Sunday, January 14, 2024

The daily rituals that make up the gaps that make up a life

"There's a lot of beauty in ordinary things."
Pam Beesly-The Office

“Life is not measured by time. It is measured by moments.”
Armin Houman

I recently watched a little animated series called “Carol and the End of the World.” It’s about a woman who continues to go to work as an administrative assistant, despite the fact the world is going to be hit by another planet in a few months and is coming to an end. And she’s not the only one. Hundreds of people go to work at “The distraction,” every day while the rest of the world loses itself in hedonism, religion etc.

Ask a lot of people what they would do if they won the lottery, and many will tell you they would quit their job immediately. But a much smaller minority will tell you they would probably just keep on working. This show is about that group.

When asked about his motivation to create the show, the writer said the show was, “A love letter to routine. A show about the comforts of monotony. An animated existential comedy about the daily rituals that make up the gaps that make up a life.

And for some reason I couldn’t get that last line out of my mind.

“The daily rituals that make up the gaps that make up a life.”

I started making an inventory of some of my life’s rituals. I chat with my elderly neighbour about the weather and what’s going on in our little town nearly every day. When I go to the gym, I make some kind of light-hearted, self-deprecating remark to the manager about working out and my disdain for it. There’s a young waitress at the coffee shop I go to every day who noticed me reading my Kindle, and now we talk about what we are reading and give each other recommendations.

Just a lot of little things. Those are a few that jump out to me. A bunch of small interactions each day that on their own don’t amount to much more than a little good-natured banter. Each of these interactions are just an N of 1. Unimportant in the grand scheme of things and just little moments that most people have over the course of a day. 

The gaps that make up life.

But when you start tallying up all these sums, they just might equal a good day, a great year, and even a happy life.

Because when you think about the gaps that make up a life, that’s a lot of time to account for. And we use a whole lot of that time walking around in a daze. Headphones on, face buried in our phones, lost in our own ruminations and worries. As David Foster Wallace says, “It is extremely difficult to stay alert & attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.”

And I think for a lot of people filling the “gaps” isn’t even about other people. Maybe it’s the way they go to the bank, or clean their house, or get their hair cut once a month on a Tuesday.  I think one of the reasons a lot of people struggled during Covid was because these routines became disrupted. It’s the same reason a lot of people struggle when they are newly retired. The same reason it’s not always good for people with mental health issues to take too much time off of work when they are feeling down.

Rituals and routines serve a purpose. Perhaps a bigger one than we even realize.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have often considered routine to be a kind of enemy in my life. I was always about taking the big swings. Visiting that exotic country. Seeing that gorgeous place. Continuing to complete that bucket list.

But if I’m REALLY honest about my travels? I often remember my little interactions with people a lot more than the beautiful location. When I was in Bali recently I had to walk past a block of shopkeepers on the way to the beach, and ended up enjoying my morning banter with them over the course of the week a lot more than seeing the sites.

This is new kind of self-discovery for me. Although I philosophically understand the idea that it’s not the destination but the journey, I think I never stopped to consider how the minutiae of the journey could actually have such meaning.

In closing I will close with a little vignette from Mark Duplass about how he needed a day to slow down and enjoy his daily rituals and moments.

A good lesson for us all.


Saturday, December 30, 2023

The Fairytale of Sydney- A New Year’s Eve Reflection

Getting through Christmas season is always an adventure. It’s that time of year when time just flows a bit differently. Some years I get this crazy itch to go home. Many years I take some kind of exotic trip. On rare occasions I just stay home.

This year I decided to see what my own city of Sydney had to offer.

I spent three days walking the city, seeing the sites, visiting my favorite pub for a sing-a-long, and reflecting on my life, the state of the world, and where things were going.

Like many people I suspect, sometimes I get a song stuck in my head that follows me around for a few days or even weeks. Often this song becomes part of the “soundtrack” for whatever experiences I’m having at the time.

I recently learned that the most popular Christmas song in the UK is “The Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues. For those that might not be familiar with this song, it’s about a couple of drunks looking back on their lives and their lost dreams while also remembering when things were good. It’s not exactly the most “feel good” song, and it’s a little surprising it’s become such a popular Christmas song. Maybe people recognize it as being a little closer to real life than other Christmas songs. Who knows? But I must admit I became a fan this year and have sort of had the song on repeat these last couple of weeks.

A sad footnote to the story was that the lead singer of The Pogues, Shane
MacGowan, died this year not long before Christmas. Much like the hero of his Christmas song, Shane lived life hard and fast. His death kind of seemed like the end of something to me. I got the same feeling when Kurt Cobain died in 1994. Like an age was coming to an end. The Pogues were dirty, gritty, and cool. And at the risk of sounding like an old man shaking his rake in the air, they don’t really make music like that anymore. A lot of history’s most influential musicians have died in the last few years or are on their last laps. Like I say, it felt like the end of something to me.

But as for this the song, one particular lyric stood out to me.

‘It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, 
won't see another one’

Now look, I’m not trying to get morbid here, but when I heard that lyric, I thought back on the past year and all of the friends I had lost since last Christmas. Many likely had no idea they “wouldn’t see another one” at the time, I’m quite certain of that.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this. For those of us that have lost friends, particularly at a young age, it all seems kind of surreal when it happens. Freud once said the two biggest mistakes people make are thinking illness and disease won’t happen to them and thinking they have an unlimited amount of time.

So as I was walking around Christmas night, I was thinking about all of this and the fact that for some of us, this WILL be our last Christmas. It was a sobering thought and as I was walking the streets I reflected about what that meant. If we know this to be true, I mean we REALLY know it to be true, what should we do with this information? Call our friends and family and tell them we love them? Take a trip to some exotic place we’ve always wanted to go? Focus more on our health? Quit our jobs and hit the road?

As I was thinking these thoughts, I heard music and followed the sound. I realized I was at Martin Place, where Sydney’s biggest and brightest Christmas tree stood proudly. It was Christmas night around 9 PM and I assumed most people’s Christmas was over by now.

But I assumed wrong.

There was a huge crowd of people around the tree. There was a singer belting out Christmas songs, and people were loudly singing along. Others were taking pictures in front of the tree and laughing and dancing.

But all I heard in MY head was the Fairytale of New York,

'You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing Galway Bay
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day’

It was the happy part of the song when things were good. That was the vibe at the tree that night. These people were joyful and happy and completely in the moment.

It was a lovely place to be. Some of these people were probably having the best Christmas of their lives. Making memories that they would remember forever.

And man was that feeling contagious. It made me realize that, although my earlier thoughts were that it would be the last Christmas for some people, that didn’t mean life stopped happening.

And more than that, it made me realize that not only was that a pleasant alternative, it was actually the point. We need to live as much as possible, because time was fleeting.

 As Emily Dickenson said,

That it will never come again
Is what makes life so sweet.

And after that, I bought myself some Hot Chocolate and joined in with the singing. I might have 50 Christmases’ left or I might have one. I didn’t have much control over that.

But I sure as hell could enjoy this Christmas. This moment.

That was in my control.

So in the end, I had my little “Fairytale of Sydney.”

And to all the people I’ve lost this year, thank you for sharing some of your time with me. I won’t forget the gift. You’ve helped me realize that we don’t get unlimited time and I need to use mine as richly and authentically and as passionately as I possibly can.

Happy New Year everyone.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Saudade and updating your personal soundtrack


This has been an interesting year for me. After all those stifling Covid years, I must admit I got the travel bug again. They are calling it “revenge” travel. Not sure who I’m getting revenge on though? Society? The Man? Either way, I’m here for it. I’ve been back to Chicago, been to Vietnam twice, and am going to Thailand next month. All sounds great, right?

The thing is, funny stuff sometimes happens when we travel that people never talk about. There’s a feeling of displacement. A loneliness. A desire to be back home amongst one’s things. Psychologists have done a little research on this phenomenon. People have strong needs for both belonging and connection, and sometimes these things don’t come easy when you’re a stranger in a strange land.

I recently had one of these strange moments while lying on a beach in Vietnam. It should have been a perfect moment, but like many people do with perfect moments these days, I ruined it by picking up my phone. While scrolling, I saw that Jimmy Buffett had died.  I felt an incredible sadness, but also something a little more complicated than that.

I was a huge fan of Buffett when I was younger. For a few years there (my twenties for instance) I practically WAS Jimmy Buffett. The whole vibe of traveling around, drinking Margaritas, and exploring new places fit my lifestyle perfectly. His music was the soundtrack of my 20’s and 30’s, and I have a million memories of that time of my life.  But more recently? Not as much. So why was I hit with such a powerful wave of emotion?

In thinking about this, I thought about a fascinating word in Portuguese called “Saudade.” A loose definition of the word is, “An emotional state of melancholic or profoundly nostalgic longing for a beloved yet absent something or someone. It is often associated with a repressed understanding that one might never encounter the object of longing ever again.”

And I think I got it. Of course it’s sad when someone that has brought a lot of great music and joy has passed. But somehow it’s also more than that. We also miss that time and that place in our own lives. Who we were back then. The fun we had. Perhaps how carefree and bold we were. The friends we had. Our youth. Our vitality.

So it’s not just remembering the music and the band that creates these nostalgia pains. It’s how we used to feel about things. The passion. The excitement. I remember getting ready for “Monsters of Rock,” my first concert and one of my first overnight trips with friends.

And when I held up my lighter when The Scorpions sang, “Winds of Change”? Man, I didn’t think any moment could ever possibly top that.

And that’s the part I think we miss. As Sam Ewing once said, “When you finally go back to your old home, you find it wasn't the old home you missed but your childhood.” And I think some of the same concept applies. The “pain” from nostalgia comes from the idea that we can never replicate that time and that place again. The Welsh also have a great word for this called “Hiraeth.” Loosely translated to, “A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home that maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for lost places in your past”

And I was having all these thoughts, I took a look around me. I thought about how the 18-year old me would feel about sitting on a gorgeous beach in Vietnam drinking a cold beer while sitting in a hammock.

And that’s the moment I stopped feeling so sad and started feeling something else. In grief counselling we call this “integration.” Like, I can remember someone I’ve lost and feel not just sadness but also some happiness remembering the good times we had and all the positive ways that person had affected my life. It’s an important step in the grieving process, but perhaps also a way of reconciling our feelings about those memories from our past. It’s okay to miss something or someone and be sad about it, but also good to give some equal time to the good parts.

So with a smile this time, I opened my phone and cued up a video by Jimmy Buffett. Not one of his main songs like Margaritaville, but one on my old favourites called "They Don’t Dance Like Carmen No More." A song about Jimmy himself lamenting how they don’t make music like they did in the good old days.

 The irony was not lost on me.

And as I sat there, I also came to a different realization. It’s always within our power to find new songs, experiences, and people that will continue to make up the soundtrack of our lives. It’s not over. As long as we are drawing breath, we still have the chance to do that.

So by the time I rolled out of that hammock, I was already planning my next adventure. Figuring out what’s going to go on to my next mixed tape.

So anyway, RIP Jimmy. You're gone but not forgotten. Music is pretty immortal like that.

But for the next little while, I’ll be looking for some new sounds. As a wise person once said, “Embrace uncertainty, some of the best chapters of your life won’t have a title until much later.” One day in the future, I will undoubtedly look back wistfully at that moment lying on a beautiful beach in Vietnam. It’s something we always forget.

Some day we will miss today as well.

And me? I’ll try and find the dance floor. They definitely don’t dance like Carmen no more. They don’t even dance like they did at my first Monsters of Rock concert.

But somehow I think I’ll still figure it out. 

Monday, April 10, 2023

Kyrie Eleison (An Easter essay about Kangaroos, cars and self-forgiveness)

For years I have tried to make a point to write an essay around Easter time. It’s not for religious reasons or anything like that. It’s just, Easter always signified the beginning of spring for me in the US. The end of a long winter. And perhaps more than that, a chance to clear the slate and find a sense of renewal.

That’s what the Easter holiday seemed to be about to me. Forgiveness and starting over. The “Kyrie” as a Catholic kid meant “lord have mercy.” You confess your sins and then you get forgiven and get the chance to do better. Although I’ve dropped the religion, I never really dropped the lesson.

And as a child of the 80’s, the song “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister was also quite popular at the time. I have always held the phrase in my mind. Kyrie Eleison.

  The lyrics of the song went like this.

‘When I was young, I thought of growing old
Of what my life would mean to me
Would I have followed down my chosen road
Or only wished what I could be?

Kyrie eleison down the road that I must travel
Kyrie eleison through the darkness of the night
Kyrie eleison where I'm going, will you follow?
Kyrie eleison on a highway in the night’

So why am I telling you this?

As it so happens, I was driving on a dark, Australian, ocean road the other night and this song came on. I started belting it out as loud as I could. My own little carpool Karaoke.

And then I saw it. A huge Kangaroo directly in the middle of the road that didn’t seem inclined to move.

Lord have mercy.

I swerved at the last minute and narrowly avoided killing both the Kangaroo and myself. It was just one of those lucky things.

At least I think it was lucky. I’m not ruling out it was something else.

As I say, I’m not the religious type anymore, and it’s not the point of this essay to get into why. Spirituality is a complicated thing in a person’s life.

But I still believe in the message of Easter. Forgiveness. Atonement. Renewal, Starting over.

And I can tell you, when I pulled over to the side of the road in that moment, I thought about all of those things. It wasn’t exactly a “near-death” experience, but things could have certainly gone badly there. I briefly pictured the headline. “American psychologist tragically dies in Kangaroo encounter.”

Not exactly the way I wanted to go.

But as with anything, I also wanted to think about the lesson. I often talk to my clients about releasing themselves from shame and guilt through the act of self-forgiveness. Learning to accept they are human and sometimes are going to say and do things they are going to regret. Personally I have a “greatest hits" list of these things that likes to play when I am trying to sleep in the middle of the night. I think many of us have such a playlist.

So this Easter, I vow to practice this self-forgiveness. To let things go. To give myself this sense of renewal.

Sure it took an 80’s song and a Kangaroo to remind me, but better late than never.

So in closing I will leave you with a quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda-

"How long are you going to keep carrying that one conversation in your heart?
The one where you said or did the exact wrong thing?
 It's DONE. Nothing left but to learn. Drag it to the trash file. Click 'empty trash'

Yes, you're sure.

Free up that heart of yours."

Amen to that.

And Kyrie Eliison on the road that you must travel.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Two tables at a Mexican restaurant in Australia (A Christmas story)

Every year, I try and involve myself in a Christmas story. And I never know what the thing is going to be. Sometimes I volunteer my time. Or give an anonymous gift to someone in need. Every year it’s a little different. I say this not to brag. It’s just. I’ve been fortunate in my life. It’s a very small thing to pay it forward a little at Christmas.

Anyway, tonight I was sitting having dinner in a lovely Mexican restaurant. There are hundreds of those in Chicago alone. There’s maybe 10 in Australia. It’s a massive treat for me to sip those Margaritas and eat those chips and salsa. You miss the strangest things when you’re away from home.

But anyway, my Christmas story.

As luck would have it, I was seated between two tables with a very young girl (let’s call them both Jenny). One of the tables was “Jenny” having dinner with her grandparents. Just the three of them. The other table was “Jenny” and the entire young, tired, henpecked biological family. Both “Jenny’s” looked adorable enough on the surface.

But that faded rather quickly.

The young family was having a hard time, as young families often do when they are out to dinner. The poor parents barely got to take a bite herding the kids, and their entire dialogue was just one pleading reproach after another. “JENNY! Eat your vegetables!” “Wipe your mouth.” NO YOU CANNOT HAVE ICE CREAM BEFORE DINNER.” Jenny!!! How many times do I have to repeat myself!!!!”

It didn’t look like much fun.

But the interesting part came from watching the second table. That “Jenny” was acting exactly the same way. But no matter what she did, the grandparents seem to have endless patience for it. They were even delighted by some of her shenanigans. “Oh Jenny, you’ve knocked down Poppas beer! He’s probably had enough anyway!” “Jenny, of COURSE we will have ice cream, but let’s try a couple of bites of our dinner first.” “It’s really such a pleasure Jenny.”

It was a fascinating thing to behold.

Why the difference?

As far as I can tell, there are few things more delightful to people than being a grandparent. From watching my own mother in action, they practically BEG for time with the children. And let’s be honest, kids aren’t exactly easy.

So what gives??

As I was watching them all interact, I think I started to understand. We don’t realize the most significant moments of our lives while they are actually happening. The young family certainly wasn’t sitting there thinking about a little Christmas dinner with their children as a “precious memory.” They were tired. Stressed.

But the grandparents? It was like they were making every second count.

So what had they learned?

A lot it seemed.

One of my favorite little lines from the TV show “The Office” is from a scene I absolutely love. The character of Andy looks at his coworkers for the last time and says, “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good ole’ days before you’ve actually left them.”

In other words, we don’t always appreciate moments while they are happening. Don’t understand the significance of a crazy family dinner at Christmas. Time with loved ones. Laughter. Road trips. The anxiety of the moment takes away the ability to reflect on those things, and often they don’t become clear until much later.

But the grandparents sure as hell understood the lesson. You could see it in their eyes. They could forgive all of Jenny’s little mistakes because they had the most precious gift of all.


The problem with that particular gift when you’re young, is that it’s sort of like getting a pair of socks for Christmas.

But let me also tell you this, after 40 or so you’ll probably appreciate a good pair of socks more than you could ever realize.


But as for the gift of time, it’s something you could see the grandparents appreciated more than anything. But with the right kind of eyes, you could also see that they were the young family once upon a time. They had so much gratitude for their time with their granddaughter. And gratitude, particularly gratitude for time with others, usually doesn’t happen until you’ve lost something. A relationship. A family member. Your youth. Your health. And when you’ve had the luxury of perspective, you promise yourself you’ll take time more seriously. Savor moments. Cherish people.

And then we forget again. Then remember. Then forget again.


But sometimes when the cycle repeats itself enough times, the lesson finally sinks in.

And that’s what I saw in those grandparent’s eyes. An evening out with their precious little granddaughter all to themselves was the best gift they could possibly imagine.

As for the other family? They continued to have a rough time. I happened to catch the dad’s eye right as he reached for his Corona and we shared a look. He started chuckling to himself as he surveyed the carnage of overturned chips and salsa at his table. Perhaps he was having the tiniest moment of clarity.

Here are some things I often hear from clients in therapy sessions.

1.       Man, I can’t believe how fast my kids got old. I’d do anything to have one more day with them as little kids again.

2.       I only see my family once or twice a year these days. Everyone is just so busy all the time.

3.       I wish I had spent more time with my grandparents before they passed. You always think you’re going to have more time.

And perhaps the biggest one.


“I wish I had told people I loved them before they died. There were so many things I didn’t get a chance to say.”



And as a (more than) middle-aged man sitting there drinking Margaritas and eating cheese dip like it was my job (Both tables will probably outlive me) I realized I had remembered a lesson I had also forgotten. Time is the best gift. The purity of your attention is the best gift. And yes, I even got a little choked up there thinking about all of this. I probably looked like a crazy person sitting there.


But that’s not QUITE the end of the story.

On my way out the door, I paid the bill for both tables. It was my little way of saying thank you for reminding me of such an important lesson.

As, I was walking by the window, I saw several of the people involved looking all over the restaurant and out the window. Who paid our check? Why would he do that? A Stranger?

And so I hope I gave them a little story to tell. I hope they have an amazing holiday. They still had lots of time. They still had their health. They still had each other.

And me???

I finally had my Christmas story.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

I was getting to where I could see the truth. Someday I'll be brave enough to speak it.

When you are about 12 or so, it’s inevitable that you’re going to have to do your first book report. In my day, you sometimes just read the back cover and tried to bullshit from there. Now kids have Wikipedia, cliff notes, and all kinds of other ways to circumvent this process. But invariably, the time comes where you just have to read the damn book.


Why am I telling you this?

I was getting to that! The reason is, the quote above comes from the first real book I ever read, The Outsiders by S.E Hinton.


Lots of you have probably seen the movie (best cast ever!) I would guess lots of kids from my generation actually did read the book. The quote above speaks to the protagonist of the story finally realizing the folly of the toxic masculinity he has been raised with. He’s sick of being a tough guy. Sick of burying feelings Sick of being unable to talk about things that men typically avoid for fear of being branded weak.

But there’s also a lot in the second part of the quote. He’s still gotta live in this world, and just because he’s found this enlightenment doesn’t mean everyone else is on the same page.  

As someone who has worked with a lot of younger males, I can tell you that they will often do almost anything to avoid a discussion about feelings. If you want to talk about YouTube or Fortnite, you can’t shut these guys up. You try to sneak one question in about emotions?

Suddenly everyone has got to go to the bathroom,

My point is, the avoidance of these discussions is wired into us at an early age. Sure there has been some great work done recently trying to reverse this process. Here is a wonderful talk about how teaching mindfulness can reduce stress and violence in schools.

And yet, toxic masculinity persists. As much as we talk about mindfulness, mental health, and self-care, many school corridors are still closer to Lord of the Flies than "I’m Ok you’re Ok." Much of what we see as therapists from our adult clients started somewhere in these years. Bullying. A parent with impossible expectations. Somewhere along the way we lose our confidence. Lose our shine. How do I know? I’ve BEEN in classrooms where I’ve asked kids what they want to be when they grow up. And they always have a BIG answer. An astronaut. A professional athlete. A doctor!!

No one ever says they want to be a burned-out middle manager with crippling social anxiety.

Parents have a lot of “greatest hits” when it comes to encouraging children to express their emotions. The ever popular “use your words” has been around for decades.

But the truth be told, we are BORN with a built-in GPS for expressing what we need. When a baby cries, they are not doing that just to keep you awake. They are telling you that they need something. When we tell kids to “use their words” we are trying to continue to give them language to tell us what they need.

But as we know, childhoods don’t always go so smoothly. Some children (particularly boys) learn to internalize emotions rather than verbalizing what they need. This could look like bedwetting, or bullying, or temper tantrums. Hell, some of the adults I know still do those things (alcohol is usually involved). But the point is, these are “protest” behaviours, or said another way, “I want you to read my mind” behaviours. We expect that people should just KNOW what we are feeling or what we need, but of course it doesn’t work that way.

Freud said, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in an uglier ways.”

And boy do they! Silent treatments. Binging on food or alcohol. In some cases, even violence or self-harm.

Turns out that “use your words” thing is pretty important.

I once heard it said that courage is the value that almost all other values spring from. We have to get past our fear. Fear of being different. Fear of being “too sensitive.” Fear of being made fun of by others or disrupting the status quo. Sometimes the easy thing to do is just avoid speaking up. We avoid the temporary consequences without realizing how dire the long-term effects of this approach can be.


But as for me? I went back and read The Outsiders again and thought about what it was like to read it  is as a 12-year old. Am I really so different now? DO I have the courage to speak the truth? Not necessarily. Not all the time. I still stuff plenty of emotions away (along with the corresponding Pepperoni Pizzas) rather than have a difficult conversation.

But I’m beginning to find my courage again.

Instead of a book report, I’ve committed to reading 50 books a year. Kind of a weekly book report if you will. I’m going back and reading all of the books that shaped me in some special way growing up. The next stop was The Catcher in the Rye, another book that made a significant impact in my younger years. I came across the following passage,

“Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them - if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.”

Amen to all of that. In sharing our words, we deepen our understanding of just what it is we’re doing here spinning around on this little blue ball in the middle of space. All of us have something to share. All of us contain a piece of the puzzle that might lighten the load or increase someone’s understanding of this shared experience.

Don’t let those words go unspoken.

Be brave enough to speak them.

Monday, January 4, 2021

After a rough 2020, have you lost sight of the horizon?


Let’s face it. That was a very long year.


I can’t imagine there is a single human being on the earth that didn’t have to alter their plans in at least SOME way last year.

And here we are in 2021. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

It’s been a humbling year realizing time cares little about our plans.

The other day I watched this show “A Million Little Things” and heard this quote about depression that I haven’t been able to get out of mind. The speaker in this instance was commenting on how John F. Kennedy Jr. lost sight of the horizon when he crashed his plane, and explained how this might also be seen as a metaphor for depression. 

Maybe he just lost sight of the horizon. I was watching this documentary on JFK Jr. You remember when his plane went down? … Anyway, Kennedy was a novice pilot. He was flying at night, and the clouds came in, and his instruments were telling him which way was up, but he didn’t trust them. The truth was right in front of him, and he couldn’t see it. He lost sight of the horizon and nosedived, and by the time he realized what was happening, it was too late, and he couldn’t pull up. That's depression.

 Depression is losing site of the horizon.

Another way of saying this, is that depression and suicide are highly correlated with feelings of hope, and to feel hope we need to have some belief that better things are ahead.


And with seemingly never-ending negative news stories, 2020 certainly put this idea to the test.

Many people I have seen have lost site of the horizon last year, as their ability to plan for the future was severely compromised. Small business owners not sure if they can hang on for much longer. People with immigration issues, praying for Visas that will allow them to stay in their new countries. People with relatives overseas they desperately wanted to reconnect with. These aren’t little worries, but real life and death uncertainties about what was going to happen next for them.

And they’ve lost sight of the horizon. Lost their sense of hope. Been swallowed up by constant worry about the future.

In considering this idea, I’ve delved deeply into the concept of burnout as it relates to this. Although most of us are familiar with the “traditional" definition of burnout, I recently discovered there were at least eight kinds of burnout that might affect effect someone. They are-

1.        1. Mental burnout: My mind cannot process any more; it’s fried.

  1. Emotional burnout: These heavy or anxious emotions are exhausting me.
  2. Compassion burnout: I cannot hold any more loving space for anyone else; I’m tapped.
  3. Relational burnout: I’ve been overgiving to others, my organization or my community/family, and I am over it.
  4. Survival burnout: I’m exhausted from trying to make ends meet and stay afloat.
  5. Superperson burnout: The weight of taking on so much is too much; I can’t hold it all anymore.
  6. Passion burnout: I love what I do, but I’ve given too much and pushed too hard.
  7. Physical burnout: My body is revolting; I have depleted my life force.


As I read through this list, I note that many of the people that I see fit with these less traditional definitions of burnout. For instance, people in the helping professions have certainly suffered from passion burnout this year, as a job and career they love has become overwhelming.

For many people who have spent a lot more time with people indoors this year, they have suffered some relational burnout. They love the people in their lives, but perhaps are feeling the burdens of overexposure and overdependence.


And for others, they might be completely drained physically. When we deal with relentless stress, cortisol floods our nervous system and we begin running on this reserve, stress-induced fuel source. It was never meant to be a permanent source of energy, and when we lean on this source too much we can become dependent on it. Consider this quote from physician Gabor Maté-


“For those habituated to high levels of internal stress since early childhood, it is the absence of stress that creates unease, evoking boredom and a sense of meaninglessness. People may become addicted to their own stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, Hans Selye observed.

To such persons stress feels desirable, while the absence of it feels like something to be avoided.”

In other words, we start depending on feeling stressed out to get us through the day!

I often tell people that tears release cortisol, so when they find themselves crying more than usual, it’s often the body purging itself of stress.

So if you have been feeling these symptoms of burnout, please listen to your body and recognize you need to slow down. It’s kind of like driving a car when the check engine light comes on. If you’re like me, you probably just ignore it for a while. But that light is a warning sign, and might prevent a little problem from becoming a much larger one. What are your “check engine” warning signs? Increased irritability? Impatience? Insomnia? We all have a few.


Returning to the opening quote in this vignette about losing sight of the horizon, we can revisit the tragic story of John F. Kennedy Jr. and his airplane. As it turns out, he might never have crashed that fateful evening if he had just trusted his instrument panels. And that’s how our internal intuition system works as well. Like a highly sophisticated instrument panel.

When your body sends you an external pain signal, it’s alerting you to the fact that something is in need of repair. Our emotional guidance systems work in a similar way. Increased crying, poor sleep, and irritability with our loved ones are all signs from our instrumental panels that we need to change course and find another way of doing something.

So if your system is telling you to slow down, please listen to it. It's there for your protection. Take some extra time for yourself. Get out in nature. Say "no" this week at least once no matter how hard that might be for you.

Get that check engine light turned off.

Because soon enough, we find our cruising altitudes again. All of the seasons of our lives come to an end and eventually give way to something else. New beginnings. New narratives. Changes.


And hope. That comes back as well.

God speed in 2021.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

In search of Divine Nonchalance

 If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It is lethal.

Paulo Coelho


Both my wife and daughter think I'm this gigantic loser and they're right, I have lost something. I'm not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn't always feel this... sedated. But you know what? It's never too late to get it back.

Lester Burnham- American Beauty



If you’re like me, you’ve watched a lot of TV in 2020.

For most of us, it’s been a locked up, holed up, masked up kind of year. For me, it will be the first year in more than a decade I haven’t gotten to do any overseas travel. With Covid and all the corresponding bullshit that goes with it, it’s just not on the cards this year.

I fully acknowledge this is a first world problem, and that for many people, 2020 has presented much bigger challenges than that. But I do think it’s safe to say that many of us might have lost our spark this year in one way or another. It’s certainly what I hear from people every day as a psychologist.

But anyway, back to the TV.

I recently began watching a fascinating show called Dispatches from Elsewhere. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

The premise of the show comes from a 2013 documentary called “The Institute” which documents an elaborate game/challenge/alternate reality activity that originated in San Francisco, which challenged people to participate in activities that forced them to take more risks in their lives. Think of a less violent version of Fight Club. They started by leaving cryptic message on telephone poles. It sometimes involved dancing or other artistic endeavors. It might sound kind of silly, but over 7,000 people eventually participated.

A theme runs through the show that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.

“Divine nonchalance.” The phrase originally comes from a Tarot card pictured on “The fool.” The definition I like is, “A kind of naiveté. Almost like a childlike relationship with the world around you. That freedom from inhibition that sparks creativity and inspiration and allows random beauty to occur.”

Divine nonchalance ha? How do I get some of that back into my life??

Kids are born with it I think. Everything is up for discussion with them, and no question is too silly or intrusive. They are born with that insatiable curiosity and they are just trying to figure it all out.

But somewhere along the way, we lose something. We settle into jobs, marriages, and routines. Predictable lives. We can also settle into ruts very easily. One day we stop taking chances and talking to strangers. We lose the ability to surprise ourselves.

One of the hallmarks of anxiety is we start caring too much about EVERYTHING. Our brains are like computers with 20 tabs open at the same time. We worry about work and kids and money and Covid and health and parents, and all of a sudden our computer starts to get a little fried. Worry becomes a permanent part of our lives.

But just so we are clear, 85% of what we worry about has either a neutral or positive outcome. 85%!! I once heard “Worrying is like praying for things you don’t want.”

Seems pretty accurate…

So again, how do we find some of this nonchalance? Even a LITTLE would be nice. But “Divine” nonchalance? That seems like a lofty aspiration.

But the other day, the answer came to me.

I was at a small gathering in my town the other day, and observed a family watching a street performer. The little boy kept approaching strangers and asking them questions. The little girl was spinning around dancing and bumping into people.

The henpecked mother finally corralled the children and yelled, “All you two are doing today is talking to strangers and dancing!!”

And then I had my answer! Talking to strangers and dancing!!!

So for the last week, I have gone out of my way to strike up conversations with new people. Take some chances with people. Some risks.

And as the people who know me in my little town can attest, I often get in trouble for dancing. We are in “Level 2” lockdown at the moment, and your ass is supposed to remain in your seat.

Mine will never remain there. My ass will not be silenced!

I would encourage you to think about how you might find some more of this divine nonchalance in your own life. More silliness and less worry. More music and less internal noise. Less caring and more chances. Less permission and more forgiveness.

Do something weird today.

Doctors orders!

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The art of racing in the rain

“To separate oneself from the burden, the angst, the anguish that we all encounter every day. To say I am alive, I am wonderful, I am. I am. That is something to aspire to.”
Garth Stein- The art of racing in the rain



  We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

D.H. Lawrence




Ok, full disclosure, the title of this essay comes from a wonderful book and movie about grief, loss, and the amazing unconditional love that comes from being a pet owner. Check it out!



Racing in the rain. In the movie it refers to driving a race car in difficult conditions. But the larger metaphor is about resilience under trying circumstances.



Last night I got to see some of this. Not at a car race or anything like that, but at a little concert on the wharf.



Queenstown, the town I love in, is almost entirely reliant on tourism to survive. With Covid ravaging the globe and borders closed, it has been financially devastated. 8,000 jobs were lost. Unemployment went from around one percent to nearly 20 percent in short order. Many of the people who live here are from other countries. They can’t afford to go home and they can’t afford to stay here.



So what is a town to do?



Dance. Last night, the answer was dance.




I was observing all of this from the background. At first anyway. It was pouring rain and people hovered under the trees for a while. First, a tiny little girl began to spin (kids are born with a wonderful instinct to dance). Then a couple joined in. And, as often happens with a dance party, the whole crowd soon followed. 15 minutes later, the whole crowd was bouncing along to the music and dancing in the rain. 

And yes, yours truly joined in.



It was so nice to be with people again. Joyful people. Exuberant people. People forgetting their troubles for a moment and celebrating being together again through the healing power of music.


The art of racing in the rain.

Like all great moments, it eventually came to an end. Sadly, they always do.




But I know I will always savor that little moment.

We’ve got to keep living, no matter how many skies have fallen.

Monday, June 22, 2020

What are you pretending not to know?


If you work in psychological circles long enough, you hear all the clichés pretty quickly. Almost all branches of psychology have some version of the “magic” or “miracle” question. 

 (Some version of "Suppose tonight, while you slept, a miracle occurred. When you awake tomorrow, what would be some of the things you would notice that would tell you life had suddenly gotten better?"). There are lots of established ideas about the importance of letting yourself feel feelings instead of suppressing them. Lots of information in any kind of therapy can be gleaned by asking people how they have coped with what’s happened to them.

But we’re not here to talk about any of that today.

Because recently I came across the question in the title here. What are you pretending not to know? 

I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’ve used it with friends a number of times recently and gotten everything from puzzled stares to hour-long answers.

What are you pretending not to know?


Here are some common ones.

  1. My partner and I haven’t been intimate in months. I feel like we have fallen out of love and neither one of us is talking about it.
  2. Although I promise myself I’ll get around to it one day, I have neglected my health for decades. If I don’t prioritize it soon, life as an older person will be full of sickness and pain.
  3. My parents are getting old and I barely talk to them. They will be gone someday soon. Why aren’t I calling them and spending more time with them?

Perhaps if you are still reading, you might be wondering why I would be pointing out such depressing information.

Because I firmly believe it might be the most important question we ever have to answer. 

Many of the niceties of modern life require the telling of some little white lies. We tell people we are “fine” when really, we are anything but. We construct carefully crafted versions of ourselves on social media letting people know we are “fine.” We have a small-talk script that kicks in whenever someone asks about our work or family or relationships. 

Fine. Everything is fine we say.

But I have come to believe this contributes to self-deception which over time can become deeply entrenched. The little white lies we tell others soon become part of a much larger narrative around what we are pretending not to know.

I’m taking mine one at a time now. I started with my teeth. For years I was pretending not to know that if you don’t floss and regularly visit a dentist, bad things will eventually happen. Painful things.

I had a difficult and shameful conversation with my dentist shortly afterward. But I feel better now.

I would encourage you to ask this question and really reflect on the answer. I know the health piece certainly applies to me, as does the one about staying in touch with family. I suspect that many of these answers for people would be about personal relationships.

The point is, we put ideas out of our heads when they are uncomfortable. It’s protective. Who wants to think about unfinished business all the time? And yet, our brains hate unfinished business. It's called the "Zeigarnik Effect."

On the other hand, our emotions are always providing us feedback in one way or another about the things we want to change. Here are some examples.

Emotions always communicate:

  • Bitterness shows you where you need to heal, where you’re still holding judgments on others and yourself.
  • Resentment shows you where you’re living in the past and not allowing the present to be as it is.
  • Discomfort shows you that you need to pay attention right now to what is happening because you’re being given the opportunity to change, to do something different than you typically do it.
  • Anger shows you what you’re passionate about, where your boundaries are, and what you believe needs to change about the world.
  • Disappointment shows you that you tried for something, that you did not give in to apathy, that you still care.
  • Guilt shows you that you’re still living life in other people’s expectations of what you should do.
  • Shame shows you that you’re internalizing other people’s beliefs about who you should be (or who you are) and that you need to reconnect with yourself.
  • Anxiety shows you that you need to wake up, right now, and that you need to be present, that you’re stuck in the past and living in fear of the future.
  • Sadness shows you the depth of your feeling, the depth of your care for others and this world.

This has been a helpful guide for me as I think about all of the ways I might be denying things I need to know. We are gifted and cursed with an extraordinary feedback system. Being uncomfortable can be a positive thing when we examine these feelings closely and try and figure out what our guts are trying to tell us.

And as for me? I have another dentist appointment on Friday. I have been pretending not to know this all week, but in the end, I know the problem isn’t going away. I can take a little pain now. Some bad dentist jokes. A couple of sharp needles.

But no more pretending not to know.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

I remember the day the world came back to life

September 08, 2001 was a super annoying day for me.


I was managing a large nightclub in downtown Chicago. It was late summer, blazing hot, and the bar was so packed you could barely move.

God I couldn’t wait for that night to be over.



A couple of days later I was sitting at my computer. A plane hit the world trade center. It was time to turn on the TV. Then another plane hit right in front of my eyes. It was now clear. America was under attack. As the day progressed, it was thought that the Sear’s Tower was the next target. It was a mile from my house.

I didn’t leave the house for three days. It was terrifying.



On that next Friday, I went back to work. Normally on a summer Friday night, the bar would be so packed we would have a line down the street.



There wasn’t one person in the bar.

Not. One.

The staff sat around looking at each other in bewilderment. Was this it? The new normal?

 People in Chicago were crippled with fear. New Yorkers were going through something far worse.


Markets were crashing, people were paralyzed and America had come to a standstill.


As the evening wore on, we heard a noise. It was a large group of bagpipers marching down Division Street playing songs. A quick thinking bouncer ran down and dragged them into the bar. They took a small break and we bought them some drinks.


They began to play again. Amazing Grace.


And then, the most wonderful thing happened.


As the band began to play, people started peeking out their windows. The sound of the bagpipes blasted through the otherwise quiet street, and people began to inch closer. They moved in closer. Then closer. Then even closer. Soon, the whole bar was packed with people with their arms around each other singing along to the song.

I was stunned.


The healing power of music is a well-documented phenomena, but this was something bigger than that.

People wanted to be with people again. It’s hard-wired into out DNA. Societies throughout history have risen and fallen based on the ability of people to cooperate and coexist. But fundamentally, in that moment, people pushed past their fears and followed their instincts to be together again.


So why am I bringing this up?


Because we are now in a period of forced separation. As a psychologist who has spent the last couple of months on the phone with people in isolation, I feel this. Their alienation. Boredom. Disconnectedness.


Here in New Zealand, all of this ends tomorrow. After two long months, we can see people again. Get out hair cut. Eat in a restaurant. Go to a gym. Many parts of America are now opening up again as well.

Here is my wish.

What I failed to mention, was that after 9/11, something quite amazing happened in America. People were extraordinarily kind. United. Even grateful. Living through that traumatic experience woke something up inside of people. Forced them to evaluate how fragile life really is. Take perspective on what was really important and what wasn’t. People Started calling their family again. Reconnecting with old friends.

Sadly, it didn’t last.

But as for the lockdown? The world has never been through anything like this before in our lifetimes. Not even close.

I really hope we emerge kinder. More grateful. Present. Appreciative. And I really think we will.

Throughout this lockdown, I have been sitting in my living room with one of the best views in the world.

But I have been through everything you have, I assure you. Boredom. Overeating. Loneliness. Restlessness. Worries about money. Employment. Health.

It has been my honor to try and guide people through their troubles, even as I have been struggling with my own. It was the most interesting two months of my career.

And towards the end, I saw resilience begin to return. Fathers sobbing on the phone with gratitude who have come to the realization that they never really knew who their kids were. People who attended therapy for the first time when they had been putting it off for years. Lonely people who vowed to find their courage and find their way back to people when the world came back to life.

I hope people remember these things they have learned. We might not ever live through something like this again.

Tomorrow is a big day for me. I have made a reservation at the nicest steakhouse in town. I’m going to order the biggest steak and the nicest wine and savor every moment. Enjoy being around people again. It’s been a long time.

And I’ll remember the day the world came back to life.

And I don’t want to forget this time. Slip back into old habits. Take for granted the previous gift of life. Time with other people. A nice meal. Friends. Laughter.

This time, I hope to God I won’t forget.