Tuesday, May 12, 2020

I remember the day the world came back to life

September 08, 2001 was a super annoying day for me.


I was managing a large nightclub in downtown Chicago. It was late summer, blazing hot, and the bar was so packed you could barely move.

God I couldn’t wait for that night to be over.



A couple of days later I was sitting at my computer. A plane hit the world trade center. It was time to turn on the TV. Then another plane hit right in front of my eyes. It was now clear. America was under attack. As the day progressed, it was thought that the Sear’s Tower was the next target. It was a mile from my house.

I didn’t leave the house for three days. It was terrifying.



On that next Friday, I went back to work. Normally on a summer Friday night, the bar would be so packed we would have a line down the street.



There wasn’t one person in the bar.



Not. One.



The staff sat around looking at each other in bewilderment. Was this it? The new normal?


People in Chicago were crippled with fear. New Yorkers were going through something far worse.


Markets were crashing, people were paralyzed and America had come to a standstill.


As the evening wore on, we heard a noise. It was a large group of bagpipers marching down Division Street playing songs. A quick thinking bouncer ran down and dragged them into the bar. They took a small break and we bought them some drinks.


They began to play again. Amazing Grace.


And then, the most wonderful thing happened.


As the band began to play, people started peeking out their windows. The sound of the bagpipes blasted through the otherwise quiet street, and people began to inch closer. They moved in closer. Then closer. Then even closer. Soon, the whole bar was packed with people with their arms around each other singing along to the song.

I was stunned.


The healing power of music is a well-documented phenomena, but this was something bigger than that.

People wanted to be with people again. It’s hard-wired into out DNA. Societies throughout history have risen and fallen based on the ability of people to cooperate and coexist. But fundamentally, in that moment, people pushed past their fears and followed their instincts to be together again.


So why am I bringing this up?


Because we are now in a period of forced separation. As a psychologist who has spent the last couple of months on the phone with people in isolation, I feel this. Their alienation. Boredom. Disconnectedness.


Here in New Zealand, all of this ends tomorrow. After two long months, we can see people again. Get out hair cut. Eat in a restaurant. Go to a gym. Many parts of America are now opening up again as well.

Here is my wish.

What I failed to mention, was that after 9/11, something quite amazing happened in America. People were extraordinarily kind. United. Even grateful. Living through that traumatic experience woke something up inside of people. Forced them to evaluate how fragile life really is. Take perspective on what was really important and what wasn’t. People Started calling their family again. Reconnecting with old friends.

Sadly, it didn’t last.

But as for the lockdown? The world has never been through anything like this before in our lifetimes. Not even close.

I really hope we emerge kinder. More grateful. Present. Appreciative. And I really think we will.

Throughout this lockdown, I have been sitting in my living room with one of the best views in the world.

But I have been through everything you have, I assure you. Boredom. Overeating. Loneliness. Restlessness. Worries about money. Employment. Health.

It has been my honor to try and guide people through their troubles, even as I have been struggling with my own. It was the most interesting two months of my career.

And towards the end, I saw resilience begin to return. Fathers sobbing on the phone with gratitude who have come to the realization that they never really knew who their kids were. People who attended therapy for the first time when they had been putting it off for years. Lonely people who vowed to find their courage and find their way back to people when the world came back to life.

I hope people remember these things they have learned. We might not ever live through something like this again.

Tomorrow is a big day for me. I have made a reservation at the nicest steakhouse in town. I’m going to order the biggest steak and the nicest wine and savor every moment. Enjoy being around people again. It’s been a long time.

And I’ll remember the day the world came back to life.

And I don’t want to forget this time. Slip back into old habits. Take for granted the previous gift of life. Time with other people. A nice meal. Friends. Laughter.

This time, I hope to God I won’t forget.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Some thoughts on the coronavirus, social isolation, and the Porcupine’s dilemma

What a few months it’s been for the world.

When this thing was happening in China, it was kind of scary. Scary in that “happening to other people” kind of way, where we voice our sympathies and then just kind of go about our business.

We’re way past that now. The minute I knew it was real was when Tom Hanks announced he had it. Tom Hanks!? Shouldn’t he be immune? He’s Forest Gump for God's Sake.

And now, around the world, it just continues to get more real. Major sports bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars have been canceled. Whole countries are going into lockdown. Stock Markets are crashing around the world.

Scary times. Unprecedented in most of
 our lifetimes.

Scary times bring out the best and worst in people. Read the news and you’ll find stories highlighting all shades of humanity. Tremendous acts of kindness. Overt racism and tribalism. Fear-based hoarding.

And the toilet paper. Oh my God the toilet paper.

And now we’ve been told to socially isolate. For some people this is going to be very hard. But for many of us, we were sort of doing this anyway.

The whole thing reminds me of something coined by Arthur Schopenhauer called “The Porcupine’s Dilemma” summarized below.

A troop of porcupines are milling about on a cold winter's day. In order to keep from freezing, the animals move closer together. Just as they are close enough to huddle, however, they start to poke each other with their quills. In order to stop the pain, they spread out, lose the advantage of commingling, and begin to shiver. This sends them back in search of each other, and the cycle repeats as they struggle to find a comfortable distance between entanglement and freezing.

There is a great deal about human nature encompassed in this little parable. Human beings are constantly coming together, hurting each other, distancing themselves, and then seeking the comfort of other human beings again.

Ever wonder why one of the worst punishments we can think of for our prisoners is to place them in solitary confinement?

Because we’re social animals. And we need each other.

Even if we also sometimes drive each other crazy.

I know this because I’m a bit of a porcupine myself.  

As we move forward in these next few difficult months, I am reminded that we are now in an enforced period of separation. Think about the comfort of a hug in a church, or a high-five with a fellow parent when our kid’s team wins a game. Even the sense of belonging we feel following major sports and rooting for our favorite teams.

For a lot of people, some of that stuff is sort of on hold right now. They are big things and there are going to be some consequences.

Loneliness. Boredom. Irritability. Anger. Those are some of them.

So what do we do?

We have to try and love each other. And if that’s too big, at least respect each other. Understand that when we take those 100 rolls of toilet paper off the shelves, that’s affecting someone else. When we make a remark denigrating another race or country, that’s affecting someone else.

I once read this story about England during World War II, where, due to the relentless air raids, the social classes broke down. The Nazis were coming, buildings were crumbling, and the fate of the world hung in the balance.

And yet, people reported feeling a kind of euphoria. A sense that they were all in this together. A belonging that they had never felt as a country when they were at peace.

There’s a very powerful lesson there.

Remember respect. Remember empathy. Remember little acts of kindness and support towards each other often goes a very long way.

Let’s keep calm and carry on.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

There are places I remember- How the places in our life affect our mental and physical health.

I was sitting in a bar a few years ago in a rut.

I’d been in the same place in Chicago for a while. My career was a little stuck and I was bored.

And I heard the guitar player start to sing, “Joe’s run off, to Fire Lake.”

It’s a great old song by Bob Seger. Bikers love it in particular. It’s about adventure. Longing. The open road.

Something changed for me that day. It was like the call of the wild. 

Suddenly I knew I had to stir things up a little.

 Two months later, I landed in New Zealand.

 But more on that later.

There has been plenty of research on how the places in our lives affect our happiness, serenity, and inner peace. Almost everyone I know has a “happy place” somewhere in the world. As a kid for me, it was at Ecola State Park in Cannon Beach. Pictured here.

I recently read a book about the innate human longing to be near the water called “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do.”

It talks about how much more peaceful we feel being around water, and the psychological benefits of finding this. Many people throughout human history have drifted towards the water, in many cases for economic reasons. But this book shows there is a lot more to it. I mean we are mostly MADE of the stuff. I bet a lot of people will almost innately understand the relationship between water and their emotional well-being. It seems to be almost wired into us.

Of course, it doesn’t HAVE to be water. Maybe for you, it’s the mountains. Or the desert. Maybe it’s your local park. Wherever it is, I bet it’s a place where you feel better. Take a little break from your worries. Think a little more clearly. Even doctors are getting hip to this nowadays. Here's a fantastic clip about a Bellingham doctor who prescribes park visits instead of pills!
Park visits instead of pills!

I once did this little exercise where you had to review your life and find the themes and activities that kept popping up for you that made you happy. Maybe as a kid, you loved to draw and paint, and kept coming back to it at various times in your life. Maybe it was making music. You get the idea.

But for me, it was always traveling. I’ve had that wanderlust since I was a child. The desire to see more, do more, explore more. It’s never stopped. I worked in five different national parks in my twenties, and even that didn’t scratch the itch. It’s a kind of longing. Anticipation. Hope.

Many people describe having had “peak” experiences in nature. Peak experiences are often described as transcendent moments of pure joy and elation. These are moments that stand out from everyday events. The memory of these events linger in our minds for a long time, and can even feel like a kind of spiritual experience. Peak Experiences

I’ve certainly had a few. One that stands out came during a hike to the very bottom of the Grand Canyon. Although I was alone, totally exhausted and physically depleted, I looked around and saw where I was. I realized how far I’d come, but also how much more there was to do in my life. I felt this powerful surge of energy that is still hard to explain. It was joy. Vibrancy. Exuberance.

These moments can sometimes be harder to find as we get older. Life intervenes. Holidays might turn into theme parks, minivans, and screaming kids. Work gets more intense. Money issues linger. All of a sudden we have perhaps lost sight of that primal need to be in nature once in a while.

I suspect this is how a lot of ruts get their start. Watch a Labrador when it gets near water. It will dive in head first and ask questions later. That’s primal.

And I submit that we humans have this need as well.

How do I know?

I recently went through another one of these “rut” periods.

And once again, I listened to the call of the wild.

So if you can’t reach me at the moment, I’ll be back on the open road. Not all who wander are lost. I think it’s just the opposite of being lost. It’s more like finding something again.

But in the meantime, I hope you find YOUR happy place in nature again. Spend some time there. Reconnect with this part of yourself.

And as for me?

Joe's run off to Fire Lake...