Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Idiot Compassion

"Idiot compassion."

I was re-reading Michael Greenberg's "Hurry Down Sunshine" last week for a writing workshop I'm taking and when I saw the phrase 'idiot compassion,' it struck me as though I hadn't read it before.  In fact, I think this was one of those memoirs I read so quickly and superficially that I'm very grateful I was led to read it again for this class.  I don't think I absorbed much of it at all the first time and I suspect that is because the notion of being locked away for mental health treatment is something I fear almost more than anything else.

But I digress....

The description of the phrase 'idiot compassion' was basically when you get so sucked in to someone else's pain and suffering that you begin to empathize on a cellular level. You begin to have trouble separating your pain from theirs and you render yourself completely incapable of offering any assistance whatsoever.

Been there, done that.

I suppose the reason the words impacted me the way they did is because one of them is a favorite of mine and the other one I generally abhor.  The word 'idiot' conjures up meanness, judgment, misunderstanding of another's true gifts. 'Compassion,' on the other hand, is something for which I strive each and every time I interact with another human being.  Putting the two together jolted me in to assessing how often I drag myself down that rabbit hole of compassion to the point of idiocy.  How many times have I over-identified with another human being so completely that I start to panic at the emotions that are triggered in my own body?  And how is that helpful?

It isn't.  Nobody who is suffering wants that kind of compassion. We may all want empathy when we are struggling with a difficult challenge, but not to the point where others appear to take on our suffering. For one thing, it isn't possible - trust me, if it were, I would have made the enormous mistake of onboarding Bubba's, Lola's, and Eve's discomfort from time to time.  And, if I'm already drowning, your flailing about in the same freezing water isn't going to do either of us any good. It might be a little less lonely there in the ocean as my lungs are filling up with fluid, but ultimately it doesn't change my suffering a bit to know that you're wheezing right along with me. In fact, it might increase mine by making me feel guilty you're there at all.

More and more as I age, I am reminded that the most powerful form of compassion lies in something that looks a hell of a lot like inactivity.  I call it "holding space."  It doesn't involve telling you about my life experience with a similar issue and offering advice. Holding space doesn't have anything to do with holding you, unless you want a hug and it will make you feel better.  It is simply the act of me sitting with the acknowledgment of your pain and allowing you to feel it as you need to.  Holding space is not judgment or an attempt to diminish or 'fix' your suffering, it is a validation of your feelings and your right to feel them.  It clears the way for you to sit with your own frustration as long as you need to, knowing that I will be there for as long as it takes.  I can't take any of your pain away but I can help you hold it for a while until the time comes for it to move on through.  And so if you ever have occasion to hear me say I am sending love and light your way, it simply means that I am holding space for you. It means that within that space there will be love and light surrounding you for as long as you need.  That doesn't mean I don't desperately wish there was something more tangible I could do to help, but idiot compassion doesn't help any of us.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

How A Random Stranger Helped Me Examine How Much I Trust Myself

A few days ago our neighbors had a tree service come take out an enormous tree on the sidewalk near their property. The trunk was probably five feet in diameter and I don't even want to hazard a guess as to how tall it was.  I think it was some kind of maple, rough-barked and stolid, standing on the corner like some kind of massive pin that held the block in place to the earth.

As I walked past yesterday, before they had come to haul away the chunks of debris, I could see the center of the trunk eroded like so much sawdust and thought to myself, Aahh, it was dying. That's why they took it out. I don't know about your city, but our city doesn't take too kindly to removing established trees, especially those considered 'exceptional' examples of their species - ones that are large specimens that have been in the ground for decades.  We like our greenery here in the Pacific NW and God help you if you want to embark on a construction project that might necessitate the removal of a tree on your property. The neighbors will stage protests and tie neon ribbons around the trunk, write letters to the city planning office and plead the case for this poor, defenseless tree like they wouldn't for a human on death row.  The fines for removing a tree without a permit are based on the assessment of 'fair market value' for the particular tree, and can run to tens of thousands of dollars.

But as I strolled past this one, I thought I could plainly see why they had removed it.  Until a man and his dog came around the corner and stopped short. Thin and grey-headed, the bearded man in his Seattle-uniform of khakis and work boots and olive green vest led his dog up to the remains to check it out.  I was still about half a block away and watched them circle the pile of limbs and trunk sections, the dog marking each piece in that special dog-way.  As I neared, I prepared to meet the man's eye and smile a greeting, but he looked at me and shook his head with a mixture of disgust and sadness. He was clearly unhappy that this tree had been cut down.

I immediately checked my thoughts about the tree removal.  Maybe my assessment had been wrong - maybe what I saw of the inside of the tree didn't represent disease or a good enough reason to cut it down. Had these people been wrong to do this?  

Fortunately, I was able to recognize this pattern of thinking for what it was. Namely, my tendency to assume that my reaction is the wrong one upon encountering someone else who feels very differently than me. Especially when that someone is a stranger, older than me, and male.

As children, we begin forming our opinions by mirroring or imitating our parents. As we move into adolescence, we slowly start to individuate, often by reacting to situations in the opposite way of our parents, but this generally lasts only for a few years as we try out different personalities in order to better determine who we are.  Generally, as we become adults we settle in to some middle ground where we are able to exercise more critical thinking and assess our own reactions and opinions with some degree of realism.  Hopefully, this comes about thanks to parents or other influential adults in our lives who have taken the time (and patience) to guide us through our teenage years as we react to things more based on emotion and erroneous assumptions than clear logical thinking. (That said, if you haven't read Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide, you should check it out because he reveals how much of our "rational" decision-making is actually based on emotion and gut-feelings and how important that is).

I spent much of my adolescence straddling the line between adult responsibilities and desperately wanting to rebel but fearful of the consequences.  I often felt as though I was faking it as I worked hard to convince the adults in authority around me that I was capable of taking care of myself both physically and emotionally so that I could be left alone. On the inside, I was terrified of being 'found out' for the chickenshit that I really felt like.  That set me up for a deep mistrust of my own opinions and anytime I encountered an older person who seemed like they might have it all together, I fell all over myself to defer to their ideas of right and wrong.  It took years to begin to put stock in my own thought processes and values and, sometimes when I least expect it, my tendency to doubt my own beliefs sneaks up on me.

Fortunately, it's not important whether or not I think the tree removal was justified, but it sparked a valuable inner exploration of how often I discount my own knowledge without thinking simply because someone else appears to think differently.

Friday, May 17, 2013

It Isn't Like Herding Cats

We have a pretty major construction project going on at our house right now.  Well, I hope the construction part starts to happen pretty soon, because so far it's mostly been destruction, but I'm holding out hope.

There are two components to the project - one outdoor and one in the basement - that requires some fairly delicate fine-tuning and cooperation between the two sets of laborers.  Here are a few things I've learned in the last four weeks:

1.  Each separate entity has their own set of quirks around how they like to work, when they like to work, and what their particular set of responsibilities entails.
2.  It is my job to facilitate constructive collaboration between these two entities.
3.  This is not like herding cats.

Herding cats is a phrase I generally like and have used often, but it conjures up discrete individuals with their own ideas and agendas who simply don't care about anyone else's silly little life. Unless it affects when they eat.  That is important to cats.  This task is much more like herding labrador retrievers.  The head of each crew is answering to me, loyal to me (the check-writer), and concerned with my needs, like a sweet puppy dog who needs my approval. That part is great.  However, they circle around each other, wary and sniffing and a little territorial and it is my job to keep the tails wagging and not get peed on.  That is more difficult.

Both jobs are big and will take months to complete. Both are fairly intrusive to my life (ahh, the perks of working from home?), and the two jobs dovetail in multiple areas which means that if one crew takes a little longer to accomplish something (or their subcontractor simply doesn't show up for work one day without notice), it affects everyone else.  The tension that ensues is no big deal unless I don't nip it in the bud.  There has been some almost-middle-school drama wherein a seemingly casual conversation quickly turns into a not-very-thinly-veiled accusation against the other crew for "passing the buck" or "screwing up" and it is all I can do not to crack up.  Thus far, I have been able to deal with these jabs the same way I do with Eve and Lola, by giving more details and explaining how such a thing might have come to pass. That said, I'm fairly certain that I have the power to tip the scales simply by appearing to side with one or the other and starting a full-scale war for my admiration.

At one point, I was describing such a scene to Bubba and he remarked that, while I'm learning a lot about how boilers work and gas lines are installed, perhaps my biggest lessons in all of this will be the ones about managing people and personalities.  I agreed, but didn't have the heart to tell him that running this household with him and two children had already given me an education in that subject.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Strike While the Iron is Hot

I was at the chiropractor's office the other day praising the massage therapist in her office.

"It was so different than any massage I've ever had before. Generally, I get deep tissue work done and I feel beaten up and bruised for days afterward, but this was gentle and soothing and I nearly fell asleep more than once."

"Mmm, hmm. She's really good." My chiropractor is less of a "rack'm and crack'm" and more of a manual therapist, using traction and gravity to stretch things back so that my body rights itself more often than not. That said, she won't hesitate to manipulate my spine if it needs it and I absolutely LOVE having my neck cracked by her.

"I was toying with the idea of asking her to push a little harder, because I grew up with the 'no pain, no gain' ethic and I felt a little guilty that it just felt good and relaxing.  I wondered if I ought to be hurting more."

The doctor stopped and let out a small laugh.

"You know, part of the reason she is so good is because she really listens to your tissues with her fingers. She pushes just hard enough until there is some resistance and then she works to gently increase blood flow and loosen that area up.  If there is a lot of resistance and she digs in, all she is likely to do is aggravate that area and make it more swollen and tight."

Dramatic, theatrical pause (mine - I'm sure this only happened in my head, but sometimes just before someone says something particularly impactful to me I remember that there was a momentous second before they said it).

"There is such a thing as a 'therapeutic window' for everything.  If the receiver isn't ready to receive the therapy, it won't be helpful."

That sentence rang in my head like church bells for days to come.

When I was struggling with depression, I had to get to a place where I was ready to hear what my therapist was saying to me.

I couldn't possibly have forgiven my father or my molester until I was at a place in my life where that was a possibility.

I remember my high school physics teacher introducing the notion of dead space to us one day. He talked about how everything is made up of atoms and how there is a lot of space between these charged particles and they are only held together by their electrical charges (I'm simplifying greatly, so if you're a physical scientist, don't get upset with this rudimentary description).  We explored the notion of crystalline structures and atomic structures and chemical formulas and he blew my mind when he said I could simply pass my hand through my desktop if the atoms just all lined up correctly.  It took a long time to even begin to wrap my head around that one, and I'm not certain I have, to be completely honest.

If we just wait for the right time for things to align themselves, we can make an enormous impact by taking advantage of that window.  By learning to recognize when someone is receptive to our message we can be more certain that our input will have the intended effect.  For many years now I have wondered how many times I will have to ask my girls to do the same thing before they change their behavior.  I looked for some magical number - 1,000? 2,500? 15,000? Whatever it took, I was willing to do it so long as it resulted in my desired outcome.  But what if it isn't a repetition but a receptivity principle?  What if I'm wasting my breath (and anger and frustration and eye-rolling) by bouncing my words off of a brick wall? What if I simply wait until I can see they are ready to hear my message and say it once?

The idea that simply talking louder or pounding my fist for emphasis or adding tears to the mix isn't likely to change anything is a revelation.  I know inherently that my chiropractor was right.  There is a therapeutic window for everything and my window isn't the same as anyone else's, but if I push harder and harder in an attempt to get my agenda across, all I'm likely to do is aggravate the situation more.  I know that lecturing Eve when she's already mad or embarrassed about something only serves to make her dig her heels in stubbornly.  I have observed that when I can hold my tongue and wait until she comes to me in contrition or asking for help, I have a much larger impact on the situation.

I can't promise I'll remember this principle every time I am desperate to impart some wisdom, but hopefully I can keep the image of this window in my head to prompt me to at least ask the question, "Is this person ready to hear what I want to say?"

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Museum Revelations

I have decided that traditional museums are lost on children. I know there are "children's" museums in every major city in the US, but I'm talking about the natural history museums with dinosaur bones and things that school children are herded to every year, lined up like pearls on a string, and ushered from room to quiet room while some adult desperately tries to engage their attention and keep them from swinging on the velvet ropes.

Two weeks ago, Eve and I were in Washington, DC with a dozen or so of her classmates for a Close Up Washington tour. [I couldn't have loved this tour company more - if you haven't heard of them, check it out. What a fantastic organization!] The kids had a pretty tightly packed schedule but since they were with Close Up teachers, I was free to peel off and do my own thing and catch up with them later.

Now, I'm certain that I visited my share of museums as a kid and what I really remember about them was being bored and restless.  The idea of a field trip was almost always better than the trip itself and I know for a fact that the part I enjoyed the most was the school bus ride with all of my friends to and from our destination.

As an adult, though, heading into the Smithsonian Natural History Museum was fan-freaking-tastic. There was a life-size elephant in the lobby. This guy stared out at me from his perch, daring me to guess what he was and read all about him.

The school children around me came in two sizes: 
  • middle-school-age and thrilled to be set free from their teachers for the moment, they ran around in giggling clots of girls texting each other pictures of boys they had taken on the sly (apparently these are called 'stalker photos' because the subject is some random boy from another school in another part of the US who just happens to be on your tour and he has no idea he is being photographed or talked about by tittering teenage girls), and 
  • elementary-age children with matching backpacks and water bottles with eyes like marbles and brains so overstimulated that they couldn't even recall their own names (which may be why most of them were written in Sharpie on their backpacks).
[By the way, it may be the paranoid traveler in me, but doesn't writing your child's name - or having it stitched - on their personal belongings in plain sight make it easier for a freaky pedophile to coax your child over to them in a public area where they might be with a large group and, thus, not as closely supervised as you might think? Just an observation...]

I on the other hand, walked slowly but with purpose from exhibit to exhibit, reading plaques and shaking my head in wonder. I could have spent a week inside learning about the different species of bats and gaping at the Hope Diamond, standing in front of the hologram wall designed to show the structure of a crystal and marveling at the knobby skin on an egret's toes.  The children swirled around me like waves, moving too quickly to absorb much of anything and eager for lunch.

Last week Bubba found himself in Germany on business and, with a couple of hours to kill, he decided to head to the Natural History Museum in Frankfurt. He texted me this photo

I had one of those moments where I had to remind myself to breathe. And it was then that I realized museums like this are completely lost on children. 

You see, up until a certain age, most children live in their own imaginations. Everything seems wondrous and amazing for many, many years. The first time a kid visits the beach, the waves seem magical. You can totally trick a kid into thinking that quarters can be extracted from their ears. Kids will believe almost anything because they haven't been taught that most of the stuff they want to see and do and have are impossible. And so visiting a museum and seeing something like a T. Rex skeleton is cool, but it isn't hard for them to imagine that something like that could (and maybe still does) wander around crushing things somewhere on the planet. 

As a pre-teen and teenager, kids have many other things on their minds like music and boyfriends/girlfriends, how to convince their parents they need a cell phone with unlimited text, etc.  They have no use for museums except as a way to get out of their classroom and socialize with friends on the bus.

As an adult, though, I have spent many, many years in the Realm of Things Possible and Doable. I am concerned, on a minute-by-minute basis, with what is necessary (food, sleep, walking the dog enough to avoid accidents in the house, laundry, getting children to sporting practices and events, paying bills) and weighing against that, what is actually possible in any given day.  I am not given to fantasy except as it relates to these things (having my insurance company suddenly call up and say, for example, "You know what? Your deductible is too high and we have noticed that it's only May 1 and you have already had some very legitimate reasons to visit the doctor this year and these little nickel-and-dime lab fees and tests and follow up visits are killing you. Let us pick the rest of it up this year, okay?").

So to walk in to a museum and see a stuffed African elephant is jolting. It stops me in my mental tracks and reminds me that there are wondrous things that exist outside of my ability to think about. Looking at that photo from Bubba made me recall that there was once something this enormous, this phenomenal, this astonishing that roamed the Earth. It gave me pause and opened the doorway to a place of speculation and wonder where I have not spent much time in the last four decades.  I was properly awed when I made my way through the Smithsonian museum and I believe I was in the minority.

I will be heading to museums more from now on, but I won't be taking my children. I love them and I do hope that one day they, too, will discover how great museums are, but I have no desire to drag them in and spend precious time and energy convincing them or cajoling them into enjoying themselves. Nope, instead I will give myself the gift of going alone and remembering my imagination.  Because I need that more than those dang schoolkids. And I appreciate it more, too.  

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