A Day in Paris

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I spent one day in Paris over the winter holiday. The build up of anticipation left me pondering: “How does one cram all the charms of a city into the nooks and crannies of a single day?”

I’ve spent years day dreaming about the eccentricities of this particular city.
It was almost nothing like I imagined.

Not once did I hear La Vie en Rose echoing through a corner cafe. There was not one fiercely beautiful French woman pausing at the street corner to adjust her Hermes scarf. And I even saw tourists snapping pictures of La Tour Eiffel sparkling with nighttime lights, in front of police officers, with no repercussions. (Article.)

What I also saw were a thousand selfie sticks in front of Notre Dame alone. The famed lights of Paris at Christmas time. And a well-worn path across the grounds of the Louvre.

The city was even more enchanting because it didn’t meet my expectations. And the ways it differed were intriguing, poetic even: the crooked streets, the expansive architecture, the pathway of the Seine running up and down the curves of the city, the smallest shops next to the biggest cathedrals. I was mesmerized.

But the city was quiet with complacency. My visit was just a week before the Charlie Hebdo attack. A scene that transformed the city from the one I experienced on a lazy, December day to something entirely different. I’m sure Paris will never be exactly the same for its dramatic and devastating experience. And I’m sure I’ll view it through a different lens should I ever have the opportunity to go back.

—————–

I often speak of shifts in my line of work. Shifts are the dramatic changes undergone by individuals and societies alike that can happen in tiny increments or in a single moment.

Paris groaned under the weight of a shift the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. A shift that cut into the normal rhythms of the city and left that city dissected for quite some time. This is the type of shift that most of us are afraid of experiencing, and for good reason. Sudden change is scary.

Seeing Paris transformed overnight left me contemplating the quivering anxiety of sudden change. I understand all too well how difficult tragic change is, but I often speak with people who fear positive change as well. Examples include going off to college, moving, getting married, and switching jobs.

It would appear that our humanity produces a type of existential angst around change that is tied to our identities. It goes something like this: If I take the plunge, will I cease to exist as I am? Will this shift rob me of my identity? (If I take the plunge will it prove how unlovable, inadequate, helpless, [insert your own word] I really am?). In essence, will this dramatic change prove my worst fears about myself?

We don’t articulate it that way, of course. It gets voiced as: “I’m afraid I won’t perform well in this new role.” Or, “What if no one likes me in college?” Or, “How can I possibly handle this new responsibility as a husband?” So we avoid change to anesthetize ourselves from the pain that we fear will come with the dramatic shift.

I experienced a dramatic shift this past month. I became a mother. The landscape of my life is forever altered. And yet, I am still me. This change has challenged me in so many ways, but it hasn’t consumed me. I have to learn to be a more efficient yet sleepy version of myself, but I am still me.

It’s foreign yet familiar. It’s foreign in all the swaddled newness a baby brings. Yet familiar in that I can see my typical emotional patterns and pathways being retraced, just in heightened form. My typical stress responses get activated, and I have to work endlessly to use my internal and external resources well. What has also emerged, however, is unbridled joy–a fuller experience of love.

The irony surrounding our change-angst is that our identity development is usually more stunted by avoiding change than embracing it. Think of Howard Hughes, the famed Renaissance man and billionaire who couldn’t enjoy his wealth and success because he had a crippling fear of germs that left him confined to a lonely existence in his home. He had intellect, fame, and fortune, and yet his daily life became more horrific than any phobia he could concoct.

While our experiences are rarely that extreme, there’s a lesson, here, for all of us. Is there a life change you’ve been avoiding? What are you afraid will happen to you if you do embrace it? You’ll be a failure? You’ll miss your life of comfort? You’ll end up alone? Now, reverse that question for a moment. What might happen if you don’t embrace it? You’ll be a failure? You’ll end up alone? Consider how your paralysis might be limiting you right now. Could your avoidance of change end up being the real tragedy?

Avoiding change due to existential angst means not that we’ll escape a crisis of identity; rather, we’ll miss out on a fuller realization of who we are and what we’re capable of.

In the simple yet profound words of one master of change: “Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Oh, how immensely tragic it is when we don’t grow. We are, in essence, allowing ourselves to be handicapped, crippled in our identities. And yet, when we take the risk to grow, there may just be an unbridled joy. Could we possibly discover a fuller experience of love?

PS. This recent change in my world ushers in a formatting change for my blog. Expect shorter sound bites in variable intervals. There will still be stories, just in condensed form. Who knows what discoveries we’ll make in The Raconteer, redefined!

The Bear and the Bull: A Year in Review

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Even Wall Street has its own fable. It’s told through shorthand between financiers. The fable offers a quick sketch of the economic climate at any given point and is represented by the bear and the bull. A bear market is a market in a slump and a bull market is a market rising.

This shorthand was created due to the volatility in the market as a way to concisely describe the status of a rapidly changing, complex system.

This same technique gets easily applied when we take stock of our personal lives: when we do a year in review. When we’re nearing the end of the year, we tend to make reflexive judgments that sum up the entirety of the year either as a bear year or a bull year. We decide whether things are deteriorating or getting better and then we act accordingly.

Whether it was a bear year or a bull year, our summation of things usually ends in avoidance, but for different reasons. In a bear year we can become depressed, overwhelmed and avoidant. And in a good year we can become complacent, over-confident, and sometimes even bullish.

Avoidance in bad years can lead to further decline, and avoidance in good years to reckless mistakes. Either form of avoidance misses out on the opportunity to learn and grow from our experiences.

Investors will tell you that the best approach to either market is an eyes-wide-open one. When applied to our year in review, whether it was a bear year or a bull year, let’s acknowledge it openly and be honest about our role in it. Reflection on the year gives us the opportunity to intentionally review, recap, and then move forward. Avoidance keeps us in limbo, or a place where we’re still impacted by the year without resolution (we’re stuck). Before you hit the fast forward button on the year end, I would invite you to consider taking inventory of your year.

Here are a few questions to prime the pump:

1–What has happened this year that’s important for me to remember? Why?
2–How have I grown?
3–Isolating this past year, who are the people I valued most?
4–What have I learned through pain?
5–Where did I take risks?
6–Where was I genuinely myself? Where wasn’t I?
7–What are my takeaways?

The reset button offered by a dawning 2015 could be an easy excuse to engage in functional nihilism. But if we choose to erase the past year, we risk losing valued memories, growth opportunities, and genuine perspective.

If it was a bear year, embrace it. If it was a bull year, embrace it. This life belongs to you and no one else. If you erase it, there will be no stories to tell, no losses to weep over, no joys to celebrate, and no fables to learn from.

Warmest wishes for a very happy New Year.

Nietzsche’s Playbook

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This is a picture of an Andrew Wyeth. I stared at it, at this particular angle, for a long time; examining it with head tilted, then through the camera lens, then squinting, then wide-eyed. This picture renders paint and canvas invisible. They are no longer the mediators of this curtained scene. It is just me, tucking myself behind the curtain to stare at trails and trees. It is me breathing in the fresh air, no paint residue to stale it. It is me observing the pastoral scene sans canvassed limits.

I would argue that Realism (as a genre) succeeds when it removes the obstacle of the medium (paint, canvas, clay, metal) to reveal the transparent image. Well done, Andrew Wyeth.

I would also argue that we’re attracted to Realism because of this very ability to suspend our disbelief; this art feels true to every fiber of our beings, and we want it to be so. It’s serene, crisp, and lovely. It’s better than believing that we’re observing a flat panel fixed to a matte wall. In literature, we call this suspension of disbelief verisimilitude—when an author helps us ignore his fabrications because he has given us a reason to believe, against our better judgment, that his words are true.

In our daily lives, there’s another name for this phenomenon: functional nihilism. “If I don’t think about it, it doesn’t exist.” This is a suspension of our disbelief through willful ignorance. We are choosing to ignore part of the story.

If I don’t think about the canvas barrier that separates me from Wyeth’s pastoral scene, then it doesn’t exist, and I’m whisked away to a world of my own making, one where I don’t have to leave the wooded shelter…ever. You can see the appeal, here.

Freud would call this denial. But that word is overwrought and misses the juxtaposition of violence and pragmatism. We do violence to our memories by sentencing them to oblivion; and we do it practically as a survival mechanism—so we can function.

The heart-wrenching pain of ending a relationship can turn the best of us into functional nihilists. We want to annihilate the beautiful new beginnings that are now sickening and painful. We also want to crush the painful endings that leave us feeling vulnerable and hurt; because to replay them daily, to allow them to be a part of our moment to moment experience leaves our nerve endings perpetually exposed. Who can function when they are perpetually replaying a traumatic scene?

This pragmatism is enacted without discrimination. We willfully forget embarrassing moments, immoral decisions, and guilty feelings as well as major failures, childhood traumas, and relationship endings. This nihilism also applies to procrastination. If we don’t think about what needs to be done, we aren’t obligated to do it.

As with all of our defense mechanisms, we believe the benefit outweighs the cost. But we are blinded to what that cost is, to ourselves and others. Last year I met a woman who shared that she had gone through a bitter divorce. She was happy to declare that she was now “over it”. Intrigued, I asked how she had accomplished this. “I moved across the country.” She said. “Now I don’t have to think about him anymore.” As I listened to her story it became apparent that she had given up a huge support network, a great job, and an established life to get away from her ex-husband. Sadly, in her attempt to avoid one man, she lost almost everything else. And if the payoff was to forget him, it didn’t work. He consumed most of our conversation.

My heart goes out to this woman. Her story, though a dramatic example, is similar to our own. We are oblivious to what we’re sacrificing in our attempts at annihilation. We may not have moved across country, but we have lost out on meaningful living, nonetheless. As for this woman, whenever we engage in functional nihilism it can’t help but impact our relationships, our work, our sense of well-being–our lives.

If we take a page out of Nietzsche’s Playbook, we will find our nihilism expanding beyond the borders. We will find that, over time, what seemed functional now consumes us.

What are those events, relationships, beliefs that you’ve done violence to? If you’re honest, what have you lost in the aftermath of your annihilation?

So as not to leave us in the abyss, this is only part of the story. We can move beyond functional nihilism to embrace growth and healing. We can overcome our propensity to avoid. When we do, we no longer have to suspend our disbelief, because the healing is tangibly, palpably, and delightfully real.

The Shelf Life of Assumptions

Shelf Life

 

You probably think I enjoy listening…I don’t.

 

(Cue chirping crickets.)

 

You might also think I’m empathetic, caring, compassionate, a people person, and any other adjectives typically scripted to counselors.  People have lots of assumptions about my professional persona.  I hear them all the time in meet and greets.  “You must really love people.”  “I bet you’re a great listener.”  “People probably hate how you can read their minds.” “You must psychoanalyze your husband all the time.”  The last one is definitely true…you mutter, under your breath.

Assumptions are those things we believe to be true without proof.  Synonyms are presuppositions, conjectures, presumptions, guesses.  Assumptions are insidious.  They’re subtle, pervasive, and destructive.  No sooner do we open our eyes in the morning then we’re making a multitude of assumptions.  Our default mode is to embrace a set of beliefs based on a generalized and often inaccurate knowledge base.  A knowledge spearheaded by our projections.

Have you ever given the “perfect” Christmas gift to a recipient who ended up angry or disappointed?  This happens because of the belief that we understand our loved ones’ likes and dislikes; a belief based on projection–in this case, a bad one.  Projection is our distorted view of another’s thoughts, feelings, and desires as shadowy versions of our own.  This isn’t based on who they are but who we are.   Any follow up interactions reflect these distortions; fertile ground for our assumptions to germinate and grow.

Assumptions are reflexive, as if our brains are met with the doctor’s mallet, bi-focals perched on his nose and tapping rigorously until we jump.  We predict what our co-workers are going to say so we cut them off, mid-sentence, and respond reflexively.  Then we regret.

The problem with assumptions is they have a shelf life.  They spoil quickly and reek of projection.  They turn our relationships sour. 

That souring begins with communication. How often have you ended up in a fight with your spouse that lasted for hours only to realize you weren’t even talking about the same thing?  Most communication breakdowns involve thousands of false assumptions.

Because of these communication faux pas, assumptions are insidious internally and inter-personally.   When we presume we project instead of listening.  This leads to a reductionism that is cruelly felt by the other.  Our assumptions whittle others down into a set of beliefs based on our own biased experiences and unfounded in their characters.

Rather than sentencing our loved ones to live shadowy versions of our own lives, here are a few guidelines to consider about assumptions.  First, know your filters.  Learn more about your own projections.  You can do this by asking family and friends (if you’re brave).  Notice your strong, emotional reactions.  If you believe others are interpreting the world in the exact same way that you are, that’s an assumption based on a projection.

Second, go back to the basics.  Let’s say you have a childhood friend with whom you’ve rendezvoused at the same restaurant for the last twenty years.  Now, let’s say your friend tends to be less assertive than you.  What if your friend doesn’t even like the restaurant but has never told you?  Maybe those beliefs and affinities you’ve associated with a friend or family member are all wrong.  Try going to your loved ones and asking them.  You’ll likely be surprised by the feedback.

This leads to the third point.  When it comes to assumptions, question everything.  As soon as you notice an assumption emerge in real time test your hypothesis rather than viewing it as truth.  You can do this by collecting multiple data points.  Examples would be asking directly, noticing the person’s habits to see if your assumption fits with those habits, paying attention to body language, and noticing how quickly a conversation goes south. As we established, poor communication is riddled with assumptions.

Finally, hold your assumptions loosely.  Accept the fact that they’re unavoidable. We can’t escape forming hypotheses about others, but we can decide whether to embrace them or challenge them.  They are only hypotheses, and we would do well to incorporate twice the data points than usual to confirm their accuracy.  In other words, turn the assumptions on yourself and assume you’re wrong about them until proven right by the data.

As you learn to challenge your assumptions, see what happens to your communication skills. Do your wife, mother, and son feel better understood? Are your conversations more seamless?

So why am I a counselor if I don’t like listening?  I’m sure in the span of time it took you to read this post you’ve developed a subconscious set of assumptions to explain it.  Consider those assumptions consciously for a moment.

 

Think you’re right?

 

Musings: Dusty Books and Dustier Tapestries

IMG_0051.JPGThis post is just an article dump of a few recent readings I’ve enjoyed, with metaphors mixed in. It secondarily adds to the twenty by twenty challenge, if interested.

A close encounter with multi-colored threads is anarchy–chaotic and free
form. But from a distance, the emergence of shapes and the convergence of colors create structured images…tapestries.

Since last week’s post initiated our journey into word associations, here’s one of my favorite associations with the word tapestry:

Butler: [Answering door] Yes?
Indiana Jones: [In Scottish accent] Not before time! did you intend to leave us standing on the doorstep all day? we’re drenched
[sneezes in butler’s face]
Indiana Jones: Now look, I’ve gone and caught a sniffle
Butler: Are you expected?
Indiana Jones: Don’t take that tone with me my good man! Now buttle off and tell Baron Brunwald that Lord Clarence McDonald and his lovely assistant
[Drags Elsa towards him]
Indiana Jones: are here to view the tapestries
Butler: Tapestries?
Indiana Jones: The old man is dense, this is a castle isn’t it? there are tapestries
Butler: This is a castle and we have many tapestries, and if you are a Scottish lord then I am Mickey Mouse!
Indiana Jones: How dare he?
[punches butler in face]

–The Last Crusade

Who doesn’t like tapestries when they’re paired with dusty fedoras and boyish wit? It’s better than the usual effeminate associations.

Another association with tapestries is what I like to call “tapestry moments”. Those moments where extraneous details converge and eerily make sense together to form a bigger, connected picture. This happened recently with some seemingly extraneous details in my blog posts. I found an interesting article on personality questionnaires that suddenly forced these details from previous posts to converge:

The article is about Joan Didion, who inspired my musing on surrender. She’s responding to a questionnaire made famous by Marcel Proust, referenced in my post on beauty with his prologue quote. And that questionnaire, referenced in this article with creative repurposing, represents a Victorian version of personality assessments, ones that are essential to our work at Wellspring.

Furthermore, one of the points made on the questionnaire is useful to the twenty by twenty challenge: “Which words or phrases do you most overuse?”

As you’re working your way through the “reading list,” you may have noticed unexpected, surprising, and possibly emotional associations have emerged. If so, you’re on the right track.

In the same way, the associations you have with your well-worn words are significant. Those favorited words that we over-use represent a particular angle from which we view the world, as well as a set of positive reinforcements we’ve received for using them (a nod, a smile, increased interest in conversation, etc.). They’re carefully chosen and intentional, and often well-received, which reinforces their value to speaker and audience alike. Plus, they’re contagious. We have all enhanced our vocabularies from stealing others’ favorite words. This is why the best readers often make the best writers. They’re born to plagiarize. In the best possible way, of course.

Noticing your favorited words could be a way to deepen the benefit gained from the reading challenge. How do your associations with your over-used words fit with the emerging themes of twenty by twenty? How do the connections converge with other associations to create a significant theme, or life theme?

My takeaway about the extraneous details that converged in the Didion/Proust article?

Tapestry moments are. You can miss them or you can spot them, but they’re tangible nonetheless. If you do spot them, what next?

Oh, and by the way, for those “Fall reading list” followers who favor old, dusty books, check out the chemical romance that inspires this affinity.

Fall Reading List: Twenty By Twenty

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The sun passed the celestial equator this week, ushering in the autumnal equinox with a flurry of Boston weather.

Along with brown boots, over-eager squirrels, and the imminent threat of an unencumbered view of Wal-mart, I associate the Fall with sky-high stacks of books. The crack of dusty leather bindings and thin, sharp edges reminds me of the leafy season. So when I think of reading lists, I think of Fall.

Unfortunately, for many the Fall also ushers in the busy season of life, making it especially difficult to indulge long lists of literature.

I’ve wanted to share a reading list with you for a while–one that speaks to translating life from the office couch to the kitchen table. In fact, I’ve been really excited about it. But I also want it to be accessible for those buried under Fall to-do lists that stack higher than my dusty books.

SO…I have a proposition for you.

What if instead of an Autumn book challenge, you tackled an Autumn word challenge?

What if you took a new word every day for twenty days and contemplated that word for twenty minutes, digesting it slowly–moving it across your tongue, chewing it to one side of your cheek, and swallowing it one…bite…at…a…time?

What if that Fall reading list could be accomplished in spite of busyness by boasting the brevity of Twitter and the beauty of Instagram?

Would you be curious?

Here’s how it works. I’ve provided the pre-primed word list. Set the timer for twenty minutes of uninterrupted contemplation (set aside technology) and start with word one–see where it takes you. You can write about it, draw about it, or just reflect. When your time is up, stop where you are, leaving it unfinished. Then pick up with the new word the next day. That’s it.

This Fall word list, the best of the orchard’s apples, is hand-picked to increase our understanding of the inner monologue.

The associations we’re each drawn to in a word reflect the inner sanctum of our current thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It’s an exercise in self-awareness.

IF you drown out the noise and savor each word, and IF you digest one a day, you’ll be amazed at what might surface and how it might propel your journey–a one-a-day vitamin for the spirit.

You can journal through it, sing through it, yell through it, or whine through it. All are great options.

I’ll be digesting this list myself, with musings to come along the way.

I’m inviting you to join me on an inner journey that moves from dusty cover to dusty cover.

You ready?

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Thumb and Forefinger

Picture 094Do you remember that game you played as a kid?  It went like this: you were having fun with a friend and all of a sudden they did something that really annoyed you.  As your irritation grew, you got a brilliant idea and leapt into action.  You started to shuffle away from them, watching them get smaller and smaller as you tilted your head and lined up thumb and index finger to make a frame.  This gave you just enough space to squint and see your friend’s head sandwiched in between, disconnected from neck and shoulders and waist and legs.   You would then proceed to push thumb and index finger together until you could no longer see them shouting, obnoxiously, “I just squished your head!”  Then your friend did the same to you, and you both laughed, annoyance long forgotten and obtuse to the idea that this was weird and pointless and kind of grotesque.  Because it didn’t feel pointless at the time; it felt strangely powerful.  At least, to me it did.

At age twelve we, kids, had matured beyond those childish games…or so I thought.  I remember walking past a group of kids teasing one of their friends.  The way they were positioned reminded me of that 6-year-old standoff.  They shuffled away from their friend, heads tilted while squinting a bit, as if she suddenly appeared unfamiliar from the safe and expanding distance, and then they began to tease.  From my vantage point, nearer the group who was making fun, the target of their bullying looked small and, maybe to them, less significant.  I knew then that the distance meant something, but I didn’t know what.

Fast forward to my intern days.  I remember a younger, greener version of me perched on the edge of my counselor’s chair across from teens, and young adults, and mid-lifers.  I remember those moments when their relationships got squished, and they were emotionally constricted, draped across my couch, flattened by the loss.  I began to notice a pattern in their stories.  They would talk at great length about the change that happened in their significant other around the time he or she ended things.  They would say: “He used to be so loving but now he seems so cold.” Or, “She’s not the same person, something changed in her, something shut down.” Or, “He’s so different than he was, even a few weeks ago.  I don’t understand what happened.”  The more I heard those stories, the more I came to understand what I couldn’t at age twelve.  What they were responding to was the distance.

Those people who squished their significant others between thumb and index finger were playing at a game we all play at in our darkest moments.  Yes, every single one of us plays this game–from those who are committing horrific acts of violence in the Middle East, to the boss mistreating his employees, to the 12-year-olds bullying their friend.  In order to treat another human with cruelty, we have to squish their humanity.  In order to squish their humanity, we have to create emotional distance.  We have to withhold our affections, both from them and from ourselves.

When we’re cruel to others, it’s because we’ve emotionally shuffled away from them and squinted, until they’re nothing more than disembodied heads, until their beings seem disconnected, small and insignificant at our distal range.  They no longer have flesh and bones and feelings and thoughts, they are inextricably dehumanized.  Once we’ve distanced ourselves from them, we can treat those disembodied heads with all the indifference of an object, an object we might carelessly crush between finger tips.  And once we’ve done that, we have experienced a seductive and twisted form of power.

This distance shows up at home and at work; in the war zone and the hospital; at the coffee shop and on the train.  This distance begins inside of us.  This ability to “squish” others comes from within.

When I mourn cruelty in the world, like violence in the Middle East, human trafficking in Baltimore, or oppression in North Korea, I have to simultaneously mourn the propensity for cruelty in that squinting, little blonde.  I have to remember my own capacity to hurt and dehumanize and my own ability to oppress.

I then have to remember something else.  There is beauty and light in the world as well.  On our own we’re not capable of such beauty and light.  But we can be transformed into those who love and transformed into those who respect.  We can become guardians who protect and honor flesh and bones humanity.

When that happens, instead of shuffling away from others with squinted eyes, we’ll run towards them with open arms.  Instead of constricting another’s humanity, we’ll eagerly become those who expand it, and that expansion will fill the cavities of our own hearts as well.

 

 

Is Facebook the New Debbie Downer?

Debbie DownerThe true-to-life nature of SNL’s sketch on Debbie Downer now has backing from the Facebook Team. According to a Facebook research study, it turns out our moods are directly affected by what our friends share on social media.

I was sent a Mashable article on the ethical implications of this study and traced it back to the origin to uncover the conclusions of this peer-reviewed research.

Along with Cornell and UCSF, Facebook researchers used their news feed algorithm to edit the posted content on almost 700,000 user profiles. They skewed the feed either positively or negatively and then analyzed the resulting posts. The hypothesis was that the ingested content would affect the readers’ emotional states and contribute to an increased emotional response in their own posts. But the question was whether it would be correlative or inversely correlative. In other words, would reading positive content lead to writing more positive content or to writing more negative content? And vice versa.

The results? In short, they found that those whose feed was skewed positively ended up posting more positive content themselves and, conversely, those whose skewed negatively posted more negative content.

For some of you, this may seem like a no-brainer. However, in psychology theory it doesn’t always pan out this way. Some research supports the opposite results that positive content skews negatively as a bias effect (meaning we’re socially influenced and typically react against that influence by assuming the opposite emotional response).

However we view the ethical implications of this research, it supports an important counseling idea: co-rumination. This is the belief that our moods are affected by the moods of those around us. This is so pervasive that, cognitively, when we hear others share negative beliefs about themselves, negative information, or critical ideas, over and over in a cognitive loop (rumination), we’re more likely to internalize those beliefs and feelings ourselves and start our own pessimistic loop.

Debbie Downer is a great example of this. Maybe you’re having a good day, but then run into Debbie who shares bad news, or you read something depressing on the internet. How do you feel afterwards? How does that content affect you? Now, imagine that Debbie doesn’t just share one piece of bad news, but fifteen horrible tragedies; how do you feel then?

In a digital world, we’re more vulnerable to absorbing large quantities of information in a shorter period of time than we were in bygone, analogue eras. Much of what we absorb has an emotional bias, whether we’re aware of it or not. This means that what we’re ingesting from our news feed can be metabolized differently depending on the emotions underneath that content. And anybody who knows dieting knows that metabolic rates can either make or break weight loss. In the same way, our ability to metabolize emotional content will affect the way we feel, think, and react—making or breaking our day.

This means intentional decisions about who and what we learn from are important to our emotional well-being. It also supports something else. Absorbing information well means we need to learn to stand on our own two feet. (More on that later.)

Have you considered how much you’re impacted by what you see and read on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.? It would be easy for any of us to believe we’re above such impressionable responses, but as social creatures we were made to respond to the emotions of fellow humans, so whether we like it or not mirroring their responses is instinctual and catalytic.

So if this post made you angry, or sad, you can just call me Debbie Downer, blame your mood on my irritating ruminations, and go back to scanning memes and witty aphorisms. Or, you can start viewing social media just a little bit differently.

For my part, I’m curious about Mark Zuckerberg’s emotional response when he sees articles like this hit his own news feed…

Magic Ball

Magic BallIn the brick-lined inner sanctum of Camden Yards, magic was made Thursday night.  The magician’s hat descended after an unexpected sleight of hand by catcher Caleb Joseph.

Joseph is a recent addition who competed for backup catcher in spring training.  He was sent to the minors but got his big break when Wieters hit the disabled list.  Joseph was catching for Matusz, deadly against left-handers but currently facing right-hander Jose Reyes.

Picture this four-second trick.

Second 6: Reyes takes a full swing and tops the ball.

Second 7: It hugs the foul line as it bounces towards first base with Reyes running in tandem.  Joseph pops out from behind home plate.  Instead of running in a straight line to the ball (the natural path) he darts left towards the infield to get a proper angle on the ball and gain momentum to field it cleanly.  Halfway through second seven, Joseph, expertly positioned for momentum, has to make the decision to field the ball or leave it.  The instinctive response for a catcher in this position is to let the ball roll foul.  Joseph doesn’t do that.  He bypasses that inclination and fields it cleanly.

Now, there’s a first base rule that avid fans and Caleb Joseph alike are singularly focused on in the space between seconds 7 and 8.  This rule is known as interference.  Forty-five feet into the run towards first base, the single white line splits in two, and if there’s an infield, first base line play the runner has to stay between the two lines or the catcher can hit the runner for an out.  Usually, hitting a player running to a base doesn’t incur an out.  But in this case if his foot touches the infield he could obstruct the natural path of the ball and interfere with the defensive ability to throw it.

Second 8:  Reyes lands at the split.  He’s forty-five feet into the run and has reached a definitive boundary: the baseline.  This is the two, white lines he must live within until his foot lands on first base.  Since Joseph has the right angle on the ball, it won’t take long to throw.  But as Joseph scoops up the ball barehanded, Reyes passes that boundary and his right foot lands on the infield white line.  This means that Reyes’ left foot HAS to touch down in the infield.  Joseph anticipates the implications of Reyes’ right foot placement in a millisecond.   In that flash, he has to weigh four trajectory choices: 1. The natural choice: Go further inside, to the left, and throw to the first baseman 2. The long route: Go out to the right and throw to the first baseman, who is poorly positioned on the opposite side of the bag. 3. The prayer: A lob toss over the runner’s head to first base.  They don’t practice lob tosses in training, so the potential for error is high.  4. The Baseline Rule: The least instinctive option.  Hit the runner with the ball before he lands on first base.  The players’ jersey numbers are stamped in the middle of their backs.   The steadiest part of a player, while he’s running, is his back.  It’s also the widest part.   This creates the perfect target for a defensive bulls-eye.

Second 9:   Joseph opts for the Baseline Rule.  He flicks the ball and hits Reyes squarely in the back—squarely on the number 7.  The number seven is often used to symbolize perfection, completion, and fulfillment.  There was a sleight of hand Thursday.  That bulls-eye on 7 brought a sense of fulfillment, but not for Reyes.  Reyes had been duped.

__________

Reyes and Joseph both made split-second decisions.  The details of those decisions look like minutia: a quarter-inch foot placement, a 15 degree wrist flick, but they symbolize the difference between magic and mediocrity.

Humans are said to be creatures of habit.  Our everyday decisions can become robotic and patterned.  I wonder how often those decisions affect the broader outcomes in our lives.  Those patterned, habitual responses make the difference between success and failure.

The decision to hit the snooze button for an extra 15 minutes may leave you tired and rushed, affecting your productivity for the rest of the day.  The decision to watch TV instead of studying for the exam may leave you anxious and defeated, and ill-prepared when the exam time comes.  The decision to yell at your spouse rather than biting your tongue may mean hours of escalating arguments.  The decision to work late and miss your daughter’s soccer game may mean her getting the message that she’s not all that important.

Our productivity and relationships would benefit from baseball’s lessons.  To be aware of routine decisions and how they impact our lives is to be aware of how we shape the world around us moment by moment.

How do we create this awareness?  Close your eyes and play through a video of your own.  Observe a video of your typical day from beginning to end.  Pay attention to the routine decisions you normally take for granted.  I wonder how many decisions you make in a given four-second period that you aren’t even aware of.  Now, consider how those decisions impact your life.  What would happen if you chose to change even one of them?  What would happen if you were aware of those decisions, moment by moment, and chose the options that honored the people you love and the goals that matter?

The great thing about baseball is that it levels the playing field.  No matter how many gold gloves a guy has or what his batting average is, in any given play the backup catcher can don his magician’s hat and trick the all-star into an out.  Our little decisions do matter.  They level the playing field.  And if they level the playing field, then it’s up to you to decide whether you’ll choose magic or mediocrity.

The Ant and the Flower

ant and flower

 

Aspiring gardeners everywhere converge on flower shops during Memorial Day weekend to populate yard and house with perennials, bushes, and baskets.  This tradition always reminds me of a lesson I learned growing up.  My mom is a fantastic gardener with a vast array of knowledge about the little known intricacies of plants.  When I was young she shared the story of an often overlooked symbiotic relationship: the ant and the flower.

The peony is a long-stemmed perennial with lush, green foliage and an oversized, fragrant blossom.  It’s the supernova of flowers with a tightly confined bud that bursts open to reveal free form, vibrant petals in full bloom.

I rarely see this flower featured in vases, centerpieces, or clipping gardens, and with good reason.  Its indoor unpopularity can be attributed to the transportation of an unwelcome house guest: the ant.

When the peony is in its constricted bud form, the ant is drawn to its sticky, sweet sap.  The ant will journey to the center of the bud, loosening the petals as it squeezes in between, pushing its way to the sweet nectar.  Over time, some believe it is the ant’s journey inward to the nectar that opens the petals, exposing them to the sunlight and completing the transformation from bud to bloom.  Once the flower blooms, the ant leaves.

Without the ant, full bloom is unlikely.  The internal petals are shrouded by the constricting outer ones, and sunlight is prevented, leading to browned and shriveled buds that drop from the stem.

Some say this is merely a tale–ants aren’t essential for the transformation to occur.  All agree, however, that if the ants weren’t there, other bugs would eat away at the plant, thereby killing it.


There’s a symbiotic relationship between our past and present.  If the bud to flower transformation is growth, the ant is the past nudging its way into the center of that bud, intrusively pushing until it opens.  Once the transformation is complete, it leaves.

Most of us dissect time into separate blocks.  We say, “It’s in the past,” meaning that what happened at a single point in our life story no longer affects the way we interact with our current reality.

We have a greater propensity to believe this when we’re in pain.  This is a protective mechanism.  If we tell ourselves an experience is in the past and no longer applies to our present, we can suppress the painful feelings and associations that go with it.

The past is the intrusive ant, imposing upon the present flower.  Without the present, the past remains untranslated; without the past, the present remains underdeveloped.

All of us have negative, patterned responses that insist on surfacing, episodically.  This can come in the form of hair trigger reactions to yelling, or compulsive nail biting when we’re under stress, or over indulging in our hobbies when we’re angry.

These responses are markers of our past bleeding into our present.  They represent the way we’ve learned to compensate.  Most of us blindly engage in these responses with little thought to how they originated until they become untenable.

If we choose to notice them, they are clues to understanding that symbiotic relationship, and how the translation of the past can transform the present.

This Memorial Day weekend, when you observe the blossoming spring foliage, consider the ant and the flower.  What are the responses in your world that are markers of the intruding past?  What is unfinished in the growth process that necessitates the symbiosis?

As I write this, there’s a tiny, black ant dancing across my keyboard.  I feel a little surge of excitement, as if he’s a welcome herald, signaling that my life is about to change.