An Honest Question

I’m leaving for the West coast today.  I’m taking three of my daughters with me.  I would say that I’m excited, but I have to get through the TSA checkpoint before I even indulge in latent feelings of glee.

Last year, when we matched wits with the TSA agents, it seemed to go well enough.  My youngest daughter was somewhat terrified of the experience.  I decided that my strategy would be to play it cool the entire time.  No rush.  Just give gentle instructions.

“No worries, honey.  Take your shoes off.  That’s right.  Place them in that bin.  Put your backpack in there…”  While most people would not be able to decipher any of her behaviors now, my youngest is on the autism spectrum.  Flying for the first time activated her, and she struggled with perseveration, rigidity, anxiety, and clinginess in ways she had not for a long time.  She had practically wrapped herself around my leg like a juvenile koala bear.

Meanwhile my oldest daughter, the college student, was leading the other girls through the TSA like Winston Churchill! Her commanding presence and sharp instructional voice were heeded by every single person in line–even the other people around us.  People just seem to follow her.  She is a natural leader, and I don’t say that like a proud parent.  It is just a fact.  The first time I put her in a room full of toddlers she started herding them like sheep, and they didn’t seem to mind!

By the time I got myself and my youngest daughter through the checkpoint, a TSA agent approached us and said, “Hey, your mother is waiting for you over there.”

My mother?

My daughter and I looked at each other quizzically and then at the TSA agent.

“Our mother?” We looked around in confusion.

“Yeah, your mom.  She’s over there.  She’s waiting for you with your sisters.”  She pointed to my oldest daughter standing with her hands on her hips.

I felt confused.  Clearly, that person is not my mom.  I’m the mom.

“Uh…she isn’t my mom.  I’m the mom.  This is my daughter right here, and that is my oldest daughter,” I said stifling a laugh.

The TSA agent looked at us both.  Now, she looked confused.  She then asked, “Are you sure?”

Am I sure?!

“I’m pretty sure,” I clarified.

She gave me the once-over, shrugged, and walked away.  My youngest daughter could not wait to tell her oldest sister about this “mix-up” in our identities, and my oldest daughter was called “Mother” for the duration of our trip.  It is a story that she will never live down–that time that the TSA Agent thought she was my mom.

I share this story because 1) it’s funny and 2) it’s reflective of the stress of getting out there and doing.  There are so many reasons why you shouldn’t do what you want to do.  Why you shouldn’t start building a life that you want to live.  I know this.

Alfred D’Souza said this:

For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time to still be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.

The obstacles will never go away.  Real life will always be real life.  Unfinished business will always remained unfinished.  There will always be debts.

If that is truly the case, then…why not get started? I’m not being inspirational.  I’m asking an honest question.

If not now, then when? As I oft say, it is a question worth considering.

With that final question, I bid you a lovely two weeks.  I’m now off to face off with the TSA.

Shalom to you…xoxo

Having a Good Time in Hell

I had final exams this week.  With the same teacher.  How I ended up taking three classes with this man I can’t quite figure out.  Serendipity, I guess.  He was a doctor with a reputation, too.  Other students would hear his name and cringe–“Oh, you have Dr. Ferguson? Good luck…”  Aw, come on! How bad could he be? I had professors in undergrad who were notoriously terrible, and I came to really appreciate them.  I probably developed the most as a student from these infamously difficult professors.  I should have kept my philosophizing about growth and development to a minimum.  I should have prayed…or something because what I witnessed yesterday during the administration of our Surface Anatomy final exam I can’t say I’ve ever seen before.   It was like something from a movie or maybe the sitcom “Scrubs”.

I am taking parallel coursework in both Eastern and Western medical traditions.  This term I took exclusively Western medical courses excepting one Eastern medical class.  I took an exam on Wednesday and finished two exams yesterday–Anatomy and Physiology I and Surface Anatomy which is really more comparable to Gross Anatomy.   Anatomy and Physiology I was a typical class in that it was not very difficult in terms of expectations;  I had a sense of what was expected of me in terms of learning.  Surface Anatomy, on the other hand, was epic in that our teacher continually broke the rules of good pedagogy.  He rarely tested us on the material that we studied.  He tested us on obscurities.  Every exam was a trick, and he tricked us weekly.  This doctor-turned-professor adored the weekly exam.  I’ve never taken so many exams in a trimester–36 exams plus 3 midterms and 3 final exams! That’s a lot of “bend over and grab your ankles”.

So, yesterday during the final sadistic and wanton display of subterfuge exam a few people…broke.  Upon receipt of the exam, one young woman in my Surface Anatomy class started openly weeping.  Another woman just walked out! Someone else threw a pencil.  The only guy in our class began grinding his back molars so loudly that I thought I heard a belt sander.

It didn’t feel real.  I kept thinking to myself, “Is Cathy really crying? Did Lee really throw her pencil? This is really happening.  Kat really just walked out.  Yeah…this is like one of my nightmares.  We might all fail.”

When we all finished, we met in the common area outside the classroom.  We all looked like we were going into a state of medical shock.  I kept wondering what Dr. Ferguson’s wife was like.  Did Dr. Ferguson have any insight into himself? He was a very nice guy, but his pedagogical talents were…lacking.  I imagined him in a very hyperbolic way as I waited for him to call us back into the room.

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Dr. Ferguson contemplates the meaning of his life.

I observed us all as we attempted to self-soothe and self-regulate.  Twelve weeks ago, most of us didn’t know each other.  Now, we were bonding over the ordeal of taking one of the worst exams in the history of our academic careers–Surface Anatomy with Dr. Ferguson.  His reputation was well-deserved.  He had truly earned it.

Dr. Ferguson liked to grade exams directly after we turned them in.  We were about to get our grades for both the exams and the term.  David announced that he was going to have words with Dr. Ferguson.  He wasn’t as nice as the rest of us.  He threw his hacky sack against the wall and disappeared down the hallway.  I just stood against the wall and made snarky comments–my default social habit.

How did it turn out? Well, I don’t know how everyone did, but I don’t think anyone failed the course.  Dr. Ferguson joked about the class wanting to run him over in the parking lot.  No one laughed.  We all just stared at him pointedly when he said that.  It was very awkward for a few seconds.  I think he understood.

I don’t want to endure another Ferguson-style exam, but, alas, I will.  I have numerous other courses with him.  We all will.  He will, I think, go down in the history books as the worst exam writer in all my years of academia, and that’s saying something.  I’ve studied at three universities under a plethora of instructors–foreign and domestic.  He wins that award hands down.  The bright side? All of us in this cohort have become friends because of this ordeal.  Ordeal does that to a group of people.  You have experiences together, and then you have stories to share and tell.  No, it’s not in any way fun, but you bond.  This is why people stay in touch after college and graduate school.  Post-secondary education is often an ordeal for many people.  It’s hard.  We need help from other people to do well.

There’s that asking for help part.  You gotta do it! (Now I’m grinding my teeth.)

The Prince of Darkness might be one of my instructors, but I think we could learn to have a good time in hell if we’re there together…maybe.  It’s an idea worth considering.

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Bad Days and Vanity Plates

I was having a bad day last week.  I didn’t feel well.  I couldn’t seem to catch up on anything related to domestic life.  My laundry pile looks like Mt. Everest.  I seriously need to send up teams and establish base camps.  People might never return! Oh, and the cat has decided that my laundry pile is her turf now i.e. her litter box.  It’s soft, right? It’s a comfortable place to sit back and contemplate one’s place in the grand scheme of life while one pees.  I cried a little when I discovered this.

I have a 16 year-old daughter who is making the most of her adolescence right now.  Were she not mine I would find a lot of humor in what she’s doing.  Yesterday, for example, I asked her to help clean up the kitchen.  Suddenly, it was as if she were possessed by an alien completely unfamiliar with our ways.  This Body Snatcher du Jour had never seen a kitchen, a fork, a pair of scissors, or even a dishwasher! Of course, this alien had never seen my daughter’s body either.  Suddenly, she’s stumbling around the kitchen as if she couldn’t walk or hold a spoon.  The dishwasher? What’s that? Wait, is that a hand? Do I hold things with a hand? How do hands even work? They flex and extend? Dare I say…grasp objects?

It was infuriating! My oldest daughter used up all her patience trying not to fly off into a homicidal rage whilst trying to coach her in how to rinse out a bowl.  Yes, that’s right.  Rinsing out a bowl.  A task she’s done countless times.  The strategy is brilliant.  Feign incompetence so that no one asks you to help ever again, but I’m not falling for it.

It is, however, exhausting and more than a little annoying.  It’s frustrating as hell! Raising children to be good people is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Going back to school as a single parent with a persistent health problem?

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Yeah, I kind of want to lose it.  Daily.

It’s August, and I’ve almost done nothing all summer except study.  I don’t say that with some kind of disillusionment.  I knew what I saw signing up for.  It’s hard work to begin again.  I knew that it would be.

But, on a bad day, sometimes all you can see is that which doesn’t look or feel good.  You question your choices.

So, there I was, walking in a parking lot, counting the losses.  Feeling acutely unwell and tired.  Overwhelmed and somewhat alone.  Feeling very behind in everything that one could fall behind in–bills, tasks, homework, parenting.  That very familiar drowning feeling was about to show up.  And then I looked to my right and saw it.  A vanity plate.

“NVRGVUP”

Huh.  “Never give up.”  I felt a little patronized at first.  “Really, God? I was about to really enjoy a moment of self-pity.” Fine.  Okay! I get it.  This is my mantra.  Keep going.  Never give up.  Switch my mindset.  This could just as easily be a kind of mile marker.  I am on the right path.  Be encouraged rather than discouraged.  Is it that easy? Really?

Well, look at what is difficult today. Laundry.  My daughter’s antics.  Persistent health issues.  The toils of grad school.  Three years ago, I was in a terrible marriage dealing with domestic abuse, and I saw no way out.  I could not imagine my life as it is today.  It was not a possibility for me then.  I have today what I wanted then.

Hmmmm…

This post is not an ode to my own persistence.  Hardly.  What I would like to say is that there are reminders around us, sometimes in the strangest places, that we are doing okay.  That we are on the right track.  That we are cared for.  That we should keep putting one foot in front of the other.  License plates.  Friends.  Movies.  Books.  Other people’s narratives.  In reality, there is nothing romantic about grit and tenacity.  The daily grind is called the daily grind because it grinds you down and out.  It is wearing and exhausting, but it also gets you where you intend to go.  And, during the intensity of that process, we often need to know that we chose well.  That’s where the encouragement comes in.

And, it’s everywhere when you look for it.

So, on that day in the parking lot, when I was feeling discouraged, wondering if I had set the right trajectory for my life (and, consequently, for my kids), when I saw that vanity plate, I felt validated–but only when I was willing to give up feeling discouraged.  Don’t give up.  Keep going.  Gather momentum.  Live life.  Now that I actually have a life worth living.

That’s what I would like to say.  Don’t give up.  Never give up until you have the life that you truly want to live.  It is possible.  It might be very hard to acquire, but it’s possible.

Endings and Beginnings

Playwright and actor Sam Shepard died on Thursday from ALS.  I grew up reading his plays, acting in one or two of them, and watching him give blood and bone to otherwise cut-out characters.  Sam Shepard was quoted in The Paris Review sharing his experiences with trying to create endings in his writing process:

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“The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning.”  

Wow.

That gets me.  Right in my gut.  And, it makes me smile.  Yeah.  Endings don’t necessarily mean that everything is over.  We aren’t stalling out.  We aren’t dying.  Our dreams aren’t going down in flames.  Things are…revolving towards another beginning, as he said.

That is genius, and, to me, this is exactly how you have to approach life particularly when you are facing difficult choices and pain.  Sometimes certain things do need to end.  Some things do need to be left behind in order for our lives to evolve and revolve towards a new beginning–a new trajectory.

It’s a thought.  A good thought.  An invitation to a different way of processing circumstances and narratives.

Go in peace, Mr. Shepard.

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ברוך דיין האמת / Baruch dayan ha-emet

 

The Trust Fall

I’ve written here before that I have migraines–chronic migraines.  Whenever a therapist gets wind of that, they always make some version of this face:

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“Oh boy! Somatic symptoms…”

Last week, I was doing the deep dive into some very old “stuff” with my therapist.  I leaned over and started rubbing my head which caused him to blurt out, “Are you getting a migraine?”

I wanted to say this…

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“For the love of God, no, no, and more no! Big barrel of nope!”

Instead I just politely said, “No, I’m just scratching an itch.  I’m fine.”  I really was fine.  I don’t know if you ever feel like this, but the experience of having a clinician or even a friend causally link physical symptoms like chronic migraines or autoimmune diseases to past trauma grates on me.  It has happened so many times over the years that I have developed a maladaptive coping strategy of hiding any and all symptomology in order to avoid oncoming interrogation and analysis.  Does stress trigger a migraine? Sometimes.  Alas, correlation is not causation.  Many other things do as well like aged cheese, sleep deprivation, and MSG.

Hiding one’s physical symptoms is not a good idea.  I freely admit this.  Pretending to be fine when you’re not isn’t a great approach in the long run.  I tell myself that I do it in order not to stress everyone around me.  I believe that my symptoms cause people more stress and worry.  My kids, however, are older now.  They know when something is off, and they know when I’m faking it.  It has been suggested to me that I stop hiding my symptoms and begin being truthful.

Well, that sucks.  You mean I have to start being truthful about how I feel physically?

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WHUT?! NO!!

So, what am I not being honest about here? I have a complicated health history that makes even the most steely physician cry.  This is why many people like to blame it on past trauma.  My past trauma is extreme.  All the more reason to play that card, but it would be premature and lazy to do that.

Two weeks ago I was diagnosed with a blood disorder.  A really annoying blood disorder.  This blood disorder, however, explains a lot of my other autoimmune conditions quite nicely.  In fact, it could be the reason I have the other issues.  In other words, all my autoimmune diagnoses might be manifestations of this singular blood disorder diagnosis, and, from a diagnostic perspective, that’s pretty cool.  It could also explain my long list of allergies.  Imagine that.  One diagnosis explaining almost everything that is wrong with me–including the migraines.  It’s almost miraculous in terms of a diagnosis.  The treatment? Management.  Not cool.  High dose medications that control certain cells in my body.  That’s okay, I guess.

What’s the downside? Some of these medications just happen to lower the seizure threshold.  That’s totally fine if you don’t have a seizure disorder, but I do.  I’ve been seizure-free for 16 years.  What happened this week? I had a seizure thanks to all those medications.  What did I try to do? Hide it.  Was that a bad idea? Apparently.

My daughters were very upset with me.  Someone close to me explained to me why I needed to start including people in on these types of events.  Honestly, I’d rather go into my room, get it over with, and come out.  That is what I’ve always done in the past.  A question was asked of me, “Were you conditioned to do that?”

Well, my mother was not helpful, and my ex-husband always bailed when I was ill.  I learned to handle all kinds of health issues alone–even seizures.  This has become normal to me.  Is it normal? For me? Yes.  Is it normal? I did not want to answer.

Okay.  Would I want someone to have a seizure by themselves? Of course not.  There are myriad reasons why they should not.  I have a friend with a seizure disorder.  I have stayed with her during her preictal, ictal, and postictal times.  It would be wrong–almost immoral–to abandon her.

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“I have backed myself into the logical corner…”

There cannot be two sets of rules–one set applying to me and the second applying to others.  We treat others as we treat ourselves.  I have to give up this maladaptive coping strategy, and I feel suddenly very exposed and vulnerable.  I do not want to broadcast or share my physical symptoms.  Have a seizure? In front of people? 

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Can’t we say I did and then..not?

I guess not.

My boyfriend suggested that I treat it as a trust fall.  Trust fall?! Oh god…

He’s right.  I find certain things relatively easy, but this isn’t.  Telling people that I’m actually really sick and need legitimate help puts me in a very vulnerable position, and I hate feeling vulnerable in that way.  But, this is how we heal.  It’s how we allow people to get close to us.  I want to run off and be sick alone.  Like wild animals do.  They do it to preserve themselves.  That’s probably why I do it, but I don’t think I need to do that anymore.

I will say this.  Life provides us with many opportunities to heal–even when we are sick.

Just stay present.  You’ll see.

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If a cat can do it, then so can I.

The Path of Humility

This post is a kind of musing if you will.

I have written in previous posts that I’ve returned to graduate school.  I’m pursuing a medical Master’s degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).  The Western and Eastern tracks are symmetrical in their instruction.  Currently, I’m immersed in Western medicine classes, and I’m well beyond saturated in terms of information overload.  I no longer care what hematopoiesis is and why it matters.  I dream about anatomy almost every night.  I woke up last night dreaming about the greater trochanter and linea aspera of the femur.  I have had nightmares that the quadriceps group formed a gang with the adductors in order to hunt me.  The vastus lateralis had a voice that was reminiscent of Patrick Stewart’s.  The metatarsals of the foot had teeth and tried to bite me.  They were taking orders from the sartorius muscle who had transformed into Russell Crowe.   I will not attempt to interpret this…

In the midst of all this, I have been observing the culture of my school environment.  My college is almost a duplicate of a medical school in China and is considered the sister school to this medical school.  All of the TCM instructors are physicians from China, and the Western medicine instructors are American physicians.  It is a very interesting duality–bouncing back and forth between the traditions.  I anticipated some of the differences–language barriers, socio-cultural differences, and different teaching styles.  Something else was very different as well and completely unexpected.  The Chinese instructors are extremely humble and socially gracious while the American physicians are, well, not.

I’ve met numerous teachers from China since January, and their humility is almost immediately evident.  They do not engage in self-promotion, bragging, telling war stories wherein they feature as the star physician who saved the day, general peacocking, active or passive namedropping, competition, or one-upmanship.  I found their subtle social footprint disconcerting.  I am so accustomed to blatant displays of self-promotion in people with any sort of academic and/or professional achievement that I didn’t know how to handle a complete lack of it.

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There’s a reason people think this (and I’m a grad student!)

Then, I found a list of biographies featuring the professional achievements and training of the school’s instructors.  I was gobsmacked.  Our Chinese instructors were overqualified to teach us.  Our Asian physician teachers are scholars and masters of their respective specialties, but you would never know.  They do not behave as if they are unique or special.  They do not make us, the students, feel stupid or incompetent.  They don’t dress or speak in an intimidating manner or exploit our anxiety in order to make themselves feel better or bigger.  I have yet to be called an idiot. I was called an idiot frequently by my teachers in France, and my American university experiences were peppered with  professorial egotistical hit and runs that left me marinating in self-doubt and self-recrimination.

My Western instructors are brilliant, but I can’t really describe them as…humble  The game is afoot when I spend time in my Western medicine classes.  I know this game all too well, and I know how to jump through those hoops.  Fostering competition is how we are taught in the West.  It begins in preschool and continues throughout our mandatory schooling.  It motivates people to try harder.  Shame is a ruthless instructor.  Be the best, but the idea of “best” is put in the context of judging other people and their best.  Who knows more? Who runs the fastest? Who answers the questions with the most speed and precision? Who has the most expertise? Who writes the best? Memorizes the best? Retains the most and recalls the fastest? Who does what the best? Suddenly, your focus is on everyone else rather than learning, and your ego wakes up and readies for a fight.  Your peers become enemies, and your teachers are the gatekeepers.  Someone has to come out on top.  Who’s it going to be? Who is going to prove to be the best? The superlative? Who’s the winner? Your identity is at stake here! Not only is your cohort objectified but you are as well.

 

The difference between the two attitudes, if you will, has been stunning.  I have found myself very attracted to the East Asian attitude which I would ascribe to the virtue of humility.  The idea that the more you have studied the more you view yourself as knowing less rather than possessing expertise feels freeing to me.  I described this to a close friend whose family is from Asia, and he emphasized the virtue of humility in scholars.  In Asia, one of the primary virtues of a scholar is humility.  One never attempts to flaunt expertise or engage in self-promotion even after years of study.  This idea is highlighted in Taoism: “The more you learn, the more you realize there’s still so much more to learn. This tends to make you humble. Arrogance and egotism come from ignorance – knowing a little bit and assuming you know a lot.” (What is Tao)

I decided to do an experiment in order to check the status of my ego.  Just where was I in this developmental process? Could I participate in a conversation wherein people were discussing a subject that I knew something about and say nothing? Could I merely listen for the purpose of listening? You know what? It’s hard, and being in an academic environment affords me countless opportunities to practice this.  I know a little bit about a lot of things, but what exactly am I an expert on? Truly an expert? I had to think about it.  I also had to assess the reasons why I was contributing.  Was it for the maintenance of my own ego? Suddenly, I was weighing my words and thoughts.  Did anyone need to hear that story? Did I really need to say that? Deliberately putting myself in the position of an apprentice while acknowledging that what I was about to say probably wasn’t nearly as important as I thought has been…interesting.

The side effects?

Well, you see where your ego is wounded very quickly and where you are looking to compensate for that through social behaviors like preening, peacocking, namedropping both passive and active, bragging, and recounting narratives that are merely attempts to show off one’s awesomeness or make one feel legitimate.  What is passive and active namedropping you might ask?

Active namedropping looks like this:

“I just picked up Paramour at the airport and their youth minister! Now we’re all friends on Facebook, and I might get together with the drummer…”

This actually happened to me once.  You know it’s ego-driven if you respond with, “Who’s Paramour?” and you’re suddenly on the receiving end of an apocalyptic eye-roll and some kind of insult indicating that you don’t get out much.

Passive namedropping looks like this:

“I was IMing this musician the other day that I’ve gotten to know online.  They are fairly well-known…but…uh…you wouldn’t know who they are.  Anyway…”

My family does this a lot.  You know it’s ego-driven because of the superfluous information describing the musician’s popularity and the additional ad hominem-esque attack.  The only information that would have been truly necessary was “I was talking to an acquaintance and…”

It is extremely easy and tempting to engage in self-promotion.  Our culture almost demands it.  Western culture does not readily value humility.  It isn’t a virtue.  It’s seen as almost being milquetoast or meek.  Our general culture seems to offer up the Teddy Roosevelt personality bursting forth with over-the-top self-reliance and inspirational, epic stories that can be tapped on Youtube via a TED talk.  We want to be moved, spoken into constantly, and perpetually validated as a wider culture.  It isn’t necessarily wrong.  Everyone needs an ‘atta boy’ or ‘atta girl’ from time to time.

Is cultivating an other-oriented mindset milquetoast? Is pursuing the virtue of humility worth it when humility is defined as “a disposition toward accurate self-assessment, other-orientedness, and the regulation of self-centered emotions”? (Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health) Believing in your own competence and ability to complete a task with excellence is humility.  Rubbing that belief in everyone else’s face is arrogance.  Believing that you are capable today but can always become more capable is humility.  Believing that you are intelligent but are often surrounded by more intelligent people and can, thusly, always learn from others is humility.  Being able to rely on yourself for validation is a very high form of humility because so often we look to others to tell us that we’re awesome, smart, capable, etc.  Believing that you no longer need external validation but instead need external constructive criticism and pointers to become better is a huge step towards attaining the virtue of humility.  Frankly, it’s a bit scary, and yet I witness it almost daily.  I find it to be so attractive and valuable.  It is the direction I need to take in terms of personal development.

I study for hours every day, and I truly feel like I now know less than I did when I started.  It is extremely uncomfortable, but, at the same time, I have discovered that there is a lot of emotional and intellectual energy invested in maintaining an ego that must “front” all the time.  If I no longer need to maintain or support my ego in this way, then I can divert more energy into other more worthwhile efforts like healing, learning, practicing, relating, loving, and serving others in ways that will actually make a meaningful difference.

I have not found this practice to be easy.  I have found it to be challenging.  I have found it to be vastly uncomfortable, but I have also found that I like myself more when I am not attempting to assert my impoverished experience of myself onto other people in hopes that they will complete it for me.  When I let it go and focus on simply being present to the moment in which I am occupying, it suddenly becomes easier.

Wherever I am, I am just trying to be there.

Practicing humility.  See what you think.

Further Reading:

Humility as a Psychotherapeutic Virtue: Spiritual, Philosophical, and Psychological Foundations

Changing Your Mind

Does hope ever turn into something unhelpful? Something bad? In my experience, I  would say that it certainly can.  You can’t live without hope, but a misplaced hope can steal your life.  The Tanakh says that hope deferred makes the heart sick.  Continually hoping that something comes to fruition while never experiencing that very thing creates myriad forms of havoc.  The hope itself can take many forms, but this is one of the more dangerous statements of hope:

“I hope that it changes.”

What is most likely the most dangerous?

“I hope that s/he changes.”

That’s harsh, isn’t it? That’s a very black-and-white point of view, and I rarely take a black-and-white stance about anything.  I live in the gray.  As I have moved further away from the day my ex-husband and I ended our marriage, I have enjoyed the privilege of hindsight more and more which renders me somewhat omniscient about certain things in my past circumstances albeit not entirely.  I see how much I rationalized.  How much harmful behavior did I tolerate? How much ill treatment did I chalk up to unresolved childhood issues? How much did I enable him? Too much.  I feel ashamed of it, and I hear from so many men and women who engage in the same behaviors.  They hope that their acceptance, tolerance, and limitless patience will eventually amount to something. They hope that something will change.  They hope that someone dear to them will change.  They live on that familiar gray spectrum hoping that they will never have to take a black-and-white stance because that means that there might not be hope.  An ultimatum might become necessary, and that feels intolerable.

Where does that lead you? Into the depths.  Gray is comforting, but it is bottomless and without boundaries.

What if you can’t get out, you ask? What if you’re drowning? What if you are in the Laurentian Abyss and your hope is the only thing keeping your head above the water?

What if your hope isn’t really hope?  What if what you believe to be hope are really rationalizations?

Well, I have been watching one of my daughters interact with other people lately.  She is anxious.  Excessively so.  It is extremely uncomfortable to observe her.  Her social skills are deficient.  She tries so hard and seems to miss almost every time.  Instead of attempting to intervene and fix something for her, I decided to step back and quietly assess her.  Why was I so uncomfortable watching her be an awkward adolescent? What about her social interactions are so viscerally repellent to me?

It suddenly dawned on me that she, like most teenagers, is operating from a belief that she has to earn acceptance and approval from everyone around her, and that reminded me of myself when I was married.  She tries and tries in hopes that she will be a part of something, but she can’t quite get there.  She is behaving from a place of insecurity.  The belief driving her when she socializes is that she is not acceptable as she is.  She must somehow earn it by being “cool”, and, as much as I’d like to say that this dynamic disappears once we reach adulthood, it doesn’t; it merely evolves.  Consequently, she tries to act in line with the group’s idea of coolness–however it’s manifesting at the time, and this comes off as painfully awkward and disingenuous.  It’s like watching someone try on clothes as fast as they can, and the group’s ever-changing attitudes are the harsh fluorescent lights highlighting all her own self-perceived flaws that she is desperately trying to mask.

Most of us can probably recall what that feeling is like–the all-encompassing feeling of self-consciousness combined with the developmental stage of the Invisible Audience.  We feel constantly critiqued and observed by others and ourselves at the same time.  It is excruciating, and we feel as if we are at a constant disadvantage.  Why? We never feel acceptable.  Feeling approved of is the dream.  We try because we hope.  Because we desire.  Because belonging is a human need.

What if we could hack our minds and emotions somehow and arrive at a very concrete understanding, removing all dissonance, in which we thoroughly understand that we are  already acceptable and approved of as we are at this moment?

Treat this as a thought experiment.  Engage in it as if it were simply that–an experiment.

How would you live your life if you believed to the point of certainty that you are acceptable and approved of? Now.  

“What would change in terms of my behavior, how I interacted with others, what I accepted from others, and what I allowed and disallowed in my life if I felt accepted?”

I’ll go first.

  • I would stop trying to please everyone.  Why try to please everyone if I already have the very thing my people pleasing behavior is supposed to give me? I need to re-examine my motivations (I have done this and continue to do this).
  • I could be more assertive because being a stronger self-advocate would not detract from my own personal acceptability.  If I am approved of as I am today, then standing up for my own worth–which is inherent–is a requirement then.  Not an option (This is hard for me, but I am really working on it).
  • I would raise my standards in terms of behaviors I tolerate from people.  I would stop saying, “Well, it’s okay that s/he __________.  I’m sure s/he didn’t mean to _________.  They have had a hard life and don’t know better.”  As someone close to me has said, “If someone is careless with your heart, then you need to decide if they are worth having in your life.”  If you are acceptable and approved of right now, then why continue to have relationships with people who treat you as if you are not? Am I trying to earn acceptance? Am I trying to gain approval from myself, others, or even society at large? This is a question worth asking often.
  • I would feel much freer to be myself with others as well as be generous.  Knowing that you are acceptable liberates you.  You are free to be generous with compliments, released from self-consciousness, and opened to new experiences.  This has been one of the best experiences of my life thus far.  When my mind finally stopped engaging in comparisons and constant self-assessments, I experienced a far greater capacity to relax and lean into the genuine experience of knowing other people–even if it was merely a five-minute social exchange.  I was also inoculated against offense.  I stopped taking things personally which increased my general quality of life and ability to be genuinely compassionate.

How does hope play into this?

Looking back on the last decade of my life, I can see that what I hoped for I already possessed.  I wanted to feel accepted, but I didn’t.  I wanted to feel approved of, but I did not.  I wanted to feel like I belonged somewhere, but I really did not.  I felt small, invisible, worthless, and ontologically insignificant.  Last night, my oldest daughter said to me, “You look happy.  You finally don’t look like you’re waiting to die.”  I was shocked.  When did I ever look like I was waiting to die? That is one helluva statement to make.  I asked her to explain.  She said that I looked like I was just grinding it out.  Trying to make it through until I could just be done with living.  I couldn’t deny it.  I was stuck in an abusive marriage while trying to raise my kids.  I kept saying, “I hope he changes.”

He never did.

But, I did.

This is what I mean by false and dangerous hope.  When you defer your own happiness and well-being by putting it in the hands of someone else, you doom yourself.  There is a time to be gray about issues, but there is also a time to be black-and-white.  You cannot make anyone change, but you are the only one who can guarantee that your circumstances change by changing yourself.  You can be your own catalyst for change by creating the life you want, and I propose that one of the first things to change is your mind.  Since we are talking about making small changes that matter, I propose engaging in thought experiments.  The beauty of a thought experiment is that you can actually get a glimpse of what your reality might look like when you apply thoughtful change to your present circumstances.

Hope first.  Do next.

“I hope I change,” becomes “I will change,” becomes “I changed.”

Suddenly, your life is very different, and that’s the point.