Using the Right Tool for the Job

When painting, the particular tools have to suit the purpose at hand.  Pastels, my favorite medium, range from hard to very soft. The degree of hardness impacts the way they make marks and interact with the painting surface. Thus, they are used in ways appropriate to the task at hand. Softly blended colors – the distant trees, faintly blued by atmospheric effect – call out for soft pastels. The graceful lines of bare branches glimpsed through foliage are served better by a harder pastel.  Use the wrong tool for the job and it is an exercise in frustration.

Just so, the various ways in which we communicate with one another have their preferred and best-suited purposes. I write letters in long hand to some family and friends; email has its role. The humble text message is an absolute delight in its place.  Its place is best described as the brief sharing of simple data:

Writing out Christmas cards, can’t find Uncle Lew’s new address

123 Orchard Street, Apt. A, S______, STATE, ZIP.

Thanks.

Or,

At the rest stop at US 19 and I-10, should be there in about 3 hours.

Great! See you then!

Or, perhaps, sharing a quick photo: a hummingbird, frozen in flight; a child in her sports uniform, a lovely sunset.

Text messages, on the other hand, are wretchedly inadequate for important conversations and emotional expressions beyond, “Love you! Have a good day!” sort of messages. They are inadequate for many reasons.

For one, they are brief.  Unless you have the ability to reduce complex ideas to simple, yet not simplistic, expression with the elegance of C.S. Lewis, the affective concision of Yeats and the incisive observational skills of Shakespeare, give up the notion of effectively resolving complex interpersonal issues via text.  We are, none of us, up to the task.

Worse, when we misstep, believing ourselves to be abundantly clear, we cannot see, or hear, the nuances of small muscle movements, pupil changes, swallowing, breathing, voice tone and volume, that alert us to make corrective efforts. Instead, our misstep is enshrined in visible form, to be reviewed and the misunderstanding (or all-too-clear awfulness) revisited and engraved into the heart and mind of the recipient, as well as anyone with whom they share it in an attempt to justify themselves in their rage and hurt.

You might say, well, the same can be said for email (right) and for the older, handwritten letter. For the latter, until fairly recently, writing was laborious: a pen to be perpetually sharpened and wiped; liquid ink to let dry. Even now, the arm and hand movements of script engage more of the brain, slow the process, and thus allow time to reflect before dashing off a reactive and possibly toxic response.

Many clients have explored in session the dilemma of family members demanding a text message interaction to address – now! – some emotionally rich and complex issue.  I urge them, and everyone, to resist giving in to the juvenile and narcissistic insistence that something of apparent critical import be reduced to text messages.  It is quite common for people to demand immediate exchange via text, repeatedly insisting you explain yourself (or whatever it is they require). If it cannot be face to face, at least do so via voice when both people are rested, sober and have time. Audible clues of tone, volume, steadiness and rhythm can help you assess how the conversation is going. If you are dealing with a reasonable person, refuse to have serious dialogue via text. If you are dealing with someone who is unpredictably volatile, irrational, or substance-using, potentially violent, seek appropriate safety and guidance.

So, what to do? There are multiple right answers here, of course; feel free to enter into a text message discussion of why you dislike your sibling’s fiancé, or don’t want your in-laws at the birthday party, or are upset about your child’s fifth undergraduate major in three years. I’d recommend against it. I offer, as a starter set, a few options to firmly, and lovingly, employ as you refuse to play the “text message” game.

“I love you too much to have a conversation about something clearly this important to you by text. Let’s figure a time when we can both be well-rested and ready to talk.”

“This sounds like a topic best discussed face to face. When would be a good time for you?”

“I’m glad you let me know this is something we need to address. When can we discuss?”

The possibility exists that you are dealing with someone, including someone you love, who is emotionally immature. Perhaps they demand, imagining they need, immediate gratification in terms of “resolution”. By resolution, they may mean getting you to agree they are right or bullying you into capitulating in some other way. At worst, they may be willing to cancel you if you stumble through an awkward and unexpected conversation. If you love someone this immature, whether friend or partner or family member, it is a sad state of affairs.  Still, giving in and trying to have emotionally complex conversations by text message (or email) will ineluctably lead to misunderstandings that can be read and reinforced in perpetuity. Just refuse.

Because, of course, you love them too much to reduce their concerns to a mere text message.

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Take a Break: A Shabbat Habit

I was asked to give a talk to a women’s faith group about finding peace in this busy, stressful world. The direction I chose was to invite each person to consider how they keep Sabbath. Beyond attending worship, Sabbath includes truly connecting with God, with family and friends, with creation, and a deliberate disconnection from the usual routine of life. Perhaps you don’t practice a religion and feel that some sort of mandatory day of sitting around doing nothing sounds boring and stupid.  “Sitting around doing nothing” is a corruption of what the day of rest was meant to be; think of it as a day to step away from your usual routine and focus on what is most important. If you’re having trouble figuring out what that might be, think about the people you’ve known who were dying, or what you focused on most when you lost someone you love.  The great existential crises of life tend to make some things stunningly clear.

There are entire books written about the importance of Sabbath time, of that weekly stepping back from rushing, overstimulation and noisiness.  This short column is just a little memo, to me as much as to anyone who might happen to read it and could use the reminder.

So why should anyone consistently and deliberately take a break from the routine? Here are a handful of the many reasons.

It gives you time to recuperate from overdoing. My car’s tachometer goes much higher than the engine is meant to run to function well.  It’s the same for us. We are not meant to run at “100%” 24/7.  Taking a step back from overdoing gives your body a chance to begin to recuperate from an overstressed state. A lot of people like to think they do their best work under pressure, but at a certain point, the nervous and endocrine systems will conspire to have you functioning in a way that reduces your access to your logical, analytic brain.  You probably won’t notice it’s happening, but other people will.

It gives you time to begin to take a different perspective.  Much of modern life is designed to keep us distracted and in an artificial sense of urgency.  This interferes with reflection, the deeper thinking about what is going on, where our actions are taking us, and what does and does not really matter. Put another way, it can help you figure out what is important, versus what feels urgent but is not as important.

It gives you time to focus on relationships. Whether it’s online contact with family far away, time for a walk with your loved one, a meal with family or friends, or a ruthless, hours-long game of Monopoly, a Sabbath mindset puts aside clocks and schedules and savors the time with the people we love.

It provides time for play, rest, and creative pursuits. These are all important. They are not accessories, nor does their value derive from their contributions to work performance the rest of the week.  They are part of being human and have inherent value without having to be subordinate to our work roles.

…and I, definitely, and you too, perhaps, are far nicer to be around when there’s been enough rest, fresh air, laughter, and time with people who love us.  Sabbath time helps make us whole.

That wholeness is part of holiness.  People who are too rushed and focused on work, on the “next thing,” on the next ping of an electronic device, are not able to tune into other people, to themselves, or to God.  Doing what people most associate with Sabbath – going to worship services – loses something if I show up with a rushed, preoccupied, “Yeah, okay, but what’s next?” mindset.  We need a break, a prolonged pause that lets what is important float to the surface of our attention.

If you think this sounds crazy…try it anyway.  Try to take one day a week and carve it out as a day set apart. Spend time with the people you love.  Read a book; take a nap, play games or work on a puzzle. Savor the music you’ve diligently collected. Make art. Write a poem. Go for a nature walk. Cook and enjoy a meal together.  Put your devices away except for purposeful connection with people not physically present.  Then try it the next week. Try it for four or five weeks, and see what you find.

Shalom. Peace.

Prodigal and in your face

The holy days of fall and winter have begun, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur behind us and Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Advent and the Christmas holidays closing in fast. The stores overflow with all things green, red and peppermint. This means that one of the dreaded markers of the season is also upon us. You might be thinking about the price of turkeys, or heating bills, or navigating the dynamics of family and politics, but I am thinking in particular of the seasonal outbreak of atheism and related forms of cynicism among adolescents and young adults. Except for the power to disrupt other people’s good times, I’m not sure why so many families experience the angry outburst, arrogant smirks or sullen refusal to participate in the traditional prayers and rituals of life just when it is most likely to hurt.  Other than the week of Passover and Easter, there is no time more likely to cause suffering, than the fall and winter holidays: the season seems to be a favorite target for unleashing pent-up bitterness over having been raised in a tradition of faith and culture.

So, if this has happened to your family, you’re not alone.  Over a quarter-century in the mental health field, I have had to see many families distressed at the verbal attacks, the rebellion, and the apparent determination to be hurtful. Fighting with the young person about it is, of course, useless.  Trying to listen calmly, refusing to participate in conversations that are disrespectful, and suggesting the conversation continue later (and then following up to be sure “later” can happen) are potentially helpful.  Give yourself time to calm down, seek guidance from other people, consider the direction being taken.  If the young person has decided that belief in God is a superstition, something incompatible with science, perhaps they are willing to explore this, including the substantial number of scientists who are convinced that there is a God. Perhaps they are willing to learn about intelligent design from non-biased sources.   When the attitude is not mere cynicism but actual anger, it is very painful. Sometimes the rage is about the perceived lack of choice, the complaint is that they didn’t want to participate in the faith from childhood and that the introduction into the faith, whether bris or baptism, was abusive and unfair.

A rabbi whom I consulted echoed the mental health professional’s perspective: look at what else is going on, what other issues are at hand.  Someone who has found clarity (as they see it) should be more peaceful, not angry. An adolescent or young adult who has decided that religion is just superstition might be annoyed at being expected to participate, but will not be enraged. Anger is the sign that the presenting assertion is merely the top layer. What else is going on? Why the sudden rage?  Is someone smart enough – smarter than Fr. Georges le Maitre, the Jesuit priest and physicist who developed the theory now called the “big bang theory,” apparently, by their own reckoning – simultaneously naïve enough to believe something just because some people who sound convincing said so on some internet platform? What other indoctrination have they absorbed with unquestioning readiness?

Of course, you won’t have this conversation at Thanksgiving, right after the young person drops the bomb of their atheism, or rejection of religion, or rage at you about their Baptism, Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or Confirmation. That’s the time to somehow find the patience to be, or pretend to be, calm, politely curious and willing to discuss this later.  The conversation may happen over weeks, months, or years; it may involve some third party – a religious advisor, a therapist, a wise friend who has been on the same road.

It won’t be a fun conversation, and we can’t control the outcome. By being calm, listening carefully, asking sincere questions and verifying that you understand, you leave the door open for further dialogue as well as for the possibility of a change of heart.

Changes of heart are hard to admit, and even more so in the world of social media.  If a young person adopts a position, there will be a host of online encouragers.  If the young person reports pushback from adults, there will be more voices, criticizing the adults, urging cutting off the relationship, etc.  But, if the young person announces a change of heart, some of these voices of encouragement can become accusing, vindictive, cruel. Backing out of a decision can always be hard; imagine telling your parents you’ve decided to drop out of med school to be a professional surfer.  Consider the people who go through with weddings because they don’t want to disappoint people. Even smart, competent adults foolishly move forward into situations they know are wrong because they don’t want the transient embarrassment and miserable, but also transient, short-term effects. How much harder it is for young people who haven’t finished developing a mature brain.

This means our first job, as adults, is to listen with compassion and find a way to keep the door of communication open.  This way, when the young person is ready to reconsider, or be less vitriolic, or simply have a real dialogue, it will not require they have the desperation of the Prodigal Son to take the first steps. Whenever the child takes those first steps towards dialogue and reconciliation, remember the father in the parable, who ran to meet the returning child.

The Serotonin Story

Unless your newsfeed features obscure psychiatry and psychology news, UK news, or the very limited US news coverage of the July 2022 publication of “The serotonin theory of depression: A systemic umbrella review of the evidence,” in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry, you might not have heard this news. In a sweeping meta-analysis addressing six serotonin-based hypotheses and multiple studies, one of over 150,000 people, the conclusion has been drawn that, verifying what the senior author of the article, Dr. Mark Horowitz, noted is “known in academic circles, that no good evidence has ever been found of low serotonin in depression (Medscape, July 22, 2022).”  The evidence does indicate, in some studies, that long-term use of some antidepressants can lead to lower serotonin levels, just as long-term use of drugs that boost dopamine (amphetamines, for example) can ultimately lead to depletion and insufficiency of that neurotransmitter.

To repeat, in the academic world, it has long known there is really no substantive evidence linking low serotonin levels to depression. This is similar to the academic knowledge that marijuana, especially in its modern, heightened THC formulas, is a dangerous road to sometimes unrelenting anxiety or even psychosis.  However, since science is hard and so often inconvenient, these particular unpopular truths have usually been ignored. About one in six Americans, and about one in six English adults, are on antidepressants.  Yet the science says the rationale for these drugs – that they will fix a chemical imbalance in the brain – does not stand.  The science does seem to indicate a placebo effect, as well as some people experiencing a numbing of emotional pain, which might be sufficient to begin the work of the changes necessary to heal from depression. The researchers are quick to note that no one should stop these medications quickly; cessation ought to be done slowly, with medical supervision, because of the risk of physical and psychological ill effects during withdrawal.

Depression, as Dr. Horowitz’ team and countless other researchers and clinicians have long asserted, is a complex experience of physical, emotional, cognitive and social aspects.  It is also a rather fluid diagnosis, encompassing, as it does now in the current diagnostic manual, almost any two-week period in which sufficient symptoms are met, even when life’s events make it a completely normal response.  As I have noted in other articles, the grief exclusion for depression has been eliminated, for example. Are we, therefore, to believe that, once someone you love dies, you develop a potentially lifelong brain disease in which one neurotransmitter (among many) suddenly goes haywire?  Or is it feasible that death, or profound injury, or the loss of a job or home or friendship, etc., could cause sadness, physical pain and fatigue, and a tendency to withdraw from the very activities and relationships that could bolster recovery?

One of the interesting aspects of this study was its analysis of the very popular genetic explanation, a sort of, “It runs in my family,” explanation for depression.  Besides the scientific analysis of the large body of research indicating that that while a very small, initial study hinted this may be the case, the much larger research studies indicate it is not.  Of course, there is more to “running in the family” than genes. Some of this may be impacted prenatally via epigenetics, which helps tell which genes to turn “up” or “down” (a grotesque oversimplification; sorry) depending on environmental stressors such as severe poverty and want of food.  Then our families teach us whether the world is a safe place or not, and whether to take risks or not. Optimally, families teach us we are worthwhile, and how to make connections and corrections in relationships.  They set a life pattern in place that may ses us up for long-term healthy habits, or inflict a neglected or violent childhood that results in shortened telomeres and the prospect of an unhealthy and too-short adulthood. If the family fights dirty, abuses substances and one another, is rejected by the community via being fired repeatedly from jobs, ostracized by neighbors, and disliked by peers, the children will grow up to be unlikeable, rejected, angry and depressed adults.  There need not be any genetic component for this to be the case.

This type of adult will need to learn to heal wounds, how to develop a sense of purpose and meaning, and the cognitive skills to overcome depression. The latter includes developing the skill of interrupting and redirecting rumination, challenging and changing unhealthy thought and behavior patterns and thus changing emotions, and improving the skill of being in the moment, or, as Dr. Stephen Hayes has written, “Get out of your head and into your life.”

There are biological factors at play; anyone who believes they are suffering from depression ought to have a full physical exam, including bloodwork, to rule out medical causes for many of the symptoms of depression.  Good guidance on nutrition, sleep, exercise and natural light exposure are all in the physical realm of helping, and deficiencies in any of these areas may be sufficient to trigger the low mood, lack of energy, erratic eating and sleeping identified with depression.

There is, as can be seen, nothing here that is so complex that it is beyond the average person’s ability to understand and do.  For most of human history, the rhythm of sleep, hard work, natural light, meaningful connections with others and a strong accession to the transcendent provided a milieu in which profound suffering had both meaning and support. Our lives were designed for mental health.  This, alone, is so reassuring and empowering that one would think that this simple, ancient recipe for mental health would have never been relegated to a supporting role. Unlike the message that your brain is broken and there is nothing to be done except take this pill – which may make you suicidal, or homicidal, or cause tremendous weight gain, sexual difficulties, apathy, or moments of mania – the message of the Horowitz et al research is a hopeful and inspiring one: that it is possible to overcome the depression that threatens to crush your spirit.

Gorillas in the Mix

People who do not believe in God, or are afraid to believe in God, often make predictable assertions to support their position.  They will often start with a mocking supposition about an old wizard or some such image who sits on a throne in the sky.  Well, duh.  No mature believer takes those images literally any more than they still believe that their doll’s hair will grow back overnight, or that wishing their stuffed bunny is real will make it so.  No, we have outgrown childish things, thank you very much.

Another argument points to how badly people behave who claim to believe in God.  Well, again, no surprise.  Of course, humans behave badly; that is a big part of the whole story. Have you read our sacred books? Good grief, it’s nothing but lying and murder, greed and adultery and every sort of mischief, about from the beginning.  Adam screws up and blames both Eve and God! Before long, our partner in conversation points to the sexual abuse horrors of the modern age. There are no excuses for this. Religion, of course, isn’t the only arena with a flawed priestly class. The fact that scientific experiments often lead to no useful knowledge doesn’t keep people from vigorously asserting we must follow the science.  Some scientists torture beagle puppies and other ones discover how to vaccinate against polio and rubella.  We do not throw out the world of “science” because some of its clergy are pretty terrible.

Doesn’t all this magical God stuff just give us an excuse to not learn things? This intriguing question seems rooted in the confusion between parable, history, poetry, wisdom texts, and other types of books in the Bible.  Nowhere in Scripture are people charged with staying as dumb as possible, and many scientists will admit that the more they learn, the more apparent it is that what comprises the material world does not seem to be mathematically possible as a random series of events.  What is obvious, perhaps, to a physicist like the late Father le Maitre, the Belgium priest who first came up with what is now known as the Big Bang Theory, is a bit harder sell to regular people.

This leads to a particularly interesting argument: if God really exists, it would be obvious, and not just to Jesuit scientists.  How obvious, you might ask, and so would I.  As obvious as a Marvel Comics super hero?  Would God look like a Durer woodcut, wearing what were called JC leather sandals, and making a peace sign? Would the bad people be punished, instantly and with schadenfreude-gratifying anguish by a lightning-wielding Viking in the sky?  Despite the childish imagery, our non-believer wants to pin believers down on the issue of God’s supposed invisibility.  To believers, though, God’s existence is clear as day, although sometimes it is recognized on reflection and not in the moment. Still, God is obvious, as obvious as a gorilla in the middle of a basketball game. 

Of course, I am referring to the famous and oft-replicated experiment designed by Chabris and Simons in 1999.  Given the task of counting how often the basketball was passed between one team’s players, almost 60% of the subjects failed to see the person in a gorilla suit walk through the basketball court.

Yes, perfectly bright people stared at a short film clip, diligently counting basketball passes and bounces, and failed to see the obvious. Other scientists, around the world, have replicated this experiment with much the same outcome.  People focused on a task will ignore the obvious, even a person in a gorilla suit strolling through a basketball game. How much of a stretch is it that we miss other remarkably obvious things in our environments?

I imagine most people think they would be in the 40% or so that would notice the gorilla, but statistically, that’s unlikely.  We can’t all be above average.  More likely we all ignore, or fail to attend to, amazing things every day, selectively riveting our attention and discounting other stimuli as irrelevant or interference.  One listener’s static is another’s radio transmission.

The non-believer, and perhaps, at times, almost all believers, have some confusion about what is, and is not, God’s job.  I know I suffer with this one, too: don’t we all ask for things and view the apparent “no” or “not yet” as rejection, like when Mom or Dad once again says “no” to ice cream for dessert? Sometimes it takes a long time to see the utility of experiences, because a believer has to learn to see things, to the extent possible, through a different perspective – a God perspective. 

We will die.  That’s inevitable, and death seems to be easier for people who have made peace with the people in their lives, with God, and with at least most of the processes of aging.  It must be easier to let go of this life without too much reservation, when one has, often slowly and painfully, surrendered so much: health, beauty, quickness of body and mind, social power, loved ones, valued roles in our relationships.  Every loving mother (I am not a father and cannot speak to this) knows that our children move on from each level of parenting before we are ready to let go, and those practices of having part of life that is important to us peeled away is preparation for eternal life. Imagine how painful it must be for young people who are terminally ill or terribly injured and facing mortality, who have not had the practice of surrendering, over and over, to the losses of life.  A believer looks back over this pattern and can see, very clearly, where God was present (all through it) and how the love and compassion of God was extant in some people around them, the coincidences that were not coincidences at all, the seemingly random moments of pure, abandoned joy.

If you are preoccupied with the tasks of the day, riveted on a to-do list and the self-created commands of your bullet journal, do not be surprised if you miss the obvious, even something as obvious as a gorilla in the mix.

Mental Forecast: Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Passing Befuddlement

I’d prefer, of course, to blame it all on COVID-19, civil unrest and the general zeitgeist.  No such luck. It is solely due to my own sloppiness (how I managed to read information, mistype it, and then overlook my error multiple times while editing, I cannot know) and thus, in my recent article, “The Sin of Referral,” misidentified the professional group mentioned; it should have been the American Counseling Association, rather than the American Mental Health Counselors Association.  I apologize for this.

I would also rather credit COVID with what has apparently been seen, by some parties, as my dismissal of the suffering of young people during the pandemic.  My ability to be clear has failed me; certainly, this was not my intention. I work with many young people and their families, and their suffering has been genuine. I am also aware, however, that young people were suffering greatly, and in a terrible upward surge, for the past decade or more.  The research on the compelling correlation between smartphone use and emotional distress of many kinds, especially in the young, is readily available for the curious reader.  I stand beside the assertion that we adults bear responsibility for teaching young people how to think, how to interpret the signs of the times, and for modeling hope rather than despair, resiliency rather than defeat.  If the constrictions of this past year are unbearable, how do we make sense of the diary of Anne Frank? Of the countless children, in England, Germany and elsewhere, sent away from family to live as often unwanted guests with strangers to be safer from bombs during WWII and yet played, studied, made friends? Of the lives of so many on this planet now, where abysmal living conditions would seem to quell any hope or joy, and yet one finds giggling children, cooing parents, adherence to principles, and the shy, burning moments of young love?

I could point to the fact that in my particular field – the mental health field – we are receptacles for our pain, our loved ones’ pain, and the pain of everyone with whom we work. Yes, this is always the case, and now the strains of the pandemic, unemployment, loss of loved ones, separation from loved ones, has crept like lava over the normal pains of life: grief, depression, anxiety, loneliness.  Most of our conversations are one-sided, in that those conversations occur solely for the benefit of one party, and the party had best not be the therapist. The mutual supportiveness of two-sided conversations is necessarily truncated. Add to this that friends and loved ones (like ourselves) have little reservoir from which to offer solace.  Most of the therapists I know have dug even deeper into prayer, into silence with God, and turning more to colleagues whom we know are on that same trail for encouragement and support.

Perhaps you, too, are noticing strange mental impacts from the cascading stressors of the past year. Perhaps not; we are prone to generalizing from what we know, and if we are introspective at all, then our own experiences are what we “know,” at least to some extent.  I know I am in many ways an odd duck; I dislike clothes shopping and like crows. I would rather stay home and read than to go “out.”  The outside chance exists, then, that it really is “just me,” and the rest of the world is rolling along, firing efficiently on all cylinders.

I doubt it. It doesn’t look to be so.

So, here is an antidote for me, and perhaps for you. Somebody you know, at any rate, could use some.

Grace. Just give one another a bit of grace, even more than in so-called “normal” times, in which grace was already in grievously short supply.

Guess what? People will say things that are stupid, or inaccurate, or sound awful out of context (and stupid and inaccurate, even in context). Even professionals will sometimes screw up! Your physician might seem to not as focused as you’d like, your counselor may give you homework that doesn’t suit or not explain herself properly.  The dentist’s office has to close on the day of your cleaning because of a COVID breakout. None of these is the equivalent of giving you poison or leaving a surgical tool behind when you are sewn back together. Give them a bit of grace.

The mail will be slow. There will be inexplicable gaps on the grocery shelves. (I did lose some patience when Dove dark chocolate and Nestle’s Peppermint Mocha coffee creamer were AWOL at the same time; it seemed a harsh injustice.) People will be anxious and insensitive, so wrapped in their own fears that they forget other people are as fragile and sacred as they.

Friends, family, professionals and strangers alike may be so eager to comfort you that they inadvertently do or say something not entirely useful. They offer silly, unwanted advice and unhelpful platitudes. Let it pass.  Assume, perhaps, you misunderstood, misheard, misinterpreted. The possibility exists. Accept the spirit of kindness and let the trappings go.

One of the side effects of grace is that it enhances humility, and that, too, is a good thing. This way, when I (or you) am the one who fumbles, missteps, speaks foolishly but with good intention, I can, with some embarrassment, acknowledge the error and accept benevolence.

…and if all this talk of grace and humility is more uncomfortable for you than an N95 mask with an extra cloth mask over it, then consider this:  just be kind, for crying out loud. Cut someone some slack. Including, of course, yourself.

The forecast for me, for the time being, is (mentally) partly cloudy with a chance of passing befuddlement. Expect periods of anxiety throughout the evening.  The morning, as all mornings are, will be glorious.

How about you?

If this were my kid…

Advice-giving:  some therapists claim it should never be done; therapists-in-training are eager to leap in with advice before they know enough about a situation to offer it.  The stance on advice-giving has its roots in various philosophical approaches to therapy.

For those of a more psychoanalytic bent, it is the role of the therapist to push for deeper self-exploration and understanding, with that “a-ha!” process leading to more responsible, better-informed decision making.  Insight leading to action is a vital part of maturation; the alternative is an adulthood of adolescent reactivity and self-absorption.

Psychoanalytic insight may not do a frustrated parent any good at the moment they are figuring out how to handle the upside-bowl of cranberry sauce on the floor. Again.

In solution-focused brief therapy, the emphasis is on searching for times when a problem is absent or much reduced and breaking down the details of those situations, especially in regard to clients’ behaviors. This process empowers the client to realize that s/he is already equipped to deal with much of the situation(s) at hand and develop plans to do more of what already works.

This is a very helpful process, but sometimes people want a little more guidance.

Psychoeducation – teaching, basically – is different than telling a client specifically what to do. It provides information, refers to scientific data, often linking particular actions to help with problems.  Education is part of holistic counseling approaches to many concerns, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and problematic insomnia.

All of which brings us back to the question of advice.  I am not a new therapist, and people are not coming to see a therapist with 25+ years’ experience and some white hair so I can look vaguely concerned and steeple my fingers and murmur, “Hmmm, how do you feel about that?” when they express anger and shame over their inability to get a five year old to comply with bath and bed routines.

So, I am, at least for the moment, breaking the invisible fourth wall – the wall first broken in literature by Charlotte Bronte in the final chapter of Jane Eyre – and say, straight out, “If this were my kid…

“I would take away all electronics for at least six weeks.  Maybe longer.  Not even any television/movies unless a responsible adult is with them.”

Yes, they are going to be bored. They will be angry. If they have been playing video games, they may become aggressive and destructive – be prepared for this.  If they have been using pornography, it could be even worse. Fists and feet have gone through drywall over losing access to video games and phones.  If your child becomes hostile and aggressive (not just normally angry), it is evidence you are doing this late in a problematic process.  What are they going to do?  Play other games. Make art. Play the instrument that is gathering dust. Exercise. Do chores.  Read.  Libraries offer books, puzzles and games to borrow: no cost, little effort.  Try a family book club to introduce them to a broader range of reading.  Help them learn how to have a conversation in full sentences, complete with eye contact. The possibilities are boundless.

If they need a device for school, it can be carefully monitored and programs to limit access (such as Covenant Eyes) are available to try to control what is going on. 

“I would have them do chores.  No, ‘school is their job’ is not a good idea.  Do you want to be married to someone who goes to work, comes home, and expects to be waited on, because they did their job?”

By 13, an average, healthy child should be competent at all the basic skills of housekeeping. That means, able to clean any room without having to call in HazMat; sorting, washing, appropriately drying (read the tags), folding and putting away laundry (I give everyone a pass on fitted sheets, and yes, that reflects on my clumsiness); plan, execute, cheerfully serve and thoroughly clean up simple and nutritious meals; do most of the tasks of pet care; be able to handle trash, recycling and compost duties.  Would you want to be roommates or married to someone who can’t do these things as a young adult?  Your future daughter- or son-in-law will appreciate it.

“I would have them get an hour or two more of sleep, every night.”

According to the CDC, children age 6 to 12 need 9 to 12 hours of sleep per night. Teens need 8 to 10.  Odds are, your child is not getting enough sleep and you are already saying this is ridiculous and impossible; how are you supposed to do this?

Insufficient sleep has an almost immediate detrimental effect on brain structures and functions critical for focus, memory and mood:  factors that teachers and parents spend a lot of time complaining are deficient in children.  You know what you’re like when you don’t get enough sleep; foggy-brained, irritable and looking around for caffeine and sugar.  Your children are like that, too, except you are probably keeping the little ones away from triple-shot lattes.  If your teen has to be up for school by 6 AM, then they have to be in their room without electronics sometime between 8 and 10 pm.  The math is easy; accepting that something has to give is the hard part.  Make it an experiment to accompany the electronics question and see what child you meet after a few weeks.

“I would have them learn to use a planner.”

Unlike the early years of school, and even a lot of secondary classes, real life – adult life – requires strategic planning.  By middle school, students should be learning how to break down tasks into manageable, realistic chunks and follow those plans, adjusting as necessary.  That means writing down “Social studies test tomorrow” Thursday night is not good enough.  It means figuring out how much review needs to be done each night of the week to be adequately prepared, and adding that to Monday through Wednesday’s plans.  Even outside of school, the skill of planning is useful.

For example, many people get into power struggles/arguments/endless debates over dinner. The frequency with which this particular power struggle erupts in therapy would astound non-therapists.  I do not understand the surprise that dinner must be had.  Name a date in the future – any date – and if I am not deceased, unconscious or doing colonoscopy prep, I will expect to eat.  The need for a meal at night will never catch me by surprise.  Yet this recurring surprise is apparently part of the annoying texture of life for many families. Model the benefits of planning.  Get the week’s meals worked out, and streamline evenings.  There is an immediate benefit: instead of arguing about “what to do” and wasting two hours around it, have a quick, planned meal and then have time to do something fun, like watch a parent-approved movie together, fold that pesky laundry, and push around more pieces on the 2000-piece puzzle of a Tiffany window that seemed like such a great idea at the time.

I’d make some good memories, I’d say, if this were my kid.

An Echoing Silence

Does anyone ever admit that they are not exactly the best communicator around? Maybe even that they are crummy conversationalists, incorrigibly competitive, and a bossy know-it-all, too?  Probably not.

Wouldn’t that be nice to hear sometimes?  Someone freely admitting the “communication problems” are at least a little bit on their side?

Maybe you think there are communication problems – the person in question (spouse, friend, child, parent) “never talks with me.”  It may be on their side, certainly – most problems have multiple factors, and communication is no exception. However, you only have control over you – not them.  So, if the communication problem falls into the “we never talk anymore” column, perhaps the following might offer perspectives.  If it’s possible it might be you…

Are you the Conversation Hijacker?  Does every topic offer you a possibility to wrestle control of the conversation, taking over, changing direction and refusing to yield to the other people in the conversation?  They bring up the local baseball team and you take “sports” and launch into a detailed analysis of an entirely different game, the season ahead, and every stupid mistake the nearest team made when adding new players.

Perhaps you are the Professor. You don’t discuss, you lecture: expanding on your opinion, the evidence as you see it, and what’s wrong with other people’s positions, beliefs, or behaviors.  Expertise is wonderful; battering people with it is not nice.

Related to this, perhaps you become the Guidance Counselor or Coach: giving unsolicited advice, suggestions, and explanations of the person’s “problem” and the solution as you see it.  You don’t stop to be sure you have enough information to even begin to formulate advice; in your unconscious arrogance, you assume you have perfect-fit prêt-a-porté advice for every occasion.

Or, perhaps you are the Competitor.  They have a headache? You’ve had a migraine for days.  Their beloved pet died? You have three sad stories to top their heartache.  They have a muscle ache, but YOU need physical therapy.

Do you just launch into a monologue, barely taking a breath and not allowing the usual give-and-take of conversation?

Sometimes, the echoing silence on the other end of the couch is really on that end – your wife is lost in thought, your husband is anxious, your parent is depressed, or your teenager is preoccupied with stressors.  Perhaps there is some unresolved hurt between you. Perhaps, though, the person you love has fallen silent because they cannot trust you to stay in the conversation with them; they expect you to take over.

COVID-19: Surviving and Thriving

We’re worried about our loved ones, our own health, our school work or livelihood and what the months ahead will hold for our families, our communities, and our world. Being separated from one another makes it harder. Here are some strategies that can help:
1. Establish a daily routine and keep regular hours. Get up at your usual time; go to bed as usual. Use a checklist, a schedule or whatever structure helps you stay focused on positive, constructive actions.
2. Pray! Pray alone; pray on video-conferencing with friends and family; pray while watching livestream worship services. Include in this: daily periods of silence – not just telling God what you want done; instead, begin learning to sit quietly, observe your zigzagging thoughts, and not immediately take all your ideas so seriously.
3. Physical activity: an hour or more of physical activity, if you have medical clearance to do so, will help reduce the physical and mental effects of chronic stress. If you are able to be outdoors without being in danger of infection – enjoy a walk in nature. If not, seek opportunities indoors: walk in place; dance with your kids; be creative!
4. Reach out to someone who needs encouragement every day. Call, email, text, video chat, or send a note in the mail – be a light for someone who is alone and discouraged.
5. Check for news updates twice a day – more than that and you are often reinfecting yourself with the same negative news. Even if your logical brain recognizes it as last hour’s news, your emotional brain is again jolted with a bit of fight-or-flight about the pandemic and its consequences.
6. Odds are, you have more time on your hands than usual. Why not pick something to learn about on your own, with family, or with friends as an online/videochat study group? Can you practice a new skill, start a book club (hello, e-reader plus video chat!), or study a long-neglected area of interest? If you ever purchased arts and crafts supplies for “someday,” bought and neglected a language-learning app or fondly recall an elective course you’d wished was your major – it’s time to bring those interests into the light of day.
7. Take some time each day to journal about the experiences you are having during these strange weeks. Writing things out may help you clarify your emotions and thoughts, and help you see your experiences from a slightly “outside” perspective. Close your daily journal entry with a few things for which you are grateful.
There are lots of other ways to survive and thrive as people maintain social distance, self-isolate, and shelter in place…while we can’t control everything, we can exert control over our responses. Pick the story you want to be able to tell yourself, and others, about how you handled the COVID-19 crisis. Are you going to be able to tell a story of faith, compassion and grace under pressure – the year you became passable in Portuguese, started a book club via Skype or Facetime, and became a hula hoop expert? Or will it be the year you zoned out in front of 24/7 news for untold days, slowly becoming more burdened with ennui and inertia?
Choose to persist in faith, maintain your healthy habits, nurture others and grow in wisdom.
Choose life!

Two Old Ladies

There is a kind of dignified poverty encountered in 19th century British literature. Clean, neat, quiet, well-read, hard-working and uncomplaining, these people, dwelling on the fringes of society, are portrayed as reading classics by candlelight after a long day of work, perhaps aloud, while another family member darns a tired sock for the umpteenth time. They take in mending and other tasks from their social betters, and are sometimes invited to large gatherings where they meekly take seats on the periphery. They are fictional creatures, bound up as minor characters in musty books.
My (great-) Aunt Ann and Aunt Marion lived that dignified poverty, although it was the 20th century, in the cold water flats of Jersey City. My grandmother’s younger sisters, their time spanned Jersey City’s deterioration and ended before its re-gentrification.
Passing them on the street, you would not notice them: two older maiden ladies, often arm in arm, purses tucked under their coats in fear of purse-snatchers. Who would give a thought to two old ladies? They kept an extra dollar in one shoe, just in case. They dressed neatly, and well, and cared for their few possessions so that they could be worn for many years. Cursed with a genetic tendency to lose their hair in middle age, they wore demure, neatly styled wigs. Aunt Marion, being a bit flashier, had sparkly corners on her cat’s-eye glasses, and a preference for the color red. They worked in sweat shops and at other menial jobs. Aunt Ann, for a long time, operated the elevator in a business office skyscraper, an opportunity to work in a cleaner, quieter environment. Neither had an 8th grade diploma – the meaning of “graduation” in their time and place. They could not drive. They traveled little, to visit family sometimes. Their tiny apartment was sparklingly clean. They read classic literature, were knowledgeable about history, current events, and the activities of the people they loved. They loved, it seemed, everyone. They were cheerful and generous beyond their means, unflaggingly loyal to their nieces, their nieces’ children, and their children. Devout Catholics themselves, spending considerable time daily in prayer for others, they were remarkably tolerant of astonishingly stupid and bad behavior among their extended family. It mattered not how grievous the misdeeds: the errant youth was, at heart, Aunt Ann and Aunt Marion would assert, “a good girl,” or “a good boy.” After all, look how good she is to her mother; see how thoughtful he is towards his sisters. Anyone whose deity is harsh and unforgiving never met someone like Ann or Marion. The closest they came to criticizing was sharing a sidelong look and a single, slow nod, a kind of connection possible between two sisters who grew up together, raised two nieces from ages 8 and 15 together when one of their older sisters died, and shared the same ancient double bed most of their lives.
Strolling past, you would have looked through them, and unless you are a very special person indeed, you have looked through, perhaps, thousands of people like Aunt Ann and Aunt Marion. Not out of meanness, but because the people of the remnant – that pure and poor bit of holiness – are so often, apparently, invisible. Besides that, both poverty and old age frighten people, and thus we look away. If not away, exactly, then certainly not directly at them.
They have been gone for many years now, and I still regret that I was not a good-enough niece, certainly not worthy of the fondness and praise they heaped upon me. From Florida, I sent some homemade cookies now and then; a randomly spaced letter between birthday and Christmas cards, small gifts that I thought they might like at Christmas. I mentioned, during their lifetimes, my befuddlement at their level of praise for what a good girl I was to my mother, who loved them dearly and called them often. She stopped what she was doing to look at me and said, “Please. Do you think anyone else gives a thought for two old ladies?”
A sad question, that: who gives a thought for two old ladies, or an old man or two?
How hard is it, to give a thought for any other person? “People will not remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel,” is the theme of the “most important award” at our granddaughter’s Catholic school, and one we were proud to hear she had won at the end of second grade. It is good to know that the kindness and sweetness we experience from her flows outwards, beyond the family. Her precocious insight into human nature is something she wields only with compassion. At seven, viewing Goodbye, Christopher Robin, she watched WW I veterans stomping balloons and announced, “They are doing that to learn not to be scared. “ She makes people feel special. Perhaps she has a touch of her great-great-great aunts’ spirits.
The gift of presence is that quality of attention: the attention that lets someone know that right now, they are the most important person, and whatever they are doing with you is most worthy of their attention. (My aunts, having read Tolstoy, could have told you all about it, but only if you brought it up first. They would not show off, and they would never broach a subject that might embarrass someone else.)
How powerful their capacity for presence within their humble, dignified way of life, a life that seems invisible to those who will not look at them. Then again, who would give a thought for two old ladies?