Tuesday, September 1, 2020

In search of Divine Nonchalance

 If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It is lethal.

Paulo Coelho


Both my wife and daughter think I'm this gigantic loser and they're right, I have lost something. I'm not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn't always feel this... sedated. But you know what? It's never too late to get it back.

Lester Burnham- American Beauty



If you’re like me, you’ve watched a lot of TV in 2020.

For most of us, it’s been a locked up, holed up, masked up kind of year. For me, it will be the first year in more than a decade I haven’t gotten to do any overseas travel. With Covid and all the corresponding bullshit that goes with it, it’s just not on the cards this year.

I fully acknowledge this is a first world problem, and that for many people, 2020 has presented much bigger challenges than that. But I do think it’s safe to say that many of us might have lost our spark this year in one way or another. It’s certainly what I hear from people every day as a psychologist.

But anyway, back to the TV.

I recently began watching a fascinating show called Dispatches from Elsewhere. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

The premise of the show comes from a 2013 documentary called “The Institute” which documents an elaborate game/challenge/alternate reality activity that originated in San Francisco, which challenged people to participate in activities that forced them to take more risks in their lives. Think of a less violent version of Fight Club. They started by leaving cryptic message on telephone poles. It sometimes involved dancing or other artistic endeavors. It might sound kind of silly, but over 7,000 people eventually participated.

A theme runs through the show that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.

“Divine nonchalance.” The phrase originally comes from a Tarot card pictured on “The fool.” The definition I like is, “A kind of naiveté. Almost like a childlike relationship with the world around you. That freedom from inhibition that sparks creativity and inspiration and allows random beauty to occur.”

Divine nonchalance ha? How do I get some of that back into my life??

Kids are born with it I think. Everything is up for discussion with them, and no question is too silly or intrusive. They are born with that insatiable curiosity and they are just trying to figure it all out.

But somewhere along the way, we lose something. We settle into jobs, marriages, and routines. Predictable lives. We can also settle into ruts very easily. One day we stop taking chances and talking to strangers. We lose the ability to surprise ourselves.

One of the hallmarks of anxiety is we start caring too much about EVERYTHING. Our brains are like computers with 20 tabs open at the same time. We worry about work and kids and money and Covid and health and parents, and all of a sudden our computer starts to get a little fried. Worry becomes a permanent part of our lives.

But just so we are clear, 85% of what we worry about has either a neutral or positive outcome. 85%!! I once heard “Worrying is like praying for things you don’t want.”

Seems pretty accurate…

So again, how do we find some of this nonchalance? Even a LITTLE would be nice. But “Divine” nonchalance? That seems like a lofty aspiration.

But the other day, the answer came to me.

I was at a small gathering in my town the other day, and observed a family watching a street performer. The little boy kept approaching strangers and asking them questions. The little girl was spinning around dancing and bumping into people.

The henpecked mother finally corralled the children and yelled, “All you two are doing today is talking to strangers and dancing!!”

And then I had my answer! Talking to strangers and dancing!!!

So for the last week, I have gone out of my way to strike up conversations with new people. Take some chances with people. Some risks.

And as the people who know me in my little town can attest, I often get in trouble for dancing. We are in “Level 2” lockdown at the moment, and your ass is supposed to remain in your seat.

Mine will never remain there. My ass will not be silenced!

I would encourage you to think about how you might find some more of this divine nonchalance in your own life. More silliness and less worry. More music and less internal noise. Less caring and more chances. Less permission and more forgiveness.

Do something weird today.

Doctors orders!

Saturday, July 4, 2020

The art of racing in the rain

“To separate oneself from the burden, the angst, the anguish that we all encounter every day. To say I am alive, I am wonderful, I am. I am. That is something to aspire to.”
Garth Stein- The art of racing in the rain



  We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

D.H. Lawrence




Ok, full disclosure, the title of this essay comes from a wonderful book and movie about grief, loss, and the amazing unconditional love that comes from being a pet owner. Check it out!



Racing in the rain. In the movie it refers to driving a race car in difficult conditions. But the larger metaphor is about resilience under trying circumstances.



Last night I got to see some of this. Not at a car race or anything like that, but at a little concert on the wharf.



Queenstown, the town I love in, is almost entirely reliant on tourism to survive. With Covid ravaging the globe and borders closed, it has been financially devastated. 8,000 jobs were lost. Unemployment went from around one percent to nearly 20 percent in short order. Many of the people who live here are from other countries. They can’t afford to go home and they can’t afford to stay here.



So what is a town to do?



Dance. Last night, the answer was dance.




I was observing all of this from the background. At first anyway. It was pouring rain and people hovered under the trees for a while. First, a tiny little girl began to spin (kids are born with a wonderful instinct to dance). Then a couple joined in. And, as often happens with a dance party, the whole crowd soon followed. 15 minutes later, the whole crowd was bouncing along to the music and dancing in the rain. 

And yes, yours truly joined in.



It was so nice to be with people again. Joyful people. Exuberant people. People forgetting their troubles for a moment and celebrating being together again through the healing power of music.


The art of racing in the rain.

Like all great moments, it eventually came to an end. Sadly, they always do.




But I know I will always savor that little moment.

We’ve got to keep living, no matter how many skies have fallen.

Monday, June 22, 2020

What are you pretending not to know?


If you work in psychological circles long enough, you hear all the clichés pretty quickly. Almost all branches of psychology have some version of the “magic” or “miracle” question. 

 (Some version of "Suppose tonight, while you slept, a miracle occurred. When you awake tomorrow, what would be some of the things you would notice that would tell you life had suddenly gotten better?"). There are lots of established ideas about the importance of letting yourself feel feelings instead of suppressing them. Lots of information in any kind of therapy can be gleaned by asking people how they have coped with what’s happened to them.

But we’re not here to talk about any of that today.

Because recently I came across the question in the title here. What are you pretending not to know? 

I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’ve used it with friends a number of times recently and gotten everything from puzzled stares to hour-long answers.

What are you pretending not to know?


Here are some common ones.

  1. My partner and I haven’t been intimate in months. I feel like we have fallen out of love and neither one of us is talking about it.
  2. Although I promise myself I’ll get around to it one day, I have neglected my health for decades. If I don’t prioritize it soon, life as an older person will be full of sickness and pain.
  3. My parents are getting old and I barely talk to them. They will be gone someday soon. Why aren’t I calling them and spending more time with them?

Perhaps if you are still reading, you might be wondering why I would be pointing out such depressing information.

Because I firmly believe it might be the most important question we ever have to answer. 

Many of the niceties of modern life require the telling of some little white lies. We tell people we are “fine” when really, we are anything but. We construct carefully crafted versions of ourselves on social media letting people know we are “fine.” We have a small-talk script that kicks in whenever someone asks about our work or family or relationships. 

Fine. Everything is fine we say.

But I have come to believe this contributes to self-deception which over time can become deeply entrenched. The little white lies we tell others soon become part of a much larger narrative around what we are pretending not to know.

I’m taking mine one at a time now. I started with my teeth. For years I was pretending not to know that if you don’t floss and regularly visit a dentist, bad things will eventually happen. Painful things.

I had a difficult and shameful conversation with my dentist shortly afterward. But I feel better now.

I would encourage you to ask this question and really reflect on the answer. I know the health piece certainly applies to me, as does the one about staying in touch with family. I suspect that many of these answers for people would be about personal relationships.

The point is, we put ideas out of our heads when they are uncomfortable. It’s protective. Who wants to think about unfinished business all the time? And yet, our brains hate unfinished business. It's called the "Zeigarnik Effect."

On the other hand, our emotions are always providing us feedback in one way or another about the things we want to change. Here are some examples.

Emotions always communicate:

  • Bitterness shows you where you need to heal, where you’re still holding judgments on others and yourself.
  • Resentment shows you where you’re living in the past and not allowing the present to be as it is.
  • Discomfort shows you that you need to pay attention right now to what is happening because you’re being given the opportunity to change, to do something different than you typically do it.
  • Anger shows you what you’re passionate about, where your boundaries are, and what you believe needs to change about the world.
  • Disappointment shows you that you tried for something, that you did not give in to apathy, that you still care.
  • Guilt shows you that you’re still living life in other people’s expectations of what you should do.
  • Shame shows you that you’re internalizing other people’s beliefs about who you should be (or who you are) and that you need to reconnect with yourself.
  • Anxiety shows you that you need to wake up, right now, and that you need to be present, that you’re stuck in the past and living in fear of the future.
  • Sadness shows you the depth of your feeling, the depth of your care for others and this world.

This has been a helpful guide for me as I think about all of the ways I might be denying things I need to know. We are gifted and cursed with an extraordinary feedback system. Being uncomfortable can be a positive thing when we examine these feelings closely and try and figure out what our guts are trying to tell us.

And as for me? I have another dentist appointment on Friday. I have been pretending not to know this all week, but in the end, I know the problem isn’t going away. I can take a little pain now. Some bad dentist jokes. A couple of sharp needles.

But no more pretending not to know.

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...