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…