Learning to Let Go

A writer friend of mine told me that being in your 20s is all about unbridled optimism that anything can happen, while being in your 30s is about figuring out your limitations, and what really is possible. Limitations are hard, she said. But it makes life so much easier when you just accept who you really are instead of constantly banging your head against your own weaknesses, hoping they’ll stop existing.

When I was younger, I had all these visions about what my life was going to look like, and what the future was going to hold for me. I was sold on my own potential, something adults had assured me I had plenty of for most of my life, but I also found it paralyzing. I could do anything. I could do anything. And that meant I had to pick and choose and apparently be very very good at it or else I would be wasting all that potential.

Things in my life did  not go as planned. In fact, they keep not going as planned. I have spent a lot of time trying to fit myself into spaces where I just don’t fit, and even if I managed to force my way in, being in them would make me constantly uncomfortable, and completely inauthentic. And why? Because of some worry that I was failing to live up to something as ill-defined as potential?

I was talking about feeling stuck, overwhelmed by the potential of my story. “Over determination is the enemy,” my friend reminded me. She told me to stop trying to force it, to move back toward writing as play. It was almost shocking advice. I have spent a long time trying to embrace writing as work. Somewhere along the way I forgot that it is also supposed to be fun.

And that life is supposed to be fun — or at least not miserable. If I was working on not forcing things in my greater life, why would I then be willing to force things in my writing? I had to let go.

It’s scary to let go. It’s scary to abandon plans — or to at least pull back on the details. It’s scary to imagine that at best you can aim for a certain direction and see what happens. As in life, so it is in writing. All the outlining in the world won’t actually take your story where it needs to go.

More importantly, worrying about living up to the potential of a story — or of a life — is a great way to squander said potential. No one person can do ALL the things in life. The therapist part of me of course knows this, but the writer part of me often forgets it. The story will come when it comes, and how it will come, and it won’t be forced.

So that’s where I am these days — trying to learn the art of letting go. My hope is that my letting go this idea of unrealized potential I can start to better focus on what already is, what I am already good at, and what I already know. I can stop living in the shadow of what could be, and enjoy the light of what actually is.

I think I’d rather be in the light.

 

*Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang

The Flying of Time

There comes a point in a new position where everything begins to feel routine. Where the schedule is pretty locked in, the tasks rote, and the days start to blend together. I always worry when this happens, because as the weeks whirl into months, I feel my life passes before my eyes at an almost numbing speed. I become complacent.

Writing is the only thing that seems to help keep the flying of time in check, because it is a measurable use of time. Most of my tasks disappear, as it were, by the next week. As a therapist, I see the same people over and over again, marking their progress with notes written weekly and treatment plans written every three months. But the progress in therapy is sometimes is small, and hard to see from week to week, like tracking the growth of a child. You know they are growing, but it takes a while to actually see it.

At the breakneck speed of a mental health clinic where I see clients one right after another, with one short break midway through a stretch of 9 clients in a row, it’s hard to spend a lot of time processing each session to look for those moments of growth or change. Each week picks up on the topics of the previous, so it feels sometimes like I am binging other people’s lives.

And it sometimes feels like in doing so I am neglecting my own. Again, writing is one of the few things that keeps me grounded in my own goals and dreams, and helps me see my own growth. I can see the pages that mark the passing of time, see the drafts build, one on another, and when I hit that final draft, have an actual product to give people that is a physical manifestation of “how I used my time.”

However, I struggle to make time for writing. It often comes after — after work, after chores, after general life maintenance. It’s been hard to put writing first. When I look back over a stretch of time and see how few pages I have to show for that period of time, I know my priorities have drifted away from me, and that my routine has taken over.

You’d think that the natural thing to do is to make writing part of that routine, and that has always been my goal. But with so little time, and so many other things going on, it continues to be very hard to make the kind of dedicated writing time I want. I end up getting snatches of time here and there, which never seem to let me get to the place I want to get to, where the words just flow and the story takes over. That is what I miss, more than anything, when I say I miss writing. I miss being a conduit instead of a work horse. I miss feeling inspired instead of feeling obligated. I miss getting quality time with my own imaginary adventures.

So, now that I see that my time management has gotten away from me, it’s time to make adjustments and put writing back up on the priority list. I know doing that though means that some other things may start to slide. There simply just isn’t enough time for everything. I have to use the time I have better.

The Myth of the Lone Writer

 

Anyone who tells you that writing is a solitary activity is telling tales. Even ignoring the number of published authors who are actually writing teams (such as The Stiletto Gang’s own Sparkle Abbey), and others who use ghost writers, no writer I have ever met has ever been published without a high level of support from an entire team of people. That support usually starts with other writers — people who share the insane desire to try to create worlds out of words for others to play in.

I first met members of my personal writing support team at Western Washington University, where I took my first steps toward becoming a writer. Coming back to Washington still feels like coming home for me, and I feel more strongly tied in to the writing communities out here than in either of my other two homes (Los Angeles, CA and Brooklyn, NY).

So I was more than happy to go with fellow Blue Zephyr Press author (and The Stiletto Gang blogger) Bethany Maines to the Creative Colloquy Third Anniversary Party in Tacoma, WA. With special guest MC Tod Marshall, the Washington State Poet Laureate, the event boasted five scheduled guest readers (all published in the Creative Colloquy literary magazine, either online or in print), and an open mic that offered a chance for others to share their work as well. Authors read to a packed house at the B Sharp Coffee Shop, and prizes were given out to audience members via raffle tickets throughout the course of the evening. (I, sadly, did not win anything.)

What I noticed most about the gathering was how many readers had teams of support with them. It seemed to me that not a single writer was there alone. And if they started off the night alone, the act of sharing their work to the group suddenly made them seem less so, as others congratulated them for reading, for having the nerve to stand up and share their words in a public space.

I don’t often get time to go to readings or literary events, and so I am not often reminded of just how many of us writers — and people willing to support us — there are. You’d think I’d feel intimidated, but whenever I am in a space like that, I just feel excited and proud to be part of the community around me. I’m always just so happy to know that I’m not alone in the struggle, and in the celebration, of writing.Being there with someone from my own support network made it all the more obvious that writing is rarely the loner activity it’s often portrayed as being. During my week visit, I had countless conversations with Bethany and others in my writing group and extended reading network about my latest writing project (a contemporary fantasy series based on a short story I wrote for a contest last year) that shaped the world I was creating. We got to spend rare time together writing in the same space, making use of the ability to use an auxiliary brain to track down words we couldn’t quite remember, being inspired by the steady clicking of the computer next to us, and generally enjoying the company of someone who gets it when you say that your characters aren’t cooperating. All of this was before we even shared the actual works themselves, a process that begins with beta readers, and, basically, never ends. Even after a work is published, it still takes other people — namely an audience — to bring it to life.

Prejudice and Fake News

I have been reading comments on stories about Drumpf’s outrageous lie over the weekend that Obama had Drumpf Tower wire-tapped and here is how it seems to go: Drumpf wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t think it was true, which means there is proof of it, and we need an investigation to find that proof – of the thing there currently is no proof of.

This is very different than the stories about Drumpf’s ties to Russia where journalists are pointing out facts – all these people tied to Drumpf talked to the Russian ambassador and other folks at these times, while these other things were happening, and these particular Drumpf aligned folks then lied about it. 

A real story starts with facts and sees where they lead, and a real journalist lets the facts create the theory. 

A conspiracy theorist starts with a theory, and then insists there must be proof of it, and any failure to find the proof just proves how powerful the people responsible for the conspiracy are. In selling a conspiracy theory, facts are irrelevant, and fear and outrage are all that matter. 

This is how you can tell fake news from real news: did it start with facts, or with theory? Is someone drawing conclusions for you, or letting you draw your own? Is there a clear line of events you can trace, or a corkscrew of situations that only add up to something if you follow a particular twisty path? 

And, as always, follow the money. Find the motivation. Not a secret motivation that only makes sense if you’re a Bond villain or part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but a real, human motivation like, I dunno – protecting your known and unknown financial ties to a foreign country.

Take any particular bias you have against the people involved in a story out of the equation, and ask yourself: does this make sense? 

That’s the beauty of logic – it’s not interested in what we want to be true, but in finding out what actually is. 

The horror of conspiracy theories is that they are only interested in what you (and your biases) want to be true, and never care about – or can find any tangible connection to – what is actually true. They only make sense through the lens of bias. They justify prejudice and hatred, and in fact only exist to serve that purpose. 

And that’s what I kept reading – comments about hate for Obama that gets to continue to be justified by a story that paints him as a villain capable of any evil act. Because Obama is evil, the story must be true. The story must be true because Obama is evil. There is no room for actual facts in that equation. Prejudice is its own proof.

 The solution to fake news isn’t more facts. What researchers know is that facts don’t change minds, and in fact, there have been some studies that show that being presented with new facts can actually make someone double-down on their prior (often irrational) belief. If you want to get rid of fake news, you have to first attack the thing that makes people want to believe in it in the first place: prejudice.

My first training on bias and prejudice was when I was studying journalism as an undergrad. Journalists are trained to try to be as objective as possible. How?
You have to be willing to be wrong to follow facts instead of prejudice. You have to be able to handle the idea that the facts may not lead where you want them to, and that your beliefs may be challenged in a way that may even force you to change them. You have to commit to the idea that truth is more important than comfort. You have to be able to tolerate the tension of not knowing all the answers and not jumping to any conclusions. You have to find sources — as many as possible and as close to the center of the story as possible — to make sure you have all the information possible.

This is what ethical journalists do, every day. If you want to learn to consume media the same way the best journalists report it, you have to start in the same place as journalists do – by identifying and moving past your own prejudices. And if you want to convince someone else that what they are reading is fake news, you have to first convince them that they have ulterior motives for believing it —  you have to convince them that they are reading through the lens of prejudice. Only once they recognize WHY they are so willing to believe the story — why they will believe anything of someone they hate or a group they know little about (and often fear) — then they can start to see the facts from a more objective point of view. Maybe they’ll even be convinced. 

 Or, maybe they’ll just form new prejudices.

Strength Undefeatable

I can’t remember if my mom picked it out for me, or if I found it myself. I am pretty sure the appeal of the poster was that it was long and narrow, perfect for putting on the back of a college dorm-room door. The colors were pastel-bright and dreamy, that vague 90’s swirly artwork of stars or flowers or something like it served as the background, and all in all it screamed: young girl leaving home to go to college.

On the poster were the words:

I’d done a grade-school project on Anne Sullivan, the woman credited with dramatically changing Hellen Keller’s life. That you could be deaf and blind and still connect to the world amazed me. That you could see past someone’s isolated and nearly savage exterior and believe that there was a person worth connecting to still amazes me. I knew there was wisdom in the words of the poster, and over the next four years, I’d find myself going back to them over and over.

And then my brother died in 2001, and I felt completely lost.

I would feel lost for years. I would bounce from job to job completely unsatisfied. Panic about spending my time well made me waste it. I had this need to not only live my life, but the life he might have lived as well. I became more reckless. I felt restless. I dreamed up and dropped plan after plan after plan, trying to find one that might fit, that might make my life worthy of the word “life”. I didn’t fully understand survivor’s guilt then. I didn’t have the words “complicated grief” to describe the way my mother withdrew into herself. I was trying to be a free spirit. I was trying to find my strength undefeatable. I was trying to make every moment count, and feeling like no moment was good enough, would ever be good enough. I was trying to find myself; that’s what people in their 20s do, even if they don’t start the decade with losing their older brother.

I didn’t understand what strong was. I didn’t understand that creating a hard shell wasn’t the way to go. Undefeatable strength shone like a diamond — cold, bright, beautiful.

And then…

I found a new path, one that would take me to a new city, a new career, and a new outlook on life. I started to soften. I started to read about shame, about vulnerability. I discovered Brené Brown, a social worker who spoke about what it means to “dare greatly” in life, and what we need to do so:

“If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. And I know it’s seductive to stand outside the arena, because I think I did it my whole life, and think to myself, I’m going to go in there and kick some ass when I’m bulletproof and when I’m perfect. And that is seductive. But the truth is that never happens.”

So I started to try to enter the arena of my life as I was, and not wait until I was that perfect hard diamond I thought I needed to be.

And then…

My mother died. All my instincts said to go hard again. All my instincts told me the world was a cruel place that will take things from you unpredictably, or when you are on the verge of accomplishment, or starting a new, promising path. It will wait until you have your guard down, and it will strike, so you should never have your guard down. I was in the presence of fate again, and I needed to be strong.

I always thought choice was about action, about taking a path as literally as walking in the woods, and that every path had an inevitable destination. So every choice came to me dripping with expectation, great blobs of insecurity dropping all over me.

It now occurs to me that choices aren’t always linked to action, like hopping from stone to stone. Choices aren’t always about where you are going, but about who you choose to be in the here and now. Not how you set up the next moment, but about how you experience this one. Into all this self-reflection and reframing came other words:

A plant has deep roots and is strong because of them, able to withstand storm and damage and regrow again and again. And I thought, now that’s strength undefeatable.

The world has gotten scary again, and once again I am struck with feelings of loss, of confusion, of fear about the future. Once again I must face the reality that life will always be filled with changes, tragic or otherwise, and that the only thing I can control is whether I try to be a diamond or a plant — cold and hard, or fragile and vulnerable.

Strong and vulnerable do not seem to go together, and yet…

To keep our faces toward change, to be good human beings by staying open, and to to embrace the vulnerability of engagement – that is the strongest stance any of us can take.

Here’s to staying engaged…

Words of Resistance

On January 15th, 2017, I made my way out to the front of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library to attend a rally.

At about 10 minutes after the officially posted start time, a young girl that no one could really see started singing the national anthem in a clear strong voice. There was no MC, no announcement that the rally was officially starting, and there was a long silence while the first speaker made her way to the podium, which, the crowd noted shortly after, was too low on the steps. The volume of the microphones was also too low, and shouts of “louder!” came from the people furthest back.

It took a few readers — each coming up to the podium, saying their names and telling the crowd what they were reading– but finally someone pulled a microphone from a stand, asked the crowd if they were loud enough, and stood high enough up on the steps to get a huge roar of approval.

The empty podium, abandoned in the cold, became a symbol for the rally itself: when the people speak, its time for a change.

The PEN America sponsored Writers Resist rally was a solid two-and-half hours of authors, poets, and even politicians reading excerpts from Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, and of course, Martin Luther King Jr. — as well as many many others — in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and in protest against an incoming presidential administration that regularly attacks the media and individual writers. Former United States poet laureates read inaugural poems from past administrations, and many other writers shared their own work, some written specifically for the occasion. There were readers and writers of every race, from myriad countries of birth, and from a multitude of backgrounds.

The themes of the readings were about fighting for freedom, standing up for democracy, and finding a place as a American when so many others might tell you that you don’t belong. Some people read song lyrics (a reading of Frank Zappa’s “It Can’t Happen Here” stands out), and others read parts of the constitution, including the First Amendment. The battle, the thing everyone was there to resist, was the silencing of words. Audre Lorde’s quote, made into a poster, was held above the crowd: “your silence will not protect you.”

As a writer in the crowd slowly inching her way closer and closer to that empty podium and the readers standing several steps above it, I felt like I was getting a master class in the power of words. Even as the cold numbed my toes and fingers, and my feet ached from standing still for too long, my ears still caught carefully constructed lines, doing what precise prose and perfect poetry always does: inform, impress, and inspire.

While I found much of it moving, it was the inaugural poems that got me thinking. The first president to have an inaugural poem was John F. Kennedy.

“When power leads man to arrogance,” Kennedy is reported to have said, “poetry reminds him of his limitations. ”

When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

According to Wikipedia, only four other presidential inaugurations had poets prepare something for the occasion: Bill Clinton’s two inaugurations, and Barack Obama’s two inaugurations. That hasn’t stopped me, and indeed others, from imagining what poetry might inspire President-Elect Donald Trump. As I listened to speaker after speaker reading words about what it means to fight for freedom, I tried to imagine what sort of words Trump reads, what philosophers, what authors, what poets.

As the saying goes, “watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions.” We are all shaped by what we read, the stories we take in, the ideas we absorb. More than the President-Elect’s tax returns, I want to see his reading list. I want to know what words will guide this new president; I fear the only words he cares about are his own, that he is a president without poetry.

I fear that he is a president that would rather censor the press than face criticism, that his attacks on the media are part of a greater attack on free speech. I fear that because he “knows all the words,” and “has the best words” he thinks he doesn’t need to listen, to read, and to learn.

So I gathered with hundreds of others in New York City (and hundreds more across the country) to listen to words, and to march to Trump Tower with a pledge to defend the First Amendment (signed by over 160,000 people) and to shout more words, as is my constitutional right. Peaceful protest (and not so peaceful) has been a part of every great change America has ever made. Our country was founded in protest of another country the people who made their way to our shores thought was unjust. The Founding Fathers wanted to create a space where democracy would thrive and understood that this could not happen if the very tools of the revolution they fought — including protest — weren’t protected. Every social revolution brings us ever closer to those ideals fought so hard for: a more perfect union with equality for all.

But not everyone has made the same study of those words, and many do not share the same vision for what equality looks like. As another saying goes: when you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. For every person who wants to make America great again, there is another who is still trying to find a way to make it great for the first time, to find their place under the great umbrella of “for all.” For this second group of Americans, words of resistance — resistance to settling, to taking less, to living in despair — are what keep them going, keep them hoping, keep them dreaming.

And keep them reading, and keep them writing. Our very constitution is a poem to the ideals of freedom. This country was founded on the promise of words. I marched to help hold our country to that promise. And whenever I can, I will brave cold or heat and crowds and shouts to hear that promise spoken again and again.

Words have power. It’s why people in power fight so hard to silence them. And its also why writers will always be at the heart of every resistance.

Everything That is Not An Elephant

I am notoriously bad at remembering the source of stories, so I can’t remember where I heard this story first. I have been using it, and telling this particular version of it, for as long as I can remember. This is the version I tell:

There was a master sculptor and an apprentice sculptor, and one day the Master set a huge block of marble down in front of the Apprentice.

“Apprentice,” he said, “I want you to carve me an elephant.”

“But Master,” said the Apprentice, “I don’t know how to carve an elephant.”

“It’s simple,” the Master replied. “Simply start by carving away everything that is NOT an elephant.”

The moral, I tell people, just in case they have missed it, is that sometimes the best way to figure out what we are is to start by carving away everything we are not.

 

(When I looked up the story to try to find the origins, I found many versions, several attributed to Michelangelo about carving “David” by carving away everything that was not “David”. In some ways that’s an even more apt analogy than the version I tell, but I’ll stick with mine because I like elephants and not everyone wants to try to carve out themselves as a Greek version of the perfect man.)

I break out this story whenever people talk about mistakes. “Feedback, not failure” was a popular motto at one of my old jobs. Every time we find a way toward a goal that doesn’t work, and every time we carve away some part of ourselves that is “not an elephant”, we get closer and closer to success, and to finding who we really are. Mistakes, for better or for worse, shape us.

Most people will be starting the new year with a list of resolutions. In therapy, I prefer to use the word “intention” because it doesn’t have that same “do or fail” feeling to it. While resolutions often feel like a destination, intentions are about the journey. Intentions make room for all that wonderful feedback that will come from finding all the attempts at change that don’t work.

Here is my other grand piece of advice: motivation will fail you. Trust structure. If you want to change your life, reshape your day, and build into that day space for the habits that will lead to change. Start with one habit a week — eating breakfast, going to bed an hour earlier, stretching. Keep in mind that your day is already filled with those things you currently think of as bad habits, so you will have to replace an old habit with a new one if you want to actually change. Sleeping instead of more time on social media. Exercise instead of that extra hour of TV a day. If you want to know what changes you actually will be able to make, start with a list of things you are willing to give up in your current routine. Carve away everything that is not part of the kind of day you want to have. Fill the space with your elephant of choice. And be prepared for finding lots and lots of ways that replacing “bad” habits doesn’t work, until you finally find the way that does work (personalized to you).

For the record, none of this is as simple as it seems. Change always seems simple to someone who has mastered it, and terrifyingly difficult to the apprentices just starting out. And it seems like every turn of a new year makes apprentices of us all.

Happy carving everyone!

*Originally published on The Stiletto Gang blog on 1/3/17

Science Fiction: A Bastion of Hope

Social work, I tell people, is about holding hope for others when they are unable to hold it for themselves. More often than not, I meet people when they are in the midst of some sort of crisis. That crisis has painted their world pretty dark, and optimistic isn’t very high on the list of things they are feeling. And yet, the very act of going to therapy is an act of hope — it’s taking a chance that there may be another way to feel, another way to live life. They come with a spark, and it’s my job to help them nurture and grow that spark. I help them see the strengths they already have, and learn to accept that being human means having imperfection. When all else fails, I sit with them in their darkness until they can contemplate the existence of light again.

The world feels very scary to a great deal many people in my life right now. Here in the US, the electoral college just elected a man that the majority of the nation did not vote for, and he is pushing for policy most of us oppose. I have teenage clients being told by bullying classmates that they will be deported, Jewish clients being threatened with swastikas, trans clients terrified for their safety, and countless female clients terrified for their rights (including the right to not be sexually assaulted). Facts are being re-branded as opinions, and science dismissed as an elitist and biased view. People don’t know how to tell if the stories they are reading are real or fake — and too many people don’t even care. If it sounds like the truth (or rather, like what they already believe), that’s good enough.

It’s times like this that I hold on to one of my first and greatest loves: science fiction. Science fiction and fantasy have covered all this territory before. I think I have managed to read a story or see a movie about every kind of terrible thing that humanity can do to itself, or have done to them by some greater power. I have read every kind of ending as well, from the dark and nihilistic, to the fiercely optimistic. The most recent was the latest Star Wars movie, whose tag line is this:

While I can’t assume to know the motivation of every author out there, I can’t help but think that the reason why so many writers create such dark worlds is to show people a way through that darkness. However big the odds, there are always heroes willing to take them on. However hard the path, there are feet willing to walk it, and however horrible the consequences, there are people willing to risk it all. For hope.

Hope is one of the great themes of science fiction: where it lives, how it endures, what it can accomplish, what happens when it dies. You cannot tell a story about human beings without also talking about their hopes and dreams. My particular interest in science fiction and fantasy is the way it can take the human condition to the furthest stretch of “what if” and provide a possible answer to what humans would do then. And more often than not, what humans will do, whenever given even the tiniest chance, is hope.

Like many others, I found 2016 to be a very challenging year. I don’t know if we all just collectively only focused on the bad and missed the good (though a lot good happened as well), but it seemed like the year when a lot of people realized, as the great William Goldman (of The Princess Bride) said: “Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” None of us are buying this year.

Still, it’s my job to hold hope. The only reason I have been able to is that I spent my childhood practicing this skill. I usually needed it about midway through a book when everything in the story started getting darker and darker. I definitely needed it right before the end, when it seemed like any sort of happy ending would be impossible. But I stuck with it (and didn’t skip ahead) and even if all the characters would not survive the story, one thing almost always did: hope.

So I’d pick up the next book, and the next, and the next, and get the same message again and again. However dark the world, there were good people in it. However horrible humanity could be, there were other humans willing to stand up for the weak, for the innocent, and for the best in all of us.

And that is why I can look at 2016 and understand — the story is not over yet. I don’t know if 2017 will be a dark chapter or not, but I do know that in the end, however long this series goes, the good will win. We just have to keep flipping the pages, and we’ll get there eventually.

*originally published on The Stiletto Gang blog.

A Moment of Discord

What makes a person change?

This is the question that fills my life — my life as a therapist, and my life as a writer. How does a person grow and evolve? What makes them change their minds, their hearts, their views? According to Wikipedia, “a character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person and gradually transforms into a different sort of person in response to changing developments in the story.”

In fiction, the character arc — and the general plot of the story — begins with the inciting incident, or the thing that starts the whole plot rolling. Without this incident, there would be no conflict, no push forward. Without the inciting incident putting events into motion, there would be no reason for the character to have an arc, for the character to change.

Real life rarely has a linear plot, and so it’s really hard to find inciting incidents in it. Sometimes big events happen that force people to deal with them, like death or moving, or gaining or losing a job. And yet the event itself doesn’t necessarily lead to any sort of lasting change. Events come and go in a life, and it is how people respond to those events that actually lead to change or not.

From what I’ve seen, the most common event in a person’s life is a moment of discord — a moment where something that someone thought, believed, or knew as an absolute truth gets challenged. In fiction this might be something as big as aliens landing on Earth, or a character seeing a ghost. In real life the moments tend to be smaller and much more frequent, like hearing a story that surprises you about your friend, or meeting someone from a group you were sure you knew everything about and discovering they are nothing like you imagined they would be.

With every moment of discord comes a choice — either a person can double down on what they thought they knew to be true, or embrace the discomfort and move to change. Often, in fiction, it takes several beats and/or chapters to get from an inciting incident to the thing that locks the character into the plot and toward the course of change. Even in fiction, we recognize the human need to resist change, to cling to old ideas or ways of being. We deny the ghosts in front of our eyes, the aliens walking down the street, or even the possibility that our long-held view of the world could be anything but right and true. It takes  more discord, more discomfort to lodge us from the path we were already walking and lead us toward something new.

Some people never lock in to their action, never embrace the change. They stay constant in how they act, in how they see the world, regardless of what events unfold in front of them. They likely don’t make very good protagonists, since their arcs look more like straight lines.

I don’t see many of those types in therapy, since the act of going to a therapist is about actively seeking some sort of change. But even if people want to change, it doesn’t mean they don’t resist it. There are barriers, there is push back, there are relapses and setbacks. In a story, this is the series of conflicts that creates tension while driving the story forward. In real life, these are the things that drive people crazy.

Change in a story comes at exactly the point the author needs it to come so that there is some sort of resolution. Change in a life is a process that may or may not have a definitive end. Both types of change take commitment, time, and perspective.

So what makes a person change? I’m still not sure. Lives are scattered with inciting incidents and moments of discord nearly every day. Events don’t change people — people change themselves.

In the end I think it comes back to my favorite social work joke: how many social workers does it take to change a light bulb?

One, but the light bulb has to want to change.

Everything else is just the story of how.

 

*Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang on December 6th, 2016. 

When Gratitude Isn’t Easy

The common wisdom is that a daily practice of gratitude is not only good for the soul, it is also good for your mental health. As a therapist, I often help my clients focus on the positive in their life, and on their own strengths. Strengths-focus is the heart of Positive Psychology, “the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive psychology wanted to find a way to help people “to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.” He found it in practices of strength-based focus on positivity.

I am a huge fan (and amateur practitioner of) positive psychology, so I get all the health benefits of gratitude. But lately, I have found gratitude to be particularly challenging — I am having a hard time staying focused on what is good.

Right now, there is a lot of hurt in the world. Here in the US, we have water protectors at Standing Rock getting hosed down in freezing water, and the Southern Poverty Law Center reporting a high number of incidents of hate crimes since the Presidential Election. My clinical clients are struggling — some have been targeted by hate crimes themselves and most are afraid of what will happen next. Plus, there is still a lot of bad things happening outside our country, the most recent being yet another huge natural disaster in Japan (BIG earthquake). In the midst of all these horrible things, how do you stay focused on the strengths? How do you continue to practice gratitude?

I want to remind people that gratitude is not an absolute feeling. It’s not something that requires that you feel it, and only it. Gratitude is an “and”, not a “but”. There are horrible things happening in the world, “and” I am thankful that most of the people I love are safe and sound. There is a lot of fear and hate floating around, and I am grateful that people are still able to come together under the umbrella of love. The “and” is not trying to eliminate, or even counter, everything that comes before. Gratitude is not about balance — some things are so horrible a simple expression of thankfullness could never even begin to counter them. Gratitude is a practice of opening up all the parts of us that are afraid, sad, and overwhelmed just enough to let some of the good in — and some of the good out. It is the the thing that lets us keep the words of Mr. Rogers in mind:

Gratitude reminds us that we are strong — is the very act of focusing on strengths. It says, life is hard, and I am capable enough, talented enough, and brave enough to handle it. Life is hard, and it is beautiful, and worth living.

It is when gratitude is the hardest to find that we most need to look for it, to look for the “and” as a way to help bolster us against everything that comes before. This Thanksgiving I will be far away from family, and still reeling from the events of the last few weeks, and still worried about the future. And I will be with friends, will be eating bountiful food in relative safety, and will be able to find moments of laughter to share. Life is never just one thing. This year, I am grateful for “and.”

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Originally published on The Stiletto Gang on November 22nd, 2016.