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.

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!

That’s Confabulous!

That’s Confabulous!

Your favorite uncle entertains every family gathering with the same stories.
His listeners realize they are not the same stories. The tales shift…small flourishes are added, details are lost and later denied (“Uncle, what about the cow? You mentioned the cow in the marsh last time.” “No, no – there wasn’t a cow. It was a goat. It’s always been a goat. Why would there be a cow in the marsh?”) Emotions intensify, diminish, and intensify again; the who, when and even the where are wobbly.
Is your uncle a pathological liar?
Well, he might be.
More likely, he’s a normal human being.
Memory is not a video recorder from an omniscient position. Our memories are constructed. Because it’s imperfect – and our brains want things to make sense – we fill in the blanks. There’s a little of filling-in-the-blanks in almost every memory, and in extreme cases, it is called confabulation.
Karl Bonhoeffer, German psychiatrist and father of martyred pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, coined the term. Confabulation, properly used, is the unconscious attempt to fill in the blanks in memory with made-up details, identified most with alcohol-related forms of dementia. The speaker believes it’s all true – but it’s not. Brain damage causes inevitable errors in processing and storing memories, and the brain valiantly attempts to weave a story out of scraps.
Related to confabulation is the tendency to “fill in the blanks” where there is no dementia and no logical reason to do so. People make up stories about other people, ruminate on them, discuss them with their companions. Later, when the subject comes up, the remembered imaginings are woven into whatever sparse facts were originally available. Electronic media has speeded up a process that used to require substantially more time and effort. The possibility of interrupting the downward spiral is much diminished.
A nearly harmless example: last year I moved my office from the high rise where I’d been for 19 years to two parish-based offices. My old office furniture was not needed in either location, so I gave it away to my parish, where it is apparently very popular with the youth group at their Sunday night meetings. Imagine my surprise when I heard from various sources that I had closed my practice, semi-retired, stopped working…you see the drift. People took one fact (she gave away her old couches and tables) and built a story around it (she retired). I have no idea how many referrals have not come my way due to someone’s – or several someones’ – confabulous storytelling regarding my work.
Less benign are the tendencies of unhappy people to ruminate and stir in speculations, scraps of other unhappy memories, fears and grudges, creating a new and often sinister narrative about a situation or people. This seems to be most effective when done in dyads or slightly larger groups. My observation, at least, is that the more shared memories, the more believable the confabulous concoction of “truth” that emerges from the co-rumination. Motivations are attributed with no evidence; “facts” are mutually invented and, since someone else believes or remembers the same exact thing – why, clearly, it must be true.
If this has ever happened to you, often in the context of perpetually unhappy coworkers, family members or friends, you know how useless it is to fight against the creative power of two or more brains that have mind-melded a mutual mural about…you. The only useful thing one can extract from the misery is a warning against being part of that type of dismal discussion.
Even with honorable intentions, memories shape-shift over time.
Emotion tints memories. Next time you are in a generally happy mood, pull up an old memory, perhaps a time shared with a loved one who has passed. In contentment, reflect on the events of the day and the joy you felt with that loved one. Really sink into the memory. Next time you evoke that memory, it will have shifted a bit to emphasize the joyful aspects – the smile, the warmth of heart – whereas if the same memory came up when you were sad, somehow it would be tinted. You might notice that other memories that feel the same way easily come to the surface: that’s another aspect of memory. Our memories are linked by emotional flavor, not just content. That’s why someone who is angry at you seems to have a boundless recall for every stupid and disappointing thing you have ever done.
Words also shape how memories are shaped and stored. A car comes up from behind, passes you, enters your lane and, a half-mile later, ends up in the ditch. You pull over to call 911 and see if you can be of assistance. Later you are questioned about your observations. How much did the car swerve? If asked, how much did the car fishtail…your memory will subtly adjust. The next time you recall it, the film may contain a touch more veering about.
Personal beliefs and biases enter the picture, too, and help form “memories” that are less than precise. It might be as subtle as “assuming” that someone meant something and then sliding into believing that they implied it, and subsequently taking offense by something that was unsaid as if it had been a slap. It could take the form of filling in the blank in someone’s appearance or comportment based on biases. Alternately, beliefs or entire cosmologies are attributed to someone based on scraps of “evidence” and then merrily embraced as “truth.”
It’s an interesting dilemma, encompassing the Commandments (Thou shalt not bear false witness) and Pilate’s coyly avoidant, “What is truth?” False witness, after all, is not just perjury. It comprises gossip and unnecessary tale-telling, both inevitably not the whole truth, as any elementary school teacher can attest. It’s all the ways in which we might fill in the blanks, perhaps consciously but, I suspect, as often reflexively, justifying our own emotional wallow with imagined and projected details.
Isn’t that confabulous?

What would you do?

What would you do if…
You weren’t afraid of failing?
Didn’t care if people thought you were weird?
Really believed the things you say with the crowd at your weekly worship service?
Had six months to live? (and how do any of us know we even have that long?)
You would do something differently. You might stop doing something, start something else. You would shake up your life without much trepidation.
So, tomorrow (or in five minutes), do one thing a little bit differently…a little bit more as if you were free from fear, from the need for constant approval, from doubt.
Follow that up with one more little thing, one more step.
Maybe you will do something you didn’t think you could do, without worrying about others’ opinions, and find out your faith is stronger than you’d thought.

Meet Them Where They Are

Three times each year, our parish runs Alpha, an eleven week program for people who are open to exploring the basics of Christianity, starting with elemental questions such as, Is there more to life than this?, or Why should I believe in God? The chair of the committee running this, and our other evangelization programs, was accosted by a fellow parishioner after Mass one morning. The parishioner had a list of grievances, particularly that the program wasn’t “Catholic,” citing various deficits, in the complainant’s mind, such as a lack of Marian theology. Besides her apparently unchristian behavior, she had missed the point of meeting people where they are. Many people are skeptical about the existence of God because they have been sold a bill of goods about faith and science being incompatible; it is hardly useful to wrestle them into a dialogue about the Blessed Mother and the Virgin Birth, or Transubstantiation. We must meet them where they are. They are wondering if there is a reason to believe in anything or any One, and rushing somewhere else won’t help; it simply truncates the conversation before it begins.
Just so, in our daily lives, we must meet people where they are…
It may well be that the child you permitted to walk all over you is now grown, or nearly so, and the rudeness and demanding behaviors that you thought were funny at age 2, and tolerable at age 4, are grinding you down now that the child is 18 or 21 or 30. It does little good to beat yourself up because you were not willing to foresee this problem; you need to deal with the situation as it exists, or choose not to (and continue to be ground down by caustic, toxic offspring). Attempting to have what you think is a perfectly reasonable conversation about your expectations and anticipating you will receive thoughtful, considerate responses is, well, sad and silly. You will have to meet them where they are: as a very large toddler who needs clear rules and near-immediate consequences. You will also have to have a plan as to how you will cope with an adult having a temper tantrum. There will be displeasure about any limits you set:
“We are no longer going to pay for your cell phone. You can come with me to [provider’s storefront] after work on [specify date] to switch the number to a new account in your name, or I will simply close that number.” You will hear how unfair this is, how unreasonable – you know how much their student loan payments are, right? – and how ridiculous and selfish it is for you to bring up their prodigious spending on entertainment and other technology.
“You are an adult, and this is our home. No more overnight guests.” Well, this is unfair, too; how are they supposed to, well, whatever? Other people’s parents are reasonable. Besides, it’s the 21st century; what’s next, bundling?
…and so it goes. You will get pushback and you will either stay firm – something apparently quite difficult, because if it came naturally, you would have put a stop to this behavior, oh, say, 20 or 25 years ago.
Many people are unhappy about the state of their marriages, and there, too, is a problem that is best met where it is. The typical couple puts their relationship almost entirely aside when children come along, neglecting it sorely, and then are surprised, dismayed and resentful at the state of things. They barely speak; they have nothing in common; each wonders, how could I have chosen such a miserable person? The relationship is anemic, neglected, and easily startled; like a once-beloved pet banished to the back yard pen for months or years, it hardly knows how to behave in the house. Treat it with gentleness, patience, and consistency. The friendship must be rebuilt; meet that process with good will rather than sarcasm and cynicism. Use Gottman’s research and books; use Chapman’s 5 Love Languages; use a good therapist: do something, be consistent, and begin at the beginning, with careful nurturing of the abandoned friendship. Perpetual complaints about what it “should” be like are worse than useless; just meet the marriage where it is.
You may need to meet yourself where you are, too.
You might like the idea of being physically fit, self-disciplined: the sort who enjoys vegetables and exercise. That’s all very nice…and, if it is not true, you will have to meet yourself where you are and begin teaching the actual you – not the imaginary, idealized version of you in your head – how to be self-disciplined, how to gradually become physically fit, and how to appreciate the subtle flavors of vegetables after assaulting your senses with however many years of packaged and fast foods.
Perhaps your vision for yourself is more spiritual. You might like the idea of yourself as a truly good person, the kind of person who enjoys engaging in loving service, doing without for others, and understands what it is people are talking about when they discuss having a “prayer life.” Meanwhile, you are stuck with a few rote prayers and still think Job and Jonah are supposed to be historical reports. Well, you must meet yourself where you are. If your spiritual training ended at 7, or after your Confirmation, Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah, your stunted spiritual age is where you begin.
Meeting ourselves, and others, where they are doesn’t mean “settling” unless you are content to stay there. It can mean having a real conversation, and a real chance for positive change. Flashes of insight are not change; they are the precedent of change. Change happens only where we are.

Go and Do, for Me and You

Verbs, like “go” and “do”
In a recent on-air segment, Jamie and I (he’s the afternoon radio talent for Spirit FM, the local Catholic radio station/Christian pop music station where I’ve been volunteering since 2009) were discussing various social protests. He had asked me how to handle the flood of social media, with people posting/re-posting/re-re-posting, and the pressure to have some sort of opinion/assert some stand on perpetually protesting celebrity.
I try, but don’t always succeed, in preferring action verbs. Like, “go” and “do.” I don’t much care for meetings. I don’t like sitting around talking about how we can help the homeless and severely mentally ill. I went and did (full time work, almost 5 years). Jesus didn’t say, sit around and have lots of committee meetings. He said, pretty much, Go… (He also had something to say about babbling on and on, so I will move along.) I would rather teach than talk about teaching, do art than sit around talking about art…you get the idea.
So my thoughts are, go and do. It would be far more helpful – if, for example, we are talking about the real and obvious pain in poor neighborhoods – to go and do. Mentor a kid. Be a Big Brother/Big Sister. Organize a community watch organization. Do pro bono work in your field. Provide free tutoring. Be a Guardian ad Litem. Etc., etc. Go and do. Standing around getting attention for taking a public position that costs nothing seems a little self-serving.
It reminds me of the time a woman I knew criticized me for failing to wear red on some arbitrary date publicly announced to be the day to wear red to support women’s heart health. The only woman whose heart I have much influence over is my own. I had already exercised, gone to church, had good conversation with my husband, eaten a healthy breakfast – in other words, it was 8 AM and I had done all I could for THIS woman’s heart health. Nothing I was going to do, besides pray and try to set a half-decent example, would help anyone else.
It also brings to mind the big test for reports of visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Such a report requires much evidence, but a primary benchmark requires that Mary points towards Jesus. There is no credibility if the reported vision does not direct people towards Jesus. Such an experience is not something from the Good side. It might be a well-intentioned, innocent delusion, but it is not Mary. Mary doesn’t showboat.
So…if terrible injustice moves you, go and do something concrete, specific and clearly helpful for one particular person. Keep the meme to yourself.
…and more on “Go” and “Do”
Teen and young adult mental health took a drastic, terrifying turn for the worse beginning in 2007 – and the stats keep worsening, especially since 2012. This, according to a lot of research, can be traced back to the smart phone, according to San Diego State University professor, researcher and author Jean Twenge. Her recent book, “iGen: Why Today’s Super-connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What that Means for the Rest of Us,” provides the results of not just her original research but meta-analysis of generations of data on the pattern of mental health and activity for youth.
It seems like constant connectivity has led to less “go” and “do” and more detachment and isolation. It’s a double-dose of negative: the ineluctable distance created by screen-based communication and a deficit of direct experiences. We were not designed to sit and click; we are made to go and do.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

Posts are for entertainment and not meant to be construed as treatment or professional recommendations. If you need mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

To Live Long, To Live Well: The Ongoing Research

Cognitive decline – dementia – Alzheimer’s disease – senility – to lose our independence, our memories, our minds – our “selves.” This is one of our greatest nightmares. But, what if this precipice – the thing people seem to fear worse than death – is almost entirely avoidable by changing how we live?

The Alzheimer’s Solution: by Dean Sherzai, MD, PhD and Ayesha Sherzai, MD (2017) asserts that this is indeed the case. You won’t find wishes, a few convenient anecdotes and flimsy, recent research. The doctors Sherzai tie together decades of substantive research from multiple, credible sources (including ongoing Blue Zones research) and their own research and medical practice. The result of this work: a straightforward and remarkably simple (albeit not easy) recipe for long, healthy mental functioning.

Unfortunately, it requires that we do stuff. Differently. In a lot of cases, way, way differently.

Here’s a synopsis:

They use the helpful and appropriate acronym NEURO: Nutrition, Exercise, Unwind, Restore, Optimize

Nutrition: quite specific nutritional guidance – recommending a largely vegetarian diet high in specific types of nutrients.

Exercise: not just a regular appointment at the running path or the gym, the research emphasizes activity throughout the day on a frequent basis.

Unwind: Managing stress healthfully and living with purpose.

Restore: Enough good quality sleep (this is a tough one for me). There is no substitute for sufficient sleep in terms of long-term brain health

Optimize: a lifetime process, and never too late to start: complex, creative, learning and doing. While the puzzles we encourage elders to do to keep their minds nimble are a small part, greater benefit comes from ongoing learning, complex tasks, mentoring/teaching and other activities that use multiple skills.

The book, published this past summer, includes interesting case studies, questionnaires and specific recommendations to make changes as needed on a case-by-case study. It’s helpful to remember that, all over the world, there are “Blue Zone” communities – places where most people live long, robust lives free of chronic diseases and dementia – where these lifestyle choices are just “normal,” not sacrifices. At least, I tell myself it’s helpful.

My challenge, which I share and dare towards you: do some investigating on this. If you’re intrepid – seek your physician’s guidance and take it from there. If you’re a little timid, hesitant or just plain skeptical, pick one piece that’s easy to do, get the medical OK, and go for it.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

 

Posts are for entertainment and not meant to be construed as treatment or professional recommendations. If you need mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

Not So Complicated

I channeled Mary Poppins: resplendent with unwavering decisiveness and spit-spot, lickety-split efficiency, two of us turned the spare-bedroom/storage-room into comfy guest quarters in less than 45 minutes. Easy-peasy…

…because it was not MY spare bedroom. No emotional investment, no weariness at once again facing the task at hand, it was, actually, fun. Change is refreshingly simple when it doesn’t cost you a thing.

When it costs something, change seems complicated and hard, even impossible.

Almost everyone I know has argued, in vain, with newspaper articles, the radio or television newscasts. As if briefly overcome with psychoses, they shout at the television and argue with the radio in their car. (Me, too). Whatever their position – progressive or conservative, libertarian or statist – they are frustrated and amazed, over and over, at officials’ protestations of how hard it is to make change happen.

Everyone has ideas on how to make change happen. Some are terrifying; others are naïve. Many, however, have the ring of common sense, and it makes one wonder, why are these officials, whether elected or snugly sinecured, acting as if everything is so complicated?

There are many different government programs aimed at moving people from one place to another. Why many? Who knows? Could it be simplified? Yes, and probably elegantly. Everyone on Medicare, for whatever reason, use service A; everyone who meets whatever clearly established criteria (such as Medicaid) for need, use service B. Give every participant a chipped card to use, require photo ID (or put it on the card) to be sure the cards don’t turn into underground currency like food stamps sometimes do, and then the details entered into the program (A or B) for that individual will determine: medical taxi, van assistance, reduced or free bus fare? A bright STEM high school senior could write the bulk of the program in a day or so. If you immediately imagined the most complicated possible situations just to pick a fight with me: sure, those exist. If someone needs a wheelchair-accessible van, then that goes into the electronic info on their card; if they merely need a cab for doctor appointments, that’s on the card. As circumstances change, someone in a remote office can input the update. When Mr. X no longer needs a wheelchair van to get to his appointments, his account can (spit-spot, lickety-split) be adjusted to provide for the appropriate transportation benefit. Plus, with GPS it won’t be hard to figure out if the beneficiary had the cab drop them at Dr. K’s or at K-Mart: auditing for abuse becomes simple. Ta-da: not easy, but simple.

If the object was to make sure poor people had good quality healthcare, one might wonder, why not simply work with what we have? One, we have a public health department system and two, we have a VA system to serve as a model for comprehensive (albeit labyrinthine) healthcare. What makes it so complicated to appropriately expand the one, based on what we know from the other? Doctors are leaving, or not going into, private practice and instead signing on as employees in the private sector, so a nice government job with benefits and a pension seems like a tempting offer for many D.O.s, MDs, ARNPs, RNs, dentists, and other healthcare providers angling to be someone’s employee. Yes, we’d need more buildings and more staff, and probably some specialty services would be outsourced (the VA knows all about that, too). Who uses them? How about anyone who meets criteria for transportation assistance, as above? They already have the ID card; add that info. Outsourcing so little of it will lead to much less fraud, the latter a cause of handwringing for the same politicians who resist change.

Oh, I know. I can’t possibly understand. It’s far more complicated than that. Well, no, it’s not. It’s not going to be easy, but that is not the same as complicated. From out here, it is very clear that sometimes what is explained as “complicated” really means “not easy.” These are different things.

A marathon is not complicated. It is a matter of stepping forward and repeating that action for 26.2 miles. I know; I ran 79 of them. They were not easy. They were simple and hard. So are lots of things. It is just easier to see “simple and hard” from the outside than from the inside.

“Complicated” is a euphemism for something along the lines of, “Well, we don’t want to change anything; some people will be unhappy, and maybe we’ll lose some votes, so somehow we must give the appearance of changing things without actually changing anything.” The best we seem to get sometimes is the legislative version of buying storage containers during the January sales. It’s the same pile of junk, but it’s temporarily neat. If the object is to pretend to change, then, yes, everything we shout at the newspaper and radio about is quite complicated. I have no idea how to run AND not run at the same time, so how could a bunch of bureaucrats figure out how to simplify programs while simultaneously avoiding any changes?

Our ambivalent relationship with change makes it simple, and enjoyable, to help other people organize their stuff. The books were not MY books, the stuff was not MY stuff. People who have enough money and stuff hire people to come in and bully them into getting rid of stuff. The theory is that someone else, who is not emotionally invested, will be able to confront me. I can imagine the process:

Professional organizer: “Now, Lori, how many CS Lewis books do you really need?”

Me: “I dunno. How many ARE there? Ought I leave room for more?”

It goes downhill from there.

The analogy ought to fail because the people we elect should not be emotionally attached to ineffective programs. They behave like people suffering the deep heartache that leads to hoarding behavior, but I suspect the attachment is less suffering and more sinister: each entanglement serves a gratifying purpose or two.

Imagine members of Congress clinging, weeping, to the thousands of pages of regulations that describe the several programs to provide fuel (or rather, money for fuel) to poor people in winter. Why would they fret about merging these into one, clear, program? Where is the burning enthusiasm to ensure that the funds to help people stay warm are used prudently and effectively? I don’t want to read about one person collecting fuel benefits from multiple funds and using some of it for frills, while someone else freezes to death. I want everyone to be warm and cozy. If there were one program, would people find a way to abuse it? Surely; but simplicity reduces the camouflage.

I suspect we will all be shouting at the news for a long time. Meanwhile, I have to go pretend to be someone else so that I can impose some order on my stuff: a process that will be simple and hard.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2017

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

 

Plan B

I am very, very hopeful that, when I leave the office this evening and get into my Ford Fiesta, it will start when I first turn the key and that all four tires will be inflated. It gets regular maintenance and I expect it to start. My plans, including the amount of time I schedule for various commutes, revolve around the expectation (Plan A, as it were) that the little car will be ready to roll.

Sometimes, she is NOT ready to roll. She might have a flat tire, or a dead battery (Florida heat is rough on batteries). So, just in case of various emergencies, I have a jack, spare tire, some tools, a can of tire-inflator, a quart of oil, some water, jumper cables, a fire extinguisher, an owner’s manual and my AAA card. I also have a Bible and Rosaries for other sorts of emergencies. I would vastly prefer not to resort to any of these Plan B’s alone in a parking lot at night, but every so often I have been happy to have them readily available.

On a much more critical scale, military and police personnel have to have plan B at the ready in case of a worst-case scenario. Let’s say you are a special operator and you and your comrades are supposed to slip in silently, extract an American hostage or two, and slip out with the same seamless, silent efficiency. That would be Plan A: no one on your side gets hurt and maybe not even too many of the enemy. If enemies have to be hurt, they cooperate by succumbing very, very quietly. Plan B, entailing air support and extra personnel and a whole lot of messiness, is far from optimal. Plan A is effective if nothing goes wrong. If anything goes wrong, then you need Plan Bs. Plan Bs have a higher likelihood of success in the case of an uh-oh situation than Plan A, but are far less desirable.

Most of us don’t have to worry about extracting hostages or inflicting deserved mayhem on an enemy. We have to muddle through, discerning our purpose and doing our best to live rightly. Do we, who don’t have any expectation of being caught in a gunfight, need a Plan B? It’s become quite popular, especially in the business school world, to assert that a Plan B is an excuse to let Plan A fail.

I would argue that Plan B is part of the backbone of successful planning. Consider, for example:

You have promised your small children that, if everyone cleans up their bedroom by 9 AM Saturday, you will all go to the zoo! Yay! You had better have a Plan B already presented to them, too, in case of rain (as in, if it rains, we will postpone the zoo and have lots of fun doing “X” at home). You do not have control over whether or not it rains on your zoo day, but you have control over creating alternatives that account for circumstances beyond your control. Would you rather have Plan A – a sunny, fun day at the zoo? Absolutely; but if it’s wet, cold and dreary, kids who are able to be disappointed but know that all is not lost are easier to deal with than children who are whining because “you promised we could go to the zoo,” and claim they care not that it is raining and all the animals will be hiding inside, out of the weather. You promised.

There are thousands of possible examples: the college application that is Plan B if the desired, and worked-for, scholarship at your Plan A school doesn’t materialize; the back-up work plan if it takes longer to get a job in your field than you’d expected; the gift you will get for your child if the most popular toy that holiday season is out of stock. Would you rather get a full scholarship to an Ivy League school, a great job that starts exactly two weeks after graduation and be able to score Tickle Me Elmo, the latest Transformer AND the talking pony? Yup, yup and giddy-yup…but those are not all within your control.

The business school model against Plan A, very interestingly researched by Doctors Shin and Milkman, focuses on short-term goals with brief time periods. One test, for example, was that some participants were asked to consider a Plan B if they failed at the brief task while doing the brief task. If you have 10 minutes to unscramble sentences, and the reward for success is a free snack and some are warned up front that, hey, you might want to think about where else on campus you can score some free food in case this doesn’t work out for you, those participants might be a bit distracted from the task at hand. You have given them two tasks. That doesn’t mean they were not motivated for Plan A (the free snack) but rather they had to do two tasks at once: the task for the free snack and figure out where to get free food if the buzzer went off before they finished the first task. This is one of several experiments in their research. Other business writers have emphasized the belief that asking people on a project to have a plan B is like giving them permission to fail at plan A.

This is an interesting perspective and very narrow in its focus. There are risks in over-generalizing the findings of any particular piece of research, something Doctors Shin and Milkman know. Unfortunately, readers who see a non-academic’s cheerful, “Hey, if you develop a plan B you plan to fail,” misstated summary of Doctors’ Shin and Milkman’s work might leap to the conclusion that Plan B means Bad Plan. That is not what the researchers concluded.

I would propose that there are a few common reasons for a bias against adequately thinking through a Plan B when preparing to execute Plan A. These are by no means comprehensive –

  1. “I have done everything that success requires and so I am entitled to success.” Ah, the entitlement myth, in which a benign and biased-towards-you universe bestows what you have earned even though there is far less of whatever you want available than there are hard-working and deserving candidates. Hundreds of people might apply for that scholarship, and all of them have great GPAs, hours of non-mandated community service and glowing endorsements from their local Mother Teresa. Yet the committee (and its computer program) can only give the scholarship to one applicant. Scholarship, job, internship…failing to achieve that one, ideal Plan A doesn’t mean you personally failed. It means that you didn’t get Plan A, probably for many reasons outside of your control.
  2. “I am terrified of not meeting the expectations of those close to me (parents, often) and so most pour everything into Plan A. Anything less than absolute success means I have failed them – and myself.” This speaks to the narcissistic parent (“I am a perfect parent and you, my ought-to-be-perfect child, are the Exhibit A in proof of my perfection”) projecting the need for boundless success and admiration onto the child. Spouses can do this to one another, and children might fall victim to Pygmalion coaches or teachers.
  3. “If I have a Plan B, it will surreptitiously make me turn into a lazy slug who will fail to put in the effort required for Plan A.” This is the, I can’t trust my own strength of character theorem, and one can only say in response to this, “Know thyself.” However, lack of a Plan B is not going to singlehandedly turn an unmotivated sloth into a laser-focused, goal-oriented powerhouse. If you know you need to work on your intrinsic motivation strength, now would be a good time to start.
  4. “Plan A is my heart’s desire and I cannot bear to consider life without it…so I will just not consider the fact that Plan B might be necessary.” This is idealistic and romantic, and if you are not a good-hearted male under age 21, you probably need to accept a teaspoon of reality. If you are a good-hearted male under age 21, I will cut you some slack. That is the healthy age range for passionate idealism with a dose of immortality myth. The rest of us have to deal with the reality that life changes constantly. Your robust good health, your vision and hearing, the career you love, your neighborhood…will all change. If there is not a Plan B, you will have the alternative of crushing despair on top of the burden of grief, time after time after time.

I began this essay, spurred by a friend’s report of an adult daughter who, failing to get the job she’d applied for after college, is moving back home without any particular plan. Apparently, there was no Plan B. This led to curiosity about the “Plan B” issue in general, and discovering Shin and Milkman’s research. Not long after I began this essay, the book Option B, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant was released. I am looking forward to reading Option B and have no idea of its contents other than it was born within the heartbreak of unexpected grief and the part of the grieving process that requires that we shift to an alternative vision of our future.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2017

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

Practical Psychology

My second book, 31 Ways/31 Days: Practical Psychology for the Frazzled Faithful, has just been published and is available via Amazon and other retailers, in both softcover and eBook. In it, I present information from the field of psychology as clear, simple action items for normal, busy people who want to make positive changes.

I love to turn psychological research into something a non-therapist can use, right now, to make relationships and life better.

Sometimes, research sounds ridiculous by the time it hits your news feed. Gleaning the nuggets that can change your life – today – is challenging. Consider, for example, that a cluttered environment contributes to parental stress to the point where it interferes with consistent parenting styles. Of course work, chores and piles of stuff to do covering every flat surface are stressful…but who knew that the clutter added enough stress to interfere with parenting? It’s easier to reduce stress by cutting a little clutter than figuring out what other source of stress to eliminate (hmmm…change jobs? quit working? send the kids to boarding school in Antarctica?) Implementing a manageable, meaningful change makes psychology, with its seemingly arcane tidbits of scientific research, useful to you. It’s not magic or a complete overhaul, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Another useful application of psychological research: even looking at pictures of nature helps reduce stress for everyone, and can improve cognitive skills in people with dementia. Whether it’s you at work, or your beloved elderly family member at home, some photos of nature to fill the eyes from time to time can help. It’s not going to make a miserable job a happy job, or reverse dementia, but it can ease the burden a bit.

If psychology doesn’t make life better and improve our understanding and relationships, it’s not very practical…and if it’s not practical, what good is it?

 

 

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2017

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.