The Waiting is the Hardest Part- and Perhaps, the Most Important

Spring

I live in the Northeast and it will come as no surprise to anyone who has heard about our record breaking winter that I am pretty tired of the snow. It feels unbelievable now that I actually welcomed the first blizzard of our season. Now as I look out on the towering snow banks and the menacing icicles hanging from my neighbors’ roofs, it easy to forget that a month ago I thought snow was beautiful. These days I dream of spring and wonder if I will ever see my lawn again. Given the sheer quantity of snow, it appears I am going to have to wait.

And waiting is hard. In our fast paced society we almost never have to wait and when we do, we measure the time in seconds or minutes. An hour wait is unacceptable to most of us. We have places to go and things to do. We have no time for waiting. We certainly have no time for winter.

We are uncomfortable with the rhythms of our ancestors who had to submit to the cycle of seasons. Indeed, merely several hundred years ago, people had to submit to the will of dark nights whose completeness was only punctured by the light of moon and stars and the flickering glow of candles and lanterns. We are now masters of the clock even as we become servants to our technology.

What we have lost is the value of rest and even hibernation. Perhaps you have experienced periods in your life where you have “gone underground” for a bit- when the demands of life seemed a little too much and too overwhelming and you responded by doing and communicating less. We are often made to feel bad about those times- as if our dropping out was cowardice or perhaps a sign of depression (and for some it may be). But for many it is actually a sign of self-care. Sometimes what is happening is that our bodies and our psyches are telling us that it is time to slow down. It may even be time for a nap…or two.

Quiet “unproductive” time is actually really important. Underneath the snow, plants and seeds are getting ready. They are gearing up for an explosion of color and life. They are gaining energy to grow and blossom. They are not dead (although perhaps just a little buried).

They are waiting.

The rest that nature takes culminates in growth and life. Similarly, the rest we take facilitates creativity and health. Sometimes we need to hibernate. We need to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world and quietly grow things within ourselves. When we are ready to shovel out and step into the sun, we will be capable of more than we knew was possible.

So as I look out the window and see the sun gently warming the snow, I must content myself with waiting and the knowledge that beautiful things are happening beneath the surface.

Recipes for Resilience: Ideas in Opposition

Resilience
I was recently asked to speak at a local high school on the topic of resilience. I was flattered by the request, but my first thought was; “sure I know things about resilience from my professional life, but I may not be the best person to speak with in terms of personal experience.” And then I paused and laughed. I realized that I could come up with at least ten things in my life that had required resilience including the murder of a family friend, a major professional transition and having a child with a serious medical condition.

The fact that I could not come up with these examples instantly was not a sign of creeping senility (though I am not ruling it out), but actually part of resilience. The fact that these episodes in my life no longer define me and that I do not carry them with me every moment of every day, showcases my resilience- my ability to bounce back.

This moment of forgetting made me think about resilience in terms of ideas in opposition. When I spoke to the students, I explained the four sets of tensions in the following way:

  1. Letting Go & Remembering. Resilience is about being able to let go of past trauma and move on. If we carry our burdens around with us all the time, they are simply too heavy and we will not be able to move forward. Resilience requires a little bit of forgetting or letting go.However, this letting go is not about repressing bad memories. It is about integrating them. It is important to remember so that when we encounter difficult situations, we can access our own learning from the past. Resilience is about remembering the past in order to avoid that which we have learned is toxic and utilizing our hard won skills to handle what cannot be avoided.
  2. Knowing Who You Are & Being Able to Change. Resilience is about knowing who you are and what is important to you. Life is challenging and it’s a good idea to spend some time figuring out your values. What is important to you? Where do you want to go? Who do you want to be? Your answers will help guide you as you move through life. If you have thought about these things in advance, when you encounter difficult choices or problems, you will be able to make decisions that are in line with your values and who you are.However, the other side of the tension or opposition is the importance of being able to change. Life will inevitably challenge you and throw road blocks in the path you have chosen. Sometimes, resilience is about persevering and moving those boulders out of the way. But other times, resilience is about deciding that it’s time to chart a new path; that the rocks are too heavy or perhaps not worth moving in the first place. Life changes us and we should not be afraid to change course simply because it is different than the plan we once made.
  3. Connections and Being Alone. Resilience is about connections. Studies show that having deep personal connections with friends or family help foster resilience. It is essential to cultivate such relationships so that when life knocks you down, you have someone to give you a hand up (even if the hand is really just an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on).But resilience is also about the ability to be alone. It is about being able to sit with yourself, enjoying solitude and quiet. It is about sitting quietly without having to reach for your smartphone to text or post on social media. It is about being whole on your own without needing another person to fill you up.
  1. Feeling Deeply and Humor. Resilience is about being able to feel powerful emotions- from love to sorrow, from joy to pain, from passion to fear. Resilience is about being able to sit with these deep emotions- even the uncomfortable ones. You can never outrun those feelings. It may take a little while- a week, a month, a year, a decade- but eventually the things you run from will catch up to you. Being able to sit in sadness and feel it- really truly feel it- allows you to move on. Deep emotions are where resilience (and our very humanity) is cultivated.In opposition to this is the importance of being able to insert just enough distance between you and the emotion to laugh. I have come to believe that humor is an essential part of resilience. Being able to laugh at absurdity and pain is an important coping skill. There are certainly people who use humor as a way of not coping- and I am not speaking of this type. Humor, at its best, allows you to see something from a slightly different perspective. This slight shift can take enough of the edge off a situation to allow you to stay and be present. Your humor can be snarky and sarcastic or light and fluffy- but laughter is truly one of the best medicines.

The last piece of wisdom I offered the students was that although I had highlighted these four tensions as keys to resilience, the truth is that there are as many variants as there are people in the world. What works for one person may not work for another. But cultivating resilience is about trial and error. And the startling thing about resilience is that one must encounter adversity to cultivate it. So the next time you find yourself knocked down by life, realize that life has offered you an opportunity to expand your resilience and if you need to say something snarky to life for that, go right ahead.

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.

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…)

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.

What Was the Best Part of Your Terrible Day?

We’ve all had that day. The one that begins with the horrible realization that you have overslept, and then proceeds to the coffee machine malfunctioning, an angry email from the boss about a project that is running 6 months behind, progresses to your getting stuck in a 2 hour traffic jam (that you usually avoid because your alarm gets you up to be on the road before the chaos of rush hour), and results in spilling drive-through coffee down your shirt. This is the day when the local sewage main ruptures and begins spewing waste into your basement which you find upon your return home as you stand in a foot of filth, calculating the cost of this to your already tight budget.

If you haven’t had that day, you’ve had your version of it. So let me ask you, what was the best part of that day?

I know, you think I am insane. You think I am one of those happy, cheerful people with framed posters of inspirational quotes against a beautiful natural scene hanging on my wall. I assure you I am not. I like sarcasm and snark and have at times enjoyed the nectar of my own despair.

But several years ago while taking a class on positive psychology (an area of study that was in many ways contrary to my default settings), I decided to take one of the practical suggestions from the literature. Because I am a mother, and have the natural authority to do it, I brought my family along for the experiment.

Every night at dinner, we go around the table and say the best part about our day. There is no skipping. There is no qualifying. There is no using the best thing as an excuse to talk about what you didn’t like. You must find one positive thing to say about your day- even if it was a terrible day.

In the beginning it was hard. I mean really hard. There were some days I struggled. There were some days when my kids informed me that there was nothing good about their day. This is when I told them the beauty of the exercise.

You see, you do not need to find one great thing about your day, or even one good thing. You must identify the best thing about your day. Sometimes the best part of a bad day isn’t great in and of itself. Sometimes the best part of the foot of raw sewage in your basement is that you found it before it was two feet. Sometimes the best part of your day is the two quiet moments you had when you entered the house and you actually took a deep breath and relaxed (before venturing into the sewage filled basement).

Over the years this has become a beloved part of our family meals. Some days there are multiple “best” parts of our days (yes- I know grammatically there should only be one thing that is the best- but I am going with the spirit of the exercise here). The exercise causes us to stop and take stock of our days and take us off automatic pilot.

And the effect goes beyond the dinner table. I now often find myself throughout the day noticing when I am enjoying my day. I notice the people around me and the joy that is in my life. Indeed, this simple exercise was the first step that helped me make changes in my life.

It turns out that noticing daily what is good in your life, as the research in positive psychology tells us, leads to greater happiness. I started to notice what gave me pleasure and what made me unhappy. I decided to do more of the things that made me happy and fewer of the things that didn’t. I decided to spend more time with the people who made me laugh and less time with those who made me angry or sad. I decided to notice that even a terrible day has parts that are good. It allowed me to shift and make changes in my life. It helped me begin a journey into a more positive way of living and indeed, eventually led me to mindfulness, coaching and meditation.

So, ask yourself, “what was the best part of my day?” Even if you are standing in sewage.

 

Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys.

A friend of mine posted this image on Facebook:
CircusMonkeys

It made my day. Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys. It is witty, and profound, and incredibly useful. There are days it is my mantra.

We have all had that friend at some point in our lives whose attraction to drama is matched only by their ability to suck you into it. After a phone call or a cup of coffee with them you find yourself worked up, drawn into their catastrophizing and anxiety. It may feel at first that you are just being a good friend, but after a while, it becomes apparent that you have been pulled into their special brand of crazy.

In moments like these- these six words are incredibly powerful: Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys. Knowing when to step back is vital. It is part of the maintenance of healthy boundaries- in friendships, in family and at work.

Let’s be clear, we all have days when we, or our own monkeys, are running the circus. Yes- it’s possible to attempt management of your circus and someone else’s, but it may not be advisable. And just as we do not want to get sucked into someone else’s circus, it’s important not to draw other people into our own.

The truth is that good friends are the ones who are able to empathize, but are also able to offer a perspective from outside of the circus. With compassion and kindness these friends are able to calm us down.

So when you feel yourself getting drawn in and spinning about someone else’s problems, remember: Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys.

Not My Circus. Not My Monkeys. Say it over and over until you are calmer. With this attitude, your own circus may even seem more manageable.