Advanced Generalist

I am a know-it-all. This is not a confession I make likely, because being called a know-it-all when I was growing up was not a positive experience.

And yet, I couldn’t help myself. I liked knowing things. I still like knowing things. It goes deeper than needing something to feel superior about (I know something you don’t!). Knowing things was how I held on to an objective reality when my personal reality was constantly being challenged when I was growing up.

Feelings, I learned early on, lied. They did such a good job of lying they could rewrite the past, shape the present, and make the future seem like destiny. If things were good, they had always been good and would always be good. More often than not, if things were bad, they had always been bad and always would be bad. I needed something I could depend on to hold on to. And that’s when I discovered facts — things that were undeniably true. Things that surpassed emotions. Things that I could use as anchors so that my life could make some sort of sense.

My hunger to know things, really know things, also meant a huge reluctance to accept that the things I knew were wrong. My family had invested in a set of encyclopedias when I was a child, and I went to them on a regular basis. These days I use the Internet to verify that I do in fact know what I know (and that it is knowable), using skills garnered in my years as a journalist to test sources and information. Fact-checking, once a part of my job as a reporter, has become part of my daily life. To this day, I go into an emotional tail spin if a fact I have held on to is questioned — how could I get something wrong? What is actually knowable? Will life ever make sense?

It is with old-fashioned journalistic confidence — the confidence of someone who has done the fact checking — that I can say that when I know something, I know something. I have spent more time than is probably healthy looking it up and verifying its veracity, or else I will be light in my presentation of said fact, using “I think I read somewhere that…” instead of stating it as something actually true. Being a know-it-all is not something I take lightly — I try very hard to accurately share what I know.

I have also had a lot of different jobs. In my years attempting to be a freelance journalist (which I was never great at because selling my writing was always harder than doing the writing), I took a lot of day jobs, and in fact, spent a great deal of time being a temporary employee. Being a temp suited me since I have always been able to learn fairly quickly, and because I like being helpful. And since I was a temp, there was only so much filing I would have to do before getting (or asking for) a new assignment. Eventually, I became one of those people who knew at least a little bit about a lot of different things. I was a generalist, in the old terminology.

So it greatly amused me when I found out that one of the methods I could study in social work was “advanced generalist.” An advanced generalist social worker can work in multiple systems and at multiple levels, from direct services to policy. Advanced generalists are considered part of the mezzo or middle level of social workers (with strictly clinical social workers at the micro level, and those working on policy or high admin levels considered more macro level workers). As such they get training both in clinical work and in administrative work, learning how to diagnose individual clients as well as assess communities and organizations.

It matches my know-it-all spirit to be an advanced generalist. I have worked in various jobs in various fields, including journalism, public relations, marketing, administrative work, English and math tutoring, teaching, office management, case manager, social worker, and now, therapist. And I have learned a ton of different things both formally and informally (including that time I took a class called “acting for the nonprofessional” and that other time I learned how to waltz). In fact, lacking any other language to describe my particular brand of know-it-all-ness (I know at least a little bit about a really large number of subjects), I often refer to myself as an advanced generalist outside of the field of social work.

So I was very pleased to discover that my particular brand of know-it-all-ness is not something unique to me, and in fact has a (relatively) brand new name: multipotentialite. According to Wikipedia, In 1972, R.H. Frederickson described a multipotentialed person as people who:

“When provided with appropriate environments, can select and develop a number of competencies to a high level.”

Emilie Wapnick coined the term multipotentialite to help unite folks who fall under this general definition into a single community. Essentially, it’s a fancy term for generalist, which Wapnick talks about in a TED Talk about why not everyone has “one true calling.” Which would explain my multiple jobs, two distinct careers, and constant need to learn new things.

I have never been the best at anything, but I have managed to pull off “pretty darn good” in a lot of areas.

The only time I get use use all my know-it-all-ness — without penalty — is when I engage in writing, particularly creative writing. I suspect every author I know is in some way a multipotentialite, and certainly every one has done a ton of research on a variety of subjects (including various ways to kill people or cover up having killed someone). In a way, I think every creative writer is — or is forced to become — an advanced generalist.

Which puts a whole new spin on the old adage: “write what you know.” If you don’t know it, learn it, and then write about it.

Regression to the Mean

Two days before Christmas, I had to put my beloved cat Oscar down.

The holidays have been hard for me for a very long time. Grief is like a shadow that is always with you, but changes size and shape depending on what light is around. On the brightest moments of the brightest days, the shadow can shrink down so small you can’t even tell it’s there. Other times, it stretches out so far, it’s the only thing you can see.

The shadows that bother me the most are the ones that come after dark; cast by the light of streetlamps and headlights, they pile up two or three at a time, and are rarely still. There is no true dark where I live in Brooklyn, just as there is no actual silence, just various levels of noise you learn to live with. As such, my nights are filled with shadows.

Christmas lights throw their own particular shadows. The lights are my favorite part of the holiday, and I relish in the opportunity to throw them up on windows, and keep my (fake) tree up as long as possible to help ease the passing of dark-too-long days. I am struggling now with wanting to keep them up even longer, because there is already so much change in my small apartment with my cat gone. I am haunted by the shape of his absence: the lack of warmth against my legs when I sleep, the missing noise of him jumping up or down from things, the many places and things he is not laying on or in. His loss thickens the others that have come before: my grandparents, my brother, and my mother, not to mention other beloved pets. Every time I look for him and he’s not there, I think of the phone calls I can’t make, the people I can no longer hug, and the memories that are fixed and fading.

The passing of a new year is of course something worth celebrating, but it is also something that triggers my grief. Every new turn of the calendar adds to the time after someone I love passed. Every time I count down how long it’s been, I am newly shocked and thrown back into those early days of denial. No, really? It can’t have been that long already… And yet, it is.

Recently I heard someone talk about regression to the mean, a concept in statistics that states that if a variable is extreme on the first measurement, it will be closer to the average on the second (and vice versa). How I understand it from a clinical standpoint is that all things in life — the very big moments either good or bad — eventually return to a sort of baseline. The baseline itself may change over time, but the mean, the average, the day-to-day — we all come back to it eventually.

What I tell my clients is that if you want to see your overall progress toward something, you can’t look at a single data point — a single good day or bad day. You have to look at the trend over time to see if it’s moving in the right direction.

I am not sure what direction I want my life to move in, other than a vague urge to want to have a sense of progress. The loss of a pet is inevitable, if you live long enough, and I knew what I was getting into when I adopted my cat. In fact, I was more aware of the potential of his loss than pretty much any other loss in my life, and that in itself is a gift he gave me. Knowing our days together were naturally numbered, helped me better understand the nature of life and loss.

We love, anyway. And eventually I think I will likely seek out that particular kind of love again, when I’m ready.

In the meantime, what I want most from 2018 is a regression to the mean. It will come — the grief will be less acute, the days will stay lighter longer, and the shadows will feel less omnipresent. I’ll adjust to a new normal, and, as heartbreaking as it sounds, not having him in my life will feel as normal as having him in life did for over a decade.

My one and only New Year’s Resolution is to give myself time. Time to grieve, time to heal, time to write, time to breathe, time to sleep, time to create, time to just be. Next year will come (if I am lucky), and I won’t have to do anything except let the days go by as they are wont to do.

In the meantime, I may keep my tree up until at least the end of January. Some things I’m just not ready to let go of yet.

Frustration and Counting Your Spoons

I have had a very frustrating week, followed by a frustrating weekend. I suppose part of this is the nature of the holiday season — too many things squeezed into too little a space of time. Part of this is connected to my day-job and what feels like a never-ending and overwhelming work load. And part of this is just vicarious frustration as so many of my clients are also feeling their ire rise.

In simple terms, frustration is the feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of inability to change or achieve something. Frustration tolerance is the idea that we have a capacity for how much frustration we can tolerate without having some sort of emotional breakdown.

What I try to get my clients to understand is that everyone has limited daily energy. That energy is being used up by all sorts of things. I have people picture a battery — throughout the day, every task they do takes energy from that battery. The lower their battery level, the greater the percentage of what they have left each new task takes. In short, the more you have on your plate, the less energy you have for each thing, and that includes emotional energy. The end result is that your frustration tolerance goes down, and those little things that you might be able to brush off with a full battery — like traffic, rude people, or even dropping your keys — suddenly feel like really big deals because you have so little energy left to deal with them.

Other people use the spoon theory to describe what life is like with chronic illness (physical or mental) or chronic pain — the idea that your battery (or in this case, the number of spoons you have) is already lower than someone else not dealing with that condition:

The point of both analogies — batteries or spoons — is to recognize when your levels are low. Because when your levels are low, your irritability will be higher, your problem solving skills will be impaired, and your emotions in general will be closer to the surface.

So as we move forward into the holiday season, and the multitude of things that comes with it, please be sure to keep track of your battery levels. You will need to recharge them — with rest, with time for yourself, with delegating tasks to other people, with turning down obligations. And more importantly, you need to practice self kindness when you start to lost it — snap at your loved ones, get emotional over small things, or feel too drained to do as good a job as you want to. It just means your battery — and your frustration tolerance level — is low.

Essential Self-Care

The news isn’t good again. I can’t remember the last time I read the news and felt anything other than dread and sadness. I feel like a collective anxiety has taken over most everyone I know. In times like these, it is important to remember to take care of yourself — and easy to forget.

Everyone pushes the concept of self-care these days, but it too often feels like yet another thing people feel like they should do, and never get around to doing. First, self-care is not all yoga classes and bubble baths. Self-care of it is all those things you do to take care of yourself, your mental and physical health, and your environment. These things are essential, not just for your physical health, but for your mental health. Here are some ways you can focus on self-care when you are feeling tired and tapped out:

Body Maintenance: did you shower today? That counts! Eat food, drink water, brush your teeth? This is all literal self-care in that you are taking care of your body. Anything you do to take care of your body, from a haircut to trimming your nails, is all a part of self care. While you may not have energy for full blown exercising on your low days, try stretching for five minutes for both a sense of accomplishment and to relieve tension in your body. I personally love doing a forward bend that is supported by a sturdy chair (mostly because I have zero flexibility.) The chair helps me feel steady while the bend takes a lot of tension out of my back.

Space Maintenance: doing the dishes, the laundry, taking out the recycling (my own personal struggle) — all of this is actually about taking care of yourself. Not only is your life better when you have clean clothes, clean dishes, and room to walk in your kitchen (again, I struggle with recycling), it is a way of saying “I matter.” This stuff is not fun and is often the first to go when we’re stressed out. And then it piles up. And then we feel really bad about it. So do yourself a favor and pick one of these chores and work on it for five to ten minutes. Wash two dishes, sort your laundry, bag your recycling — you don’t have to do it all, and you will feel better after.
Social Maintenance: Reaching out to friends via text, email, or even social media is another way of taking care of yourself. Everyone needs a support network, and any time you spend maintaining yours will ultimately help you better take care of yourself. Feeling extra ambitious? Don’t just reach out — make plans! And even if you feel really tired and like you just can’t, I encourage you to keep those plans. Again, you’ll likely feel better after. It helps to make plans closer to your house or even at your house if you are feeling extra low energy.

Luxury Maintenance: Here is where all the usual self-care stuff happens — shopping, bubble baths, vacations, spas, resorts, etc. These definitely have a place in self-care, but they are not always as accessible as some folks need/want them to be. Self-care doesn’t have to look like a wine tasting or yoga retreat. But if that is the type of thing that helps you take time for yourself, go for it! But also spending extra money on time saving can be a great form of self-care. For example, I get my groceries delivered (yay NYC!). I know a lot of people who use laundry drop off services. Some folks use meal kit services to inspire them to eat more variety. Research has suggested that people feel better about spending money that saves them time more than other purchases.
Dream Maintenance: This one is harder to define, because everyone had different dreams when they were growing up, and a lot of people have had their “dream life” change as they got older. But we all want something. Finding a way to keep that dream alive, however small, is a huge part of taking care of ourselves. For me, it is constantly trying to make room for writing in my life when I have so many other things (like recycling) taking up my time. I also have been actively pursuing my professional dreams like starting my own private therapy practice, and while these goals are hard to focus on and sometimes seem impossible to accomplish, even sitting down and brainstorming steps helps me feel better. Doing research, planning to take a class, finding fellow hobby enthusiasts — these are all ways that people keep their dreams and interests alive. Dream maintenance is all about keeping hope going — imagining a future that is better than where you are right now. Even in these hard times — especially in these hard times — it is essential that we can picture a brighter tomorrow.

Try making and keeping a list of ways you like to take care of yourself to refer to when you feel sad, down, and stuck in your life.

The Power of “Me Too”

One of the most powerful feelings in the world is that moment when you realize that something you thought just happened to you, that only you understood or experienced (often with fear and/or shame), also happened to someone you know. Somehow sharing the experience changes how you feel about it. It shifts the burden from you to some universal truth — this is a thing that happens to people, not just me. 

It needs to not just be “me” in order to take away some of the shame. To that end I often self-disclose with my clients that I also suffer from depression. Me, too. So when I talk about how its the little things — the laundry, recycling, dishes, and trash piling up; the constant need for distraction and inability to focus on anything; the sleeping binges and insomniac binges; the appetite that refuses to stay consistent — they nod their heads. Oh yeah, that happens to me, too.

On social media, there is a trend happening right now of women saying “me too.” It is a way for them to share that they have also experienced sexual harassment and/or assault, to show how common the problem is (and is a throwback to #yesallwomen, popularized in 2014 as a response to #NotAllMen). But for me at least, it is having a secondary effect of showing me just how not alone I have been in my own experiences. It is showing me that whatever I have gone through, someone else has gone through something similar, and that means I can feel a little less ashamed about my own experiences, a little less convinced I somehow did something wrong, inadvertently “asked for it” in some way, or had something specifically wrong with me that invited other people’s bad behavior. Instead, I can see more directly how the culture at large is to blame, how systemic the issue is, how real rape culture (and the way it contributes to mass harassment) is.

For me, the power of “me too” in this instance is that it helps me continue to chip away at the shame I have had about my body since I was a little girl and was “made to feel funny” by adult men paying too much of the wrong kind of attention to me. My body was remarked on, my looks analyzed, my freedom curtailed because my very femaleness meant I would forever be a target. Pretty little girls don’t get to go play outside by themselves. I was taught that a healthy amount of fear would keep me safe. It didn’t. I was taught that a certain amount of modesty would keep me safe. It didn’t. I was taught that not wrestling with the boys would keep me safe. Not only did that not help, eventually learning self defense by “wrestling with the boys” was the only thing that did help me feel safer as an adult.

Every “me too” I saw on my timeline made me feel a combination of sad — and relieved. I wish the problem wasn’t so prevalent. But at the same time, I feel reassured that this was never just about me but about all girls and women. This was never just my problem — it was all of ours.

And I feel better still after reading wonderful messages of support from my male friends. A secondary trend of posting “yes I have” has popped up, with men sharing their own stories of giving in to rape culture and being complicit in the behavior of others, or participating in that behavior themselves. Their confessions and heartfelt apologies mean the world to me, because they come with a pledge to do better. It’s another version of “me too” that carries the same kind of power — we have all done things we are ashamed of. The first step is recognizing the problem. Together, we have a chance of changing things.

The Framing of Tragedy

The numbers keep going up. At this point, it’s 59 people killed, and over 500 injured after another American mass shooting

When I was a journalism student, I learned about the power of framing a story. The best way to understand it is to think of taking a picture — there is only so much that can be captured by the lens. The frame is how much you zoom in or out, and what part of any given view you focus on. You can achieve the same effect with the words you use to describe an event.

Words matter. Describe a mass shooter as a terrorist, and one kind of narrative is created. Describe a mass shooter as a “lone wolf” and another kind of narrative is created. Is this a story about the enemies of America, or about the way a single, misunderstood and troubled man chose to act out? 

In the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in American history, different groups of people scrambled for a framing device for the story. In the immediate aftermath, before anything was known about the man who shot into a crowd of concert goers on the Las Vegas strip with high-powered automatic assault rifles, a group of alt-right followers were busy spreading fake news that the shooter was an anti-Trump democrat. Search engine algorithms picked up the story, and, as the saying goes, the lie got half-way around the world before the truth got its pants on. For those alt-right folks and the people who reposted them, this was a narrative that at least, to them, made sense.

As Monica Hesse writes in the Washington Post, every tragedy inevitably becomes a political tool, and no one is exempt from using it as thus: 

What “Don’t politicize this” often means is, Don’t politicize this if the shooter belongs to meAs personal details about the gunman begin to come out — old voting records, Facebook rants — “Don’t politicize this” is the placeholder statement we use while figuring out exactly which political knives need to be sharpened.

She goes on to describe the potential narratives that could come out and how different groups might respond to them. Facts, as they become available, help shape the narrative and frame the picture, but as always, how those facts are seen and used will vary dramatically from group to group: Hesse writes, “We waited, because knowing who [the shooter] was would cue Americans how to respond.”

Human beings are hard-wired to make tragedy make sense. The idea that a man would take 23 weapons into a hotel, break open the window, and open fire on a crowd, doesn’t make sense unless we name the hate we assume he must have felt. In the aftermath of horrible events like this, people look to blame something they feel safe blaming. People don’t actually want to change their world view after tragedy. Instead, they reframe the event so that it matches the views they already hold. 

There is a social work joke that I go back to on a regular basis: “how many social workers does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to want to change.”

As much as I’d like to think that yet another record-breaking mass shooting will change hearts and minds, I know that those hearts and minds have to want to be changed in order for these new facts to be seen in a new way. 

Things are not okay. They have not been okay. They will not be okay for likely a very long time. And no amount of thoughts and prayers will make them okay. There is no magic framing device that can erase the bullets that went into bodies, and the blood and tears that followed. People need to be willing to let those pictures change them in order for them to be willing to do something to prevent another mass shooting from happening.

Far too many people will zoom out, shift the frame, adjust the focus, and see what they want to see. They will chose a false narrative over a view-altering truth. They will insist that nothing has to change, that nothing can be changed. But the truth is that we have a mass shooting epidemic in America, and there is a solution to it (change gun laws, reevaluate safety standards, increase access to mental health care, and have a national conversation about how mass shootings could be avoided in the future)– if people are willing to see it.  

As satire site The Onion writes: “At press time, Americans nationwide agreed that years of taking no measures whatsoever to prevent mass shootings may finally be paying off.” 

We can keep our heads in the sand, and hope that somehow by doing nothing bullets will stop flying, and bodies will stop falling. Or we can look beyond the frame and see what is actually contributing to mass shootings — and finally, collectively, work to end them. 

Relatively Speaking

 

I have been thinking a lot about relative experience.

“Relatively speaking” is a phrase we toss around casually, an improvised rescaling of any given comparison. Hidden in the phrase is an acknowledgement that the scale of comparison has been significantly reduced to include a limited range of possible experiences or perceptions of reality, and that range is defined by a supposedly shared context—both speaker and audience must acknowledge some general truths about the things being compared.  But it can also be a catch all, a brief acknowledgement that the context is not the same from one person to the next, that “the worst day ever!” in one life cannot be appropriately compared to the “worst day ever!” in another.

In my relatively limited (there’s that word again!) understanding of economics, I am able to grasp at least this concept: an apple does not cost the same to everyone who buys it. While the price of the apple may be fixed, the cost of that apple relative to the income of the individual buying it is not. Things can get more complicated when you don’t just compare income (we each make the same amount of money, so the apple should cost the same to both of us) but expenses as well: if we each make the same income, but your rent is higher than mine, that apple will be a greater percentage of your food allowance than it will be of mine. In that way, the apple could relatively cost you more. 

This sort of relative cost idea can be translated to experience as well, so that any given experience can cost or benefit any individual relative to the other experiences in their life — everything needs context. A fender bender on a day where everything else is going well most likely won’t be perceived as negatively as if it happened on a day when several things seem to be going wrong. However, the context that a person operates in is not daily, but cumulative: even if nothing else is going wrong today, things have been going wrong all week, all month, all year, for the past decade. Any new experience is measured against previous experiences in order to determine its particular impact, positive or negative.

And yet, “nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Without this comparison, any given experience could theoretically stand on its own. It wouldn’t be good or bad, relatively speaking, but simply good or bad, inherently. Or, in what I imagine as Buddhist thinking, neither good nor bad, but simply existing, ideally without impact, without contributing to some greater context, acknowledged and let go. If we could escape our contexts, maybe we could escape relative thinking. In theory, that is how to escape suffering.

Except an apple doesn’t cost the same to everyone. “Expensive” is a relative concept. So is safe, and healthy, and successful, and all the things we end up having to measure for ourselves, individually. I read in Loneliness (Cacioppo and Patrick, 2008) that people even have a biological set point for their need for social connection, varying from one person to another. Even our biology forces relativity on us.

So we seek out contexts similar to our own, or as close as possible. We look for people with similar experiences, similar perspectives, similar measurement scales. This is how I make sense of a world where otherwise nice-seeming people don’t seem to grasp the pain and suffering of others. Their experiences are so far removed from those different than them that they have no reference point of comparison. For example, a white person living in an all-white community may not have had any direct experience with seeing a friend or loved one deal with racism and have trouble believing either that it exists or that it is as systemic as it is. It’s the way that many men don’t seem to get sexism until it impacts their daughters. If we are all stuck comparing everyone else’s experiences to our own, relatively speaking, we all start to think that apples cost the same to everyone, and that other people are just complaining for no reason — or are incapable of understanding the true value of an apple. It takes concerted effort to try to see the world through someone else’s lens, and to understand how their cumulative experiences shape any given moment in their lives, to understand, for example, the anger that seems to come out of nowhere but is for that person the result of the straw that broke the camels back. 

Our internal scales can be powerful forces. But we can change those scales, and alter what we measure all of our experiences against; change the thinking, change the comparison, build compassion. In the meantime, if we resize our experiences, as Munroe said, to fit the scales in our head, it might be worth noting that other people have their own scales, too. And that we can’t erase someone else’s experiences just because we have no reference point to compare them to. We’re not all buying the same apples with the same money, and we aren’t all carrying the same straws on our backs. For those of us with privilege, the apples are always going to cost a little less, and we’re going to start off with less straws to carry. For those without relative privilege, apples will always cost more, and their camels have been pre-loaded with burdens.

It really is all relative. And context is everything.

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…

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.