Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Such a long long time to be gone

Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there
Grateful Dead- Box of Rain

   All the people we used to know
   They're an illusion to me now
   Some are mathematicians
   Some are carpenter's wives
   Don't know how it all got started
   I don't what they're doing with their lives
   Bob Dylan- Tangled up in blue

   How do we reconcile the past with the present, 
   when we don’t feel comfortable in either one?
   October Road

Every summer I get this odd kind of feeling. There’s something so fleeting about it, and sometimes in the middle of a summer day, I start thinking about all the places I’ve been. Sometimes I even sit and time travel for a moment as I watch the sun go down. I think about being 18 and sitting by the river in my hometown, wondering if I was ever going to get a chance to leave. I think about being on top of a mountain in Yellowstone Park, or drinking beer in a crazy Montana bar, and I go back for a short while to those places. 

And then the moment passes. I take measure of where I am, and wonder what happened to all of the people I used to know and have such good times with. You get so close to people and make such amazing friendships, and then one day you look up again and find yourself in a completely different incarnation. Seasons change and people come and go, and we are often left wondering what happened. 

Modern technology has helped a little bit. We can use Facebook or something similar to catch up with people or to take a glimpse of the lives they are living now, but sometimes this doesn’t really scratch the itch. Many memories get frozen in amber, and we have a hard time reconciling how the people we used to know don’t seem to be the same anymore. We want them to stay the way WE remembered them, and when the way they are now conflicts with the way we see them, a strange loop of perception can occur, where we are left wondering if maybe all of our experiences were just some kind of a dream.   
In thinking about this issue, I thought about an exercise I sometimes give people in counseling, where they are instructed to write their own obituaries. Although it sounds a little morbid, it sometimes helps people clarify what it is they want to accomplish during their short stays here on planet earth. How would you like to be remembered, and what would you want people to say about you? “Bob spent his later years mostly eating Doritos and playing Xbox 360, he died in his beloved sweatpants he had worn for 27 straight days.” Probably not. Probably you would want the people you had shared significant experiences with to remember you and say something about the good times you had together. 

Which makes me wonder why we don’t just go ahead and do these things while we are still drawing breath. Stephen Levine posed the question, “If you were going to die soon and had only one phone call you could make, who would you call and what would you say?  And why are you waiting?” Why DO we wait to do these things, and where does this apprehension come from? I think we get trapped in our comfort zones at times, and settle into a kind of complacency where we just kind of survive on auto-pilot rather than think too much about it.

 I recently read an article called “The top five regrets of the dying” which was written by a nurse who had spent a lot of time with people at the end of their lives. Two of the five items involved courage, which I think informs so much of our happiness, but it was another item that really caught my eye. The item was “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” In explaining this item, she writes, “"Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying."

Powerful stuff, which I think speaks to the point I’m trying to make about stepping out of our comfort zones and picking up the phone. I know for me personally I have vowed to do a little more than examine the pangs of nostalgia I feel and take a little more action. So what are YOU waiting for? Pick up the phone and call an old friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Make peace with someone you are having a silly and stupid argument with. Make plans to visit a place that has special memories for you. Pick up that guitar that is gathering dust in the closet and give it another shot.

Such a long long time to be gone, and a short time to be here..

Monday, July 2, 2012

Bang the Drum Slowly

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. 
~Victor Frankl

But I tried didn’t I? At least I did that.
~Randall P. McMurphy- One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The Pacific Northwestern salmon beats itself bloody on its quest to travel hundreds of miles upstream against the current, with a single purpose, sex of course, but also... life
~Drew Baylor ~Elizabethtown

When I was a young man in my early teens, I became interested in a movie called “Bang the Drum Slowly.” It was a baseball movie, where Robert DeNiro plays a young catcher dying of a terminal illness, who has one last season in the majors before his illness takes him. Something about the movie and this phrase captured my imagination, and sometimes during particular moments that I thought life was moving too fast, I would repeat this phrase to myself. Bang the Drum Slowly. Slow down a little life, and let me enjoy the moment. I’ll get older soon enough.

And sure enough I did. I had all kinds of dreams as a kid that didn’t exactly materialize, but some other ones came to fruition instead. So here I sit, a psychologist, not quite old, but not exactly a young man either, trying my best to help other people realize their own dreams, or at least make the kind of changes in their lives to find some kind of happiness.

I was reminded of all of this, because this week one of my patients passed away when her heart simply didn’t work anymore. It was my first death since I’ve been a psychologist, and it hit me pretty hard. This is a letter I got from her a couple of months before she died.

I share this on these pages, because in many ways I was incredibly proud of this woman, and her willingness to make changes in her life, even as it was coming to an end. She could have simply thrown in the towel and kept on doing what she was doing, but instead she chose to try and change a few things in her life and take responsibility for her own happiness. It’s something so few of us are truly willing to do, although if you ask people they will usually tell you otherwise. What we really often want is someone else to change. In reality however, the only way we change the temperature of our own happiness in any kind of lasting way, is to make some internal changes in ourselves. The people and places can and do change, but in the confines of our inner worlds, the song remains the same. Confronting and changing these inner workings is difficult work, and in this case, a very brave woman was able to do this. Right at the end of her life, sure, but still, much like McMurphy in Cuckoos’s Nest, she tried goddamnit. At least she did that.

The saddest part of the story was that she had so little time left after she decided to make these changes in her life, and I couldn’t help but wonder why the drum couldn’t have beat a little more slowly for her. So much of life seems to work like this. We thrash and we struggle and we flail, and in the end we find we held the keys to our own prisons the whole time. This woman found this out at the end of her life, and, although I wished for her to have more time to enjoy herself,  maybe I missed the whole point.  Maybe the happiness she found at the end of her life was the culmination of a lot of suffering that eventually crystallized into wisdom. Although it would be nice to think we can have one without the other, I’m not completely sure that’s how it works. In any case, she found her peace at the end, and, in dying, left me with my own new lessons to contemplate. Am I taking responsibility for my own happiness, or have I grown complacent and cynical? Am I actually walking the walk, or am I just saying the words? These are questions we should ask ourselves again and again, and personally I’m starting today. Thank you for this one last lesson my friend.