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.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A cosmic reminder

The world is your exercise-book, the pages on which you do your sums.
It is not reality, although you can express reality there if you wish. You are also free to write nonsense, or lies, or to tear the pages.
Richard Bach- Illusions

“In the world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
Oscar Wilde

Sitting on my front porch on a perfect Chicago evening drinking Sangria and enjoying an amazing breeze. Earlier today I celebrated with our hockey team and 2 million other people, and then hung out with some musicians at our blues fest who were some of the best who ever lived. It truly was a spectacular day. Do I say this to gloat? To remind everyone of the life of leisure I live? Not really. Well, maybe a little.

The truth is, this has been one of the most stressful weeks I can recall. Without going into detail, I had a professional crisis that threatened to undermine everything I’ve spent the last decade or so working on. It was scary as well as quite humbling.

I bring up these two small vignettes from my life because they have reminded me of an important lesson that I constantly need reminding of. All of this life, all of these things we worry and sweat and grieve about, we, for better or for worse, helped put them into our lives. That is, I’m convinced, the hardest human pill to swallow, but if we can truly grasp this idea, really take it into our hearts, we are free to create an entirely new universe anytime we choose.

I have used this kind of reasoning with my clients many times, and I am often met with a chorus of protests. What about my kids and my bills, and my asshole husband, and on and on and on. This brings me back to my own life and the stories I was alluding to. 48 hours separated these two experiences, yet I allowed my reality to shift from utter catastrophe to the complete other side of the dial towards pure joy. I’ve always been a creature of extremes, while also striving towards what the Buddha called the “middle path.”

You know what was funny about my day of “pure joy” though? Every little thing went wrong. I dropped my toothbrush and it fell right on the bristle side. I banged my knee on a coffee table while trying to answer the door. My gorgeous Fred Flinstone-size turkey leg fell right out of my hand onto my pristine white shirt.

What was different? How I chose to respond to all of these things, and in this case it was with a great deal of laughter. As a very odd man used to say to me, sometimes you’re the pigeon and sometimes you’re the statue, and today I was a very appreciative statue. For all of the wrong turns and sharp corners the world threw at me today, I just had to laugh. It was like a cosmic reminder that, yes, you are going to have a spectacular day today, but here is a little bang on the elbow so you can remember that sometimes it goes the other way too. A little middle path reminder that I was much in need of.

The takeaway I hope is that it isn’t the events that happen to us, but rather the way we chose to think about them. Comedy is tragedy plus time, but it is up to us to decide if we are going to dwell on the little tragedies in our lives for a couple of seconds or a couple of years. All of this is just a very small slice of a much larger reality that cares very little for our petty grievances, and make no mistake, they are petty. We can chose a thousand different paths in this life, but ultimately what we leave behind in our lives is the way we made people feel, and personally I want to be remembered as someone who laughed well and laughed often.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memories of a little old lady

Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.
Viktor E. Frankl

I have written often about my time working in nursing homes, but there is one story I have never told until now. Memorial day however helped me remember one little lady, whose story reminded me in a very strange way that no matter what life chooses to throw at us one thing remains a certainty, we always have a choice.

In this particular nursing home there were several floors, each of which was designed to cater to a different group of elderly people. Our floor was for patients with moderate to severe dementia that required almost constant supervision. My partner and I were tasked with entertaining a large number of them during their waking hours, which probably sounds like a thankless and impossible task. It wasn’t.

The 5th and top floor of this particular establishment was where we made our stand. Two of us against 50 Alzheimer’s patients with very short attention spans who were as rambunctious and impatient as children. My partner Raphael had been doing the job much longer than I had, and as a former nightclub singer from the Philippines, often serenaded the troops with old standards by Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and the like. I chipped in with my limited karaoke repertoire, and both of us also spent a lot of time thinking of dozens of ways to entertain these folks. It was like being on stage for 8 hours every day, and it was the most draining as well as gratifying job I’d ever had.

Over time our floor developed a reputation as the rowdiest on the unit, often to the chagrin of both the nurses as well as the unit’s administrators. Laughter and music and games went on throughout the day, and I personally saw some amazing transformations in people who were nearly comatose as the contagiousness of this party spread across the floor.

On one winter’s afternoon not long before Christmas I saw a nurse wheeling a frail little lady who weighed no more than 80 pounds up to our floor. She had one lonely little bag of things, a lifetime of possessions reduced to what could fit into a tattered duffel bag. It was my job to spend the afternoon talking to her and finding out how we could best be of service to her based on her history and interests.

Reading her chart, I saw that she was an Italian woman named Dorothy who came to the unit after her husband died and she suffered a fall while living alone. She had been admitted to the 2nd floor of the unit to receive care for her broken hip, and after that was moved to the 1st floor, which was where we housed the highest functioning people on the unit.

This is where the story I was reading took a strange turn. The chart said she had been acting in a bizarre manner on the floor, including making barking noises at the staff and other residents. It said she was also often unable to recall her own name, and that she was unable to remember the words for common objects, which was a common sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

So they sent her to us, and here we sat. The problem was that after a 2 hour conversation with her, I couldn’t detect the slightest bit of dementia. She was a delightful woman with a number of stories about Poland as well as her life in Chicago, and she was able to recall these stories in a highly detailed fashion despite the fact that she was nearly 90 years old and had been diagnosed with dementia. As we wrapped up our conversation, she grasped my hand and winked at me as a smile spread across her face as if we were in on some private joke together. My curiosity was piqued.

It took most patients several days to get acclimated to our floor, but not Dorothy, who jumped in to all of our games and laughter and music with enthusiasm unlike anyone I had seen before. I had reported to Raphael how I had witnessed no signs of dementia while speaking with her, which prompted him to put her through a short series of tests that were indicators of Alzheimer’s disease. It was at this point that Dorothy began barking, and Raphael shook his head in puzzlement and went back to what he was doing.

Later that afternoon one of the nurses told me that Dorothy was upset and wanted to talk to me. I was surprised as well as curious, and my heart sank a little when I got to her room and saw her gently crying to herself inside. Walking in I asked her what was wrong, and she looked up at me with sad eyes.

“I thought we understood each other when we talked earlier,” she said with a sigh. “Please don’t make me bark like a dog anymore, it’s really quite tiresome.”

Not knowing what she was talking about, I retraced my memory for a clue as to what I had apparently missed out on. I thought back to the wink and that little knowing smile she had given me at the end of the interview, and slowly something dawned on me.

“Dorothy, what do you know about Alzheimer’s disease?” I asked.

Once again that smile spread across her face, and this time I knew what it meant. Dorothy’s mind was still very much intact, yet somehow she had managed to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. When I questioned her about this she told me everything, explaining that her mind was working just fine, but also how she was very bored. She had heard the laughter coming from our floor and asked around about what we did up here, and decided that this was where she wanted to be.

“The problem is Dorothy that this floor is for people who really have dementia,” I explained. “Everything up here from the nursing staff to our program is designed for that.”

With that she asked me to sit down, and began telling me about her life. She had lived in Poland up until World War 2 with her sisters, where she reported their lives were full of laughter and music. The war had torn their family apart, and when she had come to America after the war she had almost nothing to her name. Shortly afterwards she had met a “serious” man in Chicago who wanted to marry her, and, by her report, “50 years just slipped away from them.” She reported an intense longing to return to her time as a child with her sisters, and how the nostalgia for this time had plagued her throughout her life.

Which brought us to our current state of affairs. Dorothy was pretending to have dementia to try and recapture a time in her life from 50 years earlier where laughter and music were a daily part of her life. Although I wasn’t yet licensed as a therapist, I decided this was not crazy, but actually kind of ingenious. Still, I was torn. What were my ethical considerations here and what was the right thing to do for the well-being of the patient? As I pondered these things, Dorothy made one final plea,

“You have to let me stay, you just have to,” she continued. “One thought has been keeping me going all these years, and that is that one day I might have a chance to sing again. I never had the courage all these years, and my husband was just not into these things. Now, I literally have nothing left to lose. I’m dying in a hospital and all of the things I own in this world fit into that bag over in the corner. Can’t you do an old lady one last kindness?”

Knowing she had won, I resigned myself to keeping her secret. I did however have one final question for her,

“Just one thing Dorothy, what is with the barking?”

“I saw it on an old TV show called The Judge. A guy was trying to get off on an insanity defense, and did the barking thing,” she explained. “I figured if it could work for him it could work for me,” she said as a guilty smile again broke across her face.

So I kept Dorothy’s secret for the rest of the time I worked there, and we continued our little talks in her room as time permitted. She was a beacon of light on the unit, and soon became the ringleader in leading the chorus as well as in helping the other patients with various tasks around the unit. Every so often I would hear a bark echo through the halls, and when I did, I knew Dorothy had slipped back into character. We continued on like this for several months, and when she would give me her patented wink and smile, I knew it was her way of saying thank you for keeping her secret.

I have never told anyone Dorothy’s story until now, as I always felt like it was something that was just between us. I went back to the unit a couple of years after I stopped working there, and found that Dorothy had died, but also that she was singing and laughing right up until the end of her life. Looking around the unit, I noticed nearly every one of these people I had come to appreciate and loved had died, and, although I knew I should be sad, I actually felt a different kind of emotion.

I found myself thinking of Dorothy and how she had chosen to live out the end of her life, and the full implications of her decision. Although many might consider time in a nursing home to be a kind of prison sentence, for her it was, by her own report, one of the best experiences of her life. She reclaimed a missing piece of joy that had been absent from her life for nearly 50 years, and in doing so made what would be for many people a very startling choice. Dorothy however had engaged long dormant parts of herself and found a kind of peace though her decision that I admired more than I could even understand. Sometimes when I’m moping around or feeling sorry for myself I think about Dorothy and the choices she made, and I realize Victor Frankl was correct, we always have the power to think about something in a different way, and in doing so can find happiness in even the most difficult of circumstances.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dancing on your own grave

“Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Dylan Thomas- Do not go gentle

When I was in my early 20’s, I used to enjoy the idea of global warming. Sometimes I used to dream about an asteroid hitting the earth. None of these thoughts were in a suicidal kind of way, but I used to think how nice it would be if something would happen that got us all got back onto equal footing. Credit scores, friends who graduated from college way too fast, endless comparisons with my neighbors and classmates? None of this would matter anymore, as we concentrated on survival in the rapidly approaching nuclear winter. This thought filled me with a feeling of great warmth.

On the other hand the poem at the beginning of this essay was a steady companion in those days, and I vowed to “rage against the dying of the light,” whenever I got the chance. I was however always curious about what he meant by the “wild men” who “learned too late they grieved it on its way.” I spent half my life trying to figure out exactly what that meant. What did they learn? What were they grieving? Now all these years later I think I have come to understand what this line means, or at least what it means to me.

I think what he was trying to say is that even when we are in the prime of our lives, when we seemingly have everything a person may need to live a passionate and rapturous life, we still find a million things to complain about. Later we wax nostalgic about the good old days, not remembering how much we complained about these very same days when we were actually living them. Rarely do we acknowledge the prime of our life when we are actually living it.

Studying the work of Joseph Campbell helped me understand that maybe, just maybe, this is the kingdom of heaven. Right here, right now, every breath we get to take in is a chance to experience the amazing gift of awareness. What if all of the ways we poison this life were just traps of the mind, and there was a way of freeing ourselves from these traps? I am certainly not the first one to suggest this idea, and it is one that has been proffered by people from the Buddha thousands of years ago to Eckhart Tolle more recently.

It’s very difficult to feel anything akin to being in the kingdom of heaven when bill collectors are ringing our phones and doctors are telling us our bodies are falling apart, and I am as guilty as anyone of finding ways to poke holes in my own happiness narrative. But truth be told, for all of its loss and heartbreak and disappointment, truthfully this is the best life I can imagine. Everything is possible, and if I am disappointed in something, it is, as long as I am drawing breath, possible to choose another way to live. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “This is the true joy in life: Being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Which brings me to one of my favorite scenes from a TV show called Northern Exposure, which was a wonderful character study of people sharing their lives in the Alaskan wilderness. There was one friendship in the show I particularly enjoyed between Ed, the twenty-something filmmaker, and Ruth Ann the woman in her 70’s who ran the local store and who had lived a wonderful life of adventure.

In this particular episode, Ruth Ann turns 75, and Ed begins to treat her like her death is imminent. Ruth Ann, who has truly learned to savor every moment in her old age, dislikes being treated like an old woman, and throughout the episode they discuss the subject of death, and how it is not something to be feared, but instead something to be reflected on to enhance the meaning and value of our time here.

The last scene is what really stuck with me, as Ed purchases her a grave on the top of a mountain, and the final scene shows them both dancing joyfully on top of it. It took rewatching this as an older man, but finally I think I got it. There was no grieving the sun on its way down here, they were actively celebrating a pure moment of mindful living, and in that moment they were blessed with that fleeting gift of appreciation for the miraculous set of circumstances that brought them there.

I think about these things when I wax nostalgic about my own “prime” and how much better life was at some other point in my own existence. This is a lie, a trick of memory that allows us to forget the bad and remember the good. One day we will likely even look at this period of our life with a kind of fond reminiscence, forgetting the thousand ways we rationalized how life could be better. For better or for worse, this is where we are, right here, right now, and it’s the only piece of our destiny we have any power to change. Give it a shot. Dance on your own proverbial grave and see how it feels. This is the power of emotional choice. We can be, as Shaw suggests, “selfish little clods of ailments and grievances,” or we can chose to laugh and be here now with total acceptance that where we have landed is exactly the place we’re supposed to be. All of our previous choices have led us to the now, and taking responsibility for how we are going to proceed from here is what we have. All we have.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Defending your life

I watched one of my favorite movies last night called “Defending your life,” with Albert Brooks. Although there have been hundreds of books and movies that speculate about what happens to us when we die, this movie did it in a way that has stuck with me since I first saw it when I was a kid. The premise is, that at the end of your life a small panel of judges examines 10 or so representative days of your life to see if you have conquered your fear during the duration of your time on earth. If they found you had, you got to move on to a higher level of consciousness, if not, you got sent back to earth to do it all over again.

The thing that resonated with me so much about this process was the emphasis on the role that fear played in determining the quality of a person’s existence, and how, according to the movie, our lives came down to a small handful of choices that gauged how much we allowed fear to influence our most important and pivotal choices.

When I first watched the movie I was a teenager, and found this to be a powerful way to think about living my life. Beyond morality or stability or security, I wanted to become truly fearless in my life, and shortly afterward took to the road. At the time I was, in my own mind, living a life without fear, perhaps even recklessly so. I spent my twenties traversing our great county, working in 5 of our national parks, traveling, performing comedy, and slinging a whole lot of liquor both as a bartender as well as a patron. Taking stock at the age of 30, I realized I had covered a lot of ground, but had little to show for my behavior but a lot of wonderful memories. A priceless thing to be sure, but it was at this point in my life that I first began to question if fearlessness was the only value worth living for.

Somewhere around this time I began to understand that there was a difference between conquering one’s fear and simply living in pursuit of pure hedonism. On a grand scale, conquering your fear was an amazing thing. It helped me bungee jump, get on stage as a terrified performer, travel into worlds unknown again and again, and hang out with a few women drastically over my head.

I look upon that period of my life with great nostalgia, but now, having been a therapist for several years, I have a little different take on tackling fear in our lives, and I find my position has changed a bit since the days of my sky-diving, hard-drinking youth.

You see I don’t think fear is conquered on a grand scale, although I certainly thought that for many years of my life. No I think the battle with fear is encompassed in a million little moments of our lives. The person we lock eyes with who we don’t quite work up the nerve to talk to. The promotion at work we don’t apply for because we don’t think we’re good enough. These are the little battles we face all the time, and as days give way to years, these are the choices that become the stories of our lives.

Even beyond these things however, there lies another layer of fear that rests at the deepest core of our psyches. This is the stuff we deny and put away on the back shelves of our minds to deal with on some faraway rainy day. This is the stuff that speaks to our deepest feelings of inadequacy and unclaimed baggage from the wounds that we never quite got around to dealing with. Stephen King describes this eloquently, saying, “So do we pass the ghosts that haunt us later in our lives; they sit undramatically by the roadside like poor beggars, and we see them only from the corners of our eyes, if we see them at all. The idea that they have been waiting there for us rarely if ever crosses our minds. Yet they do wait, and when we have passed, they gather up their bundles of memory and fall in behind, treading in our footsteps and catching up, little by little.”

So how do we stare these ghosts down? Some of the ways that have worked for me are honesty and laughter, which at least in my life are intertwined in a kind of perfect union. All of those things, those little nagging things I don’t always like about myself? We’ve all got a box that’s full of them, and sharing them in a funny way is both liberating as well as generative. Others can use them, learn from them, and through your own self-deprecating spin on these things perhaps begin to diffuse the power of some of their own fears. This is our shared absurdity as human beings, and so often the only thing that separates intense disappointment and fantastic shared laughter is a little time and perspective. It’s a useful idea to keep in mind that has personally helped me conquer a lot of my own fears, both large and small.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Unquenchable Laughter

Years back I was rummaging through my grandparent’s things, minding my own business, when I stumbled upon some books by Robert Fulghum, the author of the now famous essay, “All I really needed to know I learned in Kindergarten.” I began reading one of his other books called, “Uh Oh,” and was immediately struck by an essay about what the Greeks called, “asbestos gelos,” unquenchable laughter. It has been with me ever since, and today I went back and reread these words of wisdom. Here is an excerpt;

“To get through this life and see it realistically poses a problem. There is a dark, evil, hopeless side to life that includes suffering, death, and ultimate oblivion as our earth falls into a dying sun. Nothing really matters.

On the other hand, the best side of our humanity finds us determined to make life as meaningful as possible NOW; to defy our fate. Everything matters. Everything.

It is easy to become immobilized between these two points of view - to see them both so clearly that one cannot decide what to be or do.

Laughter is what gives me forward motion at such intersections. We are the only creatures that both laugh and weep. I think it's because we are the only creatures that see the difference between the way things are and the way they might be. Tears bring relief. Laughter brings release. Some years ago I came across a phrase in Greek - asbestos gelos - unquenchable laughter. I traced it to Homer's Iliad, where it was used to describe the laughter of the gods. That's my kind of laughter. And he who laughs, lasts.”

I was struck by this idea that choosing laughter may represent a kind of mindful living that represented a choice in the way we saw the world. Years later as I reflect on all the places I’ve been and all of the people that have come and gone in my life since that time, so many worries and struggles have receded into the distance, and what I am left with is fond memories of the times I have truly celebrated this kind of unstoppable laughter with people along the way.

Yet even as I say this, worries creep back into my mind. I forget that anxiety is a temporary virus that burrows into our sense of peace, reminding us of all the things that might go wrong. Most of the time these things never happen, but meanwhile we waste a tremendous amount of energy putting out these little fires in our minds.

So what is the antidote? For me I know the answer is laughter. The simple fact is that all of the ways we worry about our problems rarely get us any closer to finding a solution. Here is where we come to a fork in the road. We can worry or we can find a way to reframe our problems in terms of laughter. As Gilda Radner wrote about so eloquently when she was diagnosed with cancer, “it’s always something.” Dark humor to be sure, but also an amazing example of the kind of resilience a life committed to laughter can provide.

How to we learn to find this line between the thousands of little tragedies and comedies in our lives? I certainly haven’t mastered it, but more and more I’ve learned to mentally confront these tragedies with a question. Will this really matter to me in a year? Even a week? Almost always the answer is no. As I retrace my own memory banks, I find that more and more the things I thought I should be worrying about were never the real things. As Mary Schmich says in Everybody’s free to wear sunscreen, “Don't worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.”

I would encourage you to develop your own set of questions when these viruses of the mind attack, so you can find your own way to laugh about the inevitable rain that falls into all of our lives. Try it, try to really challenge these worrisome reminders and see if they really hold up to serious scrutiny. If they do I’d like to gently suggest to you that you are perhaps a bit too invested in the seriousness of your own private universe. In the grander scheme of things, this will certainly pass. It always does. Laughter however is forever. I know this because I’ve been fortunate enough to relive so many wonderful memories of laughing with people throughout my life, and if I had it to do over, I would have had a whole lot more of them. I’m learning. All of us are learning. Let’s listen to each other a little more often rather than listening to the voices in our heads so often. I promise you your reward will be a lighter load to carry.

Yes, and versus yes, but.

Yes and, and yes but. They seem like such simple little phrases, but strangely they have both had a significant impact on my life. The power of both these phrases and their relevance to the integration of comedy and psychology recently became clear to me after a conversation with the comedian John Heffron. Allow me to explain.

Although I became a therapist after a comedian, in this case it is useful to start with a style of interaction I learned in my first year studying psychology. The yes, but personality. Sounds so innocent, but this phrase is actually at the root of one of the most frustrating styles of personal communication around.

At first glance, people who use this phrase seem perfectly agreeable. They nod and smile, and listen carefully to your well-thought out advice. Perhaps they will even compliment you on the wisdom and poignancy of your opinions.

But invariably the other shoe drops. As quickly as they initially embrace your ideas, they swat them away. This is the woman who asks you for relationship advice who keeps going back to the same guy over and over again. The lonely guy who asks you to set him up who finds a problem with each and every person you suggest. Think about the yes butters in your life and how you feel after a conversation with them. What is conjured up?? Confusion? Frustration? If so you’re not crazy, and you might be thankful to know that psychologists such as Alfred Adler were talking about this personality style nearly 100 years ago.

The “yes, but” style of communication may best be described as a passive-aggressive personality. People who suffer from this personality style are often stuck in a state of personal conflict that makes it extremely difficult for them to make decisions, and they often become quite adept at passing this intrapsychic turmoil on to the people they interact with.

To some degree we all have a “yes, but” conversation going on in our heads, and I suspect it holds us back from doing a lot of the things we want to do. How often do we talk ourselves out of taking a chance or following a dream by conjuring up counterarguments in our heads? I don’t have enough time, or, where would I get the money? and a million other restraints echo in our heads all the time, reasoning, rationalizing, and otherwise throwing cold water on the creative forces that exist inside of us.

Which leads me to “yes, and.” I was introduced to this phase when I first got to Chicago and enrolled in Improv classes at The Second City theatre, home to many of my comic idols, and I was sure the launching pad to my own illustrious career in the field. Not knowing much about Improv, I grew fascinated by its central tenet, the concept of “yes, and,” which was based on the idea that you added something to everything your scene partner offered. Therefore if someone came on stage and said, “I see you’ve been to the psychiatrist,” you might respond with, "Yes, AND I saw my gynecologist, they’re in the same complex so I just see them together now.” Point being that you take an idea that someone offers, listen to it, and then add even more. This concept and this school of thought has produced many of the greatest comedians who ever lived, several of whom got their start in this same little theatre I was studying at.

I never did become world famous as a comedian, but years later I’m a therapist and I found myself thinking about the value of “yes, and” and how much creativity is produced when our initial response to things is in the affirmative. So often we fall into cognitive traps that make it very difficult for us to change, and most of the problems start directly inside our own heads. Yes, and, takes work. Our minds fall into a default state of comfort where we are comfortable with the demons that we know. Yes, and is scary and different, but perhaps it is also an important part of making real changes in our lives. I’m challenging myself to try using this the next time I find myself rationalizing why I don’t follow through on a goal that is important for me to accomplish. Try it out, AND perhaps even add something to this simple premise that I have suggested. For me at least, much of the great laughter in my life has started with Yes, and, and I hope that it can work for you as well.