Saturday, December 31, 2011

Same Old Lang Syne

2012. I really couldn’t even fathom such a date when I was a kid. Yet here we are. I’ve heard a lot this week about resolutions and change and starting over, and I always wish people well when they make these promises to themselves. Change is perhaps the most mysterious force in the universe. We vigorously fight it and resist it while also craving it desperately. Either way it happens though. Everything is in a state of renewal and decay. Particularly we humans.  As R.D. Lange once said, “Life is a sexually transmitted disease and the mortality rate is one hundred percent.”

It seems to me that although we all talk about embracing change, mostly what we are talking about are the changes it is that we want. It’s the other kind that terrifies us. A change that we didn’t plan for or expect often induces a much different kind of feeling.  This is the kind that makes us adapt and adjust and step out of our comfort zones and places of safety. This is the hard part. In the words of Tom Robbins, “Real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change and stretch consciousness. Real courage is risking one's clichés.” 

So as a therapist who bears witness on a daily basis to these struggles with change, I’ve come to a kind of a realization. Lasting changes in one’s life are not evidenced by being 20 pounds lighter, or a new gym membership, or an exciting new relationship, although all these things certainly make us feel good. For a while.. I have however found our brains have this unsettling tendency towards slippage. Slowly and insidiously we give back the gains we make, and settle back into our old selves. Anyone who doubts this should check out a gym the first week in January. It’s packed. Then come back in April. You’ll see what I mean.

The takeaway is that change is not about resolutions and promises, but rather those small, internal moments when we realize that all of the choices and externalities of our larger world stem from the little thoughts that originate in our own minds. When we’ve compiled enough evidence about what doesn’t work, and come to a place where we understand that we are the architects of our own lives, finally, we can begin to take the reins and confront our own way of thinking. This involves risking our clichés and altering our belief structure, and this is often extremely uncomfortable. Our minds become comfortably habituated to all of our personal little opinions and beliefs, and will quickly slip back into these old ways of thinking without sustained vigilance. But there’s a choice. As Victor Frankl puts it,
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

So in my own life I vow to work on myself in this manner over the coming year. A wise man once told me that it was the job of the therapist to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and right now I fall l into the second category. I will not lose weight this year, but change the way I think about health, hedonism, and how my choices are all affecting my future self. I won’t just make more money, but pursue ways to be happy in my working life without tying it exclusively to financial gains. I will try and confront my own pessimism, cynicism, and fatalism. I will take more chances in love, career, and health, and when I fail, I will think about what it all has to do with my own thinking rather than blaming it on timing or laziness or someone else. I will risk my clichés..

I did rejoin a gym though.. Hope to see you there in April… 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Weary World Rejoices

Went to Midnight Mass last night for the first time in about 20 years. I wasn’t drawn for any particular religious reason or obligation, but rather out of a sense of curiosity. Would it be the way I remembered it? Somehow I always went kicking and screaming to those kinds of things, but last night I actually went a half hour early to see the choir sing Christmas Carols. Maybe I’m getting a little sentimental in my old age.

I was particularly struck by their version of “Oh Holy Night,” which has always been one of my favorite Christmas songs. I listened carefully to the words,

‘Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.’

I think perhaps what draws me so much to the song is it emphasizes a sense of renewal and hope. Although I’m not personally as invested in the spiritual aspect of the song, as a psychologist I spend nearly all of my working day trying to cultivate a sense of hope in the people I see, with varying degrees of success. This song conveys it so simply, and I am a little jealous.

What I saw however, as I scanned the eyes of people singing along with the choir, was that this hope, however fleeting it may be, is a real thing. Although other holidays such as Easter are more associated with renewal, I think Christmas contains a lot of this quality as well. For me personally, I also wanted to feel this sense of hope. Looking back on Christmases past, I know I certainly didn’t get everything I asked for, but somehow it was all still okay. A lot of people had taken time to think about me and buy me presents and give me a bit of their attention for a day, and that was enough. My own worries could wait for another day. Christmas was about fun. Kids spend hours and hours of their energy in pursuit of the things they want, and the look on a kid’s face when their presents finally arrive is really kind of a wonderful sight to behold. Sure you can argue about commercialism and the reason for the season and all of that, but still, it’s fun to watch the kids with their toys.

I think the phrase “the weary world rejoices” applies a lot more to the parents though. You can see it in their tired eyes that they’ve spent a lot of time shopping, worrying, wrapping presents, and generally doing everything in their power to make sure their kids have a Christmas to remember. The end of the season brings a kind of relief and a sense of being finally able to let go of the rope. Right or wrong, parents have gotten through another Christmas. The weary world rejoices. Now pass the eggnog..

So I found myself at Midnight Mass wanting to borrow some of this hope and relief. Somehow in trying to dispense these things to others, I found my own battery had been drained a little. Seeing people belting out the songs and smiling and enjoying each other, I felt a little like the Grinch, down from the mountain to sing with the people in whoville. By the end of the mass I found, rather unexpectedly, that I had joined in the fray and the chaos and the handshaking, and yes, even the singing. Life is not a spectator sport. It’s a platitude I always preach to my clients, but often forget to apply to my own life. Yet here I was, mingling, socializing, IN A CHURCH…  One thing I certainly learned last night, was that I still have the capacity to surprise myself. It’s a wonderful realization.

Hope comes in many forms…

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Coming Home

Thanksgiving. It’s always been one of my favorite holidays, and today, while watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles on a crowded plane, I reflected on why that is.

What is it about the idea of coming home? The beloved American songwriter Stephen Foster wrote “no matter how far we travel or what sadness the world imposes on us, all our hearts ache for the best memories of childhood, the security of a family and parents, and the familiarity of a home.” That certainly explains a lot of it, but looking back on my early life, the memories are far from perfect. Why are we so quick to forget the bad and remember the good during these moments of nostalgia?

My answer to this question came in the unlikely form of John Candy, who throughout the movie I mentioned bumbles and stumbles through his life like a wounded trooper, his heart entrenched firmly in the past while he humbly tries to negotiate the present. The current narrative of his life reads like a very messy novel with no clear path to a peaceful resolution.

But we find out there is one thing he has truly excelled at in his life. He has loved well. At one point in his journey he has truly shared his chaos with another person, and the memory of his time with his wife is enough to keep him going. It is a poignant lesson from an unlikely hero.

But that isn’t the end of the story. Through his interactions with his counterpart Steve Martin we see that perhaps, despite his chaotic life, he still has something to teach. Martin’s character is a busy man, and although he loves his wife and kids deeply, his life is in some ways passing him by. Through his constant struggle for the legal tender he has forgotten an important lesson, and somehow this all crystalizes for him in the form of an obese guardian angel that came crashing into his life, seemingly out of nowhere.

What we are left with is the idea that people all long for some kind of human connection. Even those of us who appear the “toughest” or most distant. Plato said, “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some sort of battle” and I think this is very true. Simple moments of human connection make these battles so much more bearable.

Which brings us back to the idea of giving thanks. Thanksgiving brings us all together for a brief moment to celebrate perhaps the most important antidote to skepticism and resentment, and that is gratitude. Thinking about the things we have versus the things we don’t is an important battle in this life, and often, for one day at least, we spend a little time with the people who know us the best and figure out what it is we have. Sometimes this isn’t so apparent, and families can often be incredibly chaotic and dysfunctional.

But if you’re like me, you too may one day find yourself a long way from home and actually missing this chaos. So dust off the china and tap the boxes of wine.

I’m coming home. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Welcome Back To The Fight

Years ago when I was a kid, I remember reading Sports Illustrated, (Crossing my fingers for a swimsuit) when I came across an article about Howard Cosell. The title of it was “I’ve won, I’ve beat them” and it talked about how Howard had risen to the top of his profession despite a number of people from all walks of life that wanted to see him fail. That phrase always stuck with me when I was a kid, and it became kind of an inspirational mantra to me when I felt like life was beating me down.

Time passed and I forgot about this comforting phrase, but a few weeks ago it came back to me. I was standing on a platform, now officially a doctor, and listening to people politely clap as I moved across the stage. Ten hard years of study and sacrifice and now I was officially a made man. I had won, I had beaten them.

But what had I won exactly? And who had I beaten? I thought back on all of those people from my life who sought to kill my dreams, or tell me I wasn’t good enough or smart enough and smiled. Far from discouraging me, those kinds of voices had provided motivation to keep on going when things were at there worst. As much as I would like to find those people and gloat for a minute, I realized they weren’t the enemy. Not really.

No what I had really beaten was the little voice in my own head, always present, judging, criticizing, telling me I didn’t deserve to live the best life that I could. Taking that voice on proved to be the toughest challenge of them all.  

 I believe we all have this kind of self-sabotaging voice in our heads from time to time, and it is often as persistent as it is relentless. This voice creates limiting beliefs which convince us to settle for a life that is good enough rather than one we truly desire. We convince ourselves that we are too old, or too far behind, or simply not good enough, when in reality these barriers exist exclusively in our minds. Breaking through these limiting beliefs requires we take a path completely different than the one we are acclimated to. When we deviate from the path eyebrows are raised and whispers begin. Who are we to go against the grain, and why are we rocking the boat?

What I’ve discovered however, is that until you confront these limiting beliefs, you are always going to play the game of “what if” with yourself, and this can destroy you.

So, having reached this point in my life, I’ve come to understand that all of my personal failings, all the tears, frustration, broken hearts, and floundering around in the dark. All of these things are now the fuel that will perhaps assist me in helping others break through their own limiting beliefs. What hadn’t occurred to me in my darkest days, was that these very moments would one day crystallize into a kind of wisdom that could be of some use to others. It’s a powerful responsibility.

All of this came into my head when I was watching Casablanca the other day and found myself fixated on the final scene, where Victor Lazlo tells Rick, who is now a completely transformed man, “Welcome back to the fight.”  I think about this idea as it relates to my own life.  At one time I was an idealist, and truly believed that the power of ideas could change the world. Somewhere along the way I’ve lost some of that, but I also believe, finally, that all of these lost ideals are starting to return. When you transform yourself you also come to realize that it’s just the beginning. There are millions of lonely and scared and tired people out there who have lost their way, just as I have, many, many times in my life. I will give them everything I can, because I’ve been there.

I look forward to returning to the fight..

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Time Enough At Last

Few things brought me more pleasure in my younger years than watching old episodes of The Twilight Zone. I loved the intrigue and the plot twists, and even the poignant life lessons that the show always offered before the dramatic final closing note that Rod Serling would deliver.

One episode in particular stood out from those years, and that was the one with Burgess Meredeth as a harried banker who loved to read, who finally got his ultimate wish to spend the rest of his life quietly reading without interruption, following a nuclear blast. “Time enough at last,” he says with great happiness when he finally realizes the power of having his biggest wish finally come true. The phrase always stuck with me, and it’s something that still rings in my head even to this day. How nice would it be to have time enough at last to get all of those little things on our wish lists finally accomplished? Take that little road trip we’ve been meaning to take, fix up that car that’s been sitting in the garage gathering dust, or even just do a nice small thing for ourselves like going to a nice restaurant or spending a day relaxing and walking in the park.

The story in the episode does not have a happy ending. Poor Burgess Meredeth breaks his glasses right before he’s about to tackle his glorious stack of books, and comes to the realization that he was destined to live the rest of his life tantalizing close to his greatest wish, without the ability to act on it. “That’s not fair!” he cries as the episode comes to an end, and we are left with the lesson that it is sometimes wise to be careful what we wish for.

I relay this story, because I think that it is a wonderful metaphor for life. I suspect every one of us wishes for time away from the chaos and hustle and bustle of our lives to do the things we want to do. But life intervenes. Somehow we continue to keep drawing breath amongst the chaos and confusion of our lives, and find little ways to find moments of happiness and meaning, however fleeting, as the powerful play goes on around us. “One day we’ll have more time,” we tell ourselves, while the laundry pile gets a little higher, the dishes get a little dirtier, and the stack of unread books continues to pile up.

What strikes me in these moments, is that perhaps, just perhaps, there is also some meaning in the chaos, and that maybe it is the very elusiveness of time that makes us crave it so much. Perhaps that is our cross as human beings, to always have the very thing we think we want just slightly out of our grasps. We fill up the moments of our own personal grail quests with a series of little moments, all the while failing to realize that we are spending the very thing we crave the most all the time. What makes it even more vexing is that what we often think of as tedious, boring, and cumbersome in the present moment sometimes become the stuff of our fondest memories when we have the luxury of polishing them off with the magic of reminiscence.

I reflect on this because I was grateful to have found the time to write these little essays for this book, and remember some of these little moments from my own past life, which are now a part of my personal narrative. I hope I continue to find the little moments to reflect and ponder the moments of my own life, as they have helped me to better understand both where I’ve been, as well as where I hope that I am going. I would urge you to do the same in your own life. Take a record of the little moments. Even if it’s just a little snapshot in your head that you promise to remember. The lessons are always worth the time.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Found myself thinking today of the TV show St. Elsewhere, and in particular the ending, which showed an autistic boy staring into a snow globe. As the camera pans away we see the boy shake the small globe, and we are led to believe that the entire show took place inside this boy’s head, and all of the characters and stories were all part of his vast imagination that he was unable to communicate to the larger world.

I think about this sometimes during my work with kids, and in particular as it relates to the vastness of their imaginations. Over this past Christmas holiday I spent a lot of time watching Christmas movies with kids, and I was endlessly fascinated by the things they chose to focus on. Most of all they seem to be thinking about the ideas of magic and of possibilities. I learned a lot watching them, and really came away thinking about what happens to this sense of magic as we get older, and why we tend to shrink our sense of possibility with each passing year.

To return to the metaphor of the snow globe, it seems to me that there is something in every child’s mind that wants to create worlds and explore the idea of magic, exploration, and conquest. Yet somehow we as adults seem to find a way to bring them crashing back down to earth. They want our encouragement and we give them reality checks. They want to talk magic and we want to talk seat belts and homework.

And slowly as we get older we find that our worlds begin to shrink. Ask any child what they want to be when they grow up, and the answer is usually a movie star or a fighter pilot or something else spectacular like that. No kid ever says I want to be a middle manager trapped inside a cubicle, or a billing specialist trapped in a file room. Yet years later we find those same kids who wished upon a star doing these very things. How does this happen? I suspect a lot of it has to do with the idea of encouragement, as without encouragement our sense of possibility starts to shrivel, and we begin to settle for lives we never thought could happen to someone like us. I suspect we all have felt like this at one time or another, and one lesson I’ve learned from both my own therapy as well as my life, that sometimes just a little bit of this encouragement has the potential to drastically alter the path someone is on.

Conversely, I also don’t believe that any parent wakes up in the morning and thinks about ways they can snuff out the dreams of a child. As kids, we have probably all heard the oft-repeated phrase, “just wait until you have children,” and I think most kids silently promise to themselves that they will never be like their parents when they get old. Yet somehow we arrive into adulthood with deeply entrenched ideas about parenting that we learned from our own parents, and we find ourselves on the other end of this paradigm, wanting to protect our children from the dangers of the world and sometimes making unpopular decisions as we do.

During the best of these moments we do give our children a sense of safety and protection, but we also need to give them room to dream. Much like the little boy looking into the snow globe, we all have vast worlds inside of our own minds, and what these minds are really capable of is often so much bigger than the things we end up settling for. Each of us, in every moment, is creating with our minds our own version of reality. It’s a mind-blowing idea when you really think about it. All of the things we’ve observed, learned, created, all combine together to influence the moment to moment decisions that create meaning and define the nature of our existence.

The beauty of this is that much like the child from St. Elsewhere, we can choose to shake up our own snow globes any time and create a new reality for ourselves. And this reality doesn’t even have to be in the form of physical changes, but instead the way we choose to think about the moment to moment choices as to how we are going to respond to the world.

An example of this was presented to me by a kid in therapy this week, who showed up rather unexpectedly with his mother without an appointment. I usually am well prepared for this particular kid, and have computers, ipods, and a lot of other materials on hand to try to get into his world a little bit and hopefully incorporate the occasional therapeutic lesson. When the kid saw that I was empty handed on this particular day, he began carefully stroking his imaginary 6-year old beard, and his mind went to work. Soon he was moving my very small office around, and with the stroke of his imagination, my desk had become a pirate ship, and the chairs turned upside done to make pillars to shoot our cannons from. And for just a few fleeting moments, I could see his vision perfectly. We had entered a state of pure play, and by entering into his world for just a moment, I was able to start looking at my own in a little different way. It was a great lesson.

And so it goes that I sometimes have to remember to construct my own little pirate ships in my mind as I cycle back into a life full of little complaints and grievances. These are traps of the mind that continually shrink our worlds, and yet we knowingly walk the same plank day after day after day. In these moments I try to remember to shake it up a little, and summon the powers of my own imagination to look at the world a little differently than I had before. Sometimes it can be the littlest things, like talking to someone I normally wouldn’t or walking home a little differently than I usually do, and in these moments I’m always amazed at how much things start to look a little differently than they did before. The lesson is one of many I've absorbed from watching kids at play, and I am always grateful to borrow a little of their sense of magic.