one of your fears is likely to be that you will never feel better again. Talking yourself out of feeling depressed is hopeless. The links between what you understand cognitively and the heavy sadness in your heart feel solid and impenetrable.
     So I am offering you a workaround.
     Using a popular song in this way bypasses the thinking part of your brain and goes directly to your emotional memories. You are able to feel once again those feelings which are tapped by a song from a time when you were unremittingly happy. You feel the love and respect and delight you felt. And when the song is over, you have unmitigated proof to yourself that you are capable of feeling happy again, because you have just experienced it. This can help reduce some of the anxiety that often accompanies sadness and depression.
     You can use the song over and over to bring up the feelings you like. But once you've done it once or twice, you might be surprised to discover that you can evoke those feeling memories yourself, without the musical cue. You can use this ability in times when you feel overwhelmed, when you feel sad, when you can't seem to feel a way out of a dismal moment.
     You are creating a positive feedback loop for yourself, essentially, which, once created, is there at your command. It is a very powerful tool for finding your way to a happier state of mind.
     Enjoy yourself. Love yourself and your precious emotional memories. Those feelings can live again.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Killer in Colorado: Who's Frightened Now?

     Another crazy person shoots and kills, murders people he has never met. This time, with three separate weapons, including an assault rifle. The crazy man lives - no self-inflicted shot to the head, no suicide by provoking police gunfire. He is arrested. He hires a lawyer. No one knows why he did this. But does it even matter? Or is the more important question related to how he came upon the AR-15 in the first place?
     We are held captive in this country by a powerful group of fools who misconstrue the 18th century language of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which was written in a time when we actually had militias. One of the results of this kind of thinking is that a crazy man in Colorado had possession of a military-style assault rifle. In the USA, each of us has the right to "bear arms."
     People will tell you that gun control will make no difference, that new laws will make no difference, because criminals will find these weapons on the black market. I have no doubt that this is true. They're criminals. They don't give a rip about any other laws; why would they suddenly take heed if guns were controlled? I doubt, however, that with stricter laws and stricter punishments a neuroscience student would have the apparently easy access to an AR-15 that this murderer in Colorado had.
     You don't have to agree with me on the matter of gun control. But it is impossible for anyone to refute the existence of encroaching fear that each gruesome crime like the Colorado movie massacre plants in the hearts of children and adults throughout this country. Not just the children who were at the theater that night and missed being hit by bullets. Not just the children who knew kids who were there. Children all over the country. And their parents as well.
     The baseline anxiety that most individuals in this country wake up with each morning is a silent debilitator that makes everything harder, everything more frightening, everything slightly less sure. Security? It's a word we use when we think of airports these days. It's not something we feel any longer as the background of our daily lives. Security has been replaced by anxiety, vigilance, and the constancy of low-grade fear.
     Today in America things feel scarier to many youngsters than they did yesterday. Their ideas about the future are a little darker, and carry a subtle home-grown threat that all is not what it seems. You can't go to the mall without risking your life. You can't go to the movies. In Seattle these days (and I'm sure we are not unique in this) you can't even drive down the street minding your own business without being at risk for catching a stray bullet when one anger-driven gangster takes poor aim at another who is equally angry.
     We have much to answer for allowing ourselves to be force fed a misinterpretation of our own Constitution. We have even more to answer for if we continue to disagree about it in private but do nothing to change things in public
     How many terrified children will it take to change an Amendment to the Constitution of the Unites States of America? Apparently we have not yet hit that number.
     Or have we? Was the murderous rage in Colorado this morning enough to tip the balance?
     Psychotherapists everywhere are hoping the answer is yes.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Different Then, Different Still: The Gifted Adult

     Gifted children have a much different experience related to being gifted than people one and two generations ahead of them. For one thing, they are recognized and identified. They may not all get the support they need. They may fall prey to bullies and to the envious. Sure. Some things never change. But at least they are recognized for what they are: intellectually gifted.
     If you go back to the time when today's adults were children, things were not so clear. And, of course, the farther back in the decades you go, the muddier things get. High achievers were called smart by those who admired them, or kiss-ups (and worse) by those they annoyed.
     Mainly this was because gifted children of past eras, just as those do today, asked questions that other kids hadn't conceptualized. They asked questions that showed evidence of previously considered underpinnings that most adults (including their teachers) hadn't constructed for themselves. They saw patterns, made associations, deduced, and predicted. Sometimes, they were wrong. They were kids, after all. But a lot of the time, they were right: inventive, creative, exciting. 
     Sometimes the mere fact of asking certain questions was daunting when they came at the wrong time. I recall asking gigantic, multi-dimensional what if questions around Girl Scout camp fires on summer nights deep in the woods, for example. These generally had the effect of a sudden hailstorm on the group's joie de vivre: some kids got a kick out of them, while the majority ran for shelter. Do you remember ever having the feeling of wishing you'd just kept your thoughts to yourself?
     Those of you who may feel as if you comprise the lost tribe of gifted adults are still prone to asking those big questions. Things occur to you while you are watching your children play soccer, sipping wine in the lobby during intermission at the opera, or stretching your legs during a coffee break from an intense business meeting...but you've learned to pick your audiences now. You understand the potential cost of what is seen as blurting out whatever happens to be on your mind. You keep your quiet inquiries to yourselves. And much as it was when you were children, you still get tired of being treated as if you're the smartest person in the room, whose comments garner admiration rather than response. You want companionship, a meeting of the minds, not admiration, however sincerely it is offered.
     It ain't easy being green. It ain't easy being smart. But the older you get, the smarter you get about being smart. You learn to be selective. You learn to cherish your own company, and pursue your interests, no matter what anyone else may say or think about them.
     But there's one thing to remember: just as you can't hide green, you can't hide smart. But you can learn to accept being lonely in a crowd at times, because at times you are, and that's life, and your lot in it. Being intelligent also holds the potential for great personal joy.
     And the older you get, the smarter you get about feeling generative with your intelligence: your life can become an model for others about how to manage the complexity of labyrinths not seen or experienced by many people, but which pose a great challenge to those younger than you who are just setting out. This is the gift of your gift: you can leave breadcrumbs behind so that others may follow the example of your well-lived life. Stand up and be smart. The right people will notice, and others will notice and may be warmed by your fire anyway, regardless of their level of awareness. The main thing is to be yourself and honor your gifts. You can't hide them, anyway.
     If you feel you could benefit by additional wind under your wings, counseling can provide just the lift you may need in order to take off and soar.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Empty Nest: It's Not Temporary

     All those years of rushing children to soccer and ballet, horses and theater productions, teacher conferences, college care packages, rushing off to the airport to pick them up as they return for holidays before flying off again to school...whoosh! they are gone. And so are the children.
     You raised them to be independent. They are exactly the young people you hoped they would become: busy, active, involved, productive members of society, with their own life trajectories and concerns. If they are in their mid- to late twenties, you are likely in that interim place where mothers are stored while grown children develop and test their wings. And that can be a very lonely place for a mother.
     Once these children marry and have children of their own, relationships shift and families reconfigure to incorporate the new members. You have a distinct role: grandmother. You have a place in the family.
     But this interim place, this on-hold place  - it can be wrought with pain and confusion. For one thing, it is a massive adjustment to go from being the central point in your children's lives, the very point to which they are tethered, to being off their grids. Not only do they no longer need your daily ministrations, but also they don't yet have enough life experience of their own to realize the enormous change their independence has brought to your life. It is the death of a beloved role; and, like any death, it needs to be mourned.
     Sure, the image of the phoenix comes to mind. You hear of women "re-inventing themselves in mid-life, now that the children are gone," and "becoming themselves." You hear of companies started, novels written, volunteer commitments in the community - but you don't hear of the quiet mourning in each mother's heart as she goes about her daily business in a world that is forever changed. You don't witness the quiet moments when she wipes away the burning tears that seem to come out of nowhere
     And you don't hear about the fear a woman faces about trying to articulate this to her children. Why bother them with my stuff? I'll get over this. It's just a phase. They're doing just what I wanted them to do. It's time for me to get on with my life. I'm not the first woman whose children have left home.
     But, oh! For just one day of bandaging bruised knees, settling he-said-she-said arguments, commending the broccoli because it's good for you... Just one day of looking in the rear view mirror to check on the toddler in the back seat. One day of...being mommy.
     But those days have vanished.
     Whether your friends talk about them or not, I assure you that this is no minor transition for a women. It is a large and significant shift from one role to another, and it comes on us suddenly. We first feel a little relief when the house is quiet during those times when the children are away at college. We read. We cook what we like. The house stays neat. But in those days, we have the comfort of knowing chaos will resume the minute you return from the airport with the children and their suitcases of laundry.
     Now it is quiet all the time. Now the house stays neat. Now you have all the time in the world to do just what you want with whatever spare time you have. They are not coming home. There will be no holiday chaos. They will not be bringing their books and laptops and sloppy clothes next time they visit. They will come with handbags. They will have to run off shortly after eating. They have things they have to do, places they need to be in fifteen minutes, people who are expecting them. Other people. Not you. Their kisses graze your cheek as they rush out the door - and they are gone.
     I recommend you share your thoughts and feelings with your women friends who are in a similar situation with regard to their children. Unless there was deep familial dysfunction and pathology, it is very likely your friends are trying to get along the best way they know how, just as you are, even though that includes the daily presence of a hole right in the middle of their hearts.
     This is the progress of life. This is the cycle since time immemorial. The differences over time, of course, include the dissolution of the extended family. This is the main cause of the distress women face when their children leave home. Our culture could benefit greatly be re-examining this issue, and perhaps the economics of our times will force a re-evaluation of the benefits of the extended family. It would benefit us all, in each generation. It would mean connections do not have to be artificially severed. It would keep the cloth whole.
     Meanwhile, acknowledge the pain of the loss. Know that every mother faces it. Know that the support you receive from your women friends can help you greatly as a community of mommies becomes a community of mothers, mothers of adult children, and seats of wisdom.
     Wisdom is the pearl that develops from the painful separation of having your children move on. And wisdom is a beautiful gift, bittersweet in the winning, and beautiful to witness because of the difficulty in which it was born.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Real Reason Adele's "Someone Like You" Makes Us Cry

Someone Like You
   According to research by psychologist John Sloboda, a musical device known as an appoggiatura—using a note that creates a slightly dissonant sound with the melody—is especially effective at setting off tears in listeners. He claims that is what Adele employs when she sings the word you with a dip in the middle, in her song Someone Like You. (Click the song title below the photo at the left to view the YouTube video of Someone Like You.)
     Martin Guhn, another psychologist, says this: "Appoggiatura creates tension in the listener. When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves, and it feels good." 
     That kind of thinking drives me crazy. Even it it's true, so what?
     You know as well as I do that you're still going to cry whenever you hear the song, and not because a musical device is manipulating you emotionally. You're going to cry because the pathos in this song gets to you every single time: we are witnessing, and participating in vicariously, the plaintive wail of unveiled emotional pain trying to overcome itself.
     How many times in your own life has a breakup hurt you so deeply that for several months, even years, you are still this close to tears every time  you think about it? (In her song, Adele tells us her former lover is now married, which takes time to accomplish regardless of the particular circumstances.) In that moment of burn, when your whole body feels about to burst into raw redness, you tell yourself to get over it, to move on. You still love the person, but you tell yourself that this hurt still boring into your soul was just one of those things, because sometimes love just doesn't work out. Everyone knows that; you chide yourself for holding on; you push your pain underground, and transfer your concern to the well being of your  lover.
      And never mind, anyway. You'll find someone else just like the one who left you behind. You know in your heart that this is impossible, no matter how  many times you say it. No matter how much you want to believe it, it does not feel true, it is not true, you do not believe it at all. There is no Someone Like You. Not anywhere in the world. You believe you will never find love like this lost love again. But, you tell yourself, never mind
     You show up at the door. You make that late night phone call. ...But I couldn't stay away, I couldn't fight it... And in your deepest embarrassment, your attempt to minimize the depth of your pain, you declare your hope that you not be forgotten, and you say out loud that you only want the best for this individual who will live forever in your heart while in the arms and bed of another person -- possibly without any awareness of holding this central role in your life.
     I believe the problem lies in what Adele identifies this way: Only yesterday was the time of our lives, we were born and raised in a summer haze bound by the surprise of our glory days. It is a problem because what she is actually talking about here is her own memory of her experience of this relationship, her side of the story. But her story is not necessarily an accurate picture of the relationship itself. It is not necessarily true that her lover experienced those times in the same way she did. For him, the relationship through which she defined herself to herself could easily have been a fling that somehow got bound up in words of love and passion in the summer grass.
     This song hurts because we all want the intimacy of having our reality and the reality of just one other person -- one particular and dear person -- to align with our own. It hurts because even when we think we have it, we know we are at risk for losing it.
     Or, in the saddest of all possible worlds, the world of which Adele sings, we may have been mistaken about the nature of the relationship in the first place, without even realizing that this misinterpretation of events is the real reason the loss hurts so much.
     A good therapist can help you see this, even though it may feel as if is the last thing on earth you want to see. She can also help you see your loving heart as a vessel created to hold the love of a worthy lover. She can help you fill it with compassion for yourself, while holding it open for the day you encounter another person who merits a place in that brave and loving heart of yours.
     You won't meet Adele's Someone Like You. You'll meet Someone Who Likes You. And you will know the difference, and rejoice.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Is Patience Out of Style?

     When I was a child, jumpy with impatience, adults around me offered me this:
Patience is a virtue, 
possess it if you can; 
seldom found in woman, 
never found in man.

    It was unsatisfactory, as answers go. For one thing, what possible bearing did such a verse have on the fact that there were still more than 20 days until Christmas, or two more hours until my birthday party? And this patience and virtue stuff? I was having none of it.
     As I grew older, however, I began to see the benefits of patience. As one early example, on the day of our much-anticipated senior prom I learned that what is savored in anticipation is beyond delicious once it finally arrives. 
     For another, I experienced the merit in discipline, since discipline is the quality a person develops while learning to be patient. Also, and certainly not least of all, I came to realize how little control I had over anything in the universe but myself. Impatience began to feel like something I was doing to myself as a punishment for not having supernatural powers.
     "You can't hurry love." No, the fact is that you can't hurry anything. The only thing you can influence is your own experience of waiting for the desired moment to arrive.
     Frustrating? It can be. It feels like waiting, and waiting is about the most passive undertaking known to man (next to watching paint dry). But Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton, British politician, poet, critic and novelist (1803-1873) viewed it this way: "Patience is not passive; on the contrary, it is active; it is concentrated strength."
     I have come to agree with him.
     In this media-widened world, when everything happens everywhere to everyone at the same time, and time itself seems to accelerate at the speed of tweets, patience becomes the name we give the anxiety we experience when a page is slow to load. Or a traffic light seems stuck on red. Or The Bachelor has only one more red rose to deliver.
     Now I could go way off the deep end here and bring up The Patience of Job, but I'll skip the dramatics and move instead in the middle ground, where we actually live. You know the place. This is where college applications take eons to garner a response. Where it takes forever to find a job. Where the chemotherapy seems stalled: is it working or not?
     This is the realm of patience. And, unfortunately, our skills in this area are diminished by the rapid-fire access we have to almost everything we could ever want. We have less need to practice patience in our lives today, so when we are called upon to do so we are petulant, rusty.
     John Lennon said that life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. I would amend his wisdom to include a corollary: life is also what happens when you're fretting yourself into a frenzy of impatience with the fact that you, mighty human, cannot change the speed of time.
     And this the silver lining: you can create the way you experience the passage of time. As Bulwer-Lytton suggests, you can be conscious of doing other things, and develop strength of character by occupying your mind and energy in productive ways. You'll notice that time will pass without your assistance, and eventually your period for impatience will also have passed, without its usual handmaidens, Frustration and Anxiety. Because you've been busy doing other things, things you truly enjoy doing, your experience of time might actually speed up, which is the basis of the book Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. You get to the finish line faster if you're not looking at it. This is akin to not watching a pot as it boils. Go fix the salad greens instead, and before you know it, the kettle will sing.
     Patience may be a virtue. It may not be. But I can tell you this for certain: patience is your friend. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Do You Only See What You Expect to See?

     Evolutionary biologists call it Observational Bias, and they tell us it is a good thing. When they mean is that over the course of human history, we have learned to distinguish dangerous from non-dangerous people and objects in our environment based on a minimal amount of information, and to respond appropriately. Our reactions are fight, flight, or freeze, depending on the assessment we make in the few seconds we allot to the process.
     This may be fascinating, as far as evolutionary biology goes. But what about your daily life? What about the things you see around you today, this minute, and the conclusions you draw from them? Can you see how today they might just as likely to be wrong as right?
      It's simple, really: our environment is more complex than it was when these traits were set down. Our neural pathways haven't had the time to catch up with that complexity. We are likely to make false assumptions, based on information that doesn't apply to the situation at hand.
     For example, our cave-dwelling ancestors would have been justified to fear a neighbor's insistence on settling an argument with a raised axe. But are we justified in assuming we know just as surely what a person intends today?
     Someone makes a statement in a meeting that rankles you. You bristle, and take it personally, and make a mental note that this particular co-worker has it in for you. In your next interaction with this person, you ignore her, but not without first casting one of those looks you've mastered specifically to wither all viewers.
     Well, for example, what you didn't know is that your co-worker was suffering with a migraine during that first meeting and could barely think straight. You made a mistake. You saw rancor where there was none. You saw what you expected to see; you didn't have a clue what was really going on. And now look at the mess you have on your hands, as your coworker starts to treat you like the jerk your behavior suggests that you are.
      We all do it. We all cause ourselves problems and sometimes even real misery when we don't keep an open mind about the intentions of another person. The best way to avoid cruising down this slippery slope is simple, but not necessarily easy. It's something you've heard all your life.
     If you are not sure you understand something, seek clarification. Ask! You're more likely to create harmony in your life by asking too many questions than you are by making assumptions that turn out to be baseless.
      Your mother, your Aunt Martha, and that pastor from summer camp? They all had it right. And more often than not, they incorporated one variation or another of the Golden Rule, just to underscore their point. There's nothing like an appeal to a higher authority to validate your position. That Golden Rule really does come in handy. All we have to do is remember to apply it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sometimes Anxiety is More than Just Feeling Nervous

     We all get anxious, and there are a million good reasons for it. In terms of evolution, anxiety alerts us to the fact that something is amiss. We can then change course, and relieve the anxiety.
     In these times, though, things are seldom that simple. Our lives have been propelled way past the capacities of our physical body's early warning system's capabilities. 
     If you find your thoughts going back to the same problem over and over again, and feel a restless sense of powerlessness every time, it's possible you're heading into the territory of long-term anxiety, rather than the short-term sort that alerts us to a potential problem. 
     A common example of the more serious form of anxiety is the distress you might feel if you are out of work and running out of resources -- fast. Your mind rushes to the what ifs: what if I never find a job; what if I cannot pay my rent; what if I lose my car; what if I cannot feed my family. These are certainly legitimate concerns. But you do yourself more harm than good by placing your focus on them, instead of concerting all your energy in the service of the one thing you can control: your efforts toward finding employment. Anxiety has  way of blocking you from being able to concentrate on what is really important. The anxiety must be relieved.
     I know. I make is sound so easy. In fact, is may even sound as if I don't understand how difficult it is to put such worries out of your mind, and concentrate on finding a job. Well, I do understand. And I'd like to make a suggestion.
     There are times when anxiety can be so great that it interferes with your ability to move forward. In the example above, if you cannot stop thinking about all the disasters that might lie ahead, how are you going to find the peace of mind you'll need to present yourself as the keen and capable employee you know yourself to be?
     This might be the time to seek the attention of a medical professional for anxiety. There are a number of effective medications available for anxiety management, and they are worth investigating. 
     Please don't be afraid to ask for help. It is okay to admit that you need short-term assistance to get yourself through a difficult phase in your life. Once your problem is resolved, you will probably no longer need the medication.
     It is possible to be relieved of the anxiety long enough to break your cycle of unemployment. It is possible to return to being the you that you used to be, and to feel happy again, and secure, and calm.
     It is okay to ask for help.