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Posts Tagged ‘The danger of expectations’

#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.”

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#9 — On Finding Happiness: “So, where do I look?”

December 13, 2011 3 comments

I’m often struck by how many of the things we learn about life when we are young turn out to be contrary to how things really are.  As a young boy I was taught to believe in fairies and elves and things that I later learned were based on superstition.  When I lost a tooth, I was told that if I put it under my pillow at night, the “Good Fairy” would come and get the discarded tooth and leave me something in its place.  That first morning, after I found a quarter, I wondered fleetingly how many teeth it would take so I could afford to buy myself a baseball glove.  I think a lot of people have had similar experiences during their early years as they were exposed to seemingly innocent fables.  Perhaps the most popular image representing fairy tales and children’s stories is “Prince Charming” riding off on his horse into the sunset with the “Fair Maiden” to the familiar refrain: “They lived happily ever after.” 

The message here for the young is that if you do things right, your happiness will be assured and you won’t have to lift a finger.  Yet the consequences for those who adopt this belief can be severe.  Each year I see people in my practice who are disappointed and resentful, sometimes even bitter.  They have done everything they were supposed to do — work hard, follow the rules, help others — and they are still waiting to live happily ever after.  Only somehow life has failed to cooperate. 

In this perpetuation of innocence, I have seen middle-aged women who are still doggedly waiting for Prince Charming to show up, perhaps not on a horse but driving a Rolls or a Bentley.  When this “right one comes along,” they expect to be gathered up and adored for the rest of their blissful lives.  Of course, constantly scanning the horizon for that “right one” is a little like trying to scour the oceans in search of the right fish for dinner.  You wind up missing out on a lot that would do just fine.

I have also seen men of varying ages who have left one relationship after another, in each case complaining, “Relationships shouldn’t be this hard” or “It shouldn’t take this much work.”  Yet these same men are perfectly comfortable sitting in front of a TV football game and asserting after a violent play, “No pain, no gain!”  Somehow they haven’t caught on to the reality that relationships are living things that require tending.  I sometimes wonder if they would simply throw a handful of seeds into the backyard in the spring that then expect to harvest a luxurious crop in the fall without putting in any effort in between.

Underneath these naive expectations there is a set of widely held but false beliefs about happiness.  The first of these is that happiness is a feeling, when it is actually a condition based on a judgment or conclusion.  This is not a new notion, of course.  Aristotle once referred to happiness as “a state of activity.”  If we are comfortable and satisfied with where we are and what we are experiencing, we conclude — “Yes, I’m happy.”  Yet somehow, perhaps through a sense of entitlement, people seem to hang on to the idea that happiness is an emotional experience. 

Each year a number of people enter my office complaining that they are depressed.  Many have been prescribed medication, which they expect will somehow make their lives better.  Most have also been told that they need therapy, although they are not sure why.  After a few visits, some of these people decide that they don’t need therapy because they are feeling better.  Naturally, I simply wish them well and watch them leave.  After a while, many of them return, complaining that “my medicine stopped working.”  When I inquire as to how they know this, they respond sternly, “I’m just not feeling happy,” as if they are being denied something to which they are entitled.  When I ask what they plan to do about their situation, they often become nonplussed, mumbling that they had expected me to tell them what to do.  Naturally, they are not at all pleased when I inform them that it is not my job to solve their problems for them any more than it is the trainer’s job to lift the weights for the athlete.  Moreover, I explain that being happy is something we determine upon reflecting on our life situation.  In other words, happiness comes from the way we live, not from taking a pill!

Since my explanation implies that some amount of effort is required, most people respond with disbelief.  This resistance reveals a second false belief about happiness, namely that it comes to us rather than from us.  Once again, the opposite is true; for if I am expecting to live happily ever after without putting in any effort, then I become one of life’s victims rather than one of its architects.  I might just as easily conclude that if I simply sit under the right tree long enough, happiness will fall on me like rain.  In reality, being in a situation in which I judge that I am happy is not something I am likely to find, and certainly not sustain, by chance.  If I am to be happy, I must arrange it for myself. 

My own quest for happiness (see Blog #2) took me through many of life’s dark alleys and dead ends, and my own lessons about happiness were often hard earned.  I watched people I knew achieve “success” (and to some extent did so myself) in the form of property, position, and often corporate power.  None of this made me happy, and none of the people I saw seemed happy, because no matter how much they had, they always seemed to need more.  Eventually, I came to recognize a third false belief about happiness — that the more you have, the happier you will be.  In reality, happiness comes not from having but from doing, and the doing almost inevitably involves some form of giving. 

Before becoming a therapist, I volunteered in a mentoring program at an inner city high school.  By donating a small amount of time and attention, I gained rewards in the form of satisfaction and understanding that I could never buy and that have helped me immeasurably in my therapy work.  And so I learned that happiness comes from getting out of our heads and into our lives.  By reaching out, by trying to do for others, we can shift our focus away from our own discontent and look instead at ways we can create happiness.  And the more we create, the more we will benefit.  After all, we only get to keep what we are willing to give away.  As the Chinese proverb says:

“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.
If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.
If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.
If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else.”

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