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Posts Tagged ‘Resisting conformity’

#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 television personality Oprah Winfrey declared, “Passion is energy.  Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.”

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.

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#5 — On Being a Counter-Culture Operative: “But I thought you were . . “

October 22, 2011 1 comment

Along with my regular therapy practice, I also teach and provide clinical supervision for young therapists seeking licensure.  This is a part of my work that I especially enjoy, because it allows me to introduce the next generation of therapists to the actual practice of psychotherapy in the real world and not simply in a classroom or laboratory.  An esteemed colleague of mine refers to psychotherapy as a “counter-culture operation.”  After all, it is the job of the therapist to challenge people and get them to ask themselves the very questions that they have long been conditioned not to ask.  What is it like to interact with people?  How do you respond?  What results do you get?  What do you believe about yourself?  About others?  What is the basis for those beliefs?  In a very real sense I think this does make the therapist a kind of emotional revolutionary, intent on challenging and helping to undo the patterns of conformity and control that society relentlessly seeks to impose.

 The instructions I give my students and supervisees are both easy to understand and difficult to do.  I tell them to learn all they can about disorders, theories, and therapeutic techniques, and then, as they approach the therapy room, leave it all outside.  Once inside the room, they are to do only the following: be present and assume nothing! 

 Being present is something that most people assume they are doing when they are not.  In today’s sound-bite world, where there is a television in every room, a telephone in every pocket, and people are expected to be wired to a dozen or more locations other than where they actually are, being present is often problematic at best.  Most of us are conditioned to deal with life in terms of there-and-then rather than here-and-now.  Conversations typically address experiences had elsewhere at other times or with other people, while the immediate experiences of people in the conversations are avoided.  There is, of course, a certain element of ego protection in speaking about people and events other than those with whom we are directly engaged.  There are also risks. 

 First, the experience of the present moment between two people is lost and with it some important truths which, if honestly acknowledged, could help validate and deepen the substance of the relationship.  Second, the shifting of attention away from the present causes us to divest ourselves of our personal power.  Since we shape our lives through the choices we make, if our attention is drawn away from the present, our choices are made by habit — essentially repeating choices we have already been conditioned to make.  If our attention is in the present, our choices can be made deliberately to serve us and, more importantly, to make change possible.  The very first job of the therapist, then, is to bring people back into this present, where life is actually going on. 

 Still, as difficult as it is to remain fully present while engaged with someone, it is all the more difficult to avoid making assumptions.  After all, assumptions have a certain utility value; they are necessary aspects of daily living that we all rely on and don’t even notice until one of them turns out not to be true.  Consider how each of us gets up in the morning unconsciously assuming that the world and our lives in it are continuing pretty much as we left them the night before.  Most of the time this turns out to be true.  Yet imagine what life would be like if we could not make this assumption.  To say life would be chaotic would very likely be understating the case.

 Problems arise, of course, when our assumptions extend to the interpersonal — the ways we see ourselves and others.  We make assumptions about people we deal with and then we proceed as if our assumptions are true, often without being aware of them, and certainly without questioning them.  This means we are no longer dealing with real people but with some concocted ideas of people or what we think they represent.  All this tends to create distance between us and people who, if we could see them more as they are, might add richness and value to our relationships and our lives. 

 During my recent stay in the hospital, I had occasion to be on the receiving end of some of these assumptions.  Almost immediately upon waking in the ICU following my surgery, I had a bad reaction to some of the pain-suppressing drugs I had been given.  This reaction lasted for a couple of days.  I found it difficult to focus, to concentrate, or even to engage in simple conversation.  Despite my wife’s protests, she was repeatedly told, “This is normal for older men.”  To her everlasting credit, my wife refused to accept this pronouncement, insisting that, while the condition might be normal for many men, “It’s not normal for him!”  The original drugs were stopped, and I was switched to a milder OTC medicine instead.  The problem cleared up almost immediately. 

 Later, surrounded by energetic young clinicians eager to check my vital signs and tell me how I was doing, I was often advised, “You know, when you get to a certain age . . .”  My sense was that upon seeing me, they assumed I was just a doddering old codger with nothing to look forward to but his next meal, who might start drooling on his shirt at any minute.  I stayed present and made clear that their assumptions about me were largely false.  Most of them were genuinely shocked to learn that, not only was I not retired, but I was actually a mental health professional with a very active practice. 

 Of course, there is always reason for me to question my own assumptions too.  In Mary Pipher’s classic book about aging, Another Country, she describes the two stages of elder life as young-old and old-old.  While I have always appreciated the construct and used it often in my work, I have never managed to apply it to myself.  For years, I have simply thought of myself as old-young.  However, this recent experience involving my health has caused me to reflect.  It seems one of life’s great ironies to find that, like your car, your body is running out of warranty, with replacement parts harder to come by, and all of this happening just when your brain has started to catch on to things.

 And so, I think we owe it to ourselves and our lives to continue our own individual counter-culture efforts.  The more we can be present, be fully engaged with the people and experiences in our lives, the richer and more satisfying our relationships and our lives are likely to be.  The more we can be aware of and question the assumptions we and others are making, the more we can free ourselves and our relationships from the sterile compartmentalizing that assumptions tend to produce.  It is certainly not easy to be present and assume nothing.  But the good news is that none of this requires us to be perfect, only to work at getting a little bit better!

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