Posts Tagged ‘Independent thought’

#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!

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