Archive for April, 2015

Back-filling instead of overriding

April 27, 2015

I wrote about my reaction to David Brooks’s new book, The Road to Character, here, on the PBS NewsHour website.  I thought I would expand on what I meant when I wrote,

One thing in the book that bothered me enough to want to comment on: I have a real problem with holding up as an exemplar writing people’s names on pieces of paper and then trashing them. No, I am not saying this is effective voodoo, but it is not the same thing as learning to view the people (named on the slips) with charity. That latter point of view (charity for flawed and damaged people) I think processes like the 12 Steps are more helpful with learning to achieve: identify our own defect of character (the excessive anger, what led in the first place to the friction that has resulted in anger, etc.), become willing to let it go, and ask for some help with that. That, I believe, roots out the problem; the approach Eisenhower used (the paper routine for defusing the anger privately) is clearly an improvement over injudicious confrontation, but it is a temporary and superficial trimming back, I think — I don’t believe it will result in the anger not arising to unhelpful levels the next time around, for example — and I believe it also has some negative impact on the general environment, if not the targeted person. Writing the names on paper and trashing them may be a step forward, but I don’t think it’s the destination.

I see the idea of confronting our unhelpful reaction to a difficult situation in the moment, or in the moment after, by trying to override that unhelpful reaction as a stopgap measure.  Yes, it’s preferable not to express too much anger in the moment, it may help some people to let go of the excessive anger in private by going through a ritual.  Overriding an initial reaction has its place.

But I find it vastly more helpful and reliable, not to mention that it also contributes to my greater peace of mind more generally, if I can root out the source(s) of my overreaction before I encounter the particular situations and moments.  That’s what I am referring to as “back-filling.”  I strengthen my foundation before I sally forth.

So, for example, I may feel frustrated with an acquaintance or neighbor or friend or professional I am working with because, for example, from my point of view they have tried to shift too much responsibility for a problem onto me and not taken enough responsibility for the problem onto themselves.  The attempt to shift the onus around may have hurt my feelings and negatively impacted my self-confidence, it may have also created new problems in my life that I needed like a hole in the head.

If I deal on my own time with my dissatisfaction with how things are, when a new situation comes up involving the person and myself, I will not feel the same strong and negative emotions when patterns repeat.  In fact, sometimes, after noticing I’m not feeling the anger I used to feel, I poke around in my mental apparatus looking for it, and it just feels as though smooth rubber has replaced something brittle and pointy — it’s just not there anymore and what has replaced it is something kind of neutral and benign.

To deal with my dissatisfaction and improve my foundation, I may do some of the following.  First, I can remind myself not to take things personally.  I can separate what I want from the person from what I actually need from the person.  I can find other ways to get my needs met.  That often lowers the temperature.  I can see the person more accurately, I can remind myself that they are doing the best they can even when I feel a negative impact from what they do or have done.  I can change my expectations about them.  I can wish for them positive things, but I often try to send my good wishes to them through neutral forces which can be more effective and less vulnerable to misuse than anything I could send directly on my own.  I can find a way to see the person that results in my keeping my own needs out of the way when I interact with them, for example, by seeing them as a sympathetic figure (like a young child) just trying to get their own needs met.  I can remind myself that they may not understand my dissatisfaction and that if I react too extremely, they too will feel hurt and bewilderment — like a puppy who does not understand what they have done wrong.  I can see their behaviors and attitudes shaped by things that occurred much earlier and have nothing to do with me.  I can see them as providing me with an opportunity to learn something new myself, for example, to keep my equanimity, not become defensive and not develop bitterness despite however I am treated — I can feel gratitude towards them for providing the challenge, I can even forgive them for being something like an executioner.  I can view intentional personal rejection as a signal from the universe that this is not a good relationship for me and thank the person for busting the relationship up when I did not have the ability to see that or the strength to do that, and doing what was needed so that I can move on.  I can deal with my fears unilaterally and reduce them by turning things over to forces greater than myself.

On the other hand, I probably won’t see the person or particular situations in which we have been involved or continue to be involved in the way they see those things.

That I think is a fly in my ointment I am still working to remove, what to do when the person keeps coming to me with repeated insistence that I accede to them and their view and behavior.  My provisional answer is “boundaries” and just repeating, to myself, my own understanding.  Then they can do their thing, I can do my thing, but the two will not combine and combust.  I just have to have sufficiently dealt with my feelings about the past and adjusted my expectations about the future:  this person does this, I don’t like it, but, as they say, “How important is it?”  There’s always a vantage point from which detachment may be found.  And I have to let go of my preferred way of seeing the person — as being more ideal than they actually are and as being more capable of different points of view and behavior than they are — and I have to do this letting go with some sort of love (I would characterize it as charitable love).  My problem with it is that it can feel to me like giving up when I should be pushing on to find a better resolution.

The Road to Character actually indirectly helped me with that last piece;  it finally put into perspective an old relationship, and helped me see that I was looking to repeat that relationship with others, when I should be rejoicing that I had had such a relationship once.  Realizing that helps me let go — of relationships, or at least of the expectations that the relationships will be of the same sort as that old one.

And as I said, when I do this work on my own successfully, I do not react — overreact — to the subsequent interactions in the same unhelpful way.  I can let people be who they are and take it from there.


“Oh, he’s in our ER”

April 26, 2015

I was trying to chase down a phone number my older son had given me, and when I called the health care conglomerate whose number it is, the person who answered the phone told me, to my astonishment, “Oh, he’s in our ER right now.”

Complete coincidence.

She put me through, and Jonas told me about his crushed and infected hand.  He’ll be in the hospital for a few days.


Tangle of trees

April 25, 2015

We had a lots of big snowstorms this winters, some of which included a lot of wind, and then this spring it we’ve had some very windy days (and nights).  So it’s not surprising that a lot of trees have come down in the various patches of woods I walk through on various routes that I take when I walk, but today, by the Res, I noticed this huge bunch of tree trunks and upper branches and maybe some vines all in a tangle on the ground — it was striking.

I worry that the older trees that fall are not being replaced adequately by new trees, that the underbrush is cleaned out too thoroughly by the town or by “Friends of …” groups.  So when I see a bunch of fallen trees, I wonder how they will be replaced.

Despite the sight of the trees, I got a helpful way of re-framing a situation that has been bothering me for some weeks now, shortly after I passed the tangle.  I was comparing how another difficult situation had recently worked out more easily than I had expected, and how in the time before it had, I had had less trouble “turning it over” after we did all the tasks that were ours to do.  In the earlier situation, I knew I had no control over the rest of the process and I also knew that there was nothing more I could actually do once we filled out the paperwork and sent it in.  In the current situation, what I’m supposed to do is less clear, and whether there’s more I could do is less clear — so there’s more room for me to wonder if by act or omission I am messing something up and making it less likely the result I hope for will occur.  I was trying to figure out what “turning it over” looks like in such a context.  And it came to me that the universe can take whatever it is I do and find a way to get from there to wherever it serves for us to go, and that in the meantime I can just be kind of curious about what will happen, how that will look and play out, and not worry so much about my contribution.  Because for me a big ongoing challenge is to do what’s mine to do and then get out of the way so that those other forces have room to work and so that the other people involved in the situation have room to do what’s theirs to do.

Of course, none of this means things will turn out in this second situation as I would like, but since it will probably go on for months before it is resolved, I needed a better way of thinking about it — a way of being able to lay that burden down or at least carry it more comfortably.

“I’ve changed”

April 19, 2015

I sometimes think the theme of my life is to resolve my difficulty with people who want yet another chance despite past disastrous results.  They say, “I’ve changed.”  I think my version of Diogenes and his search for an honest man is my desire to find an instance in which the other person (or couple or family) actually has changed in a way that would actually make things come out different if we tried again.  I’ve tried again, many times, with many people.  Clearly there’s a lesson I haven’t yet learned.

What I think I have learned, though, is that in these situations, the people involved need encouragement to blossom themselves and in ways they avoid, if things are ever to come out any different, and that the only encouragement they will perceive from me within a re-engagement won’t lead to that but will lead to further entrenchment of existing patterns of interaction, the patterns that lead to the disastrous results.

I think the question for me at this point may be to what extent I can ever actually be helpful in that process of blossoming and to what extent that is a process these people will engage in, if they engage in it at all, with others.

At least wishing someone well is a unilateral act.

I actually think the theme of my life is loss, and that this scenario is a subset of that theme.  It’s a loss which requires my recognition of the reality, rather than a situation in which I have no choices to make and the loss occurs in the same way whether I am willing or not willing, conscious of what is going on or not.

It’s a tough one, because this situation doesn’t come up unless there are also strands of at least seemingly positive connection.  And one is letting go of the possibility that this will be the instance in which re-engagement actually works out, that Diogenes will this time find what he is looking for.

My mother and English Language Learners

April 18, 2015

I found myself going on at a length beyond what I think is appropriate in some news comments I was making, so I decided I’d better bring my discussion over here.

The topic was teaching English as a Second Language and my mother.

My mother taught ESL as a volunteer through a local public library when she was older.  She enjoyed it.

It occurred to me when I was writing about my mother and ESL that my father was an English Language Learner.  He came to this country when he was fourteen.  My parents knew each other in high school (Erasmus Hall High School).  My mother was a little over a year younger than my father.

When my parents were visiting for my younger son’s high school graduation, I asked my dad about my parents’ courtship — I had heard my mother’s angle many times, but I hadn’t heard my dad’s and I was curious.  One thing he mentioned that was apparently a highlight for him was being invited to and attending my mother’s Sweet Sixteen birthday party;  I’m not sure I had been aware before this that she had had one.  It was apparently a big deal for my father.

I think my father had been in this country approximately three years when my mother had her Sweet Sixteen.  My father claimed to have learned English with The New York Times and a dictionary.  He said that spelling was the most difficult part and had no patience with my spelling mistakes:  “If I could master English spelling, you can, too,” was the substance of his reaction to seeing my repeated misspelling of “burry” for “bury” in a third grade report on animal hibernation.  I don’t know what state my father’s English was in when he met my mother.  I think they met through after-school school clubs and societies.  My mother told me that despite their losing touch with each other for nine years after high school, she knew she would either marry Kurt Moses or not marry at all.

So I want to say that my mother fell in love with an English Language Learner and I want to put that together with my mother’s teaching of ESL much later in her life.  I think for my mother, that later experience — her formal teaching of English as a Second Language — was also was wrapped up in a positive feeling for English Language Learners.

Possible reactions

April 7, 2015

The snow cover has receded sufficiently in my neighborhood that I can walk in hilly woods without either sinking into deep heaps of it or sliding around on icy, packed-down trails.  So I ventured into some very local woods yesterday and enjoyed being able to see far and wide through the leafless grove.  Was sad to see so many trees broken and uprooted.  Took some time to sit against a large rock and contemplate.

On my way out of the woods, right near the sidewalk where I come out about a block up the hill from my house, I saw what I thought was an interesting-looking rock obtruding from the dirt near the path I was on.  So I bent down to move dirt from around it so I could see more of it.  I thought it was going to be one of those rocks with a lot of orange in it.

It was a shell.  A whelk.  Filled with dirt but beautiful pinkish-orange inside.

My reaction was joy and gratitude:  I thanked the universe for yielding such a treat.

When I entered the woods for this walk, elsewhere in the surrounding streets, there was a handwritten sign on a wood pole saying not to dump yard waste.  People obviously do dump yard waste in these woods, especially along its periphery near the streets that border it.

I know plenty of people decorate and nourish their gardens and landscaping with sea shells, I see them all the time when I walk in residential areas.

So I am going to guess that the mundane explanation for this mostly-buried shell is that it arrived in the woods with a load of yard waste.

But thinking about it that way does not seem to me to lead to anything helpful.  I’m going to go with joy and gratitude to the universe.


April 5, 2015

I mentioned to Gita that I have been somewhat surprised and frustrated by the apparent fact that I can facilitate a healing successfully, and the improvement does occur, but the impact is not seen immediately.  It’s as if, to use an analogy, when the groundwork had been laid (such as calling to my attention the difference between what I was doing and the sound it produced and what others were doing and the sound that produced instead), so that I could pronounce certain consonants correctly and not with speech impediment I had as a child, I could not manifest that improvement and still spoke incorrectly.  I said to Gita that it seems as if a “reboot” is necessary after the update has been downloaded, and she said, yes, in the Vedic texts there is discussion of how, at least in some circumstances, according to some ways of thinking, the upgrade will not manifest until the next incarnation.

It’s reassuring to know that I am not alone in encountering this apparent phenomenon, but, of course, it’s also not what I wanted to hear.  That’s part of why I go to see Gita, she tells me what I don’t want to hear.

But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I do get a kick out of having, not reinvented but sort of re-conceptualized, the wheel.

It’s all inside us, just waiting for us to rediscover, just like they tell us.