Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Memory

Found myself thinking today of one of my more memorable Christmases several years back when I was working at a nursing home with Alzheimer’s patients. At the time I was an activity director for the people in the home, meaning it was my job, in a nutshell, to keep the troops entertained. At the time I was making 9 bucks an hour, living alone in a small apartment, and not quite sure where my life was going.

I hadn’t been home for Christmas personally in a long time, and over the years had really just kind of lost the spirit of the season altogether. This year however was different, as I had been tasked with putting the Christmas party for the unit together, and as the season went on I found myself becoming begrudgingly interested in Christmas again. Every Saturday I would put White Christmas, or It’s a Wonderful Life or some other Christmas classic on for the residents, and I really came to enjoy their nostalgic reminiscences of Christmases from years gone by.

One woman in particular stood out in my mind that winter, a little lonely woman originally from Poland named Anna, who was one of the quieter residents on the unit. She often ate her meals by herself, and although she wasn’t unfriendly, she always seemed to speak softly and she offered up very little information unless she was asked something directly.

While making the list of people who were going to attend the party, I noticed that the nurses had left Anna’s name off the list, as her health had been deteriorating recently, and the nurses felt it may be too much activity for her to handle given her recent decline. Knowing she wasn’t a particularly social person, I was therefore surprised when I walked by her room one morning and found her in her room crying softly to herself.

“What’s the matter Anna?” I asked as I came in and noticed she had taken out all kinds of Christmas cards from years past and put them on her night stand.

“I don’t get to go the party,” she explained, as she looked up at me with sad eyes.

This presented a dilemma for me, as the nurses ruled with an iron first around the unit, and didn’t take kindly to people questioning their decisions. Still, I wanted to hear more.

“Tell me why it’s so important to you Anna?”

Picking up one of her Christmas cards off the nightstand, she turned it over and over in her little hands and looked up at me again.

“My husband and I moved to America right after war, and at the time neither of us spoke any English at all. We didn’t know anyone at all in this country except for some cousins, but still, we had each other, and it was enough. Things finally changed when we went to our first Christmas party here in America at the Polish-American center by my husband’s work. We learned some of the Christmas songs that year and we used to laugh about how we learned to speak English from Bing Crosby and some of the other singers from the era. I have so many memories of my husband, but the memories of Christmas were the happiest. I know I don’t have too many Christmases left, but I was hoping this year I could go back to your party, hear some of the old songs, and think back on some of my early days with my husband.

And then I knew I had to see about getting her to the party. After much pleading and a promise that I would personally watch Anna closely to make sure she didn’t eat anything with sugar, the head nurse agreed, and Anna was delighted to hear the news. She spent the rest of the afternoon getting herself ready with the help of the CNA’s, who dressed her up in a little green dress and a red Santa’s hat to complete the outfit.

At the party, Anna was utterly transformed. She clapped her hands along with every song, and sang every word of the Christmas Carols that were led by me and the rest of the staff. During “White Christmas” she waved me over and asked if I could wheel her up to sing with the rest of the gang. I took her in as I was singing, watching her annunciate every word with such precision, and thinking of her learning to speak the language from this song so many years ago.

Sadly the party started coming to an end, and one by one we started loading the wheelchairs into the elevator to take people back to their various floors. Several people had already nodded off in their chairs, but Anna was still going strong until the last song had been sung. Wheeling her towards the door she grabbed firmly on both of her wheels and stopped.

“Do you mind if I just take one last look around?” she asked quietly, turning as she did to take one last look at the last remnants of the party. Eventually she tapped my hand and said, “ok honey,” and we continued rolling slowly towards the elevator. As I handed her off to my assistant, the elevator door began to close, and I took one last look at her and saw that she was smiling.

As the elevator door closed, I couldn't help but think the last chapter of Anna's life was also coming to a close.

Anna passed away a couple of months after that, but every Christmas I think about her and our one and only Christmas together. It reminds me of the fleeting and fragile nature of time, and how we shouldn’t take a second of the time we have with the people we love for granted.

I am reminded when I think about this of a movie I went to see as a kid with my mother called Avalon, which showed a large group of families sharing the holidays together, and then follows them through the years as the party gets smaller and smaller, until finally we are left with a single elderly man eating his holiday dinner alone. It was sad and oddly touching, and reminded me that all of us will also get old, lose loved ones, and withstand a number of changes to our own holiday traditions as people get married, start their own families, and begin to create their own new traditions over the years. And maybe one day we too may be like Anna, old and sick and lonely and longing desperately for one last chance to experience the memories of Christmas and all that entails. It reminds to not take a single thing for granted, as we truly may never pass this way again when it comes to time and fun and memories of friends and families. It was a lesson from a little old lady that I hope I’ll never forget.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tango On

Was watching the movie “Scent of a woman” today, one of my favorites and a movie that coincidentally takes place during Thanksgiving. I was particularly moved today by a scene where the colonel is contemplating suicide, and a young Chris O’Connell makes an analogy to him about the tango, telling him that much like the dance, life is also a kind of tango. He explains to the colonel that just like in the dance, we get to tango on despite our mistakes, and that by continuing to dance we can still create something of value.

I thought about this idea as it relates to my own life. I have made plenty of mistakes in my time, and not just little ones either. I’ve run through monumental roadblocks and made some huge wrong turns. Yet somehow I am still here, getting the chance to tango on and humbly try to do things better. It’s an amazing privilege when you think about it.

So today, as I sit on the shore of a beautiful lake and watch the last of the leaves fall, I again remind myself to count my blessings. I am still drawing breath, and as long as I am, I have moment to moment choices as to how I am going to proceed. In my work I have the privilege of working with children, and in this capacity have a huge responsibility to teach them what I know and try and guide them through their troubles. The way I try to do this is through teaching them how to laugh again, and in doing so, I often find that they have in fact taught me more than I have taught them . Research demonstrates that children laugh roughly 300 times a day, while adults laugh about 20. This is a lesson I am reminded of often when I work with kids.

I am also grateful for all the friends in my life, who continually put up with all of my notable shortcomings. Having lost a few friends in the last couple of years, I am continually reminded to say all those things to people I never quite get around to saying. To cut through my pride and the momentary awkwardness and say the little things that sometimes go so far. It’s always a work in progress, and something I forget quite a bit. Again though, I have the chance to fix this. So to all my friends who add so much to my life on a daily basis. Thank you. You are very much appreciated.

I am also thankful for my family, and grow more grateful each day for these people who continually make me laugh. Working with families in turmoil on a daily basis, I see so much of myself as a young kid. Angry, resentful, and wanting nothing to do with these people I got stuck living with. I want to tell them that they will never get this time back, and sometimes I do tell them this, although it often falls on deaf ears. There are often no shortcuts to coming to appreciate the idea of family. We have to go out into the world and see how hard it is and how indifferent people can be to your difficulties when you have no ties that bind you together. And when you have seen this indifference for long enough, you come to find that the people who really cared were with you all along. So to my family, to you too I am very grateful. You all make me laugh so much.

Finally, I am grateful for my own journey that today brings me to a beautiful resort in a quiet country town, where I have the privilege of sipping good bourbon by a large fire. The sum of all of my choices has led me here, and right at this moment I can’t think of any place I’d rather be. Despite my constant stumbling, I am a free man with the opportunity to take a little time out for myself today to think about where I’ve been, and think about where I’m going. Although there are plenty of things I’d like to change, I accept that I am going to continue to step blindly into the mud puddles of my life again and again and again. But I get to tango on, and tango I shall until I’m not drawing breath any longer. I am here and I am grateful.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

RIP to my amazing grandfather

Was informed yesterday that my 97-year old grandfather had passed away, and somehow it got me thinking about my time working in nursing homes. I’d seen so much while I was there, including people progressively losing their ability to speak, and finally even communicate at all. Thankfully my grandfather was able to hang on to his mind for most of his life, as knowledge was one of the things he valued the most in this world. He helped me and much of my family get through college growing up, and the fact that he was able to hang onto his mind for nearly the entirety of his 97 years, speaks to the level of commitment he directed in his life to the pursuit of knowledge, education, and excellence.

When I first heard the news, I had a kind of numb feeling, where I wasn’t able to really compute what I had just heard. My grandfather’s physical body had worn out, but in no way did I understand the idea that he was gone. I could still think of him and remember all of the things he had taught me and told me over the years, and those lessons weren’t going anywhere.

What I would never be able to do again was go over to his house when I was sick and have him make me some hot tomato soup. My brothers and I could never go out on his boat again and go fishing, and he would never spend another hour untying my line when I got it tied up in knots for the dozenth time. I’d never hear him whistle the song “stormy weather” again, which was so oddly comforting to me as a child, although I had no idea at the time what the song really meant.

All of those things exist only in my memory now, but somehow they all came flooding back to me this morning, and then finally the tears came, and I begun to understand the gravity of what I had just heard. Someone who had had a tremendous and nearly immeasurable influence on my life was now gone, and now, whatever was immortal in him, had somehow been passed down to me. He could teach me no more lessons and give me no more advice. That part of our time together was over, but somehow I am still in possession of a part of him. Perhaps if I am fortunate, someone will even look up to and seek out my advice one day, and when this day comes, I’ll draw on what my grandfather taught me and smile, knowing that that part of him lives on, and will live on, past my own time even. That thought brings me quite a lot of comfort.

In thinking of my grandpa’s life, and particularly his time with my grandmother, who he watched suffer with sickness and disease for almost the entirety of their married life, I thought of the following passage from Colleen McCullough,

“There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself on upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to out-carol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen, and God in his heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain ...Or so says the legend.

Although I’m sure my grandfather suffered tremendously watching my grandmother in pain for so many years, as a private man he chose to bear the brunt of much of this suffering alone. Again it must have been so terribly painful to watch the love of your life struggle so hard for so long, and know that what you have to offer can’t take that pain away. His patience, love, strength and endurance in this regard was again a testimony to the kind of man he was, and a part of the life lesson that I can only hope I will continue to absorb and pass on.

And now, as I reach the middle of my own life, I think about passages, and how I can pass these lessons on. What is my responsibility to this brief life that I have been given, and how can I honor my grandfather’s memory as I continue on my own journey? These are the questions, and I know I will have to ask them of myself over and over again as I continue to stumble through this life. What I do have now is a blueprint, as my grandpa’s footsteps are full of lessons about love, family, education, and taking personal responsibility for your own life no matter what circumstances are handed to you. Somehow today I feel a little more grown up, knowing that at least a portion of the torch of a very great man has now been passed to me. Thank you for everything grandpa.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


You are led through your lifetime by the inner learning creature, the playful spiritual being that is your real self. Don't turn away from possible futures before you're certain you don't have anything to learn from them.
You're always free to change your mind and choose a different future, or a different past.
Richard Bach- Illusions

I have always been fascinated by the idea that we not only have the power to create a different future for ourselves, but also a different past. This runs contrary to much of what I’ve been taught over my years studying psychology, where therapists since Freud have suggested that the events of our past cast an almost unalterable shadow over our future decisions. This always seemed pretty fatalistic to me, and, although I do believe it is important to understand where we come from and how it relates to why we do the things we do, I’ve also come to a very different kind of understanding about how our memories of the past actually change, grow, and adapt.

This for me is related to the idea of how the most challenging times in my life have almost always produced a great deal of wisdom and my most enduring life lessons. My learning around this concept has changed a lot, as my actual personal timeline for processing both my successes and failures is constantly in flux. If you would have asked me at 15, I would have told you my shitty childhood had ruined my life, at 30 I would have told you it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me and made me who I am.

Now, I’ve come to realize that both of these things are true, but that also neither of them are. The past, as it happened, is like sand that has been swept away into the ocean, never to be seen again. It is recycled and replaced and altered in a million different ways, and we make these alterations constantly as we struggle to merge our past experiences onto a road that leads to a more peaceful future, all the while juggling our present challenges in real time without the luxury of perspective.

All of this harkens back to Kierkegaard’s advice that life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards. So often in my own life I’ll really think I’ve figured something out, while realizing years later that I had just inched a little further up the road. My 30 year old self was so sure I had completely put the past behind me, and at the time this was an amazingly liberating feeling. Now I’ve come to understand that our perceptions of the past are neither real, nor are they in any way concrete. I have personally come to look back at my own life as a series of false plateaus that sometimes look like the top of the mountain. But they’re not. Nor are they the bottom of it. At each stop there are both lessons behind us and lessons in front of us, and we would always be wise to remember that often what we take as definitive wisdom today, is simply our view from the kaleidoscope at the time.

So for me I have come to read my own narrative as a comedy, while understanding that much of this funny story could also be read as a tragedy depending on how I choose to process the material. That’s the rub. We are not only the authors of our own stories but also the editors, and personally as an editor, choosing the pieces that make me laugh has provided a great deal of comfort as I have gotten older.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Unbridled Enthusiasm

Why in the world are we here?
Surely not to live in pain and fear
Who in the world do you think you are?
A superstar? Well right your are
Well we all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun
John Lennon

If you had one song to let the lord know about how you felt about your time here on earth, what would it be?
Sam Phillips to Johnny Cash

Heading out to New York City this week to see a truly wonderful friend of mine. We’ve got big plans. Going to check out the Dakota hotel and Strawberry fields in central park to pay tribute to my all-time favorite musician, John Lennon. Gonna drink some great beer in Brooklyn and then dine on some old world Italian food. We’ve got plans to do Manhattan, and hit a Yankees game and do al kinds of other fun stuff as well.

Why do I bring this up? Because all week I’ve been so excited about this trip, and it reminded me of something that is beginning to crystallize for me about how I want to spend the rest of my time here. This feeling that I have can best be described as unbridled enthusiasm, and as I get older I’ve become more and more convinced that it is the key to a successful life.

That is a platitude, I understand that, and many wise men will tell you persistence, or hard work, or a million other things are the key to life, and I agree that all of those things are important. Without a sense of enthusiasm and passion for the choices you have made however, all of these other traits are essentially a part of a fool’s errand.

The thing about enthusiasm is it isn’t some mystical quality that we are born with or that we are somehow inherently possessed with. It’s a choice to say yes to things in our lives in every circumstance. Sure it’s easy to say yes to life when we are taking exotic vacations and traveling around the world, but more and more I’ve become convinced that enthusiasm is at least as important in the circumstances in life that are less than ideal.

Which brings us back to the idea of choice. There have been so many times in my life where my happiness has come down to a choice I made about the kind of attitude I brought to the table. I’ve always been a bit of a stranger to hard work, and I have sulked and whined and pouted about all kinds of situations in my life that really weren’t that bad when I looked back on them in retrospect. Having worked and studied in a number of different organizations, I have noticed that it is almost a universal truth that people like to complain about the way things are run. Although this can be a way of bonding with your fellow comrades, it can also become a more permanent part of your attitude that begins to seep into other areas of your life.

Which is what happened to me. As a student I had developed an extra large chip on my shoulder, and became convinced that everyone who was trying to teach me something was being condescending. It was a time in my life where I had a difficult time ceding power to other people, as I had usually been the person in charge as opposed to the one at the bottom of the totem pole. Although it has taken me many years to come to this realization, I finally learned that sometimes it’s a lot less about whose in charge and a lot more about who commands respect by giving respect, and that sometimes the only way to gain power is by ceding it to others first.

On this note, a fellow student and supervisor of mine gave me this advice from Charles Swindoll about the importance of attitude. This also sits on my wall as a constant reminder that I always have a choice in the matter,

by: Charles Swindoll

The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life.

Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company... a church... a home.

The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past... we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude... I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.

And so it is with you... we are in charge of our attitudes.

Even as I read this today I have to remind myself to think about the application of what he advises. I still find little ways to complain in my life all the time, and staying vigilant about my attitude is a daily exercise in mindfully paying attention to the ways I let my mine wander into more pessimistic places. As always humor is an amazing asset in this regard, and when I forget this I take a look on my wall and heed the words of mister Swindoll. It reminds me to stay enthusiastic about even the most mundane of tasks, as today’s toil slowly adds up to something much more rewarding.

Cops and Robinsons

More marriages might survive if the partners realized that sometimes the better comes after the worse.
~Doug Larson

At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.
Jean Houston

I have counseled all kinds of people in my life. From very young children barely able to talk, to 100 year-old people on their deathbeds, I have been in situations where I tried to provide comfort and understanding to people regardless of the circumstances of their lives. Because I have so many weaknesses, it’s hard to single out one, but as far as a counseling specialty, I’ve always found it a little difficult to work with couples. The anger and hostility that seeps into a marriage can be hard to sit with, and resolving intense conflict can at times run contrary to my “lighten up” approach to life. Therefore it came as a particular shock to me when one couple pulled me aside a while back and told me I was a pretty humorless person.

To back up a second, I had been working with this particular couple for a while, and had been trying to summon a character trait called “gravitas” which describes a kind of personal seriousness that I was told in graduate school that I was sorely lacking. The implication was, that although a sense of humor is ostensibly a good quality in a therapist, people need to know that you are taking their problems very seriously.

I’m not convinced this is correct, as I have often found that people are taking their problems entirely too seriously. The challenge as a therapist is knowing when it’s time to simply listen, and when it’s time to challenge people’s views of the world that appear to be contributing to their problems.

In this particular case, I did a lot of listening at first, but over time as I perceived their comments towards each other as more hostile, I would interrupt more and suggest an intervention that I thought would improve their communication patterns. Often times in these situations they would stop and look at each other kind of inquisitively without offering much feedback as to what they thought of my suggestions. I would often leave the sessions feeling both confused as well as frustrated, and after several weeks of this I decided it was important to ask them what they thought was going on.

I wasn’t ready for what happened next. They came in to the next session, exchanged embarrassed glances at each other, and began with the ominous, “we need to talk,” before I was able to get started. I have heard this expression a number of times in my life, mostly from women in the exact context you would expect. I therefore braced myself for the inevitable bad news, when I was greeted with a rather surprising confession. The husband Daryl began;

“Well Joe, this is awkward, but Denise and I have been talking, and, well, you told us to tell you if you were doing something we don’t like, so here goes. You’re a little too serious for us, and we both are getting a little irritated by how you turn every exchange into some kind of life lesson. Sometimes we like to bicker back and forth in a funny way. That’s what we do. That’s what kind of works about our marriage, and frankly you are getting to be kind of a buzz kill.”

I had been slammed into the dunk tank. ME??? A buzz kill?? I was the guy with the lampshade on his head at every party. I was the lighten up guy. This couldn’t be true!!

“Well guys, I have to tell you this is a first, and I promise you I will think a lot about what you said,” I explained. “Our challenge here is to find what does and doesn’t work about your marriage, and trust me when I say there is no bigger advocate for humor in a marriage than me.”

Even as these words came out of my mouth I felt like a fraud. I thought I was sending that message, but perhaps I wasn’t at all. How many other couples had I seen that I had made the same mistake with? I realized that their bringing it up provided an opportunity though, and I vowed to go home and think of some ways I could help them with their marriage without coming across as a prep school dean.

While thinking about this, I went back to what I considered to be one of the best books ever written on the subject, The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman. In particular I focused on a chapter that dared to contradict a longstanding belief in couples counseling that almost every problem could be solved with the proper amount of active listening and communication skills.

But his research showed that this simply wasn’t the case. He instead found that many problems in marriages were not solvable, and that some beliefs, values, and habits were too deeply entrenched to be receptive to change. The key he suggested, was to develop an understanding of which of your problems were solvable and which ones were not.

I have come to believe that what lies in the middle of this valley is how receptive a couple is to using humor. What drives us crazy about other people is often at least a partial reflection of some part of our own psychological baggage, and we begin to develop wisdom when we come to understand and acknowledge there are things about ourselves that also trigger these responses in others. By admitting these things we can take away some of their power, and by laughing at them we can potentially diffuse resentment and defensiveness before they begin to stir.

In the case of the Robinsons we reached a whole new cruising altitude when the three of us began to incorporate humor into our sessions, and in doing so we began to identify which of their problems could be solved and which ones couldn’t. We found for instance that no matter how much Daryl wanted her to be interested in his gadgets and hobbies, she simply was not inclined in this direction. We also agreed that in the realm of spirituality, the two of them were on a fundamentally different page, and that no amount of insisting on Denise’s part was going to change Daryl’s mind about going to church on Sundays.

Although these things may seem insignificant to a neutral observer, they often gave rise to very intense arguments that descended into some very hurt feelings. What was at the root of this stuff were feelings that the other person didn’t care about things that were very important to them. As is the case with many arguments, what looked like anger was actually hurt, although this hurt manifested itself in harsh words and personal attacks. Because this couple was already so good at using humor in their interactions, we began to clarify rules of engagement around issues we put in the “unsolvable” problem category. Although this couple already had a solid foundation, coming to understand this idea, and using the appropriate humor to discuss these things really helped them turn a corner.

6 months after they had terminated their therapy, I received a package from them. Fearing the worst, I opened it slowly, and then laughed out loud when I saw it was a Mexican whoopee cushion they had purchased on a trip they had taken for their second honeymoon. The attached card read, “Doc, hope you haven’t forgotten about us and that you are doing well. We saw this and thought of you. Keep your sense of humor. Always keep your sense of humor.”

And that whoopee cushion still sits on my desk today. It serves as a little reminder that when things do get too serious I can slide it under someone’s chair and lighten the mood a little bit. More importantly I made a point to consistently monitor my own temperament. It was a lesson I won’t soon forget.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
Paul Bowles- The Sheltering Sky

Ain’t it funny how time slips away
Willie Nelson

Many of the posts I write about discuss mindful living, seizing the day, living life to the fullest, etc. Even still, I can be a pretty lazy guy sometimes, and find myself getting captivated by many absurd distractions, including watching hours of mindless TV. Sometimes I actually learn something though, and the other day while watching the show Lost, I was greeted with a profound life lesson that I have been thinking about ever since.

On the show, one of the leading characters named Desmond decides to deviate from the successful life he has built for himself, and concentrate on helping his friends reconnect with people he knew they were meant to be with. This course of action represents a revelation, as he has had an epiphany about what is important and life and what is not, and he’s decided to do things a little differently this time. One particular scene shows a huge smile splash across his face as he takes it all in and begins to shed the remnants of his former constrictive life.

This show was fiction, I knew that, and not only fiction but kind of crazy fiction. Still, I couldn’t shake the idea of how liberating it would be to shred some of my own dead skin. For a non-worrier, I had been downright neurotic for the last few weeks, and decided to actually sit down and make a list of the things that I was worrying about that would realistically matter to me in one year’s time. Know what? I couldn’t think of any, and shortly afterwards had my own big smile on my face as I freed myself from some of my own pesky skin.

My next move was to head to downtown Chicago and sit in Daley square and just watch people. It was an exercise I had been doing since I first moved here as a wide-eyed kid back in 1996. The task was simple. Watch people, really watch people and find something funny about their lives. Not in any mean-spirited way, but simply as a lesson in noticing the little moments of comedy in life that people perhaps don’t even realize about themselves. I’ve been doing it for years, and when I get too rushed or too serious, or simply too busy with my life, I slow down, hop on a train and repeat this exercise. I almost always fill up a substantial portion of my notebook jotting things down.

What occurs to me in these moments is that time is the most important thing we have. All of the other blessings in our life are contingent on having time. Making time is the fuel that feeds our relationships, kindles our sense of romance, and cements the bond that makes a family. Yet strangely we often don’t appreciate time until it’s gone. Who among us hasn’t complained and kvetched through a situation only to look back on it with nostalgia and longing only after it rests firmly in our rear view mirror? My guess is almost all of us.

A clue perhaps as to how to use our time wisely comes from Richard Moss, who said, “the greatest gift you can give another is the purity of our attention.” This speaks not only to spending time with someone, but actually spending this time in a way that truly demonstrates that we feel privileged to have this person in our life. To spend time really listening instead of waiting for our turns to talk. Anyone who has ever struggled in a relationship is I’m sure familiar with the difference. We often fail to realize that we too fail to listen, and even after working for several years as a therapist where it is the bread and butter of my profession, I find myself butting in on people all the time.

Beyond our relationships, I think there is a further lesson in giving the everyday moments of life the purity of our attention. Having spent time with a lot of comedians, I’m convinced that the best of them are funny because they have become amazingly adept at noticing the absurdity and comic relief every moment of life has the potential to provide. Spend a little time looking around a dollar store, or a zoo, or a doctor’s office, or virtually any other place you could name, and I guarantee you that if you really look closely you will find something amusing by taking a time out from your worries and starting to look around. That’s been my secret, and I suspect a secret for a lot of successful people who have made a career out of comedy.

This lesson came full circle for me when I was enjoying myself recently at one of Chicago’s glorious summer festivals on a Sunday afternoon. It had been a long weekend, and I had really just come to watch the music, have a couple of beers, and wind the weekend down as peacefully as I could.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the office. The band that day was playing a lot of cover music from the 80’s, and soon, like a frustrated lounge singer, my hips began moving back and forth. A beer later I was belting out a Tiffany song and doing the Roger Rabbit and generally making an ass out of myself. Soon I was doing the robot, the fishing pole, the shopping cart, and on and on. Because I was by myself I’m sure this looked incredibly odd, and as the show wrapped up I wiped the sweat off my head and prepared for the short bike ride home.

A moment later I felt a tap on my shoulder, and as I turned around I saw a young couple standing there with big smiles on their faces.

“Hey, just wanted you to know that we had the best time watching you tonight,” she went on. "It’s been a long time since either of us have seen those sweet 80’s dance moves, and we just wanted to say you kind of made our night.”

It was a sledgehammer moment for me. I realized that for all the time I spent watching and looking for the comedic moments in life, that I had become the subject of my own exercise. It was a wonderful reminder that life is not a passive affair, and that, although I strive for mindfulness and awareness, a big part of success in this life is about getting in the ring. Those people made my day, and I was humbled to learn that I had also made theirs. Laughter at its best is a pay it forward kind of exercise, and it’s a lesson I hope I will continue to remember.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Defending your life

I watched one of my favorite movies last night called “Defending your life,” with Albert Brooks. Although there have been hundreds of books and movies that speculate about what happens to us when we die, this movie did it in a way that has stuck with me since I first saw it when I was a kid. The premise is, that at the end of your life a small panel of judges examines 10 or so representative days of your life to see if you have conquered your fear during the duration of your time on earth. If they found you had, you got to move on to a higher level of consciousness, if not, you got sent back to earth to do it all over again.

The thing that resonated with me so much about this process was the emphasis on the role that fear played in determining the quality of a person’s existence, and how, according to the movie, our lives came down to a small handful of choices that gauged how much we allowed fear to influence our most important and pivotal choices.

When I first watched the movie I was a teenager, and found this to be a powerful way to think about living my life. Beyond morality or stability or security, I wanted to become truly fearless in my life, and shortly afterward took to the road. At the time I was, in my own mind, living a life without fear, perhaps even recklessly so. I spent my twenties traversing our great county, working in 5 of our national parks, traveling, performing comedy, and slinging a whole lot of liquor both as a bartender as well as a patron. Taking stock at the age of 30, I realized I had covered a lot of ground, but had little to show for my behavior but a lot of wonderful memories. A priceless thing to be sure, but it was at this point in my life that I first began to question if fearlessness was the only value worth living for.

Somewhere around this time I began to understand that there was a difference between conquering one’s fear and simply living in pursuit of pure hedonism. On a grand scale, conquering your fear was an amazing thing. It helped me bungee jump, get on stage as a terrified performer, travel into worlds unknown again and again, and hang out with a few women drastically over my head.

I look upon that period of my life with great nostalgia, but now, having been a therapist for several years, I have a little different take on tackling fear in our lives, and I find my position has changed a bit since the days of my sky-diving, hard-drinking youth.

You see I don’t think fear is conquered on a grand scale, although I certainly thought that for many years of my life. No I think the battle with fear is encompassed in a million little moments of our lives. The person we lock eyes with who we don’t quite work up the nerve to talk to. The promotion at work we don’t apply for because we don’t think we’re good enough. These are the little battles we face all the time, and as days give way to years, these are the choices that become the stories of our lives.

Even beyond these things however, there lies another layer of fear that rests at the deepest core of our psyches. This is the stuff we deny and put away on the back shelves of our minds to deal with on some faraway rainy day. This is the stuff that speaks to our deepest feelings of inadequacy and unclaimed baggage from the wounds that we never quite got around to dealing with. Stephen King describes this eloquently, saying, “So do we pass the ghosts that haunt us later in our lives; they sit undramatically by the roadside like poor beggars, and we see them only from the corners of our eyes, if we see them at all. The idea that they have been waiting there for us rarely if ever crosses our minds. Yet they do wait, and when we have passed, they gather up their bundles of memory and fall in behind, treading in our footsteps and catching up, little by little.”

So how do we stare these ghosts down? Some of the ways that have worked for me are honesty and laughter, which at least in my life are intertwined in a kind of perfect union. All of those things, those little nagging things I don’t always like about myself? We’ve all got a box that’s full of them, and sharing them in a funny way is both liberating as well as generative. Others can use them, learn from them, and through your own self-deprecating spin on these things perhaps begin to diffuse the power of some of their own fears. This is our shared absurdity as human beings, and so often the only thing that separates intense disappointment and fantastic shared laughter is a little time and perspective. It’s a useful idea to keep in mind that has personally helped me conquer a lot of my own fears, both large and small.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Dancing on your own grave

Dancing on your own grave
“Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Dylan Thomas- Do not go gentle

When I was in my early 20’s, I used to enjoy the idea of global warming. Sometimes I used to dream about an asteroid hitting the earth. None of these thoughts were in a suicidal kind of way, but I used to think how nice it would be if something would happen that got us all got back onto equal footing. Credit scores, friends who graduated from college way too fast, endless comparisons with my neighbors and classmates? None of this would matter anymore, as we concentrated on survival in the rapidly approaching nuclear winter. This thought filled me with a feeling of great warmth.

On the other hand the poem at the beginning of this essay was a steady companion in those days, and I vowed to “rage against the dying of the light,” whenever I got the chance. I was however always curious about what he meant by the “wild men” who “learned too late they grieved it on its way.” I spent half my life trying to figure out exactly what that meant. What did they learn? What were they grieving? Now all these years later I think I have come to understand what this line means, or at least what it means to me.

I think what he was trying to say is that even when we are in the prime of our lives, when we seemingly have everything a person may need to live a passionate and rapturous life, we still find a million things to complain about. Later we wax nostalgic about the good old days, not remembering how much we complained about these very same days when we were actually living them. Rarely do we acknowledge the prime of our life when we are actually living it.

Studying the work of Joseph Campbell helped me understand that maybe, just maybe, this is the kingdom of heaven. Right here, right now, every breath we get to take in is a chance to experience the amazing gift of awareness. What if all of the ways we poison this life were just traps of the mind, and there was a way of freeing ourselves from these traps? I am certainly not the first one to suggest this idea, and it is one that has been proffered by people from the Buddha thousands of years ago to Eckhart Tolle more recently.

It’s very difficult to feel anything akin to being in the kingdom of heaven when bill collectors are ringing our phones and doctors are telling us our bodies are falling apart, and I am as guilty as anyone of finding ways to poke holes in my own happiness narrative. But truth be told, for all of its loss and heartbreak and disappointment, truthfully this is the best life I can imagine. Everything is possible, and if I am disappointed in something, it is, as long as I am drawing breath, possible to choose another way to live. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “This is the true joy in life: Being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Which brings me to one of my favorite scenes from a TV show called Northern Exposure, which was a wonderful character study of people sharing their lives in the Alaskan wilderness. There was one friendship in the show I particularly enjoyed between Ed, the twenty-something filmmaker, and Ruth Ann the woman in her 70’s who ran the local store and who had lived a wonderful life of adventure.

In this particular episode, Ruth Ann turns 75, and Ed begins to treat her like her death is imminent. Ruth Ann, who has truly learned to savor every moment in her old age, dislikes being treated like an old woman, and throughout the episode they discuss the subject of death, and how it is not something to be feared, but instead something to be reflected on to enhance the meaning and value of our time here.

The last scene is what really stuck with me, as Ed purchases her a grave on the top of a mountain, and the final scene shows them both dancing joyfully on top of it. It took rewatching this as an older man, but finally I think I got it. There was no grieving the sun on its way down here, they were actively celebrating a pure moment of mindful living, and in that moment they were blessed with that fleeting gift of appreciation for the miraculous set of circumstances that brought them there.

I think about these things when I wax nostalgic about my own “prime” and how much better life was at some other point in my own existence. This is a lie, a trick of memory that allows us to forget the bad and remember the good. One day we will likely even look at this period of our life with a kind of fond reminiscence, forgetting the thousand ways we rationalized how life could be better. For better or for worse, this is where we are, right here, right now, and it’s the only piece of our destiny we have any power to change. Give it a shot. Dance on your own proverbial grave and see how it feels. This is the power of emotional choice. We can be, as Shaw suggests, “selfish little clods of ailments and grievances,” or we can chose to laugh and be here now with total acceptance that where we have landed is exactly the place we’re supposed to be. All of our previous choices have led us to the now, and taking responsibility for how we are going to proceed from here is what we have. All we have.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Choose your own adventure

“One book, Inside UFO 54-40, revolved around the search for a paradise that no one can actively reach; one of the pages in the book describes the player finding the paradise and living happily ever after, although none of the choices in the book led to that page. The ending can be found by disregarding the rules and going through the book at random, sequentially, or by accident. Upon finding the ending, the reader is congratulated for realizing how to find paradise.”

"Happiness is like a butterfly.
The more you chase it, the more it eludes you.
But if you turn your attention to other things,
It comes and sits softly on your shoulder."
Henry David Thoreau

When I was a young man I used to love a series of books called, Choose your own adventure. For those of you that haven’t had the pleasure, reading these books allowed you to make various choices as you read through the book, each of which altered your destiny in the story in some significant way. Whether it was chasing ghosts, or roaming through the old west, or even traveling through space, I loved the idea that each one of our little choices could lead to much more important consequences

In one particular story, referenced at the beginning of this essay, you found a kind of utopia by not playing the game correctly. You had to essentially stumble on the page by accident, or even totally disregard everything you had been told about how to read the book to find it. Upon finding it, you are congratulated on realizing how to find your own personal utopia.

I was wildly fascinated by this. What was the author trying to say? That the rules were completely unimportant? I’d always thought this myself, but that philosophy had resulted in a lot of trips to the principal’s office and lots of trouble. Was there some hidden message encoded in these children’s books? I thought about this for several years and then slowly but surely slouched into adulthood, never really following the rules without making a conscience decision not to do so. Cut to 20 some years later and I was in a thrift store looking for books, and while browsing stumbled across a copy of Inside UFO 54-40, the very book I had been so intrigued by as a kid.

I sat there for almost two hours taking a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and inevitably, just like I had when I was a kid, I somehow found my way back to utopia by not following the rules. It was a moment of cosmic significance that I was desperately in need of. This was it. Finding happiness by ignoring the rules had been the secret to whatever happiness I had found thus far, although, much like that kid in the principal’s office so many years before, this road less traveled had come with plenty of less than perfect consequences.

All of this was particularly fascinating because I had just been though a situation where my life as a comedian and my life as a psychotherapist had collided. Like I had been reminded of so many times before in my life, I was told there was a time and place for comedy, and that I was going to have to continue to evaluate when exactly this was. But I already knew the answer. Laughter is always appropriate.

Many people would take issue with that. What about death and suffering and disease and all kinds of other things that come up in our lives? Is laughter an appropriate response to these things? I still think the answer is yes. That is not to say that there aren’t situations that require empathy and gravitas and somber reflection. There are. These tragedies are not only possibilities in our lives, but downright inevitabilities. As RD Laing said so eloquently, “life is a sexually transmitted disease and the mortality rate is 100 percent.”

What other possible response to this is there than laughter? None of these storms that reverberate in our heads are really of any consequence. We are dying ashes on a cosmic fire that will burn so much brighter and longer than our little moment of time here. What we do leave behind in this echo chamber of collapsing time is the way we made people feel about their time here while we knew them, and that is why I have tried to spend so much of my time trying to make people laugh. I have failed often, and will continue to fail, as what looks funny through my personal kaleidoscope does not always register in someone else’s. I accept that, but also think there is perhaps no greater tragedy than becoming convinced that our little cubicle or office is the center of some kind of terribly important business that the universe cannot do without it. That’s a lie that takes some people a lifetime to understand.

The takeaway for me is therefore that it is not the what of life, or even the why, but actually the how that is most important. We don’t get to chose not to be sick or not to lose people we love, and we sure don’t get to chose immortality, but what we do get to choose is how we are going to spend this little handful of fairy dust we are given to sprinkle around the universe. Jean Houston said, “At the height of laugher the universe is thrown into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.” I think this is incredibly wise, as by taking this idea into our hearts we can not only share our own absurd view of the kaleidoscope, but also begin to look more deeply into other people’s as well, and really, to me at least there is nothing that connects people more strongly in this world than shared laughter. We are screeching through the universe on a malfunctioning rollercoaster, and we can choose to suffer through this reality or chose to laugh about it, even laugh hysterically about it, and that is the way I want to take the ride.