#17 – On the Search for Tools: “But why won’t that work?”

March 3, 2013 1 comment

Baseball players are very particular about their tools. A batter getting ready to hit will often take time to select just the right bat before going up to the plate. Each infielder and outfielder will use a particular glove and make sure it is properly maintained. And in the modern game, each hitter will have a preferred set of batting gloves. These and other items such as spikes, caps, batting helmets, ankle or shin guards, and so on are all among the tools that players use during the game. While these tools tend to be more sophisticated that those of a generation ago, today’s players are just as attentive to their tools and rely just as heavily on them as the players of yesterday. And yet, as important as their tools are, the players all know that tools are no substitute for knowledge or skill, and that the game must still be played on its own terms. Unfortunately, when it comes to life outside the ballpark, this maxim is not so widely accepted.

In today’s world, tools are enthusiastically promoted and sought after as a kind of be-all-and-end-all for living. All the popular media regularly run advertisements for a wide variety of tools, with something for everyone. Whether it involves losing weight, building muscle, remodeling your home, repairing your plumbing, preparing your tax return, or simply making coffee, there is a tool or a set of tools just waiting to make your life easier. And thanks to the pharmaceutical industry we are now beset by advertisements promising relief from anxiety or depression or any other variation of mood or state of mind that might cause us not to be blissfully happy if we just take their latest pill.

The ubiquitous nature of this commercial fanfare has led to the widely held notion that we are all entitled to live a life without effort or inconvenience or discomfort. Moreover, if we should happen to encounter any of these conditions, there must be some tool or some simple technique that will “fix” what isn’t working quickly, effortlessly, and painlessly. Many people have adopted this view in living their lives and, as a result, many approach life with false expectations. Naturally, when their expectations are not met, these people can become distressed, even desperate. Over the years more than a few have come into my office for therapy.

A common view of those seeking help is that their anxiety or their depression is not a result of how they have been living their lives but rather the result of their bodies or their minds refusing to cooperate. Many tell of having been to a doctor and having “tried medication.” Typically, they report that the medicine helped for a while but then it mysteriously “stopped working.” Upon consulting the doctor again, they were then advised to seek therapy, although they are not sure why. They continue to insist that there must be some tool or technique for quickly repairing whatever is wrong so they can just get on with the business of living the lives they have always expected to live. When I explain that nothing is “broken” and that their bodies are actually working the way they were designed to work, these people often become impatient and respond with disbelief. Some even accuse me of holding something back, as if I have some secret that I am unwilling to share. When I reveal that the secret is there is no secret and that life must be lived as it is and not as we would like it to be, many remain unconvinced. Some even become upset and storm out of my office.

For those who decide to continue with therapy, the immediate challenge is in learning to have realistic expectations. After all, there is a reason therapists talk of getting out of your comfort zone: that’s the only way to make it bigger! If you are struggling with life, feeling anxious or depressed, and seeking change, it’s important to understand that you must do the work of changing for yourself; no tool will do it for you. When the pitcher delivers the ball toward the plate and the hitter starts to lean in, the bat doesn’t swing itself. This is often a difficult notion to accept because so many of us are raised with the expectation of living “happily ever after.” Yet acceptance is a vital first step in bringing about meaningful change, and this acceptance begins with learning to tolerate some discomfort, recognizing that discomfort is indeed the price of change.

With greater acceptance, it then becomes possible for these people to clarify the nature of their problem. What often becomes apparent is that they have been looking outside themselves for causes of the discomfort they feel on the inside. Quite naturally, they have also been looking on the outside for some tool to fix the problem, only to find that there isn’t one. This is largely because our two realities — physical and non-physical or, if you prefer, outside and inside — are so different. The outside reality is discrete and quantitative and changes very slowly, while the inside reality is continuous and qualitative and is constantly changing. But since we tend to focus more on the outside reality than the inside, we can easily be fooled into thinking that the tools and methods we use outside will also work on the inside. Yet, if we try to do this, we can find ourselves asking absurd questions and drawing equally absurd conclusions. For example, you could get on a scale and try to determine how many pounds of self-esteem you gained during a particular week. Conversely, you might be prompted to ask your stock broker what the mood of your investment portfolio is on a given day. Small wonder then that the search for tools so often turns out to be futile.

The irony to all this is that in desperately seeking an outside tool to ease our inside distress, we are overlooking our true power — the ability to step outside our own experience, observe it, and assign meaning to it. Being mindful of our experience and deciding for ourselves if it is truly important gives us a tool of enormous power. This way, when we come up to the plate in life’s ballpark, we can choose whether or not to swing. We can choose whether and how to respond to our experience — be it outside or inside. In baseball as in life, the pitcher tries to fool the batter into swinging at something that is not over the plate. But if the batter is observant and not just reactive, he can decide not to swing at a pitch that isn’t a strike. Eventually, the pitcher has to throw strikes or give up a walk, and the alert batter will be able to swing — perhaps not at the pitch he would like to have but at the one he decides is good enough.

And so it goes. Life continues to throw things at us that we may not be expecting. If we yield to the temptation to get angry or resentful, we simply wind up working against ourselves, and the pitcher wins. But if we can stay focused, we can recognize that, while we don’t get to choose what pitch life might throw, we do get to decide whether or not to swing. Then we will have a real chance. Then our tools can actually work for us!

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#16 — On Finding Passion: “There’s no crying in baseball!”

October 15, 2012 1 comment

Anyone who has ever tried to play baseball can tell you how difficult it is to stand up at the plate and try to swing a round bat at a round ball traveling at over 90 miles an hour and make a square hit.  Yet since baseball was first played professionally in the latter half of the 19th Century, the game has produced many great hitters.  Certainly one of the greatest of these was Theodore Samuel “Ted” Williams.  Playing his entire career as an outfielder for the Boston Red Sox, Williams won his first American League batting title in 1941 with a .406 average at the tender age of 21.  No one in baseball has hit over .400 for an entire season since.  The only players even to come close were Williams himself, hitting .388 in 1957 at age 39, followed by Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins, who also hit .388 in 1977, and George Brett of the Kansas City Royals who hit .390 in 1980.  Even with his career cut short by two tours of duty in the military, Williams still won the batting title six times, the last one at age 40 when he hit a mere .328 for the season.

Ted Williams truly loved baseball, yet most of all he was devoted to hitting.  It was his passion.  He studied it, practiced it, talked about it, and he became such an expert that other players, even some on opposing teams, would ask him for advice when they had trouble hitting.  Indeed, National League great Stan Musial once observed, “Ted was the greatest hitter of our era.  He won six batting titles and served his country for five years, so he would have won more.  He loved talking about hitting and was a great student of hitting and pitchers.”  Williams was consistently driven by this passion for what he loved, often to the exclusion of niceties like acknowledging the fans or speaking with reporters.  Choosing to live his life his own way and on his own terms, without seeking anyone else’s approval, he once remarked, “I’ve found that you don’t need to wear a necktie if you can hit.”

To be sure, Williams was fortunate in having the physical attributes that allowed him to become a great hitter; yet it was his passion that actually made him great.  The need to have passion for what you do has often been emphasized by people in widely varying areas of life.  Self-help guru Tony Robbins has asserted that “Passion is the genesis of genius.”  American modern dance performer and choreographer Martha Graham once remarked, “Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.”  And industrial magnate Donald Trump has declared that “Without passion you don’t have energy, [and] without energy you have nothing.” 

Driven by passion for what they do, these and many other accomplished people often speak of getting outside of themselves.  Giving no thought to how they are doing or how they are performing, they focus instead on what they are doing or what they mean to accomplish.  They often report feeling highly focused, energized, and unaware of time passing.  In the field of Positive Psychology, this condition is known as “Flow.”  In baseball, a batter on a hot streak may simply speak of being “in the zone.”  Regardless of what this condition is called, it is passion that makes the condition possible. 

Yet, while passion is often the impetus for great achievement; it can also have just as great an impact by its absence.  In my therapy practice I sometimes see people who appear to be doing everything right.  They seem successful in their careers, successful in their relationships, and they have the things that successful people are supposed to have — expensive clothes, cars, homes, and the like.  Yet as they enter my office, they seem anything but satisfied with where they are in life.  Some complain of having lost interest in their lives.  Others speak of feeling incomplete.  Many seem lost and confused and unsure of how they came to be where they are.  One, a successful business executive, once pondered, “I’ve done everything I set out to do, and I have gotten everything I’ve wanted to get.  So why am I not happy?”

Many of these people appear joyless, even flat, and many arrive in my office having been diagnosed with some form of depression.  Yet most of them are not actually incapacitated; indeed, quite the opposite.  They meet their obligations — pay their bills, get to work on time, perform satisfactorily in their jobs.  They take care of the business of life, but they simply don’t enjoy it.  If you ask them about the last time they remember looking forward to something, of being truly interested, even passionate about something, they will often recall things from early in their lives that they wanted to do but never did.  They may even describe years of doing what they were “supposed to” and seeking approval in following paths dictated by others, instead of finding their own way.  I remember a woman in her late forties who had wanted to be a professional dancer.  I can still picture her ruefully shaking her head and remembering how many reasons she had always been given not to do what she truly wanted to do. 

Beginning in childhood, most of us are presented with “supposed-tos” that tell us who we are, who we are to become, and even what we are to believe.  Based on this foundation, we may further be instructed as to how we are to conduct ourselves, with whom we can associate, what we must learn, and what sort of career we must pursue.  Whether it comes from family, community, or more formal institutions, everything is presented with the message that others know what is best for us.  Ironically, in a culture that purports to value individuality, all our institutions, formal and informal, actually promote conformity.  And all too often the result is that we are consistently ushered away from the direction in which our passion might take us. 

Of course, not all of us are able to understand or connect with our passion early in life, and just learning what that passion is can be difficult.  A simple internet search will return thousands of hits offering a variety of services, self-help programs, and inspirational quotes on how to find your passion.  Yet, despite all this “encouragement,” finding your passion is something that you can only do for yourself.  In my own case, for example, it took years of effort, and it often seemed that I was headed nowhere (see #2 — On Being Trained).  My sense of never quite being in the right place kept me moving, and I did learn that even if you are not sure where you are going, it is still possible to enjoy the trip.  By continuing to keep my options open, I managed to experience things that would later inform my work as a therapist.  And, after all, coming late to the party simply means that you are now at the party!

Our challenge then is to remember that no one can tell us what to be passionate about.  It may mean not conforming and having to face disapproval, but if we can do that and keep going, then we too can find that thing that takes us outside of ourselves.  We too can look forward to being in the zone.  During his career, Ted Williams was often the object of criticism and even scorn from reporters and sometimes even fans for his steadfast refusal to conform to what others wanted of him.  Yet when he walked up to the plate to hit, no one disapproved.

#15 — On Meaning and Power: “So, who’s in charge?”

August 24, 2012 2 comments

Of all players in all sports, baseball players are arguably the most superstitious.  To avoid “jinxing” himself, a pitcher will doggedly follow the same routine each day he is scheduled to pitch, eating the same meals, wearing the same clothes to the ballpark, throwing the same number of warm-up pitches and in the same order.  And during the game, he will routinely avoid stepping on the foul line as he walks to and from the mound.  Meanwhile, a hitter on a hot streak will often attribute his success to what he is wearing or using or even where he is walking.  For example, he might refuse to change his socks or wear a different shirt for as long as his streak lasts.  He will almost certainly use the same bat each time he comes up to the plate.  And on his way to the ballpark, he might even take exactly the same route every day.  Despite all the time these players spend developing and refining their skills, they will still go to great lengths, taking seemingly unrelated precautions to avoid jeopardizing a winning streak. 

To be sure, superstition is not limited to baseball players or to athletes generally.  Indeed, superstition has long been a part of everyday life, as seen in popular beliefs about finding a four-leaf clover, not breaking a mirror, not walking under a ladder, and taking extra precautions on Friday the 13th.  Many of these beliefs are passed on to us by family, friends, and groups to which we belong and with which we identify.  However, it is also possible to create personal superstitions.  For example, a business man might tell himself, “This is a big day.  I’d better wear my lucky suit.”  Or a student might think, “I have a test today, so I’d better not eat cereal this morning.” 

Personal superstitions arise when we falsely attribute cause and effect to things we observe.  We might notice that some situation or condition is frequently present when something else happens or fails to happen.  Because we perceive these two things as occurring together, we begin to associate them with each other, and eventually we start to believe that one causes the other.  Naturally, this becomes problematic when we project our own performance into these cause-and-effect presumptions.  Sometimes in my therapy practice I hear people say things like, “Every time I try to be responsible, something bad happens,” or “Whenever I make decisions on my own, things just go wrong.”  In these cases, they have begun to assume that their very participation is what causes negative results.  When I ask these people what they believe about themselves, I often hear self-condemning statements such as, “I’m just no good at getting things done” or “I’m not smart enough” or “I just can’t handle things as well as other people.”  For these people, the focus is no longer on achieving life goals but on avoiding the pain of life’s misfortunes.

When we accept these notions of cause and effect, these personal superstitions, it is as if we have decided to stop making decisions for ourselves and to let life decide things for us instead.  When we conclude that we have little or no positive control in our lives, there is little left other than trying to live up to the expectations of others.  When we let institutions, authority figures, and others tell us what to do, we start to feel powerless and unable to take control of anything for ourselves.  In short, we feel like victims.  Eventually we find ourselves plodding through life uninspired, unfulfilled, and unhappy.

Many clinical problems are actually the result of these personal superstitions.  People often have the idea that disorders involving anxiety or depression, for example, are things that happen to us, that they involve something we catch like the flu.  As it turns out, this idea is really backwards.  Anxiety doesn’t happen to us, it happens from us; it is part of our body’s reaction to stress.  And the common denominator for stress, anxiety, and depression is a sense of not having control, of not being able to make choices or take action to take care of ourselves and get our needs met.  Therapy in these cases involves focusing on the choices we make unconsciously, out of habit or superstition, and learning to make more conscious choices, thereby exercising control for ourselves. 

Of all the choices available to us, the most powerful may be the decision to assign meaning.  Even if we are not always aware of it, each of us is able to decide from moment to moment what our experience means to us — what to pay attention to and what to ignore, what to take seriously and what to laugh at, what to react to and what to let pass.  The more we can remain aware of this power and exercise it consciously, the more we can experience life on our own terms rather than those of others.  And the less we will need to be concerned with superstitious beliefs, personal or otherwise.

For me, the power of this choice was amply illustrated during my experiences with open-heart surgery and the periods of recovery that followed.  Prior to each surgery, I was repeatedly advised that there would be an extended and difficult recovery period and that for men of my age there was a greater that 50% chance of post-operative depression.  In each case, however, I recognized that in waking up after the surgery I had a choice: I could simply lie there and be the passive recipient of treatment, or I could take responsibility for doing my part and become an active participant in my recovery.  This choice helped me concentrate on what I could do — be as active as possible as soon as possible and follow the required program of diet, rest, and exercise.

Thanks to the energy and devotion of my beloved wife, I was able to follow my program consistently, becoming stronger and more capable day by day.  It was often difficult and even painful at times, and I could see how someone could become discouraged and tempted to avoid the pain by not doing the required work.  Yet to me it was as if I had been given a new opportunity to live, and I was determined to make the most of it.  When my doctor cleared me to return to work, I joked with him that what I experienced was not post-operative depression, it was post-operative euphoria.  Both times, I was back at my therapy practice just four weeks after surgery. 

When a rookie first comes to bat in the majors, the pitcher will sometimes greet him with a high, inside fastball to brush him back off the plate and to deliver the message, “Welcome to the Big Leagues!”  If that rookie becomes intimidated and stays back from the plate, his major league career is likely to be short.  But if he chooses to lean in and take his swings, even knowing that he could be hit by a pitch, his chances of success are much better.  For all of us dealing with life, it is no different.  Life will keep throwing the high hard ones at us, and we will always be at risk of being knocked down, even hit, or of striking out.  And no matter what we do, as long as we choose to participate, there will always be a risk that we will not succeed.  But if we choose not to participate and let someone or something else take charge for us, that risk will become a certainty.  For each of us, just as for that rookie, the only hope for success is to stay in the game, to lean in, to accept whatever life throws at us, and to keep swinging.

#14 — On Finding the Right Strategy: “So, why didn’t this work?”

July 20, 2012 1 comment

More than anything else, baseball is a game of strategy.  Off the field, managers and coaches regularly plan how to use their team’s strengths and exploit their opponents’ weaknesses.  On the field, these same people work out moves and counter-moves almost constantly.  If one team brings in a left-handed pitcher, the other team might try to load their lineup with right-handed batters.  If one of the catchers has a weak throwing arm, opposing base runners might make more attempts to steal.  If a pitcher seems to be getting tired, opposing batters might not swing until later in the count, hoping to tire that pitcher even more.  And if one team has a hitter on a hot streak, then in a situation with runners on base the opposing pitcher might walk that hitter intentionally rather than let him hit.  These intricacies and more are integral aspects of baseball, and dealing with them successfully is the result of some fundamental strategy. 

In baseball, having a strategy provides a way of trying to achieve a goal when the outcome is uncertain.  And just as strategy is important in baseball, it is important in life.  The right strategy can help us deal with uncertainty, use our limited resources, and achieve our life goals.  So how do we go about arranging to have an effective strategy?  It turns out that you don’t have to look very far for advice.  Almost every bookstore and library has shelves full of self-help books offering programs for successful life strategies.  Moreover, most of our institutions, formal and informal, actively promote their own versions of strategies with their own promises of success.  If you just go to the right school, choose the right career, live in the right area, drive the right car, wear the right clothes, marry the right person, associate with the right people, and adhere to the right political and economic views, then you will enjoy those institutions’ ideas of success. 

Yet despite all these approaches promoted by all these experts, many of us still struggle.  I regularly witness a variety of these struggles in my therapy practice.  One self-defeating strategy I often see involves trying to take care of or please everyone with whom you come into contact.  People who do this usually have some noble sounding rationale:  “I believe it’s better to help others” or “I don’t want to be selfish.”  (I sometimes think that selfishness has been given a bad name.  After all, isn’t it selfish to eat or to breathe and thereby consume resources that others could use?  Of course, it is.  But what’s the alternative?)  Ultimately, these “pleasers” pay a high price with little to show as a result.  While they are busy trying to please others, they find that few are trying to please them.  Sadly, many of these people eventually become embittered and wind up holding a grudge against life, making satisfaction ultimately impossible.

Another common self-defeating strategy is to insist that life be responsible for you instead of the other way around.  I often see this in people who come to my office complaining of all the ills that have befallen them or all the opportunities or benefits that have been denied them.  And, of course, in no case are they ever responsible for any of the things that have gone wrong or failed to go right.  You will often hear these people speak of how life “should be,” while lamenting how it is.  Steadfastly helpless, they will respond to every suggestion offered them with “Yes, but,” followed by all the reasons why that suggestion won’t work.  In some cases there might even be a bit of smugness and a sense of martyrdom accompanying this rebuff.  The eventual result of this approach to life is that people who might have been supportive are simply driven away, and the helpless ones are left feeling abandoned by life and without a clue as to why. 

There is also a popular approach in which people insist that life has to “make sense,” that there must be some concrete reason or cause for everything.  You often see this in people who insist on having a diagnosis for their condition, some label they can be given, with a corresponding “treatment” that will “fix” the problem.  Clearly, this is an appealing concept:  If you just identify the specific cause for your troubles, then you can apply the treatment the way you might follow a recipe and make life come out the way you want.  Unfortunately, life often fails to cooperate, presenting us instead with problems that have multiple causes, lots of ambiguity, and no certain treatment or outcome.  Yet, those for whom life must make sense will often argue heatedly when you point out to them that life’s major challenges aren’t always reducible to a diagnosis and don’t always respond to formulaic treatments.  Like it or not, we sometimes just have to accept all the uncertainty and live our lives in spite of it.

A common theme in these and other problematic strategies is that life is to be approached as it should be rather than as it is.  People trying to live this way often fail to recognize that what they are doing isn’t working.  Instead, they blame others for being selfish or dishonest or simply ignorant.  This is an attitude I remember from my youth, when being in a “rap group” meant sitting in a coffee shop with a bunch of college students planning the next sit-in to be staged in the campus administration building.  Everything was so clear back then:  War was wasteful and inhuman; we were all brothers and sisters; and “the Establishment” was just something in the way of human progress.  We were all so sure of how things were and of how they should be and of how staging protests was necessary.   Anyone who disagreed simply “didn’t get it.”  Slowly, painfully over time, I came to recognize that the disagreement didn’t mean that people didn’t get it but that they didn’t want it or that they just didn’t care.

On my way to becoming a therapist, I became much less focused on how things should be and started to deal with them as they are.  I also came to realize that this was one of the major lessons you learn from those cheap seats way above the ball field.  After all, the pitcher doesn’t throw what the batter wants just because that’s what the batter wants to hit.  The batter doesn’t swing at every pitch just because the pitcher wants to get him out quickly.  Once years ago, I heard a college coach say to his team, “Don’t expect them to do what you want; expect them to do what they want.  Your job is to play your game anyway.”  Even today, I am struck by his eloquence:  Expect life to be all and only what it is, without deference to you, and live your life anyway.

There is a long-standing baseball adage that the best hitters try to hit the ball where it’s pitched.  They expect the pitcher to try and throw the ball where it will be hard to hit.  These hitters accept that and are ready for it.  I think that if we likewise can accept that life will throw anything at us anywhere at anytime in order to make things difficult, then we can deal with things as they are and become some of life’s best hitters.

#13 — On Behalf of Adjustments: “But why me?”

May 28, 2012 2 comments

Baseball is a game of adjustments.  Players, managers, and even owners are always making adjustments to improve performance.  Pitchers change the sequence of pitches to keep opposing batters guessing.  Catchers alternate methods for signaling the pitchers to keep base runners from stealing the signals.  A pitcher having trouble throwing strikes might adjust his delivery or his mix of pitches.  A batter in a slump might adjust his stance or his grip on the bat or the timing of his swing.  The manager might change the batting order or the pitching rotation if the team is not winning.  And the owners will always try to orchestrate trades or acquisitions to strengthen different aspects of the team.  Fans might not always be aware of it, but from game to game, from inning to inning, and even from moment to moment adjustments are being made all the time.  In fact, adjustments are so vital to the game that any player or team not prepared or willing to make them will ultimately lose.

Just as adjustments are an essential part of baseball, so are they an essential part of life.  Most of us are unaware that change is going on until some of this change impinges directly on our lives.  Naturally, change often comes when we are least prepared or disposed to deal with it.  Instead, we view the need to adjust as an inconvenience at best, or at worst a hardship or an injustice or both.  Many of us, faced with the need to adjust to some new situation, whether at work or at home or in the community in general, will complain, “It’s not fair,” or “I’m too busy,” or “What was wrong with the old way?”  Yet, whether we like it or not, life simply doesn’t care about our complaints; it just goes on being what it is — a constant swirl of ambiguity that ebbs and flows in all directions all the time without regard for our personal preferences. 

It is perhaps a basic aspect of human nature to resist change.  After all, change can be upsetting, often disruptive, even painful.  Indeed, the price of change is discomfort.  Yet despite all the hardships and all the complaint, most of us — perhaps after first groping and fumbling — find ways to adjust and deal with changing conditions.  We call this process coping.  Yet as difficult as coping with change can be, the greatest hardships tend to befall those who believe they can somehow keep change from happening to them.  And it does little good to point out to these people the futility of their resistance or to remind them of how aging affects us all or how living in today’s world means dealing with ever changing technology.  But of all the adjustments we might make, the most difficult and by far the most resisted involve the way we think and what we believe, especially about ourselves. 

I vividly remember “Ed,” a man in his mid-fifties who was referred to me because he was, according to his doctor, “mildly depressed.”  Within the first ten minutes of our first visit, Ed insisted that he was not depressed; he was simply “fed up.”  Married for over thirty years, he had worked the entire time at the same factory job.  He was a consistently hard worker, rarely missing a day of work, and he prided himself on being the “breadwinner” for his family.  He had insisted that his wife remain at home to see that their two children were “raised properly.”  Certainly, he said, he had made sacrifices; that was to be expected from the “head of the household.”  And his hard work had ultimately enabled his son and daughter to attend and graduate from local colleges. 

After his children left home, Ed looked forward to the leisure he felt he was due after all those years of hard work.  But then he was informed that his job was changing and to keep it he would have to spend a lot of extra hours on some intense “remedial” computer training.  He went home and began complaining to his wife about the unfair burden this change at work was imposing on him.  At that point, however, she informed him of her plans to attend college herself so she could finally pursue the career in journalism she had always wanted.  Angry and disillusioned, Ed spent the next several days alternately cursing loudly and then sitting, often in the dark, simply staring in silence.  His wife insisted that he see a doctor, which he finally did and was referred to me.  I still recall his plaintive objections:  “It just isn’t fair.  Why should I have to change?  Why now after all these years?” 

The man Ed had always believed himself to be, the one he had always seen in the mirror, had somehow been replaced.  Instead of being in charge of himself and his life, he now found that life had taken charge of him.  And none of his expectations for himself were being met.  The result was that Ed was angry and resentful and bitter, and he seemed defiantly determined to show life who was boss.  But slowly, painfully, and much to his chagrin, Ed came to understand and accept that life will always have its own way.  It is frequently problematic when we create expectations for ourselves, and perhaps the most problematic of all is the expectation that life owes us something.  The result, when life fails to deliver, is that we are easily tempted to protest this perceived unfairness.  Some of us, like Ed, simply refuse to move until life decides to cooperate, which it never does.  In the end, by refusing to adjust to change, we have shut ourselves off from growth and development and from the possible benefits of life.

There is an often-told story in baseball about the young hard-throwing pitcher who emerges from nowhere and begins to dominate batters with his blazing fastball.  For a while, perhaps even a few seasons, he seems unhittable.  Then, all too soon, age begins to take just a little off his fastball, and the opposing batters begin connecting.  Now the young pitcher faces a choice: he can continue to do what got him there and keep working even harder with his fastball.  Or he can make some adjustments and begin to include some off-speed “junk” — sliders, knucklers, change-ups — in his mix of pitches.  The choice this pitcher makes often spells the difference between having “a shot at playing” and having a career. 

Following my own open-heart surgery, the array of adjustments I was required to make seemed truly daunting.  There were adjustments in diet, adjustments in exercise, adjustments in medications, increased doctor visits, and a lot of self-monitoring.  Yet it has been these adjustments and more that have allowed me to keep moving forward and have a career instead of just a shot at playing. 

I believe that each of us ultimately gets to choose:  Are we going to approach life as victims or as volunteers?  Victims blame life for happening to them.  Volunteers create the lives they want by always moving forward and always making adjustments.  So, get ready; the next pitch is already on its way!

#12 — On Hanging on to Hope: “But I was supposed to get . . . “

It was the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Man, who penned the often quoted line, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”  The resilience born of hope has often been cited in literature and elsewhere.  For example, Albert Einstein advised, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.”  The Dalai Lama acknowledged, “I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest.”  And Christopher Reeve assured us, “Once you choose hope, anything’s possible.”  For me, some of the best evidence of the power of hope was shown in early 1968, 1976, and 1987.  In each case, the Boston Red Sox brought optimism and hope back to spring training after suffering a heart-breaking loss during the previous October in a World Series they had seemed destined to win. 

1967 had been the year of “the impossible dream,” with Carl Yastrzemski winning the triple crown and the Red Sox, a 100-to-1 underdog, clinching the pennant on the final day of the season.  But young Jim Lonborg, having won two games and pitching on two days’ rest, didn’t have enough left to finish, and the Sox lost in game seven to Bob Gibson and the Cardinals.  In 1975, with a very strong team, the Sox met the Cincinnati Reds in what many consider one of the best World Series ever played.  Baseball fans still talk about Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk’s dramatic home run in the 10th inning of game six to force a seventh game.  Yet the Sox lost again that next day when Joe Morgan hit a bloop single to drive in the winning run for the Reds in the ninth inning.  Then in 1986, after taking a two-game lead over the Mets and coming to within one pitch of clinching the Series, the Sox again found fortune turning against them.  After a series of lost opportunities and mishaps, characterized by Bill Buckner’s famous error on a ground ball to first base, the Red Sox finally succumbed once again. 

Each of these losses would seem so demoralizing as to make the prospect of coming back from it overwhelming.  Yet in each case the beginning of spring training was greeted by players and fans alike with enthusiasm, optimism, and — most of all — hope.  This is the nature of hope, after all.  Hope is what compels us to keep striving to do better.  Hope is what drives us to seek new opportunities.  And hope is what encourages us to take the risks necessary to change and to grow.  Just as we see the persistence of hope in baseball, we see instances of it in almost every aspect of life, from young people seeking to establish their independence to older people working to arrange some kind of fresh start.  I often see examples in my therapy practice.  It may appear in people who struggle to heal from trauma or abuse, to escape from the grip of addiction, or to free themselves from their own sense of inadequacy and self-doubt.  Whatever their reasons for starting, those who decide that the benefits of therapy are worth the work involved keep coming back.  And when they do, hope comes with them. 

I will not soon forget a young man I saw some years ago.  Falsely accused by his alcoholic wife of abusing his three young children, he was accosted and brutally hauled out of his home by police.  He was thrown into jail and then assaulted while in jail.  During this time, his wife had fled the state with their children and gone into hiding.  She was later found and apprehended, and the man was eventually released.  Yet he soon found himself struggling almost to the point of being unable to function.  He saw several doctors and was eventually referred to me with a severe case of PTSD.  Our time together was intense, with the young man working diligently to overcome flashbacks and nightmares and a sense of himself that had become horribly negative.  Yet for all his struggling, I was struck with how he persisted.  Frequently he would tell me, “I don’t care how hard it is or how long it takes.  I’m going to get through this and be well.”  The hope that had brought him to see me fuelled his determination.  Not only did he get well, but after a long and bitter struggle, he finally gained custody of his children and later went on to pursue a doctorate in psychology.

Still, as powerful as hope is, there is always a danger that hope can morph into expectation and in so doing change our entire outlook.  Almost as soon as we are born, we begin to learn what to expect from our caregivers and from our environment.  And our early experiences prompt certain judgments — safe or unsafe, good or bad, mine or yours.  These all become part of what we learn to expect.  Thus expectation shapes our perceptions and personalizes our reality.  And as expectation grows, our anticipation builds into a sense of entitlement.  Then, when what is expected does not happen, we feel deprived.  We feel as if we have been denied something to which we are entitled, almost as if our rights have been violated.  Soon this sense of violation festers and turns into resentment, which corrodes and can eventually destroy relationships.  In a uniquely 21st Century example, I have recently seen a number of relationships founder because someone’s expectation of an instant response to an “instant message” was not met.

One of my own experiences with hope and expectation came in connection with my recent open-heart surgery.  Since I had been through a previous surgery some eight years earlier, I had naturally convinced myself that I knew what to expect and how to handle my recovery afterwards.  And just as naturally, my experience this time was substantially different from the first one.  Rather than being clear and focused, I came out of the anesthesia cloudy and disoriented.  I remained that way for more than a day following the surgery.  When I later learned that this was the likely result of my having been given a powerful narcotic and that I’d had a bad reaction, I could feel a temptation to become upset.  Fortunately, my insightful and supportive wife helped me to regain my focus and my hope.  The power of this hope and the support I received helped me concentrate on my rehabilitation so I could return to my therapy practice and restore my quality of life.  On the day I returned to my office a month later, I truly felt like a ballplayer reporting for spring training.

And, yes, in 2004 the Red Sox finally did win the World Series, their first since 1918.  Could they have endured 86 years of disappointment and kept going based on expectation rather than hope?  I think not.  Each year when the baseball season ends, fans of all the teams that have not been winners repeat the hopeful refrain, “Wait ‘till next year.”  They know that just as there is always another season to be prepared for, there is always another game to be played.  And since no one can predict the outcome, winning that next game is always possible.  We sometimes forget that the same holds true in life.  Each day is a new game, and all we can expect is the unexpected.  But if we can let go of expectations and allow ourselves to be fuelled by hope, then we can pursue our dreams, accept our disappointments, and keep on going.  Then maybe we won’t have to wait ‘till next year.

#11 — On Rediscovering Patience: “But I want it now!”

February 19, 2012 3 comments

Charles “Casey” Stengel began his career in major league baseball as an outfielder.  After that, he went on to become a manager, spending time with both the Braves and the Mets.  He is best known, however, for leading the New York Yankees to four World Series titles during the 1950s.  Casey was considered a student of the game, and in his own unique way, a student of life.  Referred to in the press as “the “Old Professor,” he would regale reporters in the clubhouse after a game with his views on baseball and other things.  More often than not, these reporters would leave just shaking their heads.  Yet no one could argue with Casey’s results.  Reportedly, he would tell his hitters early in a game, “Don’t swing at the first pitch.  Wait him out a little.  Let him show you what he’s got and what he plans to do with it.”  Casey understood the value of patience.

In today’s world, with the advances in technology and the emphasis on “instant” communications, it sometimes seems as if the idea of being patient has been forgotten.  At a time when there is a television in every room, a telephone in every pocket, and we are encouraged to be “wired” in all kinds of ways, people have come to expect a response to every electronic signal within the span of a sound bite.  During the course of my work as a therapist, I have seen more than a few potentially successful personal relationships founder because someone failed to respond immediately to a text message and was accused of being “unresponsive.”  In other cases, the dry and often terse nature of electronic messages leaves out many of the personal characteristics, such as tone of voice, body language, and the ability to sense and correct a misimpression.  Hastily dispatched messages often appear caustic and hostile even when that is not the intent.  Naturally, the receipt of such messages can prompt a response in kind.  The result is frequently an electronic battle of words that is almost always unnecessary and harmful. 

Now more than ever, I find myself encouraging clients not to jump to conclusions or make assumptions.  Trying to interpret the meanings and implications of the verbiage you receive through instant messages, e-mails, text messages, tweets, or other electronic bleeps can be a chancy business.  It is, of course, a sign of generations passing that I am so often surprised when advocating care in personal communications seems so foreign to so many.  Still, I continue to recommend patience.  Deeply personal connections can too easily be distorted or lost through electronic correspondence. 

Nevertheless, the modern explosion of technology has caused this culture of impatience to become ever more pervasive.  Whether it is relief from pain, the latest luxury, or some other kind of development, we all want what we want, and we expect it right away.  Many of us seem to have forgotten that development requires its own time.  You can’t get to December without first living through the eleven preceding months.  You can’t grow an orchard without first tilling the soil, planting the sprigs, and tending the plantings while nature does its work.  And no matter how hard you work at it or how many women you assign to the task, under normal circumstances you can’t arrange for someone to give birth in fewer than nine months.

Yet despite the obvious dictates of nature, I often see evidence of this impatience in my therapy practice.  People will sometimes come in and, after a cursory review of the issues that brought them there, they will ask, “How many sessions will I need?”  This is a little like asking, “How many visits to a gym will I need in order to get into shape?”  The answer, of course, is that it depends on the individual situation and effort.  As in so many areas of life, the results we get tend to be proportional to the work we are willing to do. 

Sometimes, after working in therapy for a while, people will demand to know, “When will I be fixed?”  Naturally, the best answer I can give is one they often find unsatisfactory:  “You will know when it happens.”  Again, in therapy as in life, the kind of change involved in healing and growth is the change that happens when you are not looking, when you are busy doing something else.  Imagine staring into the mirror and watching your hair grow.  It’s right there.  You know it’s growing.  Yet you can’t actually see it doing anything.  But go away and do something else for several weeks and then come back for another look in the mirror.  Now you can clearly see that there have been changes.  This is how healing and growth are accomplished.  This is how development happens. 

And the change that occurs while one is patient is more likely to be substantive change, not merely superficial.  I experienced this myself when I was preparing to begin my counseling internship as the final part of completing my graduate training to become a therapist.  I was to be working in a large and very busy psychiatric practice, with many different kinds of cases and with professionals representing all the different mental health disciplines.  Since this was the start of a career change for me, I found that I was as old as many of the senior clinicians and even older than some.  As a result, I started to feel very impatient, as if somehow I was behind and needed to catch up.  But then an advisor in my graduate program offered a suggestion that has been of great value to me ever since.  He said, “If you’re at the beginning, don’t try to be at the middle or the end.  Instead, make the best beginning you can, then go on to whatever is next.  Don’t worry about the end; just do the best you can wherever you happen to be.”  That simple suggestion freed me to focus on my therapeutic work without the burden of impatience over whatever progress I might be making. 

Being patient and simply knowing that development will inevitably continue on its own frees us to focus on the lives we are living as we are living them.  And the more we actively engage in our lives from day to day and moment to moment, the more we make room for the kind of change that produces lasting benefits.  This was some of the wisdom Casey Stengel offered his players.  He reminded them that you can’t win a championship on opening day.  You have to play all the games (154 back then) and you have to play them one game at a time.  Impatience can be costly in baseball just as in life.  Casey understood that the season lasts as long as it lasts and that you cannot win without going through the full season, playing all the games.  In reflection, this is a pretty good way to approach life.  Of course, Casey also said, “Good pitching will always stop good hitting, and vice versa.”  Maybe someday I’ll figure that one out too.

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