Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ferguson Missouri, (Just my two cents)

In 1992, as Los Angeles burned in response to the Rodney King verdict, I wrote a letter to the editor to the paper in my little hometown. I was just a kid really. Full of ideals, a sense of fairness and justice, and a desire to change the world. My letter expressed my outrage at the idea that police officers were acquitted after beating a man, on camera, in front of the entire world. I was so proud of myself in that moment. I stood up for something. Something that was important to me.

Later I heard another side of the story. Rodney King was driving like a madman eluding the police in a high speed chase. He was on parole for a previous robbery. He had a long history of criminal offenses. Did he deserve to get beaten like he did? By my viewing, no, he didn’t.

But I wasn’t there. I only know what I saw.

Why is this important?

The answer lies in the idea of critical thinking. How do we arrive at what our personal “truth” is? It’s a combination of our upbringing, our values, our experiences, our parents, and a thousand other variables. Sometimes these things make us quickly rush to judgment and jump to conclusions. At our worst as human beings we get emotional, pick a side, and dig in deep. And God forgive you if you disagree. We have names for those who disagree with us. Both sides. You’re a bigot, a racist, an idiotic liberal, a hippie, a tree-hugger, a nazi, an uneducated republican, a dumbocrat.

And on and on it goes..

But can we get back to me for a second??

Sweet home Chicago. I lived in the city for 18 years. It’s one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. I’ve had beers with black friends on the south side of Chicago in one of the worst ghettos in this country. I’ve had beers many times with my numerous cop friends in the Irish bars in the city. I saw more crime than I could ever care to remember perpetrated in the black neighborhoods in Chicago. I saw some cops do some very dirty and dishonest things. Mostly though I saw and befriended, and drank and lived and died with a lot of good people from all races trying to do the best they could in a complicated and difficult city with a hundred years of difficult race relations baked into its history.

Most of the people were good though.

But here’s a story I’ll always remember.

2012 and I’m a psychologist working on the south side in a pretty tough neighborhood. I’m busy with white clients, black clients, and everything in between. One day my buzzer rings and I come to the door. It’s an old friend of mine who is a police officer. A white police officer. He’s with a black kid who is about 16. His pants are hanging low on his waist and he looks pretty pissed off.
I have no idea what they’re doing here.

My cop friend explains to me that he picked the kid up for suspicion of a robbery. The kid told him to go fuck himself. He wanted to smack the kid around. The kid wanted to smack him around. Both of them had deeply rooted ideas about what the other one stood for. This came from a lifetime of socialization, personal experiences, parenting, geography, and a million other little things that lead them to jump to conclusions about one another.

Yet there they stood..

My friend asked me for help. He knew I was a psychologist and knew that there was something about this kid that was worth saving.

He asked for my help. I agreed. The three of us sat down and talked. It didn’t go perfectly, but we all came away with a much deeper understanding of where the other was coming from. No cops, no thugs, no psychologists, but three people that actually took an hour to talk. The kid agreed to come back. I worked with him for two years. When I left Chicago he was enrolled in junior college. He hadn’t been arrested since the day he first came to my office. He was studying criminal justice.

“All cops are racist pigs”

“All young black kids are thugs”

No… Not from my experience. Not even a little bit. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten as a psychologist was that each person is an N of 1.

But mostly I’ll base this on the fact that a cop who cared brought a kid to me who was going nowhere good in a hurry. Perhaps my sample size is too small, and I’m overlooking larger social and cultural forces that go way beyond this.

But I don’t think so..

Back to the critical thinking though.. I don’t know what happened on that fateful day in Ferguson Missouri, and neither do you. You believe what you believe because of a number of social forces, your upbringing, your education, your experiences, etc.

But you weren’t there.

Our justice system ruled on the case. Perhaps they simply weighed the evidence to the best of their ability and made their decision. Perhaps they were wrong. Perhaps there is racism and favoritism baked into the system.

Perhaps, perhaps, and perhaps.

But you weren’t there.

What’s one person to do you might ask? A lot. An awful lot. Maybe you can take a chance on someone like my cop friend did. Maybe you can volunteer at a school in a neighborhood that needs some help. Maybe you can do something as simple as broadening your social circle to include people of another race, religion or creed. Maybe you can start purposely and carefully challenging yourself to argue and debate the opposing side of an issue you are absolutely certain you are right about.

That’s critical thinking. You don’t have all the answers. Neither do I. Neither does anyone.

But in the meantime let’s try and be good to one another.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Always something there to remind me

I walk along the city streets, you used to walk along with me
And every step I take reminds me of just how we used to be
Oh, how can I forget you, girl, when there is
Always something there to remind me
Always something there to remind me

-Naked Eyes (Or Engleburt Humperdinck if you prefer)

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”

-Virgina Woolf

 I have a small confession to make.

I have a thing about towers.

My whole life I’ve had profound experiences on the top of a tower somewhere.  I’m not sure what it is exactly. Maybe it’s the view, or the sense of perspective, or the idea that you are on top of life, watching it all go on from up above. I’m not really sure actually.

It all started in 7th grade.

I was still a young kid in my salad days, and hadn’t traveled much of anywhere yet. Our class got to take a trip to the Oregon coast that year, and it might as well have been a trip to the moon. I took it in, every second of it. I remember hustling up the stairs of the tower when we arrived in Astoria in my home state of Washington, wanting to be the first one to the top. Here is a snapshot of the place.

It’s 125 feet tall. At the time it felt like the top of the world. I remember the moment so vividly. “Always something there to remind me” was popular on the radio at the time, and I remember hearing it when I was up there looking at the Colombia River from up above. It was the perfect song in that moment, and at that time I made a deal with myself. I would take a mental snapshot of this time and this place and I would never forget this memory.

And I never did…

There were a lot more moments on towers like that in my life, and it’s fun to connect the dots. 

The Space needle in 1992 as a young man at the cusp of a huge adventure. It felt like anything was possible.

The Hancock tower in 1996 when I first moved to Chicago to be a comedian. I felt like I was about to conquer the world.

Dublin Castle in 2008 when I was just about to become a psychologist. I finally made it to Ireland, the culmination of a lifelong dream!

So it was again on a tower that I found myself contemplating my destiny this weekend in Auckland, the biggest city in my new home of New Zealand. As I hiked up a large hill to get to the tower to take the elevator I was huffing and puffing and feeling pretty old. What the hell happened to me? I used to attack a new city with incredible zeal. Hell I practically ran up hills like this. I was sure of it.

Then I looked at some old pictures of myself.

A chubby guy in a red flannel shirt. Decade after decade.

Time can play tricks on us like that..

So up I went, older, maybe marginally wiser, in a  completely different incarnation in my life. I felt a sudden surge of inspiration and reached down for my phone to find a song.

Always something there to remind me

In the end it was wonderful to take another mental snapshot. As much as my life has changed, I'm still that kid on the top of that little tower in Astoria, craving adventure and excited about what is going to happen next. I looked down at all of the little people down below and felt that old familiar feeling. 

Life folding in on itself. 

I spent a couple hours up there watching the people and looking out at the horizon at places I've never been and people I've never met. Not yet anyway.

There was still a lot of time left. More places to go. More towers to climb. It was nice to be up there though and listen to my song again. It reminded me to look back a little while also taking the time to look ahead. 

Always something there to remind me.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

But Doctor, I am Pagliacci- A tribute to Robin Williams

A man goes to a doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. The Doctor says, "Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up." The man bursts into tears. Says, "But doctor...I am Pagliacci.”

There’s some sad things known to man, there ain’t too much sadder than, the tears of a clown.
Smokey Robinson

The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long
Lao Tzu

One of the great feel good moments for me as a kid was watching Happy Days.  Although I was never around for the 50’s, the show captured a kind of nostalgia for a time and place that I was always kind of fascinated by. I remember “Mork’s” first appearance quite well. It was the first time I met Robin Williams. I was intrigued.

Later me and my brothers and sister would totally get into ‘Mork and Mindy.’ You knew you were seeing something  unique when you watched Robin Williams. Even as a young kid watching this, I had an intuitive sense that a star was born. He had it. He had that thing.  I loved him as Mork, laughed a lot at his standup over the years, and cried a manly tear at ‘O Captain my Captain’ in Dead Poet’s Society. Later I felt a sense of pride watching him create one of the only great depictions of a psychologist in 'Good Will Hunting.’ Someone finally got it right.

Cut to a LONG time later, and I found my myself with a unique niche in the world. I was someone people wanted to talk to about the intersection of comedy, tragedy, and psychology. How it all happened doesn’t matter. The point is it’s a subject I know something about because I’ve lived it. I know a lot of the reasons people use humor. Most of them are good, some of them are bad, and a lot of them are to push something else way. Humor often pushes something else away. It’s a defense. A very sophisticated one.

In thinking about how Robin Williams lost his hope, it is this thought that lingers in my mind. Where does the comedian go when it’s HIS turn to feel understood? It’s a complicated question. Much of humor, the best kind of humor, taps into a uniquely shared sense of perspective that makes people think about the world in a new way. The best kinds of humor leads us to a deeper understanding about the world, ourselves, and our shared absurdity.. The most enduring comedians tap into this. Robin Williams tapped into this.

And yet there was something more to him as well.  When he chose to do something serious we were completely captivated. Watching ‘Good Will Hunting’ you knew he was the kind of person that knew about the light AND the dark. You don’t turn in that kind of performance without knowing about what it’s like to feel real pain. It’s what made him so interesting. Sure he could be manic and crazy, but he could also be introspective and vulnerable. There were a lot of emotions rattling around inside that man.

And yet in the end, it wasn’t enough. Those who have experienced mania know there is an equal and opposite side of the coin called depression, and there’s not a much lower place a person can go. What goes up must come down. Robin Williams knew this. He was with his old friend John Belushi on his last day on earth. He knew about using drugs and alcohol to try and beat back the emptiness. Knew it was a temporary fix that in the end just made the echo chamber a little more vast and empty. He did it anyway, as many people who struggle with addictions do.

And in the end he lost his way. Does it detract from all the laughter he brought to the world? Somehow subtract from the aggregate boost in human happiness his comedy brought to this mortal coil? No. No it doesn’t.  It just reminds us that all of us are human, and at our most vulnerable moments, we all want a lot of the same things, despite any appearances of money, fame, or whatever. We all want to be understood. Some of us

don’t make it easy for others. A lot of comedians fall in this group. Where does Pagliacci go when HE needs a boost?

Hug a funny person in your life today.

They may be fighting a battle you know nothing about…

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Lost (My own kind of paradise)


Mind on a permanent vacation
The ocean is my only medication
Wishing my condition ain't ever gonna go away

Cause now I'm knee deep in the water somewhere
Got the blue sky breeze blowing wind through my hair
Only worry in the world is the tide gonna reach my chair
Sunrise there's a fire in the sky

Never been so happy
Never felt so high
And I think I might have found me my own kind of paradise 
Zac Brown band- Knee Deep   

Not until we are lost do we truly begin to find ourselves
Henry David Thoreau

There's always a choice brother
Desmond- Lost

Writing this from the beach in New Zealand.  It sounds nice I know. And it is! When I send people pictures or post them online, I often get remarks like, ‘that looks like paradise' or some variation on that theme. And in a way, it is. From the perspective of physical beauty it’s really hard to find places like this, and this entire country is full of them.

But.. There’s always a but. (I like big buts and I cannot lie)

There’s a thing about living in paradise that nobody tells you. I speak from some experience here having worked in five national parks as a young man in some of the most beautiful places in my own country. And this secret?

You get used to living in paradise after a while. The oceans become less spectacular, the mountains a little less majestic, and the trees a little more mundane. It’s happened to me over and over again in my life. I fall in love with a place, live there for a while, then get adjusted to it. Eventually I leave and go somewhere else.

Then I spend a lot of time dying to go back...

Before you think I’m crazy, I can assure you there is actually a term for such a process called the 'hedonic treadmill'. It describes how people have a kind of set point when it comes to happiness, and how most of us regress back to this set point eventually regardless of a change in place or circumstance. It’s interesting stuff.

In thinking about this idea, I found myself reflecting on the characters from the TV show “Lost” who also woke up to find themselves in paradise. The problem is they couldn’t wait to get out of there, and I think the show highlights a powerful kind of lesson. Damaged people in paradise are still damaged people, and waking up in a new place does little to the deeper circuitry of our wiring. We still are who we are, and although a change in geography can certainly be a wonderful and transformational thing, we are who we are.

Thinking about this as it relates to my own life has been important. Two months here and I’m still at the beach every day, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Little irritations have begun to creep back though as the newness of this world begins to wear off a little. I honk in traffic, get irritated by long lines, and snap at people on the phone sometimes. I forget my newfound sense of awareness and lose my way. Soon enough I'm back spinning on that treadmill like most of us do.

And yet in these moments, I TRY and remember there is an antidote to this problem. Mindfulness. To be aware of life as it’s happening and stay in the moment. Being in a beautiful place is very helpful in this regard. It reminds us that we’re not so important. That there are powerful and mystical places in the world where our litany of silly complaints mean very little. That’s where living in paradise can be nice. It’s a constant reminder to slow down, take stock, and center yourself into the moment. It’s why most people have such powerful moments of awareness and comprehension when they travel.

So for me, I am once again reminded that most of the power to live a happy life is my own, and that I can slip backwards into indulging life’s little irritations, or I can stop and smell the ocean. The battle never ends, regardless of where you are on the map.

Now if you’ll pardon me I’m going to stop whining, slow down, pour another glass of wine and contemplate the ocean.

Nice to be off the treadmill for a while...