Thursday, March 29, 2012

Somehow we forgot to dance

Somehow we forgot to Dance

Our lives are better left to chance
 I could have missed the pain
But I'd have had to miss the dance
Tony Arata

If you watch youtube videos long enough, eventually you find a gem. This is one of those videos. Music and life. It’s a great metaphor really. All of are involved in some kind of Opera. Some are comedies, some are tragedies, and most are somewhere in between. By the time the fat lady finally sings, most of us have seen plenty of both.

I particularly like what he says at the end. It was a musical and we forgot to dance. I think that is true of so many of us. We somehow get trapped between jumping through hoops and living up to other’s expectations of us, and all of a sudden the record is over. Oliver Wendell Holmes said it like this, “Many people die with their music still in them. Why is this so? Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out.”

Why is that? Are we all conditioned to continually try and unlock the next accomplishment? Having seen a number of teenagers in counseling over the years, I’ve certainly had a front row seat in witnessing this dynamic. Get on the honor roll, study for the SAT, get into college, and on and on. Smell the roses later, but for right now finish your essays.. 

The problem with this idea, is that much like Mr. Watts points out, it doesn’t end with college. Most of us will spend the rest of our lives chasing the next milestone we feel we are “supposed” to accomplish. A lot of this is about what our family and friends think about us. There’s a whole lot of research about this actually. It’s called “Social comparison theory”, and it explains a lot about how we compare ourselves to other people as a basis for our own happiness. When we have what someone above us has, then we can finally be happy. Meanwhile we continue to spin on the hamster wheel, in constant pursuit of targets that never seem to stay still. 

In reflecting on this idea, consider the words of Fr. Alfred D'Souza, “For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin - real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way. Something to be got through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.” These words ring pretty true to me. As we stress about the future and lament the things from our pasts, our time in the present is melting away like one of Salvador Dali’s clocks. Many of us learn this lesson too late.

So how do we extract ourselves from this trap and learn to dance to the music? It’s really kind of a tough question. Regardless of the things we tell ourselves, none of us live in a bubble, and for better or for worse, our lives are intertwined in the same big ball of tangled knots with everyone else. Although we often admire the outlaws and the icons, we are much more comfortable when we are all playing by the same rules. It gives us a sense of order.

In my own life, I’ve come to find that to remember it is a dance, I need to remind myself to laugh. All the time. To laugh even when I really don’t feel like laughing.. To me a sense of humor is indicative of a constant choice to reframe perspective. To keep the music playing regardless of our personal little dramas that constantly threaten to scratch the record. Perspective is a difficult thing, and in my experience something that takes sustained vigilance to achieve. Our minds like to slip back into the tragedies. This is a choice, and one that we can change anytime we gather the strength to accept personal responsibility for our own happiness. Ultimately all we have is our perspective, and by accessing our humor I truly believe we can learn to dance. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Kids, Dreams, and Encouragement

I said, that's life
And as funny as it may seem,
some people get their kicks, stompin' on a dream.
David Lee Roth – That’s Life

“All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair.”
 Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven 

Children crave encouragement like plants crave water.
Rudolph Dreikurs 

Because I spend a lot of time working with kids, I’ve picked up on a few things. Over the years, my video game skills have gotten pretty adequate. I can name a few rappers beyond MC Hammer, and I can intelligently discuss the merits of the various Spongebob characters if I was truly pressed. Does any of this actually make me cool? Probably not. Still, I think it’s important to try and meet kids where their worlds exist right now. Getting them to adapt to us is an exercise in futility.

 Beyond toys or movies or games, I have also come to understand that what kids really want, is for someone to be truly interested in their lives. Kids really do crave encouragement like plants crave water, although we as parents, teachers, and counselors may sometimes miss this. All of us that have interacted with kids at any level have at one time or another felt uncool, it’s just the nature of the beast. Sometime this stings a little, as our pride always takes a little hit when we realize that the same kids that used to look up to us, now see us as a little less than hip. We’re supposed to be the bigger person in these scenarios. It doesn’t always work like this..

 Despite these occasional hits to our own pride, I truly believe that we can never forget that kids need our encouragement more than anything, regardless of how tough or disinterested they may sometimes appear. I’ve spent plenty of time working with the future version of these kids. There really is nothing sadder than someone who fails to realize their potential because they never got the encouragement that they needed, but in some way, this is a part of all of our stories. It’s been my experience that sometimes four little words such as “I’m proud of you” can make all of the difference in the world to a person who needs to hear it. This doesn’t end in childhood either.

Perhaps even more startling, is that there are plenty of people in this world, who not only fail to give this encouragement, but actively seek to snuff out the light in other people. The song says it well, “As funny as it may seem, some people get their kicks, stomping on a dream.” Perhaps this is what happens to a number of people who failed to receive encouragement in their own lives. Hurt lingers, resentment builds, and they work to pull others down in the same way that they were. It’s a sad cycle that takes active and mindful excavation of our own pasts to consistently stand up against.

So for all of us who interact with children, as counselors, teachers, and especially parents, we have to realize that we are in fact leaving imprints on these little people that we interact with, and learn to put aside our own disappointments and remember what it is these children need from us. And perhaps, beyond the children, it’s not too late for the grown-ups in our lives to also rekindle their own dreams with a little bit of much needed encouragement. Many of us are still these same kids now in larger sizes. But we still have our dreams. Every single one of us. And without the idea of these dreams, an important part of us begins to die. So take the time to tell a kid you’re proud of them. They want to hear it very badly, and these little words can shape a child’s future in ways far beyond our comprehension.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Scar Tissue

I don't want to die without a few scars.
Chuck Palahniuk 

Scar tissue is stronger than regular tissue. Realize the strength, move on.
Henry Rollins

Had a truly enlightening conversation with a man last night who had just lost a friend of his in a motorcycle accident. He told me about how his friend had been an alcoholic for most of his life, but had been clean for five years when he died. He was killed by a drunk driver, a fact that left this man both angry and confused about God and fate and the futility of making plans, when the world seemed to him to be a series of unpredictable accidents. He was difficult to console, and while talking to him, it occurred to me that a scar was being formed that would take a long time to heal. Even as a (very off-duty) therapist, I doubted that there was much I could say to him that would help this scar heal any faster. These things take time.

And I’ve got plenty of my own scars as well. Memories come back sometimes that remind me of painful experiences, and in these moments, I think about what these things have meant to my own story. Sometimes these memories are powerful, and I wonder if I would be better off if they could be completely eradicated from my mind. The eternal sunshine of the spotless mind. They are actually quite close to developing a pill for this now. Seriously..

Ultimately however, I think I’ll take a pass on this pill, even if they do finally get it right. I’ve come to understand that these experiences have shaped me in ways, both good and bad, that inform my decisions in all kinds of powerful ways, Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross has this to say on the subject, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

I think there is a tremendous amount of wisdom in these words. Although I don’t claim to be one of these “beautiful people” I do know that I became a therapist for several of the reasons that she mentions. When you’ve overcome pain in your own life, you feel a kind of calling to at least try to help others who are in some of the same emotional places. This is often exceedingly difficult, as human change is much more complex than simply sharing a story with someone. It takes patience, resilience, and most of all, simply time, and many kinds of pain can be especially resistant to change. We can become quite comfortable with the devils that we know, and yes I know this from a great deal of personal experience.

When change does happen, it occurs to me that it is akin to scar tissue that is hardening, and pain is slowly being transformed into something stronger, and in these moments a kind of wisdom is also being created. Perspective develops that allows us to see our painful experiences as part of a larger and more complex storyline. This is how we grow.

So in my own life I know that I will continue to share my own past experiences with others, while also thinking about the baggage I haven’t quite made peace with just yet. It reminds me to be patient with others, and perhaps more importantly, be patient with myself. To fully engage with this life in love and fate and moving in the direction of our dreams, is to make ourselves vulnerable to pain again and again and again. Sometimes we’re gonna get hurt. There’s just no way around it. But as we get older and wiser, we perhaps come to see that Mr. Rollins is right in the quote at the beginning of this essay, Scar tissue IS stronger than regular tissue, and we need to realize that we have survived these kinds of things before, and we will again. Any kind of life worth living is going to have some pain in it. It’s what we do after that matters.

With this in mind, I attended a wake today as a guest of the man at the beginning of the story. Not as a therapist, or really even a friend, but rather as someone who has lost some friends, felt that pain, and lived to tell the tale. I thought I was there to help him, but in the end, listening to the speeches, music, and stories, I learned at least as much as I taught.

Inspiration comes in all kinds of places..