Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tango On

Was watching the movie “Scent of a woman” today, one of my favorites and a movie that coincidentally takes place during Thanksgiving. I was particularly moved today by a scene where the colonel is contemplating suicide, and a young Chris O’Connell makes an analogy to him about the tango, telling him that much like the dance, life is also a kind of tango. He explains to the colonel that just like in the dance, we get to tango on despite our mistakes, and that by continuing to dance we can still create something of value.

I thought about this idea as it relates to my own life. I have made plenty of mistakes in my time, and not just little ones either. I’ve run through monumental roadblocks and made some huge wrong turns. Yet somehow I am still here, getting the chance to tango on and humbly try to do things better. It’s an amazing privilege when you think about it.

So today, as I sit on the shore of a beautiful lake and watch the last of the leaves fall, I again remind myself to count my blessings. I am still drawing breath, and as long as I am, I have moment to moment choices as to how I am going to proceed. In my work I have the privilege of working with children, and in this capacity have a huge responsibility to teach them what I know and try and guide them through their troubles. The way I try to do this is through teaching them how to laugh again, and in doing so, I often find that they have in fact taught me more than I have taught them . Research demonstrates that children laugh roughly 300 times a day, while adults laugh about 20. This is a lesson I am reminded of often when I work with kids.

I am also grateful for all the friends in my life, who continually put up with all of my notable shortcomings. Having lost a few friends in the last couple of years, I am continually reminded to say all those things to people I never quite get around to saying. To cut through my pride and the momentary awkwardness and say the little things that sometimes go so far. It’s always a work in progress, and something I forget quite a bit. Again though, I have the chance to fix this. So to all my friends who add so much to my life on a daily basis. Thank you. You are very much appreciated.

I am also thankful for my family, and grow more grateful each day for these people who continually make me laugh. Working with families in turmoil on a daily basis, I see so much of myself as a young kid. Angry, resentful, and wanting nothing to do with these people I got stuck living with. I want to tell them that they will never get this time back, and sometimes I do tell them this, although it often falls on deaf ears. There are often no shortcuts to coming to appreciate the idea of family. We have to go out into the world and see how hard it is and how indifferent people can be to your difficulties when you have no ties that bind you together. And when you have seen this indifference for long enough, you come to find that the people who really cared were with you all along. So to my family, to you too I am very grateful. You all make me laugh so much.

Finally, I am grateful for my own journey that today brings me to a beautiful resort in a quiet country town, where I have the privilege of sipping good bourbon by a large fire. The sum of all of my choices has led me here, and right at this moment I can’t think of any place I’d rather be. Despite my constant stumbling, I am a free man with the opportunity to take a little time out for myself today to think about where I’ve been, and think about where I’m going. Although there are plenty of things I’d like to change, I accept that I am going to continue to step blindly into the mud puddles of my life again and again and again. But I get to tango on, and tango I shall until I’m not drawing breath any longer. I am here and I am grateful.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cops and Robinsons

More marriages might survive if the partners realized that sometimes the better comes after the worse.
~Doug Larson

At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.
Jean Houston

I have counseled all kinds of people in my life. From very young children barely able to talk, to 100 year-old people on their deathbeds, I have been in situations where I tried to provide comfort and understanding to people regardless of the circumstances of their lives. Because I have so many weaknesses, it’s hard to single out one, but as far as a counseling specialty, I’ve always found it a little difficult to work with couples. The anger and hostility that seeps into a marriage can be hard to sit with, and resolving intense conflict can at times run contrary to my “lighten up” approach to life. Therefore it came as a particular shock to me when one couple pulled me aside a while back and told me I was a pretty humorless person.

To back up a second, I had been working with this particular couple for a while, and had been trying to summon a character trait called “gravitas” which describes a kind of personal seriousness that I was told in graduate school that I was sorely lacking. The implication was, that although a sense of humor is ostensibly a good quality in a therapist, people need to know that you are taking their problems very seriously.

I’m not convinced this is correct, as I have often found that people are taking their problems entirely too seriously. The challenge as a therapist is knowing when it’s time to simply listen, and when it’s time to challenge people’s views of the world that appear to be contributing to their problems.

In this particular case, I did a lot of listening at first, but over time as I perceived their comments towards each other as more hostile, I would interrupt more and suggest an intervention that I thought would improve their communication patterns. Often times in these situations they would stop and look at each other kind of inquisitively, without offering much feedback as to what they thought of my suggestions. I would often leave the sessions feeling both confused as well as frustrated, and after several weeks of this I decided it was important to ask them what they thought was going on.

I wasn’t ready for what happened next. They came in to the next session, exchanged embarrassed glances at each other, and began with the ominous, “we need to talk,” before I was able to get started. I have heard this expression a number of times in my life, mostly from women in the exact context you would expect. I braced myself for the inevitable bad news, when I was greeted with a rather surprising confession. The husband Daryl began;

“Well Joe, this is awkward, but Denise and I have been talking, and, well, you told us to tell you if you were doing something we don’t like, so here goes. You’re a little too serious for us, and we both are getting a little irritated by how you turn every exchange into some kind of life lesson. Sometimes we like to bicker back and forth in a funny way. That’s what we do. That’s what kind of works about our marriage, and frankly you are getting to be kind of a buzz kill.”

I had been slammed into the dunk tank. ME??? A buzz kill?? I was the guy with the lampshade on his head at every party. I was the lighten up guy. This couldn’t be true!!

“Well guys, I have to tell you this is a first, and I promise you I will think a lot about what you said,” I explained. “Our challenge here is to find what does and doesn’t work about your marriage, and trust me when I say there is no bigger advocate for humor in a marriage than me.”

Even as these words came out of my mouth I felt like a fraud. I thought I was sending that message, but perhaps I wasn’t at all. How many other couples had I seen that I had made the same mistake with? I realized that their bringing it up provided an opportunity though, and I vowed to go home and think of some ways I could help them with their marriage without coming across as a prep school dean.

While thinking about this, I went back to what I considered to be one of the best books ever written on the subject, The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman. In particular I focused on a chapter that dared to contradict a longstanding belief in couples counseling that almost every problem could be solved with the proper amount of active listening and communication skills.

But his research showed that this simply wasn’t the case. He instead found that many problems in marriages were not solvable, and that some beliefs, values, and habits were too deeply entrenched to be receptive to change. The key he suggested, was to develop an understanding of which of your problems were solvable and which ones were not.

I have come to believe that what lies in the middle of this valley is how receptive a couple is to using humor. What drives us crazy about other people is often at least a partial reflection of some part of our own psychological baggage, and we begin to develop wisdom when we come to understand and acknowledge there are things about ourselves that also trigger these responses in others. By admitting these things we can take away some of their power, and by laughing at them we can potentially diffuse resentment and defensiveness before they begin to stir.

In the case of the Robinsons we reached a whole new cruising altitude when the three of us began to incorporate humor into our sessions, and in doing so we began to identify which of their problems could be solved and which ones couldn’t. We found for instance that no matter how much Daryl wanted her to be interested in his gadgets and hobbies, she simply was not inclined in this direction. We also agreed that in the realm of spirituality, the two of them were on a fundamentally different page, and that no amount of insisting on Denise’s part was going to change Daryl’s mind about going to church on Sundays.

Although these things may seem insignificant to a neutral observer, they often gave rise to very intense arguments that descended into some very hurt feelings. What was at the root of this stuff were feelings that the other person didn’t care about things that were very important to them. As is the case with many arguments, what looked like anger was actually hurt, although this hurt manifested itself in harsh words and personal attacks. Because this couple was already so good at using humor in their interactions, we began to clarify rules of engagement around issues we put in the “unsolvable” problem category. Although this couple already had a solid foundation, coming to understand this idea, and using the appropriate humor to discuss these things really helped them turn a corner.

6 months after they had terminated their therapy, I received a package from them. Fearing the worst, I opened it slowly, and then laughed out loud when I saw it was a Mexican whoopee cushion they had purchased on a trip they had taken for their second honeymoon. The attached card read, “Doc, hope you haven’t forgotten about us and that you are doing well. We saw this and thought of you. Keep your sense of humor. Always keep your sense of humor.”

And that whoopee cushion still sits on my desk today. It serves as a little reminder that when things do get too serious I can slide it under someone’s chair and lighten the mood a little bit. More importantly I made a point to consistently monitor my own temperament. It was a lesson I won’t soon forget.

Unbridled enthusiasm

Why in the world are we here?
Surely not to live in pain and fear
Who in the world do you think you are?
A superstar? Well right your are
Well we all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun
John Lennon

If you had one song to let the lord know about how you felt about your time here on earth, what would it be?
Sam Phillips to Johnny Cash

Heading out to New York City this week to see a truly wonderful friend of mine. We’ve got big plans. Going to check out the Dakota hotel and Strawberry fields in central park to pay tribute to my all-time favorite musician, John Lennon. Gonna drink some great beer in Brooklyn and then dine on some old world Italian food. We’ve got plans to do Manhattan, and hit a Yankees game and do al kinds of other fun stuff as well.

Why do I bring this up? Because all week I’ve been so excited about this trip, and it reminded me of something that is beginning to crystallize for me about how I want to spend the rest of my time here. This feeling that I have can best be described as unbridled enthusiasm, and as I get older I’ve become more and more convinced that it is the key to a successful life.

That is a platitude, I understand that, and many wise men will tell you persistence, or hard work, or a million other things are the key to life, and I agree that all of those things are important. Without a sense of enthusiasm and passion for the choices you have made however, all of these other traits are essentially a part of a fool’s errand.

The thing about enthusiasm is it isn’t some mystical quality that we are born with or that we are somehow inherently possessed with. It’s a choice to say yes to things in our lives in every circumstance. Sure it’s easy to say yes to life when we are taking exotic vacations and traveling around the world, but more and more I’ve become convinced that enthusiasm is at least as important in the circumstances in life that are less than ideal.

Which brings us back to the idea of choice. There have been so many times in my life where my happiness has come down to a choice I made about the kind of attitude I brought to the table. I’ve always been a bit of a stranger to hard work, and I have sulked and whined and pouted about all kinds of situations in my life that really weren’t that bad when I looked back on them in retrospect. Having worked and studied in a number of different organizations, I have noticed that it is almost a universal truth that people like to complain about the way things are run. Although this can be a way of bonding with your fellow comrades, it can also become a more permanent part of your attitude that begins to seep into other areas of your life.

Which is what happened to me. As a student I had developed an extra large chip on my shoulder, and became convinced that everyone who was trying to teach me something was being condescending. It was a time in my life where I had a difficult time ceding power to other people, as I had usually been the person in charge as opposed to the one at the bottom of the totem pole. Although it has taken me many years to come to this realization, I finally learned that sometimes it’s a lot less about whose in charge and a lot more about who commands respect by giving respect, and that sometimes the only way to gain power is by ceding it to others first.

On this note, a fellow student and supervisor of mine gave me this advice from Charles Swindoll about the importance of attitude. This also sits on my wall as a constant reminder that I always have a choice in the matter,

by: Charles Swindoll

The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life.

Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company... a church... a home.

The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past... we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude... I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.

And so it is with you... we are in charge of our attitudes.

Even as I read this today I have to remind myself to think about the application of what he advises. I still find little ways to complain in my life all the time, and staying vigilant about my attitude is a daily exercise in mindfully paying attention to the ways I let my mine wander into more pessimistic places. As always humor is an amazing asset in this regard, and when I forget this I take a look on my wall and heed the words of mister Swindoll. It reminds me to stay enthusiastic about even the most mundane of tasks, as today’s toil slowly adds up to something much more rewarding.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Anger Management

“It is impossible for you to be angry and laugh at the same time. Anger and laughter are mutually exclusive and you have the power to choose either.”
Wayne Dyer

“Humor was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human makeup, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”
Victor Frankl- Man’s Search for Meaning

One of my first assignments as a new therapist was to go out “into the community” to work, which I quickly found out was code for working with people who were a different color than me. Arriving at work my first day, I found that my task was to conduct an anger management seminar with recently released convicts who were living in a halfway house. My training lasted exactly one hour, and then it was my turn to talk to these guys about how to nurture their inner children. It was a terrifying ordeal.

I started out with the manual, which came complete with faces that identified different emotions. There was a smiley face for happy, a face with a single tear for sad, and so on. Looking around the room and seeing the stone cold faces, which included murderers, look at this handout in stunned silence was a troubling reality, and quickly I understood that this gig was going to require me to think much more quickly on my feet.

So I started with a story about me on a bike. In this story I was riding full speed on the sidewalk on the north side of Chicago, when, seemingly out of nowhere, a block of cement about 2 feet tall rose out of the sidewalk. It was too late for me to slow down, and as I careened into the cement, I saw my whole life flash before my eyes as I flipped over my handlebars. While I was in midair I spotted a little girl holding an ice cream cone standing with her mother. Quickly calculating the physics of the situation while I was in flight, I realized it was inevitable that I would in fact fly directly into them.

What happened next was where the line between comedy and tragedy got blurred. I crashed into the little girl and the ice cream cone went flying right out of her hand. As I lay there bleeding I spotted her out of the corner of my eye. Saw the single tear fall down her face and the sadness give way to anger as she sized up the situation.

What I didn’t see coming was what happened next. The little girl turned her angry eyes on me, and, like an angry bull, began her charge. She ran over to me and kicked me in the shin with all of the power her little legs could muster. It was so painful yet so comical I had to laugh at the sheer absurdity of it.

So that was my story. I sat that for a moment in silence as they digested it, and then I saw a smile, followed by a chuckle, and soon everyone in the room was laughing heartily. It was a formula that had never failed me. Share my personal misfortune with others and watch the room go wild. In this case I wanted to make a point however, and thought about how I could use this moment of levity to at least begin a discussion about managing anger.

And it worked! By showing them I was also prone to losing my temper, stupidity, road rage, and all of the other pitfalls of modern living that they were, I had diffused the power dynamic in the room and we were able to start a real conversation about anger.

In getting to know the guys, I was continually amazed at how thoughtful and intelligent they were about talking about their own lives, and all of my preconceived notions about what a “convict” was supposed to act like soon went out the window. In learning about their lives, I found out that most of them had terrible family experiences as young kids, and how they often had to affiliate with gangs to find a sense of belonging. I heard stories about abuse, rape, violence, and even torture that sometimes made me sick to my stomach. It was difficult enough to get them to talk about these things, let alone incorporating a lesson about the healing power of laughter. A few weeks in, I had gotten them talking, but was far from converting any of these things into any meaningful life lessons.

So I decided to improvise. I brought in a copy of Man’s search for meaning, and we took turns reading passages from it. For those not familiar with the book, it’s about a doctor who loses absolutely everything while imprisoned in a concentration camp, including his business, his home, and his family, including his wife. The book is his account of how he was able to maintain hope and create meaning in the most horrific place imaginable. It had been a valuable part of my own development, and my wish was that some of these same lessons would resonate with the guys.

I was especially interested in Frankl’s descriptions of how laughter somehow persisted in the camps, which seemed almost unbelievable to comprehend. He described the desire to laugh as something that lies deep inside the human heart that nothing can touch or take way.

So as we read I asked the guys to tell me about how they were able to maintain their senses of humor while they were imprisoned. What followed were some of the funniest things I’ve ever heard, and I learned that necessity was truly the mother of invention. While they were relating these stories I couldn’t help but think about the quote from Wayne Dyer at the beginning of this story about how laughter and anger are incompatible emotional states. The fact was that many of these men did have a great deal of anger, and in many cases the only way they had ever expressed this anger was through violence. Continuing to explore how to respond to emotional arousal with laughter instead of anger was a difficult lesson, and one I had certainly not mastered in my own life.

One of the tasks of my job was to help guide the guys through their transition back to work, back with their families, and in general back into society. Every week we would take a scenario and see if we could identify both an angry as well as a humorous response to the situation. Every week I would also bring my own scenarios in as well, most of which occurred while I navigated Chicago’s public transportation system, which was an area of my life where my own anger management skills were woefully lacking. As always, I continued to hold my own life up to public ridicule, which never failed to delight.

What I learned, and what I hoped the guys learned, was that one of the key lessons about managing anger could be realized by learning how to not take things personally, and understand, in real time, how to really process the idea of another person’s context. The fact is our emotions get aroused when others challenge us, threaten us, or even slightly disrespect us, but really it says much more about them than it does about us when they make this choice. This is a difficult concept to comprehend, particularly when your very life depends on your survival skills, and one of the key ideas we discussed was adapting from one context to another while continually working on not taking things personally.

This came up in their lives in a number of ways. Many of them worked in retail jobs, where impatient customers would disrespect them or otherwise address them without even basic courtesy. One question we tried to integrate into our class was asking, “what problem is the person trying to solve?” and then again trying to come up with answers that may provide alternate explanations for difficult behavior.

By the end of my year there, I realized I had not only been though a significant teaching experience, but also a wonderful learning experience. I saw men who had previously drawn guns at the slightest hint of agitation use humor to diffuse difficult situations. Saw quiet guys blossom into class clowns as they learned to write down and consider alternate choices in different scenarios in their lives. It was an incredibly gratifying experience, and one I will truly never forget, as it taught me that anyone could potentially learn to use laughter to cope with the difficult situations in their lives.

The impact of my time there didn’t really hit home with me till a couple of weeks ago when I was riding a bus downtown in a very agitated mood. A couple of people bumped into me, and I let out an audible sigh as each person encroached a little further into my space. A minute later I heard someone yell,

“Hey doc!” I heard as I looked around and saw Brian, one of my prize pupils from my time as the anger management instructor.

“Yea?” I responded.

“What problem are you trying to solve,” he said as a huge smile broke across his face. And I had to laugh as well. The student had become the teacher, and it was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment in time. I laughed about it the rest of the day, and now when I am experiencing transportation rage, I try and picture that smile and his words continue to ring in my ears, and I invariably begin to laugh. Physician heal thyself I think is the appropriate expression.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
Paul Bowles- The Sheltering Sky

Ain’t it funny how time slips away
Willie Nelson

Many of the posts I write about discuss mindful living, seizing the day, living life to the fullest, etc. Even still, I can be a pretty lazy guy sometimes, and find myself getting captivated by many absurd distractions, including watching hours of mindless TV. Sometimes I actually learn something though, and the other day while watching the show Lost, I was greeted with a profound life lesson that I have been thinking about ever since.

On the show, one of the leading characters named Desmond decides to deviate from the successful life he has built for himself, and concentrate on helping his friends reconnect with people he knew they were meant to be with. This course of action represents a revelation, as he has had an epiphany about what is important and life and what is not, and he’s decided to do things a little differently this time. One particular scene shows a huge smile splash across his face as he takes it all in and begins to shed the remnants of his former constrictive life.

This show was fiction, I knew that, and not only fiction but kind of crazy fiction. Still, I couldn’t shake the idea of how liberating it would be to shred some of my own dead skin. For a non-worrier, I had been downright neurotic for the last few weeks, and decided to actually sit down and make a list of the things that I was worrying about that would realistically matter to me in one year’s time. Know what? I couldn’t think of any, and shortly afterwards had my own big smile on my face as I freed myself from some of my own pesky skin.

My next move was to head to downtown Chicago and sit in Daley square and just watch people. It was an exercise I had been doing since I first moved here as a wide-eyed kid back in 1996. The task was simple. Watch people, really watch people and find something funny about their lives. Not in any mean-spirited way, but simply as a lesson in noticing the little moments of comedy in life that people perhaps don’t even realize about themselves. I’ve been doing it for years, and when I get too rushed or too serious, or simply too busy with my life, I slow down, hop on a train and repeat this exercise. I almost always fill up a substantial portion of my notebook jotting things down.

What occurs to me in these moments is that time is the most important thing we have. All of the other blessings in our life are contingent on having time. Making time is the fuel that feeds our relationships, kindles our sense of romance, and cements the bond that makes a family. Yet strangely we often don’t appreciate time until it’s gone. Who among us hasn’t complained and kvetched through a situation only to look back on it with nostalgia and longing only after it rests firmly in our rear view mirror? My guess is almost all of us.

A clue perhaps as to how to use our time wisely comes from Richard Moss, who said, “the greatest gift you can give another is the purity of our attention.” This speaks not only to spending time with someone, but actually spending this time in a way that truly demonstrates that we feel privileged to have this person in our life. To spend time really listening instead of waiting for our turns to talk. Anyone who has ever struggled in a relationship is I’m sure familiar with the difference. We often fail to realize that we too fail to listen, and even after working for several years as a therapist where it is the bread and butter of my profession, I find myself butting in on people all the time.

Beyond our relationships, I think there is a further lesson in giving the everyday moments of life the purity of our attention. Having spent time with a lot of comedians, I’m convinced that the best of them are funny because they have become amazingly adept at noticing the absurdity and comic relief every moment of life has the potential to provide. Spend a little time looking around a dollar store, or a zoo, or a doctor’s office, or virtually any other place you could name, and I guarantee you that if you really look closely you will find something amusing by taking a time out from your worries and starting to look around. That’s been my secret, and I suspect a secret for a lot of successful people who have made a career out of comedy.

This lesson came full circle recently for me when I was enjoying myself recently at one of Chicago’s glorious summer festivals on a Sunday afternoon. It had been a long weekend, and I had really just come to watch the music, have a couple of beers, and wind the weekend down as peacefully as I could.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the office. The band that day was playing a lot of cover music from the 80’s, and soon, like a frustrated lounge singer, my hips began moving back and forth. A beer later I was belting out a Tiffany song and doing the Roger Rabbit and generally making an ass out of myself. Soon I was doing the robot, the fishing pole, the shopping cart, and on and on. Because I was by myself I’m sure this looked incredibly odd, and as the show wrapped up I wiped the sweat off my head and prepared for the short bike ride home.

A moment later I felt a tap on my shoulder, and as I turned around I saw a young couple standing there with big smiles on their faces.

“Hey, just wanted you to know that we had the best time watching you tonight,” she went on. “It’s been a long time since either of us have seen those sweet 80’s dance moves, and we just wanted to say you kind of made our night.”

It was a sledgehammer moment for me. I realized that for all the time I spent watching and looking for the comedic moments in life, that I had become the subject of my own exercise. It was a wonderful reminder that life is not a passive affair, and that, although I strive for mindfulness and awareness, a big part of success in this life is about getting in the ring. Those people made my day, and I was humbled to learn that I had also made theirs. Laughter at its best is a pay it forward kind of exercise, and it’s a lesson I hope I will continue to remember.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Choose your own adventure

“One book, Inside UFO 54-40, revolved around the search for a paradise that no one can actively reach; one of the pages in the book describes the player finding the paradise and living happily ever after, although none of the choices in the book led to that page. The ending can be found by disregarding the rules and going through the book at random, sequentially, or by accident. Upon finding the ending, the reader is congratulated for realizing how to find paradise.”

"Happiness is like a butterfly.
The more you chase it, the more it eludes you.
But if you turn your attention to other things,
It comes and sits softly on your shoulder."
Henry David Thoreau

When I was a young man I used to love a series of books called, Choose your own adventure. For those of you that haven’t had the pleasure, reading these books allowed you to make various choices as you read through the book, each of which altered your destiny in the story in some significant way. Whether it was chasing ghosts, or roaming through the old west, or even traveling through space, I loved the idea that each one of our little choices could lead to much more important consequences

In one particular story, referenced at the beginning of this essay, you found a kind of utopia by not playing the game correctly. You had to essentially stumble on the page by accident, or even totally disregard everything you had been told about how to read the book to find it. Upon finding it, you are congratulated on realizing how to find your own personal utopia.

I was wildly fascinated by this. What was the author trying to say? That the rules were completely unimportant? I’d always thought this myself, but that philosophy had resulted in a lot of trips to the principal’s office and lots of trouble. Was there some hidden message encoded in these children’s books? I thought about this for several years and then slowly but surely slouched into adulthood, never really following the rules without making a conscience decision not to do so. Cut to 20 some years later and I was in a thrift store looking for books, and while browsing stumbled across a copy of Inside UFO 54-40, the very book I had been so intrigued by as a kid.

I sat there for almost two hours taking a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and inevitably, just like I had when I was a kid, I somehow found my way back to utopia by not following the rules. It was a moment of cosmic significance that I was desperately in need of. This was it. Finding happiness by ignoring the rules had been the secret to whatever happiness I had found thus far, although, much like that kid in the principal’s office so many years before, this road less traveled had come with plenty of less than perfect consequences.

All of this was particularly fascinating because I had just been though a situation where my life as a comedian and my life as a psychotherapist had collided. Like I had been reminded of so many times before in my life, I was told there was a time and place for comedy, and that I was going to have to continue to evaluate when exactly this was. But I already knew the answer. Laughter is always appropriate.

Many people would take issue with that. What about death and suffering and disease and all kinds of other things that come up in our lives? Is laughter an appropriate response to these things? I still think the answer is yes. That is not to say that there aren’t situations that require empathy and gravitas and somber reflection. There are. These tragedies are not only possibilities in our lives, but downright inevitabilities. As RD Laing said so eloquently, “life is a sexually transmitted disease and the mortality rate is 100 percent.”

What other possible response to this is there than laughter? None of these storms that reverberate in our heads are really of any consequence. We are dying ashes on a cosmic fire that will burn so much brighter and longer than our little moment of time here. What we do leave behind in this echo chamber of collapsing time is the way we made people feel about their time here while we knew them, and that is why I have tried to spend so much of my time trying to make people laugh. I have failed often, and will continue to fail, as what looks funny through my personal kaleidoscope does not always register in someone else’s. I accept that, but also think there is perhaps no greater tragedy than becoming convinced that our little cubicle or office is the center of some kind of terribly important business that the universe cannot do without it. That’s a lie that takes some people a lifetime to understand.

The takeaway for me is therefore that it is not the what of life, or even the why, but actually the how that is most important. We don’t get to chose not to be sick or not to lose people we love, and we sure don’t get to chose immortality, but what we do get to choose is how we are going to spend this little handful of fairy dust we are given to sprinkle around the universe. Jean Houston said, “At the height of laugher the universe is thrown into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.” I think this is incredibly wise, as by taking this idea into our hearts we can not only share our own absurd view of the kaleidoscope, but also begin to look more deeply into other people’s as well, and really, to me at least there is nothing that connects people more strongly in this world than shared laughter. We are screeching through the universe on a malfunctioning rollercoaster, and we can choose to suffer through this reality or chose to laugh about it, even laugh hysterically about it, and that is the way I want to take the ride.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Kid

All of us have moments in our childhood where we come alive for the first time. And we go back to those moments and think, this is when I became myself.
Rita Dove

One of the toughest parts of being a therapist is watching a child suffer. Don’t get me wrong, I hate to see anyone suffer, but it’s different with a kid as so many things in their lives are out of their personal control. This was especially true with Marquis, a 10-year old boy from one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, who was sent to me after continually causing problems in school.

I’d seen a lot of kids like Marquis over the years, but there was immediately something about him that was just a little different. Sizing me up as he first came into my office, he immediately critiqued my clothes, my cell phone and several things about my general appearance. My first reaction was amusement. I had to admit, the kid had some chutzpah, and I knew it was going to be tough to build any kind of rapport with him when he had such little respect for both me as well as my profession.

I downshifted into one of the great tools any child therapist should have in their toolbox, a deck of Uno cards. Kids are all different, and some come in ready to tell you their whole life story while others are secretive and guarded. Marquis was in a category all his own, and I suspected that doing something competitive where he could show off his skills might allow him to let his guard down and open up a little.
But I was wrong…

Marquis fell behind in the game, and immediately began stuffing cards in his pocket to make up the deficit. Pretty sneaky, and again pretty amusing. It was clear he would do anything to win, and when I finally let him do so, he launched into a full “soulja boy” dance, as much to celebrate his tainted victory as to taunt and humiliate me for losing.

I had my work cut out for me he here, and thought long and hard about how to proceed. As a former dj and nightclub manager, I had a working knowledge of rap music, and we began talking about some of his favorite rappers. Each time we identified someone we both knew, he would rap one of their songs for me. It was an unconventional approach to be sure, but slowly but surely it seemed like we were getting somewhere.

I thought about how I might use my former experience as a comedian in this situation, but also knew I should proceed cautiously. He had proven to be pretty critical of me in several areas already, and I was sure telling him about my time as a comedian would result in the inevitable, “say something funny,” most likely followed by some kind of insulting remark. Still, I thought I saw an opportunity here, and when I asked him about what made him laugh, he talked about his love for Chris Rock, and in particular the show “Everybody hates Chris,” detailing Rock’s younger years as a kid who was widely disliked by almost everyone.

Finally a clue. I was familiar with the show and knew it detailed Chris’ troubled childhood, and how he was picked on by almost everyone around him. At the end of the session I asked Marquis to think about how the show related to his own life, and think about how that might be something we could talk about the following week. Arriving home, I began catching up on the show myself, and as I did an idea began to crystallize in my mind that I thought might be relevant to this new little class clown that had entered into my life.

The next week Marquis surprised me by coming in to the session with a list of all of the people that had wronged him and that antagonized him on a daily basis, and seeing how lengthy it was, I began to question the wisdom of this decision. It did get us talking though, and in this conversation I found out that his father had left the family when he was just a baby, and that he had two older brothers that teased him pretty mercilessly. It was a pretty classic recipe for a kid to act out, and I had been thinking about how we could channel some of this energy into something more positive.

Unbeknownst to Marquis, I had spoken with his mother on the phone earlier in the week, and had discussed with her the idea of him taking some comedy classes in downtown Chicago. Although she was certainly receptive to the idea, money was very tight in the family, and I explained to her that I may be able to arrange for him to take the classes at no cost to her, and that I would even be able to accompany him to the first couple of sessions if they could also commit to continuing on with therapy.

So I explained to Marquis the plan we had discussed, and his eyes lit up like Christmas lights.

“You mean I’m gonna be famous?” he asked.

“That’s not really what this is about buddy,” I explained. My challenge was to try and encourage him to channel some of his frustration and anger into something more positive, without promising immediate gratification and fame.

“Here is the thing. I was a lot like you once, and I used to get into quite a bit of trouble with the teachers too. I was thinking that maybe you could tell some of your jokes and use some of your creativity in these comedy classes and on stage instead of at school where you keep getting in trouble. What do you think?” I asked.

“Why would you want to do that for me?” he asked as he eyed me with suspicion.

“Like I say, I was just like you once. I’m doing it for you because I don’t want something bad to happen to you. I also want you to keep coming here to counseling so we can talk about the things that you worry about that maybe I can help you with. You see I’ve been to counseling myself, and I’m hoping that maybe it will be helpful for you to talk like it was for me.”

With that he came over and hugged me, which came as quite a surprise given how tough of a kid he was. I was reminded of the psychologist Rudolph Dreikur’s words that, “children need encouragement like plants need water,” a mantra I repeated often to myself when working with kids. It was the most important thing I knew about doing therapy with children.

To suggest this plan was a straight path to success would not be truthful, and we continued to have plenty of bumps in the road as we worked on getting him to be more respectful at school. There were realities about his situation we couldn’t change, such as his family’s financial situation and other realities he faced in both his home as well as his neighborhood.

I never will forget his first day at the comedy classes though, as we took train down into the city with him wearing a purple outfit like one of his comic idols Kat Williams. Watching him carry his little cane on the train was so amusing I couldn’t help but laugh.

I don’t know yet how his story ends, but I do know he went from an extremely disruptive kid to one who learned to play well with others with the very patient assistance of his improv instructors. He was in fact a very funny kid, and seeing his first show, I was as proud as any of the parents sitting in the audience.

This experience with Marquis reminded me that it is never to early to teach kids about the amazing power of laughter as a way of coping with life’s difficulties. In this particular instance Marquis went from a kid with an abusive sense of humor to one that learned to cooperate and listen based on the principles of improvisational comedy. Here in Chicago there are several places for kids to learn this skill, including the world famous Second City training center which has programs for kids of all ages. Teaching kids to develop this skill has been a highly successful approach in my experience, and moving forward, it is something I hope to do a whole lot more of.