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: How’s It Going?

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For those of you working your way through the Fall Reading list challenge, you’re probably about half to three-quarters through by now.

How’s it going?

As you think back on those twenty minutes a day, what are your takeaways? What has surprised you, frustrated you, disturbed you, or enticed you?

I quickly noticed an emergent theme. Those thoughts and feelings I normally tuck into the back recesses of my mind were unearthed quickly. They would surface in different shades and textures with each new word, but they were the same themes nonetheless.

I unearthed problems that I need to make decisions about but would rather avoid, and I uprooted beliefs about myself and others I would prefer to ignore.

Uninterrupted self-evaluation tends to do that. If we allow it to, it acts as a homing beacon, drawing us directly to the source of our inner tension that we’re so prone to run from. It draws us to beliefs like “I’m not okay.” “I can’t handle this.” “I’m a failure.” “I’m helpless.” Etc.

As I’ve been sitting with that tension for an uninterrupted twenty minutes every day, something surprising has happened. Those beliefs, when I face them, begin to lose their power. The distortions they create start to fade away and are replaced by truth. That truth is unsettling and beautiful, simultaneously, and most importantly it’s healing.

We’ll talk more next time about truth and decisions. At certain points in our lives, truth is harder to see, feel, and taste, and we may need guides along the way.

For now, a couple thoughts. If you’re trudging through the list and finding no benefit, or no emerging theme, consider if there are ways that you are blocking/protecting yourself from facing that self-evaluation? What would it look like to embrace what you’re afraid of?

If you’re flying through the list and find superficial interpretations emerging, but nothing of substance, what would it look like to slow yourself down and really savor the list, rather than viewing it as another task to be conquered?

Finally, if you’re savoring the list, facing fears, and are uncertain of how to make decisions with what you’re uncovering, ask yourself, “what’s holding me back from those decisions?” What would it look like to do something different, to allow a break in pattern?

There are many ways we derail ourselves from truly facing the things we fear most. Courage is elusive and intangible at such moments, but it is still available to us.

We’ll revisit truth and decisions after you’ve made your way through more of the list. For now..

I’ll ask again, how’s it going?

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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Musings: On Seaside Ports and Lobster Roll

A lot of basic schemas in life are incredibly inefficient: Marriage…Sleep…Eating…Sex (not in that order)…Caring for anything from goldfish to elderly parents. Relationships, at their core, are inefficient.

I savor these inefficiencies, for all of their flavors.

One of my inefficient quirks is that I name the wind. Not by breeze, or gust, or hurricane, or whisper, but by geographic location. A warm whisp is Carolina. A robust, autumnal blow is Boston. A summer chill is New Hampshire. A spring Nor’easter is Rehoboth, and a wintery tantrum is Alaska.

Today is a Boston day. It smacks of seaside ports, lobster rolls, and frothy accents.

These inefficiencies make my day. These quirky, extraneous details are the very ones that delight and revive.

Without them my world (on a good day) might be supremely efficient. But it would never be savory–all of the substance, none of the season.

Beauty and the Selfie

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“‘I could not take my eyes from her face which grew larger as she approached, like a sun which it was somehow possible to stare at and which was coming nearer and nearer, letting itself be seen at close quarters, dazzling you with its blaze of red and gold.’ Proust wishes her to remain forever in his perceptual field and will alter his own location to bring that about: ‘to go with her to the stream, to the cow, to the train, to be always at her side.’” –Marcel Proust from “On Beauty and Being Just” by Elaine Scarry

Observers of beauty desire begotten immortality.

This is a fascinating assertion made by Elaine Scarry, Professor of Aesthetics at Harvard. Her definition of beauty is currently lost in translation in pop culture, which is why reviewing the points made, including those on replication and contractual agreements, primes the pump for a revitalized conversation on this well-worn topic.

Why does a man stare at a beautiful woman? According to Scarry, he stares because of his ardent desire to take in the beauty he sees until it becomes immortal, forever imprinted in his mind with all of its original, immutable features. Scarry says this: “The first flash of the bird incites the desire to duplicate not by translating the glimpsed image into a drawing or a poem or a photograph but simply by continuing to see her five seconds, twenty-five seconds, forty-five seconds later—as long as the bird is there to be beheld. People follow the paths of migrating birds, moving strangers, and lost manuscripts, trying to keep the thing sensorily present to them.”

You’ll have to forgive me for writing in essay form today, but it helps communicate her perspective, and I think her perspective is one that’s readily applicable to everyone from Facebook moms to LinkedIN execs.

According to the above quote, when we try to capture beauty, we recognize our mortal limitations, and observers of beauty desire begotten immortality. Once gone, the object of our admiration loses some of its original qualities in the fading recesses of our visual memories. How do we combat this in our quest to immortalize beautiful things? We find tangible ways to copy them. If beauty cannot remain immortalized in visual memory, we strive for the next best thing, to replicate it. “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” Beauty, upon becoming conscious of its tragic mortality, demands replication.

What’s the favored cultural choice for replication? The selfie. This self snapshot is a personalized way to copy our favorite moments, in freeze frame (recognizing their transience), with the hope that others will see and appreciate the aesthetic value. There’s an added benefit that others get to enjoy those moments with us. The selfie is a fun and practical way to mark events when others aren’t around to play the role of photographer, but as an example of beauty it falls short.

In selfies, the observed and observer are one and the same. The subject that is emanating beauty must attempt to copy itself. This may seem innocuous at first glance, but it deceptively supports the cultural ethos that tarnishes beauty’s reputation. This ethos is based upon a one-dimensional view of beauty that is superficial and self-conscious. Let me explain. In photography, the photographer plays the role of narrator, editing with the frame, choosing just the right light, and electing the exact moment to snap, the one that will best capture the edges of the human spirit. With the selfie the defined narrator is also the protagonist in the story. Therefore, the narrator loses essential perspective.

The outcome is this. What we end up capturing is not a self-forgetful photo that replicates beauty, but a contrived and self-conscious interpretation of what we think others want to see. In our self-consciousness we end up masking the attributes that would enhance others’ enjoyment of the aesthetic, we lose the three-dimensional replication. In this sense, the selfie is flat and one-dimensional. It captures us from the physical angles we believe enhance beauty–the eyes and cheekbones and lips, and these traits can be very appealing–but in our preoccupation with being photographer and subject, simultaneously, we lose our ability to unconsciously express a soulful beauty. The contrived nature of the photo whittles away some of the genuine expressiveness that would enhance the emanating internal beauty.

The exception to the selfie rule is when there’s more than one person in a selfie, at which point you may see less self-consciousness from those who aren’t playing the role of narrator. This advances the argument that beauty is best captured by an observer who is other-than the object of beauty itself.

Have you ever seen the candor in a captured expression that enriches the picture because of its self-forgetfulness? For example, a surprised or wide-eyed look, an unabashed and wide grin? These are all vestiges of the internal beauty rising to the surface at just the right moment of replication. Often, this effect is due to the interaction between the photographer and subject, an interaction that advances the storyline. This robust and non-superficial snap of beauty is best captured when the subject is acutely unaware of what he or she is emanating.

When we replicate beauty through photography, the interaction between photographer and subject can enhance the emergence of beauty in ways that allow it to be photogenically captured. This interaction hints at the communal nature of aesthetic emergence.

If beauty demands a separate observer (narrator) to interpret and replicate it, then beauty cannot be self-interpreted or solitary. “At the moment one comes into the presence of something beautiful, it greets you. It lifts away from the neutral background as though coming forward to welcome you—as though the object were designed to ‘fit’ your perception. In its etymology, ‘welcome’ means that one comes with the well-wishes or consent of the person or thing already standing on that ground. It is as though the welcoming thing has entered into, and consented to, your being in its midst. Your arrival seems contractual, not just something you want, but something the world you are now joining wants.”

The moral of the story? If we apply Scarry’s definition, then beauty is best interpreted, replicated, and celebrated not in the solitude of the selfie, but in engaged and receptive community.

I truly hope that you who are camera shy will reconsider allowing yourself to play the singular role of subject. I hope you will take the risk of being photographed at varied angles and with unfiltered expressions knowing that beauty may emerge in unexpected ways, and interpreted differently than you would interpret it yourself. Can you dare to allow your beauty to be interpreted by other narrators? Can you dare to believe your own attractive qualities, when replicated, may contribute to the well-being of your community?

Communal observers of beauty desire begotten immortality, because true beauty points to that which is life-giving.

Musings: Back to School

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I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. –Maya Angelou

I would favor an addition to the list: the first day of school.

You can tell a lot about a person by the way (s)he handles that rite of passage. Parents are in mourning, children are celebrating…or is it vice versa? Teachers are bracing, ready to relive the Cold War and bunker under desks. Okay, maybe not all of them. Some teachers like the first day of school, much to the parents’ confusion.

Yes, you can tell a lot by that first day. So much of our cultural cadence fixes on the rhythms of the school year. And, I must say, so do our emotions. Those emotions, representing the collective cultural psyche, ebb and flow with the learning calendar. During the school year, routines re-emerge and the pace accelerates. We’re mostly all hurrying at the same times and slowing at the same times, with anxiety and impatience or boredom to match.

School year boredom is conquered by leaping from one awesome event to another. We’re perched precariously on the edges of our calendars to avoid landing on the unspecial days. And when there’s been too much family time or too much school time without the proper balance, there’s a palpable tension in the air, everywhere. We’re all a bit more impatient for things to reset, whether it’s for Christmas break to finally end, or for Spring break to hurry up and get here.

When we spend our time leaping from one event to another, time accelerates. And when time accelerates too quickly, we lose our bearings. We end up destabilized and anxious about lost time. We can also end up disillusioned by the special moments we’ve been living for that have failed our lofty expectations.

As we begin another school year and face the possibility of being swept up in the cultural tide, I hope we’ll each consider this. The first day of school can be a rite of passage into another year of life on fast forward, or, an opportunity to hit pause, observe, and decide: Will I show up for every single day of my life, poised and ready? Or will I discard the in-between moments and live for the highlight reel?

You can tell a lot about a person by how she handles the first day of school. But you can tell a lot more by how she handles the second day, the twelfth day, and the ninety-seventh.

Sound the Barbaric YAWP

Oh Captain My CaptainI sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.

–Walt Whitman

As an English and Psychology major, one of my favorite Robin Williams’ movies is Dead Poets Society.   I remember watching it for the first time and being smitten by the idea of “sucking the marrow out of life”.  Carpe Diem was incarnated in the passion for adventure and for existential questions.  And one of the most universally stirring scenes began with sounding “the barbaric YAWP”.  For those who haven’t seen it, in short summary, Ethan Hawke is the shy, repressed high school student eager to learn from Robin Williams, the avant-garde English professor serving up Walt Whitman’s poetry with a side dish of radical ideas on free thinking.  These ideas are met with tremendous resistance from the powers-that-be at their college prep school.  And the decision to agree with the intriguing, radical professor comes at great peril.

In the storyline, the English professor (Williams) asks the introverted student (Hawke) to utter his own barbaric yawp—a guttural cry, an incantation, giving voice to deep-seated and long repressed emotions.  The barbaric yawp is primal, poignant, and cathartic.  This scene is climactic in the story line as Ethan Hawke’s character begins with barely audible stuttering and slowly gains courage until he finds his voice for the first time in that guttural scream.  His barbaric yawp is met with the applause of his fellow classmates as they recognize how that cry resonates with their own desire to unshackle what has long been chained, and their own hope of discovering their audible voices.


On the day that Robin Williams died, this champion of the barbaric yawp, our culture uttered its own, collective guttural cry.

I’ve read and skimmed countless articles about Robin Williams’ death over the past week and a half.  In the two days following his death, reactions poured in regarding his depression, his struggles with addiction, his suicide, his contribution to the world, how the media handled the news, and how everyone on social media did or did not handle the news.  Seemingly every angle was covered and the overwhelming theme was championing greater awareness of mental illness and suicide prevention.

Then, two days later, more news came.  Robin Williams had Parkinson’s disease.  The landscape of the conversation changed a bit, and the blogs and newsfeeds quieted.  Maybe this was because they had already exhausted that guttural incantation, or maybe it was because the diagnosis of Parkinson’s really did change their view of the events surrounding his death, and maybe it changed their grief response to follow.

Whatever the case may be, the content of the posts and the trends toward conversation or silence were all important diviners of human nature—the nature of those responding to his very unfortunate death.

Those bird’s-eye eulogies, the responses to depression, the responses to addiction, the responses to impressions made:  “I met him once…” or “My favorite memory of him is…”; the created platforms to champion psycho-education about depression, or provide numbers for suicide hotlines, or criticize other media responses to the news; the many and varied reactions told me so much more about each author’s own grief than about Robin Williams’ life and death.

Grief tumbles out of us in a barbaric yawp.  In the instance we hear the grief-inducing news, all of these emotions course through our bodies in various states of consciousness until we’re left screaming on blogs, or crying out through articles, or Facebook posts to friends, or stream-of-consciousness ramblings into leather journals.  Grief leaves us searching for an outlet for all of the conflicting emotions—a welcome release.

Like the barbaric yawp, grief is also one way we find our own voice.  It brings out the primal fear, anger, sadness, despair, and the other, sweeter raw emotions surface as well: compassion, love, respect, and the ever beautiful–hope.

I saw every one of these emotions cutting through these bird’s-eye eulogies in articles–dissecting sentences into distinct emotional categories.  Here’s one of my favorites, a quote from author Anne Lamott (who grew up with Robin Williams) to her friends on Facebook:

“Here is what is true: a third of the people you adore and admire in the world and in your families have severe mental illness and/or addiction. I sure do. I have both. And you still love me. You help hold me up. I try to help hold you up. Half of the people I love most have both; and so do most of the artists who have changed and redeemed me, given me life. Most of us are still here, healing slowly and imperfectly. Some days are way too long… Gravity yanks us down, even a man as stunning in every way as Robin. We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up tool boxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity. You know how I always say that laughter is carbonated holiness? Well, Robin was the ultimate proof of that, and bubbles are spirit made visible.”

Unexpected moments of grief are not to be taken lightly.  They are tremendously emotional because they reflect the gravity of the situation at hand.  And yet, if they’re vessels for carbonation, they demonstrate how levity can come while standing on holy ground.  Our instinct to sound the barbaric yawp should come with the knowledge of what we’re sounding.  The death of a celebrity often comes with collective cultural stirrings.  Add the tragic circumstance of suicide to that, and the cultural response is amplified tenfold.

For those who didn’t feel that strongly about Robin Williams, you may still have been impacted by the nature of his death, or his experiences with depression, or addictions, or Parkinson’s.  And, simultaneously, you may have been impacted by his effervescence.  There’s so much to be impacted by in his story.  When we experience grief and sound the barbaric yawp, we are searching for meaning, and for some way to make sense of the painful tragedy we’re experiencing.  We’re looking for hope.

Is there hope for you?  Is there meaning behind the carbonated holiness, shaken and stirred?

(Spoiler Alert)

At the end of Dead Poets Society, the boys rally around their beloved Professor.  In a display of solidarity led by the once-shy boy turned man, they stand on their desks defying the powers-that-be, and call out to him one last time: “Oh Captain, my Captain”.

They would follow him anywhere, risking the “abyss” because shaken and stirred, they have hope.

Continue reading

On Birth Order and National Vinyl Record Day (The latter is way cooler, the former is more apropos to counseling)

SO, today is my birthday.

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Here’s me celebrating in my second favorite hat.

That’s not what this is really about, though. It’s about the amazing holiday (or holidays) that just happens to coincide with my birthday: National Middle Child Day.

Not sure when the unilateral decision came to add a plethora of arbitrary holidays to an already over-populated American calendar, but here are a few of my favorites: Vinyl Record Day

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(ALSO my birthday, but less related to counseling, equally awesome, though, check it out); Croissant Day; Do A Grouch A Favor Day; Tell A Story Day; Scavenger Hunt Day; Flip Flop Day; and, of course, Talk Like A Pirate Day.

National Middle Child Day affords me the opportunity for a quick conversation on birth order. Birth order is both accurately predictive and keenly misinterpreted as an algorithm for individual responses.

Most people tend to hold their judgments about birth order predictions too tightly rather than viewing them as both accurate and inaccurate. Birth order both shapes our responses and doesn’t, simultaneously. We would do better to view a person’s birth order as predictive along a dynamic spectrum rather than as categorically definitive of fixed traits that have been crystallized since birth. Sometimes we will act out of these stereotypical traits–sometimes we will not.

There are a variety of factors (including but not limited to birth order) that increase the likelihood for our predisposition to specific traits. Take the middle child, for example. Middle children tend to be more go-with-the-flow, amicable types who get along well with most people…or so we like to think.

For those of you who are rebelling against my quick description of your siblings, this is where the “other factors” part comes into play. If there’s a large gap between first born and middle, or middle and youngest, this can skew the stereotypical application. Or if there are step siblings involved who were only part-time inhabitants of your home, that changes things. Or if there was significant trauma in the home, or boarding school, etc., the landscape varies.

This applies to any birth order individual. There are often characteristics that make it easy to spot birth order and others that skew the “one size fits all” research results.

Doesn’t this just reinforce the amazing mystery that is human nature? We are so simple in some ways and vastly complex in others. We can’t even understand ourselves, much less be reduced to quantifiable birth order statistics.

This complexity is often demoralizing to us. But it’s so important and useful. In light of today’s conversations that seem to reduce Robin Williams’ tragic and untimely death to a cluster of depressive attributes, remember that there was infinitely more to him than that, and there’s infinitely more to you than birth order, a DSM diagnosis, or your current situation.

I will come back to Robin Williams’ death another time, but please know I’m grateful for the positive attention these conversations bring to mental health awareness. Simultaneously, I know the heavy focus on these symptoms overshadows much of the other vibrancy offered. He can easily come across as a tortured and insecure soul in these bird’s-eye view eulogies. Just as you can come across as only tortured in your own worst moments of self-appraisal. It’s in those very moments that complexity is comforting.

With the recognition of our astonishing mystery comes the reassurance of knowing we can’t be confined to drab, brown boxes that have outlived their usefulness. So if you want to celebrate that mystery with me, slip on those headphones and pull out that circular record, the one that doesn’t fit a square box in any and every way.

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.