Sunday, March 15, 2020

Some thoughts on the coronavirus, social isolation, and the Porcupine’s dilemma



What a few months it’s been for the world.


When this thing was happening in China, it was kind of scary. Scary in that “happening to other people” kind of way, where we voice our sympathies and then just kind of go about our business.



We’re way past that now. The minute I knew it was real was when Tom Hanks announced he had it. Tom Hanks!? Shouldn’t he be immune? He’s Forest Gump for God's Sake.



And now, around the world, it just continues to get more real. Major sports bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars have been canceled. Whole countries are going into lockdown. Stock Markets are crashing around the world.


Scary times. Unprecedented in most of
 our lifetimes.



Scary times bring out the best and worst in people. Read the news and you’ll find stories highlighting all shades of humanity. Tremendous acts of kindness. Overt racism and tribalism. Fear-based hoarding.


And the toilet paper. Oh my God the toilet paper.



And now we’ve been told to socially isolate. For some people this is going to be very hard. But for many of us, we were sort of doing this anyway.


The whole thing reminds me of something coined by Arthur Schopenhauer called “The Porcupine’s Dilemma” summarized below.



A troop of porcupines are milling about on a cold winter's day. In order to keep from freezing, the animals move closer together. Just as they are close enough to huddle, however, they start to poke each other with their quills. In order to stop the pain, they spread out, lose the advantage of commingling, and begin to shiver. This sends them back in search of each other, and the cycle repeats as they struggle to find a comfortable distance between entanglement and freezing.



There is a great deal about human nature encompassed in this little parable. Human beings are constantly coming together, hurting each other, distancing themselves, and then seeking the comfort of other human beings again.



Ever wonder why one of the worst punishments we can think of for our prisoners is to place them in solitary confinement?



Because we’re social animals. And we need each other.



Even if we also sometimes drive each other crazy.



I know this because I’m a bit of a porcupine myself.  



As we move forward in these next few difficult months, I am reminded that we are now in an enforced period of separation. Think about the comfort of a hug in a church, or a high-five with a fellow parent when our kid’s team wins a game. Even the sense of belonging we feel following major sports and rooting for our favorite teams.



For a lot of people, some of that stuff is sort of on hold right now. They are big things and there are going to be some consequences.



Loneliness. Boredom. Irritability. Anger. Those are some of them.



So what do we do?


We have to try and love each other. And if that’s too big, at least respect each other. Understand that when we take those 100 rolls of toilet paper off the shelves, that’s affecting someone else. When we make a remark denigrating another race or country, that’s affecting someone else.



I once read this story about England during World War II, where, due to the relentless air raids, the social classes broke down. The Nazis were coming, buildings were crumbling, and the fate of the world hung in the balance.



And yet, people reported feeling a kind of euphoria. A sense that they were all in this together. A belonging that they had never felt as a country when they were at peace.


There’s a very powerful lesson there.



Remember respect. Remember empathy. Remember little acts of kindness and support towards each other often goes a very long way.



Let’s keep calm and carry on.





Saturday, February 15, 2020

There are places I remember- How the places in our life affect our mental and physical health.


I was sitting in a bar a few years ago in a rut.


I’d been in the same place in Chicago for a while. My career was a little stuck and I was bored.


And I heard the guitar player start to sing, “Joe’s run off, to Fire Lake.”





It’s a great old song by Bob Seger. Bikers love it in particular. It’s about adventure. Longing. The open road.




Something changed for me that day. It was like the call of the wild. 



Suddenly I knew I had to stir things up a little.




 Two months later, I landed in New Zealand.



 But more on that later.



There has been plenty of research on how the places in our lives affect our happiness, serenity, and inner peace. Almost everyone I know has a “happy place” somewhere in the world. As a kid for me, it was at Ecola State Park in Cannon Beach. Pictured here.





I recently read a book about the innate human longing to be near the water called “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do.”


It talks about how much more peaceful we feel being around water, and the psychological benefits of finding this. Many people throughout human history have drifted towards the water, in many cases for economic reasons. But this book shows there is a lot more to it. I mean we are mostly MADE of the stuff. I bet a lot of people will almost innately understand the relationship between water and their emotional well-being. It seems to be almost wired into us.



Of course, it doesn’t HAVE to be water. Maybe for you, it’s the mountains. Or the desert. Maybe it’s your local park. Wherever it is, I bet it’s a place where you feel better. Take a little break from your worries. Think a little more clearly. Even doctors are getting hip to this nowadays. Here's a fantastic clip about a Bellingham doctor who prescribes park visits instead of pills!
Park visits instead of pills!



I once did this little exercise where you had to review your life and find the themes and activities that kept popping up for you that made you happy. Maybe as a kid, you loved to draw and paint, and kept coming back to it at various times in your life. Maybe it was making music. You get the idea.



But for me, it was always traveling. I’ve had that wanderlust since I was a child. The desire to see more, do more, explore more. It’s never stopped. I worked in five different national parks in my twenties, and even that didn’t scratch the itch. It’s a kind of longing. Anticipation. Hope.




Many people describe having had “peak” experiences in nature. Peak experiences are often described as transcendent moments of pure joy and elation. These are moments that stand out from everyday events. The memory of these events linger in our minds for a long time, and can even feel like a kind of spiritual experience. Peak Experiences




I’ve certainly had a few. One that stands out came during a hike to the very bottom of the Grand Canyon. Although I was alone, totally exhausted and physically depleted, I looked around and saw where I was. I realized how far I’d come, but also how much more there was to do in my life. I felt this powerful surge of energy that is still hard to explain. It was joy. Vibrancy. Exuberance.






These moments can sometimes be harder to find as we get older. Life intervenes. Holidays might turn into theme parks, minivans, and screaming kids. Work gets more intense. Money issues linger. All of a sudden we have perhaps lost sight of that primal need to be in nature once in a while.



I suspect this is how a lot of ruts get their start. Watch a Labrador when it gets near water. It will dive in head first and ask questions later. That’s primal.




And I submit that we humans have this need as well.




How do I know?



I recently went through another one of these “rut” periods.



And once again, I listened to the call of the wild.



So if you can’t reach me at the moment, I’ll be back on the open road. Not all who wander are lost. I think it’s just the opposite of being lost. It’s more like finding something again.



But in the meantime, I hope you find YOUR happy place in nature again. Spend some time there. Reconnect with this part of yourself.



And as for me?




Joe's run off to Fire Lake...



Sunday, December 8, 2019

Love Actually







Ok, warning right off the top. This essay started off as one thing and then kind of became another. It’s also sort of a Christmas story.



But let me back up.



A few weeks back I had to give a speech. It had to be funny, and charming, and smart, and kind of ted talky without seeming like I was trying too hard. It was sort of a tall order. 



So, like any good plagiarist in the 21st century, I turned to the place any sensible person would go.



Youtube.



While browsing various videos, I came across a wonderful graduation speech by David Foster Wallace called “This is Water.” Here’s a quote.




“It is extremely difficult to stay alert & attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your head.” 




The entire speech is a reflection on how we get so wrapped in our own heads, and what we might chose to do about it. If we can somehow remember that the “idiot” in traffic, or the “moron” holding up the line at the store might just be having as bad of a day as we are, we might even chose to be compassionate instead of irritated. To get out of our monologue of near constant complaint and rumination and back into the world with the others.






It’s a wonderful idea. Easy to understand, much harder to actually implement.



Because much of our irritation with the world, is actually irritation with ourselves. When I snap at someone in a store, I really am saying, “Can’t you see I’m having a bad day?” “Don’t you know how many things are going on in my life right now?”




But of course they don’t know. And we don’t know what’s going on with them either.



But you can bet they are fighting some kind of battle (not my quote by the way.)




Deep down we all want to be seen. To be understood. But life intervenes. Gets busy. Gets messy.



But someone needs to make the first move sometimes, and that someone can be us.



Which leads us to my Christmas story.




I was away for a weekend recently, and had two very fun days. Without getting into the details, on the third day, my head was less than stellar, my back hurt from a lumpy hotel bed, and I was quite irritated with the world.




And then I remembered. That relentless monologue of complaints!! Don’t feed that damn thing today.



As luck would have it, Love Actually was on that morning, and I sat and watched the whole thing before I went out for the day. It was gong to be a very busy day of Christmas shopping out there, and I wanted to see if Love actually was all around. But more importantly I wanted to see what I could do to contribute to this.




So I went around the city, and got to know everyone who served me. The barista at the coffee shop. The man selling me the underwear I ran out of the day before. The guy at the brewpub who patiently walked me through all those amazing beers.



And then I simply took a second, went online, and wrote them the most glorious reviews. Katie was a true artist with a coffee machine. Derrick is an amazing ambassador for your beer. Bob sells a hell of a pair of underwear. 



You get the idea.




And then I went and showed them what I had written. I tried to be as specific as possible with my compliments while also being sincere.




What I got in return were some of the happiest smiles I had seen in a long time. It reminded me of this experiment I saw one time where a cameraperson went around and told everyone something about them that was beautiful. Here is a picture of the before and after.




See the difference?



I do not share this story to simply pat myself on the back. Nine times out of ten, I would have proceeded through a day like this being irritable with people. Fed the monologue. Then I would have felt guilty. 



It’s no way to spend a day.




The lesson is something we need to practice. All the time. Every day.



When you change your perspective, everything really does change. Like you are literally turning one of those old kaleidoscopes and rearranging the things you see.




We can rearrange the world like this anytime we want.





But fuck is it hard to remember that.



As for me, I am embarking on a long trip home for Christmas. There will undoubtedly be pressures, squabbles, hangovers, and silly family arguments.




That’s the holidays. That’s why guys like me are so busy this time of year.



But I’m going to remind myself that Love Actually IS all around.




But someone has gotta make the first move.  





This year, I’ll give it a shot.



Merry Christmas!!!

Monday, October 28, 2019

Keep Yourself Alive







I have to admit, as movies go, I love a music biography.



Sure they take some liberties with the stories, but overall these make for great cinema. And I’m a sucker for a good redemption story. Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Ray Charles in Ray. Elton John in Rocket Man.




But today I wanted to talk about a song from the movie Bohemian Rhapsody about Freddy Mercury and Queen. It was one of their first hits and features at the beginning of the movie.



Keep yourself alive.




It’s sort of become my goto song this year. I play it on my phone when I’m struggling to get through 20 minutes on the treadmill.



‘Keep yourself alive’



In this instance it means, you’re getting old dude, and the choices you make all have consequences. Now get on that treadmill and finish the job. Exercise might save your life. 




But I’ve also thought about it with my clients, many of whom are literally fighting to find a reason to keep going. Often a person considering suicide doesn’t want a whole lot of advice about mental health or managing anxiety or whatever. They are just looking for one reason. Sometimes just one. And it’s your job to try and find this. Instill some hope. Find something worth sticking around for.




Keep yourself alive’





And yes, in one instance I even helped put this song on someone’s phone (yea for pirating.) It’s sort of become our thing. We play this song when life feels like it’s not going anywhere, and find that one reason to keep going. 





And sometimes things do get really dark for people. Sure you’d like to be that therapist who dazzles a client with advice about beating depression or how things pass or how suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. 





But that’s not always the move. Someone in a dark place doesn’t always want to hear that stuff. They’ve probably already thought about these things and then feel guilty for feeling suicidal. It’s important to meet people where they’re at. Sometimes you need to empathize with the fact that life in that moment has lost all of its light. And sometimes one person, just one person, being able to listen to their story without judgement is itself quite therapeutic. Support comes with many faces. Sometimes it’s just listening. Often it’s just listening.




And in being this person for someone else, the most amazing thing happens. You keep YOURself alive. The single best antidote to feeling worthless, useless, and hopeless, is to be that person for someone else. It sounds counterintuitive, but I have almost never met a depressed person who didn’t have that kindness or compassion towards others, that they were often unable to give to themselves. As Robin Williams said, “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.”



Amen.






So for anyone reading who finds themselves struggling to find their hope, please, just for today at least, keep yourself alive. Listen to some music. Eat your favorite food. Watch a silly movie.





And no, I’m not just some pompous psychologist dishing out simple advice. I’m talking like this because sometimes it’s been a struggle for me as well. We all need to dig for our reasons to keep going once in a while. But things do change. They do pass. Again, I’m speaking from personal experience.  Think of all the mornings you didn’t think you could get out of bed to face another day. How many financial worries that have come and gone. All the bad holidays. All the long winters.




You’re stronger than you give yourself credit for.




Now keep yourself alive.




Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Which wolf are you feeding?



An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”


I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.
Agatha Christie


“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'”
Kurt Vonnegut


Ok. Have you read through all those quotes? Good! All three have been important things for me to reflect on in my life. I hope you enjoyed them as well.



But let’s talk about the wolves.


Encapsulated in that little story, is a great deal of what you need to know about having a successful life. 



Which wolf are you feeding?



As a psychologist for many years now, I still battle with this every day of my life. Sure I can advise others about doing this, but if I’m honest it is something I continually struggle with. Traffic is moving too slowly? Yep, that bad wolf is getting a steak. I’m in a long line that’s not moving? Same thing.



But even beyond life’s inevitable inconveniences, I sometimes feel hurt or rejected or angry about little interactions in my life. Someone doesn’t text me back. A patient rejects one of my suggestions. A cute girl I try and talk to begins frantically looking for someone else to talk to.



Bad wolves all around.



I have come to realize (although I often forget), that we have a choice as to which wolf we are going to feed perhaps dozens of times a day. It is VERY easy to feel self-righteous, offended, and disrespected. We are all brilliant at taking our own perspective.




But how much of life might be different if we could ask ourselves, “What else could this mean?”





It is often hard to access the positive wolf in these situations. Indignation and self-righteous anger is sometimes quite validating.




As we approach a new year, I would urge everyone (still) reading to think about the wolves in their own lives. Are you choosing to be grateful for what you have, or resentful about what you don’t? Are you practicing compassion when others are hurt or angry, or thinking about how their behavior has upset you? (this is a hard one).




Over a lifetime, we will be confronted by a million variations of these choices again and again and again. And if we chose anger too many times, we can eventually develop a resentful and bitter view of the world. It doesn’t happen all at once, but little by little and choice by choice by choice. 




And I would like to end by reflecting on Kurt Vonnegut’s quote, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'”





Life is hard enough. Let’s be honest. It IS shit sometimes. But there are some good moments too. 





There’s always a choice as to which lens we want to look at things from. That’s both the blessing and curse of free will. As John Milton said a long, long time ago, “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”






Now go forth and feed your good wolf!!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

What are you willing to suffer for?



The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

Warren Buffett




“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn't something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you

Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore






I have to confess, I am a consumer of all things psychology. Lengthy books. Simple articles. Pop quizzes about which Harry Potter character I most resemble psychologically.




It’s sort of a guilty pleasure.




Recently I came across the idea highlighted in the title of this essay. In each instance you say to yourself, “I don’t have time” when you put off doing something you want to do, rephrase it to “I don’t make time.”




Seems simple enough. Probably an idea you could find on a couple dozen Pinterest boards.




But I think it’s a bigger idea than that. Perhaps one so big it needs looking into.





But I’ll start with myself.





I recently read a great book called “The Subtle are of Not Giving a F*ck.” It’s a popular book and I’m not going to rehash the whole thing here. But there was one concept he discussed that I couldn’t get out of my head.




Don’t ask yourself what you want. That’s too easy. Ask yourself what you’re willing to suffer or struggle for.




So if I want to be in great shape, I’ve got to be willing to suffer the pain of going to the gym on a rainy morning when I don’t feel like getting out of bed.




If I want to find a great relationship, I’ve probably got to kiss a few metaphorical frogs and suffer through a few bad dates along the way to appreciate the right person. And even more likely, I may have to suffer through some serious self-examination about mistakes I’ve made in my past relationships.





So what AM I willing to suffer for?





I ask myself this every day now.





The truth is, health and appearance IS a source of stress for me. And yet I can always seem to rationalize skipping the gym and ordering a pizza. I work late. It’s raining. There’s something good on Netflix. My exercise gear smells funky (that one is sort of legit).




But the truth is, these are just excuses. I don’t MAKE time for exercise because I’m not always willing to suffer.





And as Mr. Buffett says, the chains of habit are too light to be felt. Until they’re not anyway.





So yes, I have been to the gym three days in a row this week. I suffered each time with the alarm clock, the rain, and yes, the exercise gear. But I made it, and I felt a lot better afterwards.





And I think a lot more about my time now. The truth is, I lost another dear friend recently who was way too young to go. I wish I could say he was the first, but the truth is, I’ve lot at least a dozen friends way too soon to health problems in their 30’s and 40’s.




It all goes so fast.





And like Gandalf says in Lord of the Rings (geeky reference), “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that has been given to us.”





I am including a powerful video about jellybeans as a final reminder of this concept. This is a fascinating reminder of what we REALLY do with our time.





It scared me straight like one of those shows where the punk kids get sent to prison for the day. I include it as a gentle reminder to myself and to everyone.





Make the most of your time.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The boys in the band (A tribute to some old friends)

Whenever it wants, the past can come kicking the door down. And you never know where it's going to take you. All you can do is hope it's a place you want to go.
Stephen King- Hearts in Atlantis

Harry[about Auld Lang Syne] What does this song mean? My whole life, I don't know what this song means. I mean, 'Should old acquaintance be forgot'? Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot?

Sally: Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it's about old friends.
When Harry Met Sally






When we were about 20 or so, three good friends and I had a band. We’d get together, have a few (more?) beers, and crank up our favourite music.


The only catch was, none of us could actually play an instrument. Or really sing.


No, this band was more of the air guitar variety, but still, we ended up playing our various “instruments” nearly every time we got together. One of our favorite jams was “Touch of Grey” by the Grateful Dead. 



There were four of us back then, although others would drop in from time to time. Mostly we would perform this silly ritual long after the party had ended, the guests had left (or passed out) and we were the last men standing.


It’s funny to think back on those days now. How young we were. How full of promise. 


Today the last of those three guys passed away. His name was Dirk, and he was one of the nicest dudes I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. 

Here is Dirk.




Here is Sam.




And here is Chad.





Thinking about them all being gone now hit me with a tidal wave of both grief and nostalgia. It seems like only yesterday we were goofing around drinking cheap beer and pretending brooms and mops were guitars. 



A number of questions flooded into my head as I heard the news. 


How could they all be gone now?? We’re still in our 40’s! We get more time than this!

Why did I lose touch with these guys? We were all such good friends. 

What am I going to do to make sure I stay in better touch with my friends?

What am I going to do with the rest of my own time?



In thinking about these questions, I realized I have come back to some version of them over and over again in my life. I often find myself going back to an article I read called “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying," written by a hospice nurse about themes she heard over and over from people at the end of their lives. 

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
"Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying."



I need to read that more often. Really take it into my heart and integrate it into my philosophy of the world. Friends aren’t just hypothetical entities we can pick up with whenever we get around to it. They are living, mortal beings with a finite amount of time left on this earth.  




And I’ve learned the hard way, that sometimes this time runs out before we think it’s going to. 



I’ve also learned that platitudes are of no real use to people. “Thoughts and prayers” don’t do a whole lot either. We’ve gotta pick up phones. Hop on planes. Stoke the coals. Even the best relationships need a little fresh oxygen once in a while. 



But for me today, I’m gonna remember my three old bandmates and what they meant to me in that time in that place in that little corner of the world. Dirk was older than us. Someone we looked up to. An older brother of sorts who was fiercely loyal and protective of his tribe. He played the (fake) harmonica. When we were in High School we were on the wrestling team together. Our team sort of sucked, and Dirk as the heavyweight would often get onto the mat after all the rest of us had gotten our asses kicked. 


On one such occasion, he had to fight this massive dude who was about twice his size. The guy hadn't lost all year, and their team was already smiling and laughing before the match even began.



But then I looked in Dirk’s eyes. 



They were blazing red, and his determination was absolutely fierce. He saw the rest of us were demoralized, saw the other team disrespecting us, and something in him kind of snapped. 



Dirk pinned that dude a few minutes later. When the referee pounded that mat, we all went a little crazy. It wasn’t supposed to happen like that. 



But they didn’t know about Dirk’s heart. 



So that’s the part of him I’ll remember today. High School wasn’t the greatest time for me. I was gangly and awkward and didn’t always have people looking out for me. But Dirk did. He was one of those guys. One of the ONLY one of those guys. 



Plus he played a mean air harmonica.




So tonight I’ll go home, open a cheap beer, and listen to Touch of Grey as a tribute to an old friend. 


But after that, I’m making a list of old friends who haven’t heard from me for a while. No more excuses. No more avoidance. No more too busy.


Friends are worth it. They keep us going. Make life worth living. They are our historians, our laughter, and our memory. 



Cherish yours. They won’t be here forever. 



Believe me, I know.


Rest in Peace Old Friend