Paying Attention to STOP Signs

Stop

Before my children could read, they knew what a STOP sign looked like. The bright read octagon with the bold four letters called out to them as a symbol long before they could match the sounds to letters. It’s a sign we all recognize, and I suggest today, one we should bring more readily into our daily lives.

For me, the STOP sign is tied up with the practice of mindfulness. In mindfulness, STOP is a powerful acronym used to help interrupt the cycle of reactivity and bring attention back to the moment.

In mindfulness the acronym has the following meaning:

S = Stop (or pause)
T = Take a breath
O = Observe
P = Proceed

How does this work? Imagine yourself, if you will, in a moment of strong emotion; perhaps your coworker has bailed on a project- leaving you with an extra five hours of work, or maybe your child has forgotten his homework for the 3rd time this week and is giving YOU attitude when you suggest he should be better organized, or perhaps you are at the store and you see the latest technology gadget and you are overcome by the desire to own it. Ordinarily you might find yourself sending out a nasty email to your colleague, yelling at your child or purchasing an expensive product that you do not really need and cannot afford. This is where the STOP practice can help you.

As you get ready to send the email, yell at your child, or head to the check-out counter, take a moment and Stop. Press pause before you move into action. Now that you have stopped, Take a deep breath. Observe yourself. How is your breathing? Notice how your body feels. Notice your feelings and name them (Frustrated, Angry, Desirous). Once you have observed these things, Proceed.

You will be surprised by the power that the STOP method has. By inserting a pause between stimulus and action, we are able to pull ourselves back from actions and words that we might later regret. Additionally, the very acts of pausing and noticing can short-circuit strong emotions and empower our prefrontal cortexes thereby engaging executive functioning skills that manage planning and emotional regulation. Stopping in such a manner often ensures that the way we proceed is more thoughtful and in keeping with our own best interests.

By using this method you may find that the email you send to your coworker is more courteous and productive. You may notice that you are able to diffuse the situation with your child, helping him brainstorm ways in which he can take control of his homework. You may discover that you do not really need to buy the product today and that by waiting a day or two to think over the purchase, you avoid an unnecessary expense.

So next time you are feeling overwhelmed by powerful emotions, summon up your personal STOP sign. Stop. Take a breath. Observe. Proceed. You’ll be glad you did.

Sinners, Saints and Mental Shortcuts

Heaven and Hell
Every day I drive past the Methodist church in my town. Of the six churches in town, (yes, six- I live in New England) it is not the most beautiful, but I look forward to passing it nonetheless. Why? Because this church has in its congregation (and/or employ) a playful individual who is always putting up inspiring little sayings on the Church sign.

Several weeks ago the sign read “every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” The quote is from Oscar Wilde, but its literary origins are less important than the message and the location.

When I drove past the sign the first time, I was not familiar with the quote but its simplicity and kindness struck me. In our lives we are quick to judge others and, at times, ourselves.   We place labels, easily categorizing individuals and situations. Part of this is the result of using what psychologists call heuristics- mental shortcuts that allow us to make decisions and problem solve when we are faced with incomplete data. We rely on these shortcuts, basing decisions off of past experience and impressions.   Although efficient, these heuristics do not guarantee the best or even accurate decisions and assessments.

Using heuristics, we make assumptions about people we see. We categorize them as hard-working or lazy, virtuous or morally compromised and a million other shortcuts we have in our minds. We encounter them in a moment and having made a quick judgment, we see that judgment superimposed over the individual’s past and future. In this way we see an individual as born a particular way and living in the same manner until their death.

Of course, we know this is not true when we stop to think about it. But part of the point of heuristics is that their use means we are not really stopping to consider at all. In this way, our perceptions of others are incomplete, and if we are not careful, risk ossifying. We risk freezing someone in a single moment in time, or defining them perhaps, by their worst moment.

We do this to ourselves as well. We often believe that the way we have done things in the past is the only way we can do things. We let past behaviors, misdeeds and achievements define us. We justify unethical behavior in the present by coasting on earlier honesty. We discount current success, acutely feeling inadequacies from failures in our past. We begin to feel that we cannot change- that “we are who we are” however incomplete or biased those assessments may be.

Oscar Wilde’s quote points to the possibility of redemption- the most radical type of transformation. It asks us to see beyond a momentary mental shortcut and see the long arc of a life and the many choices that allow us to redefine ourselves over and over again.

I liked seeing the quote on the church’s sign. In a time when religions are often strident in their denunciations of the “sinner” but uninterested in helping those in need, the placement of the quote at a Church is welcoming. It is a recognition of the ways in which everyone we meet is merely at one moment in their journey and that the trajectory of that journey is not always discernable.

So wherever you are on your journey, know that the choices you make can continue or alter your path. You and the people around you are not frozen. We all have pasts and we all have the opportunity to change our futures.

Freedom on the Fourth

Statue of liberty
As we approach the 4th of July, American Independence Day, I have been thinking of what it means to be free. Freedom, of course, has different meanings to different people. There is freedom on the level of nations and the rule of law- a freedom fundamentally concerned with rights, but there is also freedom on a more personal level.

What does it mean to be personally free? Is freedom about the absence of constraints? Are we free only when no others have a claim on our lives, our allegiances, our affections? Yes- certainly that is a type of freedom and one perhaps that we wish for when we are feeling overwhelmed and pulled at from all directions.

But I think for most of us, that type of freedom would quickly grow tiresome. If freedom is only about being free of constraints, we will find ourselves isolated and alone. However, freedom can also be about the opportunity and the room to grow into the best versions of ourselves- to fulfill our unique potential and purpose[1]. And often this means being in connection with others and connection can mean constraints.

As a wife, mother, friend, daughter, sister,  coach and teacher, there are many constraints placed upon me. I am not free to pick up and travel to exotic locales on a whim as no one would be there to pick my kids up after jujitsu or tuck them into bed at night. Nor am I free of financial or emotional obligations or those associated with my work. But if I define freedom so narrowly I will never be free.

For me, freedom is in the broader choices I have made and the way in which I choose to live my life. I have entered into these obligations freely and happily. I have bound my life to others in service of something greater- a higher calling than just my individual desires at a given moment. I have freely chosen to participate in the world in a certain way and it has led to an expansiveness of spirit and a great deal of joy.

My freedom is my own and deeply fulfilling for me. For others, the choices I have made may seem confining (or perhaps not confining enough!) but personal freedom means the ability to pursue your own path- making the choices that are right for you.

To be sure- there times when we make choices that do not feel like our own- they are the ones we make trying to please others that also require us to sacrifice some essential part of ourselves. Indeed, one of the regrets that people most often have at death is that they did not follow their own dreams- that they did not pursue the opportunity to become the best versions of themselves.

Thus freedom is a balancing act (and what in life isn’t?). But the first step to achieving this balance is to imagine what the best versions of ourselves look and feel like and then pursue opportunities to become that. Make no mistake- personal freedom is not always easy to achieve, but it is always worth the effort.

So on this 4th of July while you celebrate and honor the ways in which you are free, take a moment to declare your personal independence and honor your path to personal freedom.

 

[1] Isaiah Berlin discussed this in his influential essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” in which he defined the two types of freedom as positive and negative liberty. Berlin was writing about political philosophy and was concerned about the excesses of positive liberty as applied at a state level. But my remarks here are more confined to the personal level- leaving macro analysis for another time and place.

 

Bye Bye, Brontosaurus

Brontosaurus

“Mom, what’s your favorite aquatic dinosaur that gives birth to live young?” I still remember my train of thought when my five year old asked me this question. It went something like this: “Umm. What? They exist? There are multiple aquatic dinosaurs that give birth to live young? When did this happen?” I think I came up with something like, “I don’t know, honey. What’s yours?” (Apparently my choices included – but were not limited to- plesiosaurus, ichthyosaurus and the liopleurodon.)

As a child I learned about dinosaurs and even remember a model set I had with little figurines. But it felt basically like there were five dinosaurs; Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Raptors, Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Brontosaurus (that apparently is no longer a thing- it is now called the Apatosaurus). As my son developed the normal child interest in dinosaurs we bought many books on the subject and suddenly I was faced with dinosaurs that not only could I not pronounce their names, but that I could swear had not existed when I was a child.

At the moment my son asked me, I was confronted with my own ignorance on a topic about which I thought I had some knowledge. I began to feel that perhaps many of the things I knew to be true were no longer so. I’d like to say that I found this realization exciting, that I found possibilities in questioning received knowledge exhilarating. But truthfully, it made me nervous, defensive and disoriented.

I remember feeling a similar disorientation when scientists announced that Pluto was no longer a planet. Or that ulcers are caused by a bacteria. Or when I encountered certain ideas about non-attachment from Buddhist tradition that were so alien to my own Jewish upbringing. And the truth is that with advances in science, new models of business, interactions with different cultures and customs, and indeed, with each new life experience, we are all regularly confronted with situations and information that challenge our default and learned understandings of the world.

How we rise (or not) to these occasions will, in many ways, determine the way we live our lives. My reaction to my son’s first questions was to evade and hide my ignorance. I was embarrassed that my 5 year old’s knowledge exceeded my own. Eventually, I learned to be proud of his encyclopedic knowledge and have come to respond with curiosity, learning from him and growing as a result..

It is not easy. Sometimes the thing that changes seems central to our understanding of the world and accepting that change means a reevaluation of our received knowledge and way of seeing. Change at this level can be frightening. Many, when faced with such a challenge, retreat in fear, preferring the certainty of old ways- even as they learn that those old ways are no longer supported by fact. Lacking flexibility, they begin to see new experiences and information as threats to their ways of living and those who challenge their views as enemies.

However, if we can learn to respond to new information and situations with curiosity and openness and not defensiveness and fear, we will find that the world is full of opportunity and new possibilities. If we can commit to being life-long learners, we can avoid ossification. If we can approach our deficits as opportunities, we can escape becoming fossils in this new world. We can grow and evolve.

So Plesiosaur is my favorite aquatic dinosaur that gives birth to live young. (But Pluto will always be a planet to me…)

Life Lessons from Children’s Books Part II- Mole and the Baby Bird

Mole and the Baby bird

I love giving books as baby presents. Long after the adorable onesies and outfits have been outgrown, the books remain. In addition to the twenty copies of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar that we received when my son was born, we also got a copy of Mole and the Baby Bird– a beautiful story by Marjorie Newman. With a sweet narrative and gentle drawings, Newman and illustrator Patrick Benson tell the story of young mole who finds an abandoned baby bird and adopts it.

Mole responsibly cares for his pet bird despite the admonitions of his parents that it is not a pet bird, but a wild one. When the bird begins to fly, Mole builds a cage for it, not wanting it to fly away. The bird is sad. Mole is sad and his parents are sad. His parents tell him the bird should be free.

Up until this point, all the pictures in the books are small and framed by white space on the page. Then, Mole’s grandfather takes him on a walk- allowing Mole to walk in open fields- and the illustrations suddenly take over the whole page. The reader feels as Mole does- “I’m flying” or “nearly,” as grandpa says. Mole, standing on a hillside with a bird’s eye view, suddenly understands his bird. Having experienced the freedom and openness of the field, Mole returns home and sets his bird free “because he loved it. Then he cried.” But we are told that the “next day Mole went into the forest. He saw his bird flying, soaring, free. And Mole was glad.”

The story can clearly be understood as an object lesson in “If you love someone, set them free.” But I think there is a more subtle lesson in the book- and one that is important for parents, friends, teachers, and coaches alike. Mole cannot hear what his parents tell him. It is not real for him and he cannot quite get out of his own perspective and find another way of viewing the situation. It is mole’s grandfather who, without saying a word about the baby bird, is able to help Mole do the right thing.

By allowing Mole to experience what it means to be a bird, Mole’s grandfather lets Mole come to the realization himself. It is only when Mole is empowered to discover things on his own, that he is able to grow.

Too often as parents we want to protect our children. As friends, we are often convinced of the right way of doing things. As teachers we want to instruct our students in the correct way to learn. And sometimes as coaches we have wishes for our clients. We want to tell these people that we care for the right way to do things and keep them from feeling hurt or pain. We want to teach them the lessons where it is safe. But when we do this, we deny them the opportunity to learn it for themselves.

In the story, Mole’s grandfather takes Mole on a journey of self-discovery. He allows Mole to experience the world and come to his own conclusions. In the end, Mole makes a painful and difficult decision. But it is his decision. There will not be a book focusing on Mole the adolescent or young adult complaining to his therapist that his parents made him set the bird free and that he has been resentful ever since. Mole will grow up knowing he owned his choices- however difficult they may have been- and he will be a better adult mole for it (or so I imagine).

We must learn to support our children, friends, students and clients on their journeys- helping them see their own potential and find their own paths. It is not always easy- but if we love them, we must set them free.

The Call of Stories

Storytelling
The first time I taught an interpersonal communication class I assigned the opening chapter of The Call of Stories by the great child psychiatrist, Harvard professor, and writer, Robert Coles. In the thirty pages I assigned, Coles lays out a compelling argument for medical practitioners to hear the stories of their patients and not just reduce them to jargon and theory. I asked my students after reading the chapter to tell me a story about themselves that would let me get to know them (without disclosing deeply personal information.)

We are all born as storytellers. Some are more skilled, more descriptive etc, but we are each the protagonist and the narrator of our own lives. In trying to make sense of the day to day and the random, of the trajectory of our lives, we build narratives. Our stories are filled with primary, secondary and tertiary characters, characters who play pivotal roles and then recede and characters who stay in our lives, changing and remaining constant.

At the time, I conceived of the exercise for my students as a way for me to get to know  them and for them to engage in some introspection. And I did learn some fascinating things about my students- I got to know them much better than I would have if I had asked a more directed question. But what I also learned was that many of my students did not trust their own ability to be story tellers.

My students, who had undoubtedly told friends and families numerous stories in their lives, had difficulty crafting a story about themselves. Some came to me struggling with such an open ended instruction. I began to feel that somewhere along the way my students had learned to accept other people’s narratives about them and lacked confidence in their ability to construct their own. Throughout the class I encouraged them to find their own voices, craft their own narratives and I knew that part of my job was to listen.

I learned a lot about my students that semester.  I also learned the importance of listening to stories. When I saw each student through their stories- in their own voices- they were more vibrant and alive than my gradebook suggested. When my students were empowered to tell their own stories, they grew in confidence and as people.

A common coaching tool is to ask clients to write their own stories- designing a narrative that stretches from the past into the future. The practice of consciously telling your own story can be transformative.

But as we craft our own stories, it is important to remember that everyone else is engaged in a similar act. Everyone you meet has a story- with joy and pain, triumphs and defeats. Being aware of this fosters greater understanding. The first step in creating that understanding is remembering that each person is a product of their stories and the second step is remembering to listen.

Befores and Afters

child hand
I remember the day it began- because of course you never forget. And the odd thing about those days is that you don’t realize when you wake up that it will be a day that changes your life. When you wake up it is just a day. It is a Monday or a Wednesday. It’s just a day. For me it was Sunday.

It started with a birthday party for a friend’s toddler. It started by watching my three year old son playing and showing off my ten week old daughter. After all the excitement my son was tired. Like I always did, I went to put him down for a nap. I snuggled him as he drifted off to sleep. Or rather, he should have drifted off to sleep.

Instead he began twitching his hand in mine and then he was shaking rhythmically in my arms. And I didn’t know it as I screamed for help, as I waited for the ambulance, as I watched helplessly while he seized, that it had begun. I didn’t know about the hospital stays, the sleep deprived EEG’s, the med evac flights, the doctor’s visits, the meds, the side effects, the IEP’s, the sleep studies and all the other parts of parenting a child with epilepsy. At that moment I only knew that my baby was sick and that I couldn’t help him.

But it had begun. That day changed the trajectory of our lives. I found strength I did not know I had. I learned (slowly) that whatever expert I met, I was still the expert on my son and that I needed to stand up for what I felt in my heart to be right. I learned that parenting a child with a serious illness is a marathon and not a sprint. I learned that there are good days and bad days and though the good days often outnumber the bad, the bad ones can be so bad that they leave you reeling. I learned that asking for help on those bad days is the only way to survive it.

I also learned that people can get used to anything. The medication regimen that once seemed so difficult to coordinate became routine and the schedules that once overwhelmed us became second nature. It all just became the new normal, such that some days I forgot what it was ever like before it all began.

And it’s funny because although I can mark the day it began, I can’t mark the day it ended. We are mercifully three years seizure and medication free. I no longer watch him vigilantly while he plays (though watching him twitch in his sleep still terrifies me). I no longer worry every time I leave the house. I have adjusted to our new “new normal.”

But it’s not the same as it was before it began. I and my family were changed and marked by that day and the ones that followed. We were altered in ways mundane and meaningful. I am a better mother and advocate now than I was on that day- not that I was bad before or that I wanted to learn in the way that I did.

Life happened on that day. I can mark the before and the after. I also know that there will be other befores and afters- hopefully less traumatic than that one. Every morning I wake up, life can happen to me. And I know now I can survive it.