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 clich├ęs 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.





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...