#24 — On Taking Risks: “But what if . . . ?”

June 19, 2015 1 comment

Wesley Branch Rickey’s career as a major league baseball player only lasted from 1905 through 1907. During those years, Rickey struggled to earn a position with both the St. Louis Browns and the New York Highlanders. Finally giving up the idea of being a player, Rickey went back to study administration in college and then in 1913 began a highly successful career as a baseball executive. From then until his death in 1965, Rickey served in varying capacities, including General Manager and head of player personnel development for the St. Louis Browns, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. It is in this series of roles that Branch Rickey earned his place in baseball history.

In 1945, while serving as General Manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey signed a young man named Jack Roosevelt Robinson to a minor league contract to play for the Dodger’s affiliate in the International League. For major league baseball, this was “the shot heard round the world.” Jackie Robison would subsequently become the first African-American to play for a major league team, joining the Dodgers two years later as their second-baseman. Indeed, he would not only play, he would become major league baseball’s first Rookie of the Year in 1947, be elected to the National League All-Star team for six straight seasons, from 1949 through 1954, and be named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1949.

Yet these accomplishments would not have been possible had not Branch Rickey been willing to accept a considerable risk. He knew that Jackie Robinson would be facing terrible obstacles — racism, discrimination, bigotry, and other abusive treatment. Rickey carefully coached the youngster and insisted that no matter what kind of provocation he might be subjected to, he was not to react, he was not to lose his temper, but rather just tend to the business of playing baseball. And Robinson did just that. Despite the abuse he received, the young man stayed focused and played consistently well, gradually becoming extremely popular with the American public and paving the way for future African-Americans in the major leagues.

Together Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson changed baseball and through that American culture. Those changes are still rippling today, and in some areas still meeting with resistance. Yet none of it would have happened as it did had the two not been willing to accept the risks that came with the changes they helped create. And as Rickey once noted at the time, “Problems are the price you pay for progress.”

To be sure, progress means change, and the desire for change brings a good many people to my office for therapy. Having varying degrees of dissatisfaction with their lives, they want something about themselves or their circumstances to change so their problems can be solved, and they can live happily ever after. Moreover, they expect me to explain or show them how this can happen easily and painlessly.

As a therapist, I have come to understand that life really is about problems. It’s not that we just handle our problems and then go on with our lives; rather, our lives are all about dealing with whatever our next problem happens to be. Yet many of the people who come to see me have the idea that life shouldn’t be about problems or struggles, that it’s really easy if you just know how! They seem less than satisfied when I explain that while knowing how to change is easy, doing it isn’t, because discomfort is the price of change. After all, the only way to make your “comfort zone” bigger is to get out of it!

What keeps these people rooted where they are, seemingly unable to take any action on their own behalf, is fear — fear of disapproval, fear of humiliation, fear of being seen as “different,” or fear that they will reveal themselves as incapable or unworthy of anything better. Paralyzed by this fear, they remain unwilling to risk any of these outcomes and, as a result, have little hope for any improvement in their circumstances.

Therapy begins by helping these people grasp the idea that risk is an integral part of life, that indeed there is no life without risk. While we rarely think about it consciously, we routinely assume that we live in an orderly world and that we are competent to take care of ourselves in that world. Yet upon reflection we must concede that things can happen without warning to remind us that we really have much less control and are really at much greater risk than we realize. Moreover, in this world where we have so little control, change is happening constantly. Our options, then, are not to avoid change and the risks involved but rather to decide if the changes impacting our lives will all happen to us or if at least some of them will happen from us.

As people start to come to terms with this reality, some of them actually begin to consider the kinds of changes they might make. Soon they start to weigh the potential benefits of these changes against the possible risks, and many things they had previously not even dared contemplate suddenly begin to appear possible. As this process continues, many of these people are also able to recognize that, while unpleasant, most of the possible consequences they have come to dread would only be temporary and can indeed be endured.

From here we discuss the mechanism of change and how it drives the ongoing process that represents all our lives. This mechanism is remarkably simple: You must catch yourself preparing to repeat an old behavior so you can replace it with a new one; then you have to accept the discomfort that comes with the new behavior until that behavior becomes familiar. (Anyone who has ever dieted knows how this works!) Finally, we note how discomfort is a necessary part of the change process, how change is a fundamental aspect of growth, and how growth is what life is. So, in a sense if you are not uncomfortable a good part of the time, you are not truly living. And indeed, the most common form of our discomfort is our fear of what might happen if we try to change.

Make no mistake: Accepting risk as an integral part of life tends to produce a sense of freedom, enabling us to take more control over ourselves and our lives. Moreover, where there is no fear, there is no courage. After all, it does not take courage to do something that does not frighten you. Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson are both credited with having great courage. Don’t think they were not also afraid.

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#23 – On Being Who You Are: “But I’m supposed to be . . .”

October 2, 2014 1 comment

In 1952 the Brooklyn Dodgers called up a 28-year old African-American pitcher named Joe Black from their minor league system. Black roomed with Jackie Robinson, who had broken baseball’s “color barrier” five years earlier when he joined the Dodgers. But where Robinson, a gifted athlete, was also something of a firebrand, Black was all about pitching. He had a powerful fastball and a tantalizing slow curve, both of which he threw with the same consistent motion, keeping opposing batters guessing. Moreover, Black had no qualms about throwing high and inside to keep hitters from crowding the plate.

Dodger manager Chuck Dressen assigned Black to the bullpen, where he quickly became dominant. The powerful reliever won 15 games and saved another 15, while maintaining a 2.14 ERA over 142 innings as the Dodgers won the National League title. Facing the New York Yankees in the World Series and finding himself short of starting pitchers, Dressen brought Black out of the bullpen to start the first game. With a powerful performance, Black bested Yankee ace Allie Reynolds, 4 to 2. While he later started and lost in games four and seven, Joe Black nevertheless earned the distinction of being the first African-American pitcher to win a World Series game, and he was later named National League Rookie of the Year for 1952.

During the off season after losing the series, Chuck Dressen decided that he wanted Black to add a number of pitches to his repertoire, that his two pitches were not enough. As it happened, Black had been born with a deformity in his right hand, making it difficult for him to throw anything but his fastball and slow curve. Nevertheless, he dutifully set to work adding the pitches his manager wanted, and his effectiveness immediately began to decline. After two more seasons, Black was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, then to the Washington Senators, and by 1958, he was teaching Health and Physical Education at Hubbard Junior High School in Plainfield, New Jersey. During his rather brief major league career he had compiled a record of 30 wins and 12 losses, half of those wins coming in his first year with the Dodgers. Baseball historians still speculate as to what Joe Black might have accomplished if he could simply have used what he did have instead of being pressured for more — if he could just have been himself.

I often find myself speculating in much the same way about many of the people who come to my office for therapy. They arrive with complaints about pressure, frustration, and a sense of failure. Many have already seen a physician and been prescribed medicine, which they believed would make them feel better. Yet, even with the medicine, the stresses of their everyday lives persist, taking the inevitable mental and physical toll and leaving these people with an ongoing sense of misery. For most of them, the stresses they endure daily are rooted in the instilled belief that they are not good enough as they are and that they must somehow “be more” and “do better” in order to avoid one of life’s greatest perceived penalties — disapproval.

Our need for approval starts to be fostered almost as soon as we exit the womb. Knowing nothing of who or where we are or how to go about getting our needs met, we can only rely on those who take care of us — our parents and others. Naked and helpless, we depend on them for our survival. Soon we come to understand that these “big people” represent authority; they tell us who we are and how we are doing and how we are supposed to be doing. Very quickly we learn the importance of maintaining the approval of the big people in order to avoid the painful experience of shame.

In this way avoidance becomes a major part of how we learn to cope with the world. Then, as we grow and mature, the big people come to include teachers, coaches, employers, law officers, public officials, and even “media” personalities. Eventually, we reach the point where trying to satisfy the big people becomes overwhelming since there are so many of them, and since their expectations of us keep increasing. Now, no matter what we do, we cannot avoid disappointing and being disapproved of by someone. Since the body’s stress reaction is triggered when we face demands that we do not believe we are able to meet, the stress now becomes ongoing. And, as if dealing with all this stress were not enough, we also must face the irony that in always trying to satisfy the big people, we rarely if ever manage to satisfy ourselves.

Not infrequently, people confess to me that their lives are not what they had expected them to be; many even admit they are living lives that they never really wanted. To make matters worse, the large majority of these people, having spent so much time trying to do what they were supposed to do, never got to figure out exactly what they wanted to do. Thus, feeling trapped where they are, many are also terrified by the idea of being set “free” with no direction in which to go. Working with these people starts with helping them understand that they have both the right and the ability to take charge of their own lives — to find and explore their own interests, set their own priorities, and look for approval not from others but from themselves. From here, they begin a process of discovery in which they start to find previously unrecognized aspects of themselves, valuable characteristics that help define them as individuals. Through this process, they start to establish a healthier and more complete sense of who they are. Gradually they come to see that they can live in the world and simply be themselves, doing their best at what they do and not feeling like a failure if someone does not approve.

For each of us, it takes courage to start being yourself when you have spent years, perhaps even decades, trying to be someone else. After all, we have long been trying to be and do what we were told we were supposed to be and do. Now, if we hesitate and perhaps choose to do something else, people may disapprove, some vehemently. To be sure, we all find it necessary sometimes to accommodate the big people in order to have our own needs met. With a healthy sense of self, however, it is possible for us to perform a service for someone without compromising our own sense of who we are.

In 1951, a year before Joe Black joined the Dodgers, another young African-American began playing for the New York Giants. Friendly and outgoing, this talented young centerfielder became known as “The Say Hey Kid” and ultimately established himself as one of baseball’s all-time greats. When asked how he could keep performing without being changed by the pressures of the game, Willie Mays responded, “Just be yourself and you’ll never have a problem.” Too bad Joe Black never got that message.

#22 — On Being Tested: “But I shouldn’t have to do this!”

February 9, 2014 Leave a comment

In 1963 a 20-year-old pitcher named Thomas Edward John, Jr. was signed by the Cleveland Indians. The young left-hander showed some early promise, but not enough to keep from being traded, and in 1965 he went to the Chicago White Sox. There he spent seven respectable seasons, using his sinkerball to induce batters to hit grounders and start double-plays. Yet in 1972, John was traded again, this time to the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he finally came into his own. As a regular part of the starting rotation, he proved to be a consistent winner, and midway through the 1974 season his record was 13 wins and only 3 losses, and he had accumulated 124 career victories.

Then, without warning, there was a misstep and a strain, causing permanent damage to the ulnar collateral ligament in John’s pitching arm. No one had ever come back from this type of injury, and as far as anyone knew, his playing career was over. But then an orthopedic surgeon named Dr. Frank Jobe proposed a new form of reconstructive surgery in which the damaged ligament in John’s elbow would be replaced with a tendon transplanted from somewhere else in his body. Even then, Jobe put the chances of the surgery being successful at only about 1 in 100. Nevertheless, John agreed, and the surgery was performed in September 1974. While it seemed unlikely that he would ever pitch again, John spent all of 1975 in recovery, working at his own form of rehab. Throughout that year, he had daily workouts to strengthen his arm, and he developed a style of pitching that would not strain his arm or the repaired elbow.

By the start of the season in 1976, John was ready to pitch again, and if anything, he was even better than before. His 10 and 10 record that year was considered “a miracle,” yet it was only the beginning. He won twenty or more games in three seasons after that, one with the Dodgers and two more later with the New York Yankees. By the end of his career, he had posted 288 wins, 164 of them coming after his surgery. At the time of his retirement, John had established himself as the seventh most successful left-handed pitcher in major league history. Yet beyond all the victories, he has been consistently credited for his courage, his fortitude, and his daily persistence in overcoming a seemingly impossible hardship. He did not complain. He did not seek redress for the unfairness of what life had handed him. Instead, he simply focused on what he had to do next and then doggedly went about doing it.

It is often said that the true test of our character is not in how we deal with success but in how we deal with adversity, and it is through the unexpected that life tests our character. Not surprisingly, it is often life’s unexpected hardships that bring people into my office for therapy. These people may have experienced an accident or illness, a betrayal, a loss of some kind, or any number of other possible intrusions into the lives they had been planning or had started to live. In many cases it is necessary for therapy to begin by addressing the trauma they have experienced and to help these people through the immediate process of healing. Sooner or later, however, the focus of therapy moves to the adjustments they must make. Life can no longer be viewed or lived as it had been before. The issue then becomes less about the changes that have impacted these people and more about the changes they must make in themselves in order to move on with their lives. For many, this is where the real challenge begins.

Presented with this challenge, people often resist because, after all, discomfort is the price of change. Some people simply refuse to accept that change is necessary, often demanding some justification for what life has dealt them. They may ask, “Why did this happen?” or “Why do I have to change?” Of course, such questions can never be answered to their satisfaction, since life offers no explanations; it just is what it is. At the same time, others may have the opposite view; they want change to be immediate, without all the time and effort that might be necessary — as if all that was required was the pressing of an Enter key or a swipe on a touch screen. Yet, whether it is impatience and the demand that things be “fixed” or the dogged insistence that change should not happen at all, both viewpoints result in utter futility. Life simply doesn’t care.

What’s more, people often think of changes that impact their lives as some sort of aberration interrupting whatever situation they consider to be “normal.” And yet adapting to change is an ongoing process that literally lasts a lifetime, and while it may be imperceptible in the moment, change is happening constantly. This means that dealing with change, uncomfortable though it may be, is an inevitable part of daily life, demanding both acceptance and patience. Moreover, no one is likely to achieve or sustain any substantive change without making a commitment to the process of change itself. This starts by first accepting that life permits us only limited control, and often the things we really want to change are beyond the scope of that control. We must also accept that a lot of patience may be required because the needed changes cannot be forced. Like growth in a garden, life’s changes proceed in their own time.

My own experience with open-heart surgery offered me compelling opportunities to appreciate what it really takes to be accepting and patient (See #3.). In preparing for and entering surgery, I had to accept that, while I was in a very serious situation, I was ultimately helpless and I had to let go completely and trust the surgical team. Following the surgery, I was tired and weak and in pain; yet I was informed right away that it was important to be up and moving in order to keep the newly repaired heart active. Even as I wondered if I had the strength to do it, I began my own rehab, with my loving wife guiding, supporting, and encouraging me literally step by step. Patiently we both followed a program of exercise and walking, gradually increasing day by day. It took a great deal of patience as I slowly built up speed until I could easily walk an extended period at a brisk pace that my cardiologist deemed “therapeutic.” Even being back at work, I continue to follow that regimen of brisk walking.

Famed Los Angeles Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda once noted, “The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a person’s determination.” In working through life’s hardships with acceptance and patience, we each have the opportunity to demonstrate for ourselves the truth in Lasorda’s comment. The irony to all this is that in many cases no one else will understand or appreciate fully what we accomplish. Still, you never know. No one expected much from that young left-handed pitcher. Yet thanks to his willingness to accept what life put in front of him and the patience to keep working day by day, that procedure which is medically termed ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction will forever be known as “Tommy John Surgery.”

#21 — On Playing Each Game: “But that’s not supposed to happen!”

November 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Statistics play an important role in baseball. Many fans and even some sportscasters enjoy tracking and quoting such measures as batting averages, runs batted in, earned run averages, won-lost percentages, and so on. This is all interesting information, and for many it makes the game more enjoyable. But for the players, coaches, managers, and front office staff, these simple statistics are not nearly enough. Much greater detail is needed to support what goes on in the dugouts and on the field as each manager and coaching staff tries to outthink or outguess the other. Every major league team has at least one full-time statistician to track the patterns and performance of their own players and those of other teams. The work of these specialists is so thorough that by mid-season they know what a particular opposing pitcher is likely to throw to their clean-up hitter in a late inning with a tie score, a two-strike count, and runners in scoring position. This kind of information helps managers and coaches make tactical decisions during a game, and baseball strategists have a maxim: always go with the percentage!

There is a long-held belief among players and coaches that over the course of a season, the breaks tend to even out. To be sure, they also know that nothing is guaranteed, that despite all their analysis, bad hops still happen, bad calls still get made, good players still have slumps, mediocre players still have hot streaks, and the weather is still uncertain. In other words, during any given game a lot can happen that cannot be predicted by statistics. Everyone who is part of baseball understands and accepts that uncertainty is part of the game, just as it is part of life. When it comes to life outside the ballpark, however, understanding and acceptance are not so common.

In my therapy practice I occasionally see people who simply refuse to acknowledge that the only certainty in their daily lives is the lack of certainty. Raised and ruled by the idea of “supposed to,” these people stubbornly resist the idea of adopting the attitude of a ballplayer. They just cannot conceive of dealing with life by giving it their best and taking their chances. Instead, they view life as a strictly black and white, right or wrong proposition, with rules for everyone to follow and assured outcomes for those who do and for those who do not. The mindset is reminiscent of the stereotypical perception of 1950s western movies in which the good guys wore white hats, the bad guys wore black hats, and in the end the good guys always came out ahead. Naturally, these people see themselves as the good guys, and they usually come to my office because in spite of doing everything they are supposed to do, they are not coming out ahead.

One of these was Chet, a late middle-aged man who had been diagnosed as clinically depressed, prescribed an antidepressant, and referred to me for therapy. While I understood the basis for this diagnosis, as I got to know him I found Chet frequently more angry and resentful than depressed. He had come from “a good family” and attended “good schools,” and he had done everything he was encouraged to do by his parents, his teachers, his friends’ parents, and every other influential adult in his life. He scrupulously followed a regimen of “clean living,” kept in shape and performed well in sports, while also maintaining honor grades in his studies. After college and graduate school, Chet married his high school girlfriend and went to work for a major accounting firm, where he performed steadily, if unspectacularly, in his job over the next 15 years. During that time, the couple had the expected two children, a boy and a girl, and Chet came to see himself as on his way to the success he had been raised to expect. He was unaware that gradually, imperceptibly things were shifting toward the unexpected.

In a surprise move, the firm where he worked was taken over by a larger one, and Chet found himself reporting to someone younger and less qualified than he. Soon there were internal power struggles, and Chet was drawn into a morass of organizational politics for which he was ill prepared. Unable to cope with the almost constantly shifting alliances and expectations, Chet was finally let go. Thoroughly bewildered, he spent over two years vainly trying to obtain another position. He received several offers, but none that matched what he felt he deserved to have. After all, he had followed the rules, done the work, and made the sacrifices, so where was his reward? It finally came in the form of a bank foreclosure and notice from his wife that she was leaving, taking the children, and filing for divorce. After several months of often bitter recriminations, Chet had finally succumbed to the depression that led him to my office. It took many months after that for him to acknowledge that perhaps life didn’t really owe him anything except the chance to go out and do his best every day and deal with what comes.

Too often we forget that life is like a baseball season, requiring all the same kinds of changes and adjustments and shifts in our thinking. And while we can follow the percentages and formulate strategies, we must also be prepared to set these aside and regroup when things don’t go our way. After all, during the course of a season, each game must be played in its turn, and it is not played on paper or with a computer; it is played on the field.

In the 1960 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the percentages clearly favored the Yankees. After all, they had won the Series seven times in the previous eleven years, including five of those years in a row. Still, the Pirates proved surprisingly competitive, and after six games the Series was tied. The seventh and final game was played at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. The Pirates started quickly, scoring four runs in the first two innings, but then the Yankees answered, and going into the bottom of the eighth, the Pirates trailed 7 to 4. With a runner on first and Pirate fans hoping for a rally, outfielder Bill Virdon hit a routine ground ball to the Yankees’ sure-handed shortstop Tony Kubek for what looked like a certain double-play. But at the last moment the ball took a fiercely bad hop and hit Kubek in the throat, knocking him out of the game and preserving the rally. The Pirates scored five runs in the eighth, which the Yankees answered with two runs in the top of the ninth. Then in the bottom of the ninth, with the score tied 9 to 9 and a count of one ball and no strikes, Pirates’ second baseman Bill Mazeroski hit his historic home run over the left field wall to win the game and the Series for Pittsburgh.

The odds makers and statisticians could not have predicted that a seemingly routine ground ball and a bad hop would determine the outcome of a game, a series, and a season. Yet that’s the way it goes in baseball and in life; despite our plans and preparations, we are promised nothing except life itself and what we are able to make of it. If we can accept that reality, then we can free ourselves from the burden of expectations and continue to pursue what makes life meaningful for us. And we can also remember that no matter how things go today, even if plans fail and things seem unfair, tomorrow is a whole new ballgame.

#20 – On Being Where You Are: “So, where was that again?”

July 7, 2013 2 comments

Psychology has always been a big part of baseball. When a rookie is preparing to go out on the field for his first time playing in the major leagues, the advice he is invariably given is, “Keep your head in the game.” Once he is on the field, opposing players, coaches, managers, and even some of the fans will try to frustrate, frighten, mislead, and most of all distract him and his teammates. And when this rookie comes up to hit, he will be the singular object of both obvious and subtle attempts at distraction. Infielders will chatter at him between pitches, questioning his readiness, doubting his ability, maybe telling him his bat is too heavy — anything to draw his attention away from the upcoming pitch. The catcher may offer misleading advice as to how he might distribute his weight or when he might start his swing. And the pitcher may go through powerful, determined motions suggesting one kind of pitch only to throw another. Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, who had All-Star seasons with both the Boston Braves and the Milwaukee Braves, made a career out of distracting hitters. He once observed, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” Ultimately, the challenge for all players — rookies and veterans alike — is to stay focused, to remember where they are and why. Anyone who cannot remember why he is there will not be there long.

For each of us, it is much the same as we head out to play in life’s ballpark. There are distractions everywhere. Every day we encounter more people heading for more places more quickly to do more things. And day by day, the growing numbers, the increasing desires, and the faster pace make life ever more complicated. In addition, many more distractions are arranged for us deliberately. The various “media” create a daily deluge of demands for our attention, advising us as to what to buy, what to wear, what to drive, where to eat, what organizations to join, what services to use, even what to think and how to vote. With rapidly advancing technology, our electronic devices have made us hostage to convenience, with the result that we have become so distracted that people are being diagnosed with “attention deficit” problems in record numbers. This fact alone has raised the stress level for a great many people, with the inevitable results of more illnesses and injuries, more absences from work, more visits to doctors, more sales of pharmaceuticals, and in many cases, more visits to a therapist.

In recent years it has become all too common in my therapy practice for me to see people who have lost their sense of personal control. These people consistently report feeling overwhelmed by daily demands for information, decisions, opinions, and in many cases just simple correspondence or even idle chatter. One man recently confided that during his typical day he can receive as many as three dozen electronic messages from people expecting him to respond immediately, without regard to where he is or what he might be doing at the time. As this man’s situation becomes increasingly common, more and more people come to feel hopelessly overcommitted as they try to stay on top of things and be the people they believe they are supposed to be. For many, it is as if they have somehow lost the right to be in charge of themselves, so instead they just plod through life by rote, accomplishing little and not knowing why. And, of course, that is the real challenge; because for many this loss of control is the result of having lost — or possibly never having had — a personal sense of purpose.

To be sure, some people are pathologically distracted and suffer from a neurobiological disorder that makes attention very difficult and requires them to take medicine regularly, much the same as someone with diabetes must have regular doses of insulin. But for more than a few, there is a failure to recognize, or perhaps to remember, how they have come to be where they are and where they could be instead. They seem to have forgotten that they are actually entitled to define and pursue their own goals and stay focused on them. Many have even come to see themselves as victims of life rather than active participants in it. As a result, in the heat of the moment, when they are presented with so many demands coming from so many directions, these people can easily lose perspective and, like that rookie batter, forget where they are and why.

Therapy will typically address this situation by encouraging people to connect (or perhaps reconnect) with their sense of personal power. Since exercising power consists of making choices, it is important to remember that we only get to choose in the present moment — here and now. We cannot choose in the past or in the future. But if we are distracted and our attention is not on our present circumstances, than our decisions will be made not by design but by habit, which tends to result in our simply staying where we are instead of moving on to where we could be.

To help with this situation, it has become popular in recent years for therapists to encourage the practice of “presence” or “mindfulness” as a way of bringing attention fully to the present moment — where we are and what we are doing. The idea is to be observant of our immediate experience, both internal and external, without judging it and, therefore, without simply reacting to it. This awareness enables us to make conscious choices as to the meaning of our experience, and it allows us to regain personal control and take action according to our own priorities. In doing so, we can then approach life not as victims but as volunteers.

In baseball, successful players, those who remain focused on what they are doing on the field, are often described as having an exceptional “ability to concentrate,” as if they are possessed of some unusual gift. And yet, concentration is not about ability, it is about intent! It is worth noting that the terms “attention” and “intention” have the same root — tension. This implies effort invested for a purpose. Remember, the phrase “paying attention” suggests that we are investing in something, that we intend to devote time and energy to something because we deem it to be important. This is what allows us to remain mindful of our own priorities and not be distracted.

It would be hard to find a better example of purpose than home run king Henry Aaron. From the moment he entered the on-deck circle, Aaron remained focused on the opposing pitcher, looking for signs of what pitch was coming. At the plate, Aaron knew what pitch he wanted, and when it came, no matter how much the pitcher had tried to disguise it, he was ready. His Milwaukee Braves teammate, first baseman Joe Adcock, once observed, “Trying to sneak a fast ball past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.” Aaron’s record attests to the nature of purpose and the focus it makes possible.

The message for all of us then, as we strive to succeed in life’s ballpark, is the same as for that rookie. If you want to have control of your life, avoid distraction, set your own goals and pursue them, and achieve what is important to you, then keep your head in the game!

#19 – On the Nature of Opinions: “So, what do you think?”

June 2, 2013 3 comments

President John F. Kennedy once remarked, “Too often we . . . enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” I have often wondered if he might have been sitting in the stands during a baseball game when he made this comment. Baseball fans certainly don’t lack for opinions, and they seldom hesitate to express them. I remember as a boy sitting in the grandstand at Fenway Park and hearing nearby fans loudly berate one of the players they had seen make an error or the umpire for what they thought was a bad call. This seemed to happen with every game, and it didn’t matter what the score was or who was on the field. I remember too how my Dad would always point out that “purchasing a ticket gives you the right to express your opinion.” Yet, as I listened to these fans exercising their rights, I was also struck by the fact that no one on the field seemed to care. Instead, both players and umpires just went about their business, without regard for the noise being made in the stands. Indeed, they all remained focused on the game and were not even interested in what anyone else had to say about it. And the game never even slowed down. Over the years, I have always been convinced that there was an important lesson here.

It is of course axiomatic that people will have opinions. As we start to experience the world as children, we begin to assess and evaluate our experiences and those we hear about from others. Eventually, our assessments combined with those of others — usually our parents — form the bases for beliefs we come to hold about the world and ourselves. And these influences on our beliefs continue throughout our lives as we deal with daily events and what our institutions tell us about them. Every day, we are beset by opinion polls and editorial comments designed to influence our views of things. The consistent underlying message is that if most people believe something, it must be true, and that if we don’t go along with that opinion, there must be something wrong with us. This is why so many of us are focused on wearing the right shoes, driving the right car, and voting for the right candidate.

It is also not surprising that so many of us forget we are actually relying on opinion and not fact. We stop observing and questioning and thinking, and simply assume that we know the “truth.” Of course, when other people offer us their opinions, they expect us to agree with their truths. Most of us have had the experience of having someone give us an opinion with which we disagreed and then seeing our disagreement prompt resistance, perhaps disbelief or even hostility. After all, when someone disagrees with us, things start to become personal; if our truth is being challenged, we are being challenged. How we choose to deal with those challenges and respond to the differences that emerge in our circumstances and relationships says a lot about who we are. It is also a frequent reason while people come to my office seeking therapy.

For many of these people, it isn’t just that they have been taught to believe things about the world that are false or distorted; sadly, it is often much more. Many have also been taught, either deliberately or by happenstance, to believe terribly negative things about themselves — that they are somehow flawed or unworthy, lacking in intelligence or social appeal, or perhaps simply deserving of nothing better than to be treated as objects. Many are even taught that they have no right to form their own opinions or to be the final judges of their own intentions or actions. And so, they remain shackled by these self-condemning beliefs, always fearful that others might have negative opinions of them. Feeling unworthy and inept, they remain ever vigilant and ready to apologize for any action or utterance that might bring on someone’s disapproval. As a result, they never think of exploring their own potential and living their own lives in ways that might be satisfying to them. They never consider that opinions are simply statements of personal view and are not necessarily based on facts. For these people, the goal of therapy is to help them develop a more complete and accurate picture of themselves and to understand that they need no one’s blessing or approval simply to be who they are. The work is often long and difficult, but for those who persevere, the rewards are increased self-acceptance and the courage to express their own individuality.

Expressing individuality was not a problem for Mark Fidrych, who began pitching for the Detroit Tigers as a gangly 22-year-old in 1976. Nicknamed “The Bird” after a character on Sesame Street, Fidrych quickly became the object of a variety of opinions from fans, players, and even umpires because of his unusual mannerisms on the field. He often crouched down before pitching in each inning to “manicure the mound.” During the game, he frequently strode around between pitches and talked out loud to himself and to the ball. Sometimes he would even throw balls back to the umpire, insisting that they be taken out of the game “because they had hits in them.” At first, Detroit fans were not sure what to make of this unusual character. He clearly did not live up to their opinions of who a big league pitcher was supposed to be and how he was supposed to act. But fans outside of Detroit didn’t hesitate to pass judgment on Fidrych’s behavior. They booed and hollered derisive comments in an ever increasing chorus of negative opinion. Yet the young pitcher remained oblivious to the noise. He kept his head in the game, followed his own routine, and before long the chorus began to subside. By season’s end, Fidrych had pitched 24 complete games, winning 19. His 2.34 ERA led the league and earned him second place in the voting for the Cy Young Award — the top award for pitchers. And despite all the critical opinions, Fidrych was named the American League Rookie of the Year. Although his career was unfortunately cut short by injuries, Mark Fidrych remains a clear example of what is possible when someone is willing to be true to her/his individuality even if doing so is contrary to “popular opinion.”

I think the lesson I was being offered all those years ago in the cheap seats is that no matter what the popular opinions may be, it is still up to us to keep our heads in the game. By continuing to do our own thinking, making our own judgments, we can keep opinions from becoming substitutes for facts. We can keep our own sense of individuality while respecting those of others. Then we can perform at our best and in our own way. We can even become our own Rookie of the Year.

If you have read this far, you have likely formed some opinions of your own regarding beliefs, differences, and the significance of independent thoughts. It is important to remember that your conclusions can be entirely your own; you are under no obligation to accept or agree with anyone else’s opinions . . . including mine!

#18 – On Looking for Possibilities: “But I can’t just change now!”

April 14, 2013 Leave a comment

Spring is often seen as a season of renewal, a time when things that have been dormant during the winter emerge and begin to grow again. For baseball fans, this sense of renewal arrives annually as their favorite teams leave the confines of winter and head for sunnier locations and the annual ritual of spring training. As noted baseball owner and executive Bill Veeck once observed, “the true harbinger of spring [is] not crocuses or swallows returning to Capistrano, but the sound of a bat on the ball.” This is a time when shortcomings of the previous season can be addressed and attention given to sharpening skills that can help during the long season ahead. For fans, this is a time in which old disappointments can be set aside in favor of new hopes, when they can imagine themselves in a world where they are once again young and imbued with a sense of possibility. In short, this is a time for fresh starts.

Yet, in a world where most people are reduced to spectators, for many the sense of possibility that spring training represents can seem distant, even absent in their daily lives. Instead, they plod through what Henry David Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation” — outwardly satisfied, yet inwardly longing. Some of them, tired of enduring this quiet suffering, find their way into my office. Ranging in age from twenties to sixties, these people come with pained yet quizzical expressions, often greeting me with the familiar cliché — “I think I’m having a midlife crisis!”

These people often report a variety of symptoms — anxiety, depression, or other stress-related problems. Some have been referred by their doctors after having found no relief from taking medicine. In general, they feel lost and frustrated and without purpose. Their circumstances vary, but their sense of being trapped and helpless does not. Needing to do something, yet fearful of doing the wrong thing, they continue to do nothing except be miserable. Unhappy with where they are in their lives, they simply cannot see any way to arrange something better. Almost without exception, these people have lost all sense of possibility.

So, how does someone manage to get into such a persistent and disheartening routine? Certainly few of us would set out to establish ourselves in lives of such oppressive tedium. So how does it happen? The answer is deceptively simple: one day at a time. Adhering to the encouragements we receive as children, which often persist well into adulthood, we are prompted each day to “get ahead,” to “be successful, and to “make something of ourselves.” The result is that many of us find ourselves obediently moving though life in a direction that we may have contemplated only vaguely if at all.

Almost from our very arrival on the planet we are coaxed and cajoled, pushed and prodded to find our way into the competitive mainstream. Today there is even intense competition for placement of youngsters (more like toddlers) in the most desirable or advantageous pre-school programs. Not gaining entry into one of these programs is often seen as a failure that marks the unfortunate child as somehow deficient. This child may even be put into some kind of remedial program, often with the result that the sense of personal inadequacy is simply reinforced. And it doesn’t end there. High school students are increasingly being required to select a college major even before enrolling in college as freshmen. Then, upon graduating from college, they are expected to emerge fully qualified in some professional or technical capacity so they can immediately “be productive.” From there the popular culture urges everyone to achieve, to earn, and above all to consume, with an ever higher “standard of living” as the way of keeping score.

With all this emphasis on competition and accomplishment so early in life, people are increasingly finding themselves living with life choices that they would prefer not to have made. In therapy many start to become aware of their own frustrations and latent resentments over not having had the time to consider a variety of life paths or to explore their own personal interests and talents. And yet, despite being upset over where they are, most believe there are no options for change — no possibilities. Some are held in place by fearing what other people might think of them if they do seek something different; others simply have no clear idea of what they might actually want. Yet, however gradually, the focus of therapy inevitably does shift from regret to change.

To be sure, such change is not easy — especially when you have already invested decades in your present circumstances. Even when you are clear on the change you want to make, starting over can be a major undertaking, potentially impacting career, income, relationships, family, and more. This is why so many cling to their misery rather than trying to pursue their passion. And if you have not yet found your passion, the effort just to look for it can be equally daunting. It isn’t surprising, then, that so many of us hesitate before deciding to make a major life change.

My own journey has sometimes been ponderous and often frustrating (See #2 and #3). But it taught me that life doesn’t necessarily work the way many of us were encouraged to believe. The course of life rarely runs in a straight line. Instead, it presents us with many twists and turns and forks in the road — many possibilities. In the modern hurry-up world where everything must happen in the space of a sound bite, we are not encouraged to explore many possibilities. Yet they are there. Indeed each year, each week, each hour, even each moment can be viewed as a chance for a fresh start, just as in spring training. As Cleveland Indians ace pitcher Bob Feller once observed, “Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind and start over again. That’s the way life is, with a new game every day.”

If you’ve ever watched a hitter trying to break out of a slump, you’ve seen someone busily experimenting — adjusting his grip, his stance, his position at the plate, his weight shift, his timing, and more. This is someone willing to try anything to start hitting, no matter how outlandish or disruptive it might seem or how awkward he might look in trying, because he knows that without doing that he will wind up on the bench. That’s also the way it is with life. We must always be open to possibilities and willing to explore new directions, even knowing that change will not be easy. Yet change we must if we are truly to be ourselves and to participate fully in what life has to offer. Otherwise, rather than being in the game, we could wind up just sitting on life’s bench.

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