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?

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.

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?