Monday, May 15, 2017

A Teflon Skin

Allow me to set the scene for you: It's mid-May, in the year 2017, I'm in a lovely town in a mid-Atlantic state in the United States of America.  The sun is out, the sky is blue, a catered lunch is about to be served, and everyone is joyfully milling about in pastel florals and lightweight suits.  I'm leaning down to find my table number card when out of nowhere...

WHAM!!!!! I'm smacked across the face with blatant, discriminatory, personally pinpointed, directed fully toward me racism.

This is no joke.  When it happened I was so stunned I couldn't breathe for a moment.  Several moments actually.  While it's not important what was said, what is important was that it had to do with my being unwelcome there, the person's offense that I was in his presence, and that he thought his remarks were terribly terribly funny.

2017. The United States of America.

For some background, this is person that I've actually known for many years.  While I do not know him well, we have been in each other's lives enough for him to have been on the receiving end of my family's generosity for things like like the loss of his wife, a house move, a significant birthday, etc.  This is NOT the first time he has been prejudicial and pejorative to me; the times before making it abundantly clear that he would have been proud to wear a brown shirt overseas in the early 1940s.

Yikes.

Enough about him though - he's not worth the time or the effort it takes to type his description.  What I do want to talk about here is: What do we do when we're faced with brazen, unabashed prejudice and racism? Aimed at ourselves or at others. Not what "should" we do, but what do we DO?

Firstly I just want to say that I have never understood racism and I never will.  For every single human being on the Earth the following things are true:

1. When a human being is cut by a sharp object he or she bleeds blood and it's the color red.

Every. Single. Human. Being.

2. When a human being has dust fly up his or her nose, he or she sneezes.  Involuntarily.

Every. Single. Human. Being.

3. If a human being's heart stops beating, he or she dies.

Every single time. Every. Single. Human. Being.

4. At some point during every day a human being will need to rid itself of waste matter that his or her body has generated.  So he or she will urinate.

Every. Single. Human. Being.

5. If a new human being is going to be created, it can only be created one way.  No matter what color, what race, what genetic makeup, or what religion is observed. There are different methods to achieve this conception, but it can literally only be created one way.

Every. Single. Human. Being.

Obviously I could go on, but the point is that, with rare exception, every single human being has more things going on in it that are the same as other human beings than things going on in it that are different.  We may think differently, we may love differently, we may grieve differently, but on the most basic level, every single human being's bodily functions are the same.  I would add, in my opinion, that every single human being on the planet wants to live without fear, without discrimination, without neglect, and without indifference. I would argue that just about every human being on some level wants to feel love, to feel seen, to feel joy, and be free to live the life he or she believes he or she is meant to live.

So if we're more alike than we are different, why do so many people hate each other?

I believe it's because every single human being was also given a brain which generates thoughts and ideas and conceptions and opinions.  It's when these opinions differ (even down to "I think you shouldn't exist and you think you should") that the problems arise.  And more often than not, a person will have certain thoughts or understandings based on what they were taught in childhood, the same way they were taught to walk or dress or feed themselves.  For some, prejudice is as ingrained in them as breathing, and for others, tolerance is built and fostered instead.

But that's about who's on the giving end.  What about those of us on the receiving end of the racial slurs and unmitigated narrow-mindedness? How do we handle them in a way that doesn't give the bullies the satisfaction of our acceptance and us believing that what they say is true?

Well, one way is to not take anything someone else says personally. Ever. Good or bad, whatever someone else says about you is merely their opinion of you, it is never who you actually are. When an epithet is aimed directly at you, channel Jackie Robinson and duck so you don't get hit.  Cover yourself in figurative Teflon so the barbs simply bounce off and don't stick.  Remember the schoolyard saying, "I'm rubber and you're glue. Everything you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!"  If you don't take on what the offender is trying to put onto you, then they are stuck alone with their misery and overwhelming need to feel superior.  Have you ever met a calm, content, or peaceful racist?  No, because they are so churned up with their hate and intolerance that they can't relax and enjoy their lives.  They have to scream and shout and burn crosses and hold pitchforks to get the debasement out of themselves and onto others.  The bigot's bigotry is less about the victim than it is about their own low self-esteem and the sheer discomfort they suffer by having to live in their own skin every day.

Another way to handle these horrible people is to speak up.  In dangerous situations we're told to keep quiet, to not make a scene, and to just try to get out of the situation alive. But in the non-violent situations where astonishingly inappropriate things are said, if someone stands up to the bully, there's a chance that the bully will become aware of the offensiveness of his or her actions and want to change. While I would expect on some level that the person who recently tried to offend me would somehow realistically see that what was said was utterly and completely discriminatory, I now know that he actually believed what he said was funny, and believed I would think it was funny too.  He's so unbelievably ignorant that it's remotely possible that if his egregious offensiveness was pointed out to him, he might have a tiny bit of remorse about it. (But between you and me I doubt it, and the realization wouldn't stop him from saying it again.)

Whether or not you speak up against offenders, either on your own behalf or on those of others, the most important thing is: DO NOT TAKE IT ON AND DO NOT TAKE IT IN.

IT'S NOT YOURS AND IT NEVER WAS.  DO NOT TAKE IT ON AND DO NOT TAKE IT IN. 

If you have brown eyes and someone says, "Wow, those are some ugly blue eyes you have," you would look at them like they were nuts and think "Really? What a stupid and ridiculous thing to say."  If you're seven feet tall and someone says, "It's a shame that you're so short," you would think, "Seriously? You're kidding, right?"  If someone puts you down in a racist or prejudicial way then it's no different.  No matter what they say, if they are treating you as less of a 100% human being then it's as silly and absurd as calling a blond-haired person a brunette.  It's not true, it makes no sense, and just because someone says it does not make it accurate, valid, or credible.

If you've never had prejudice assigned to you then there's no possible way you can understand what it feels like. But if you have then you know how difficult it is to hear and to try to let it bounce off of you without taking it in.  We can quote Eleanor Roosevelt ("No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.") as much as we want but there's a reason why the "rubber-glue" and "sticks and stones" rhymes were devised on those playgrounds long ago.  Because words can injure souls, and when we get made fun of or disparaged for nothing but the way we were made then we don't have many built-in defenses against that.

As for myself, I'm putting this latest incident behind me and moving forward because I do not want to spend one more second of my life thinking about this person or what was said to me.  And because I really do believe that what goes around comes around, I can be grateful that I am who I am and that I do not have the burden of carrying that person's heavy and damaged heart around for every beleaguered step of life.  All I can control is myself, my own actions and my own reactions.  Ultimately the racist is going to be more affected by his words and actions than I am, because I have the choice to not accept them. But if racism and prejudice are parts of what make up a person, then they will never truly experience happiness or peace.

As for myself, I'll choose joy and happiness, fulfillment and contentment, sympathy and empathy, serenity and peace. But never the path of least resistance to get there.






Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Choices We Make

I have repeated this quote more than once here on my blog:

"Change your thoughts and you change your world." -Norman Vincent Peale

Here is another quote, courtesy of Bill, the amazingly nice guy who works at the post office:
"Happiness is a choice."

Thank you Bill. I was reminded of both of these today while going through a situation that could have  easily gone two different ways.  I could have ended up feeling angry, annoyed, upset and frustrated, or, I could have found myself feeling cheerful, grateful, content, and peaceful.

I surprised myself and went for the latter. Here's what happened:

Without going into too much detail I will say that I was disrespected for the umpteenth time where I volunteer.  My supervisor did something, which she does often, which showed me again her complete and utter disregard for my time, my going above and beyond what's expected, and for all that I have done (without compensation) over the past 5 years there.

(I should say here that I am not the only volunteer who feels this way.  Because this person is so wrapped up in her own issues and is mentally unable to be considerate of other people's time and lives, I was fully aware that what happened was not a deliberate act of malice toward me. It was just a result of her usual carelessness and overall indifference for anyone else's needs or feelings.)

At this moment, when this thing happened yet again, I realized that I had a choice in how I was going to handle it.  I could give in to the feelings of anger, disappointment, annoyance, and disrespect that were bubbling up in my stomach, OR, I could make the choice to consciously change my mind about the situation and turn those knee jerk reactions into contentment, calm, acceptance, and peace.

I considered my situation and the choices I had (basically to stick around and do my job or stomp off in a huff) and I thought about what I wanted to fill my body with and what I would be projecting to the world when I did that.  I got out of my head and took a moment to actually look around and take in the reality of my surroundings. When I did that it was like a switch got flipped inside of myself.  I flipped the switch to "choose happiness" and the ire that had been foaming inside me settled down into serenity.  While couldn't change the circumstances, I realized that I could accept them, and then move forward into what would be the best and healthiest scenario for me.

To clarify, I wasn't being physically or emotionally harmed, I wasn't just accepting abuse or prejudice - that I would not do.  But I realized that I was experiencing a first world problem* and the only person hurting me at that moment was myself.  My supervisor had done her thing, she was over it and had moved on, so if I chose to spend the next few hours simmering in my own frustration, I had no one to blame but myself.  So I stuck around and did my job and every time I saw her I reminded myself that I could only control my own actions and no one else's.

Amazingly, right before I left she apologized for her actions, at which point I made another choice. Honestly, I was so fed up that I wanted to chew her out and call out every single infraction from the past few years, ending with this final frustrating straw.  But instead I graciously accepted her apology and went on my way. I left the place feeling peaceful and a little proud of how I handled the whole situation. What happened next astounded me.

As composed as I was feeling emotionally, physically this whole internal dissonance was wreaking having with my stomach.  Because I had spent a good hour with all of the negative stuff building up inside me, I was feeling a bit nauseous and off-kilter constitutionally. Coca-cola usually tends to settle my uneasy gut so even though I've been doing limited carbs and sugar lately, I went in search of a Coke.  On my way I passed by Panera and remembered that I still had my free birthday pastry to claim if it hadn't expired yet.  So I went in, handed the cashier my card, and to my delight she told me that not only was my free birthday treat still on there, but it was also free bagel month and I was entitled to a free bagel as well.

Needless to say, after my recently exhausting experience I was ecstatic.  I said something like, "Who-hooo! This is great! You just made my day!" The cashier must have picked up on my palpable joy because after I picked out my 2 carb-laden snacks she held out an empty cup and said, "Here, have a drink. It's on me."

I was stunned.  Seriously.  I wanted a soda to help make myself feel better and here she was handing me free one.  I mean, WOW!  I felt like the universe was giving a me high five for handling the situation gracefully and healthily, rather than in my old way, by which I would still be angry and upset about it several hours later and carrying around huge amounts of negativity and indignation.

Did my supervisor behave inappropriately and disrespectfully? Absolutely. Did I have every right to be angry and annoyed? I believe the answer to that is a resounding "yes." But I was not being purposely or personally victimized or mistreated.  I was merely on the receiving end of her typical forgetfulness and inconsiderate attitude toward others. She messed up yet again, it affected me yet again, but ultimately it was my choice to let someone else's impudence and ineptitude interfere with the joy and peace that I try to cultivate in my life. Or not.

We have these choices every moment of every day.  Any time we have to deal with an annoying or less-than-ideal situation we get to make the choice of how we're going to handle it. And even if we have every right to be angry or exasperated, we have to decide if that's how we want to go through our day, or if we want to consciously make another choice.  It's natural to feel displeasure, and sometimes it's important to feel those necessary feelings.  But we can allow ourselves to work through them and then choose to let them go instead of hanging onto them long after the catalytic situation is over.  Your choices are always your own, and more often than not we get a confirmation that we've made the right ones.  Sometimes it's in the laughter you hear from the people around you, sometimes it's a hug from a loved one, and sometimes, when you're really lucky, it's a free Coke when you really really need one.



*What I want to add about first world problems is this: So often people will classify things as "First World Problems," meaning that they really aren't anything to get upset about, especially when compared to the other, often horrendous, actual life-or-death problems that other people have to deal with. I completely subscribe to looking at our minor annoyances this way because it keeps them in perspective and gets us out of our own heads where things can be magnified. But there is also something to be said for having enough skin in the game of your life that you take things seriously, and that you care enough to let something bother you, even for a short time. I remember many years ago we had house cleaners who broke a pair of treasured candleholders I had.  They were not worth a lot of money, but I really liked them, and since I had gotten them at Home Goods a few years prior they were virtually irreplaceable.  I remember complaining to one of my friends about it and saying, "I know, they're just things," to which she responded passionately, "Yeah, but they're YOUR things! No one has a right to be careless with your things, you have every right to be upset about this!" And you know what? She was right.  Yes, they were only things, but I was engaged enough in my life and in surrounding myself with things that I liked to look at and that brought me joy that I was upset when someone else took them from me.  I CARED. I'm not someone who angers easily or who takes a lot of opportunities to be annoyed by things, but when I do choose to get upset it reminds me that I'm a person who is fully living life, jumping in with both feet, and investing in every moment with my emotions and spirit and vigor.  I would much rather live my life that way, as opposed to the people I know who just cruise along on an even keel, without any ups or downs at all.  Again, I don't want to hold onto things that make me upset, but feeling them at the time is another life-affirming experience that we each get to have in our time here on Earth.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Loneliness...

...and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.  - Mother Teresa

My husband and I watched a wonderful documentary last night called "Wizard Mode." It's about an autistic man who is a world champion pinball player.  It is a fascinating look into his life as he travels around the world, playing in competitions, while trying to gain some independence by getting his first job, learning to drive a car, and flying for the first time without his parents.  Perhaps the most amazing thing about his journey is how he has used pinball to become more social, and as a way to open up communication with others, since the autism can make interpersonal interactions difficult and frustrating for him.  We got a very personal look at all of his ups and downs, and while I was audibly cheering for him during the tournaments, I also found myself sobbing at the one thing he struggles with in all aspects of his life:

Loneliness.

There's really nothing worse is there?

There have been several scientific studies published recently that prove that loneliness is worse for a person's health than smoking or obesity.  Especially in older people.  It makes sense when you think about it. And for anyone who has ever felt the heavy, dark, sour weight of loneliness in their chest, they will most heartily agree.

Smoking damages our lungs (and other internal and external organs). Obesity damages our hearts (and blood vessels and joints). But loneliness damages our souls, and unfortunately there's no medicine  or operation that can repair that.

While no one likes to feel lonely, most of us can endure it for short amounts of time without any detrimental or lasting effects.  But the research is showing that long-term loneliness can actually lead to earlier death based on a number of factors.  Here is the link to one of the articles, and I highly recommend giving it a read: https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/01/18/loneliness-might-be-a-bigger-health-risk-than-smoking-or-obesity/#efd10d25d13e.

Here's one of the most interesting findings:
Social isolation may be a more significant health factor than smoking or obesity, whether the person feels lonely or not. 

Wow! The effects of long-term loneliness could be significantly detrimental to a person even if they don't feel or exhibit any of the symptoms.

I'm not going to get into whys and hows and the facts of the studies here, but all of what I've read made me think: People have control over quitting smoking, and people have control over their exercise and nutrition, so can people have control over their loneliness?

At first thought it seems like that is a more difficult thing to overcome because the lack of loneliness absolutely depends upon other people.  An individual makes a choice whether or not to put a cigarette into his or her mouth but to thwart loneliness, one or more additional people must be involved. This inherently creates risks - of rejection, abandonment, and exclusion.  These can feel mountainous when you're putting yourself out there to meet people and hopefully make new friends.  But like any other goal you wish you accomplish, it can't happen without great amounts of hope, drive, hard work, and determination to never give up.

So what are some ways that a lonely person can combat the loneliness? Well, since there is no "instant friend" that you can simply add water to, here are some ideas to help you feel less lonely overall:

1. Get out of your house and DO SOMETHING!  Translation: Get out of your head and whatever you're thinking about from the past.  Go somewhere, ANYWHERE, where there are other people around: A grocery store. A park. A museum. Downtown. Ride the subway. Stroll the mall. Surround yourself with other people, even if they are complete strangers.  This will remind you that there is a big and potentially friendly world out there. Even if you're sitting completely alone on a park bench there will be life around you - bikers, hikers, picnickers, toddlers blowing bubbles, etc.  You will feel like a part of the human race if you are in an environment where there is human activity.  Not to mention, you could meet someone who could become a friend in one of these situations.  You will be making yourself available for someone to find you and talk to you.

You could also go to places where talking with each other is encouraged.  Join a tour group that's visiting your closest major city, even if you aren't a tourist.  Everyone is always chatting and asking questions in those groups of people.  Go to a general store in the middle of a small town - the proprietor will almost always want to tell you stories about the town and how long the store has been there, etc.  If you have the money, take a cruise by yourself - I've heard several stories of people doing this and making lifelong friends in the process.  The point is, get yourself out and doing social things and you will automatically be more sociable.

In that same vein,  I highly recommend taking a class in a subject that interests you or join one of the thousands of MeetUp groups in your area that focus on one of your hobbies or passions.  These MeetUps were specifically designed to help people meet others with similar interests so you might as well take advantage of the fact that they are out there just waiting for you to sign up.

I would caution you against solitary activities such as seeing a movie alone (you're surrounded by people but talking and interaction are discouraged), playing online/phone games, or scrolling through Facebook for hours at a time.  These time suckers will certainly help to pass the lonely hours, but you will end up just as lonely when they are over.

Another way to meet people is to go to a restaurant that has communal seating.  It may seem strange at first, but if you go out to eat alone and sit in a booth by yourself, there's no chance to meet someone besides the waiter taking your order.  But if you sit at a communal table, there are ample opportunities for conversation.  If no one is talking to you, you can ask the people next to you what they ordered and if they are enjoying it.  They might even give you a taste.  Some restaurants even have specifically designated "Community Nights" where the food is served family style and interpersonal communication is encouraged.  The same goes for open mike nights, poetry readings, book groups (many libraries provide these for free), art appreciation nights at museums, etc.  These can be easy situations because there is already something else going on (a performance or a lecture) and you already have something built-in to talk about.  Whatever you can find, get out there and do it.  Even if you don't end up making any friends, you weren't lonely for those few hours, and that will get the anti-loneliness chemicals going in your body and that will make you feel better overall. Even if it's difficult the first few times to put yourself out there, it will get easier by the third time, I promise.

I guess a more important topic would be figuring out how to prevent loneliness in the first place.  To that, I have a few suggestions:

1. Don't let your friendships lapse.  We all get busy, we all have limited time, but we also have to remember that we are also all going to lose loved ones at one time or another.  While we might not feel like keeping our dress pants on and meeting that friend for dinner after a long day of work, in the long run it will yield a better result than sitting home alone in our comfy pants watching Netflix alone. Also, don't always wait for your friends to call you. If you have a spare moment, give them a call or send them a text letting them know you're thinking about them.  A little word of encouragement can go a long way for a person going through a rough time, and chances are if you are there for them in their time of need, then they will reciprocate and be there for you.

It doesn't take much.  If you're at the store and you see a fancy bar of chocolate with a panda on the label, and your friend loves pandas, buy the candy bar and give it to her the next time you see her, telling her it made you think of her.  Or if you see a funny friendship card that reminds you of a far away friend, get it and take 30 seconds to sign it and put it in the mailbox.  Or take the time to drop off some soup to a friend who is under the weather. These things don't take too much time or extra effort but they can make all the difference in keeping a friendship alive. Much like with marriage, if you don't consciously cultivate the relationship, the more likely it is to die on the vine from neglect.

Here's another idea: Try hosting casual get-togethers instead of intimidating dinner parties.  Instead of watching Jeopardy by yourself for the hundredth time, record a bunch of shows in a row, invite some people over, put out some chips and have a Jeopardy party.  People can come in their pajamas and instead of having to worry about making scintillating dinner conversation, there's already a built in activity that will most likely end up being fun and even rowdy.  If Jeopardy's not your thing, then have a "Cleaning out the Freezer" party, where people can come and help you eat up the leftovers that are taking up space in your freezer.  Here's a personal favorite of mine: If you're going to be repainting a room, invite people over beforehand to paint whatever they want on it.  They can paint cartoons, a mural, graffiti, whatever; but there's something incredibly fun and kind of "exuberantly rule-breaking" about painting something on a wall.  You're going to paint over it anyway, so it's just for fun, and it can be a really terrific time for everyone involved.  Don't overthink your get-togethers, just take whatever you already like to do and bring some people into it.

2. Practice showing people consideration who aren't your friends. This will help you to practice your social skills in a non-judgmental, low-risk environment.  It takes very little to acknowledge the people who generally feel invisible but your recognition will most likely be felt in a big way.  For example, I always take a moment to thank the person who is collecting the shopping carts in the parking lot.  Sometimes I get a response and sometimes I don't, but it doesn't matter. I'm doing it to show them that I see them, their presence is important, and that what they are doing is appreciated. Inside a store, when the cashier or clerk asks me how I'm doing today, I always respond and ask them back.  (To be honest, most of the time I don't really care about their answer, but this is how a friendly world operates and that's the kind of world I'd like to live in.) I also think it's important to acknowledge your fellow human beings when you're on a walk or a hike.  Sometimes it's just a nod, sometimes just a smile, sometimes it's a verbal "Hello" or "Good morning."  But it's so refreshing to have these interactions so that we're reminded we're not alone in the world.

3. If you are a parent, please please please LISTEN TO YOUR CHILDREN!! This is vital to a child's self-esteem and can make all the difference when they want to open themselves up and be vulnerable to another person. Even if you've had a long day, even if you can barely keep your eyes open, even if there are dishes to wash and laundry to be folded and emails to return, take the time to listen to them and acknowledge what they have to say.  I understand that all you want your preschooler to do is go to bed and that the last thing you want to hear is them repeating for the fifteenth time that they got to pass out the play dough today...but listen and smile and tell her how proud you are of her anyway.  Not only is it your job to do this, but it is also a precious thing to remember when ten years from that moment the teenager has nothing to say to you about her day at school or her time at the mall with her friends.  Keep in the front of your mind that this time will not last forever and it is now or never to forge a bond with your child.  There is no way to build a foundation after a house is built, nor is there a way to build a healthy and trusting relationship with your child after the fact.

Here's what listening to your child - and I mean really, mindfully listening and reacting appropriately, not just absentmindedly nodding while playing Words With Friends on your phone - does. You are providing them with the single most important thing that any human being can provide to someone they love.  You are showing them that they matter. You're not just telling them, you are showing them in a very tangible way.  This does wonders for a youngster's self-esteem and has positive long lasting effects that you may not even know about.  A regularly ignored child ends up having a sisyphean struggle throughout his or her life yearning to be validated while worrying that they aren't worthy of validation in the first place. Adults who crave attention didn't get enough of it in their childhoods and often don't realize it when they are being intrusive or annoying to others. Their unfulfilled need to be noticed was ingrained while their brains and emotions were still developing at a very basic level.  The subsequent behaviors have a tendency to push people away, which can result in isolation, loneliness, and despair at not being able to fit in.  So if you want what is best for your child (translation: a happy and healthy life from childhood through adulthood) please please please listen to what they have to say.  If you do the listening while they are young and naturally want to talk to you, they will most likely relish you listening to them when they get older as well.

There's a reason why there's the saying, "It takes a village."  In other countries and cultures it is very common for have two or three generations living together under one roof.  Conversely, it seems like in America, branching out on one's own and moving away from the family is more the norm and "what people do to be considered successful." While I understand that people need their space and it can be cumbersome to always have family members underfoot, in those other cultures it's pretty difficult to be lonely.  Or feel unsupported. Or unloved. Or completely alone.  Which I believe is the point of those living situations.

Now of course there are loners - people who are naturally predisposed to enjoy alone time and who feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable in social situations.  There are also people who are naturally shy and prefer fewer personal interactions overall.  But there is a big difference between "alone time" and "lonely time."  

Here's the thing about loneliness:  It's painful. It can feel like the marrow is being sucked out of your bones leaving you empty, fragile, and despondent.  It can unearth horrible of feelings of inequality and unfulfilled desires in a person's psyche and lead them to the conviction that there is something fundamentally flawed about them. When no one is available when someone needs help or a friendly ear to listen, loneliness is an extremely unwelcome guest who fills the air with darkness and desperate longing. It has the power to push a person who may be teetering on the edge of depression over into the deep black depths of despair,  which is also a very significant reason why loneliness can lead to an earlier death.

Homo sapiens are, by design, a social species.  When we do not get the social interaction that we physically and emotionally need, our brains go into self-preservation mode, the same way that a human will try to survive in the midst of severe hunger or thirst.  Physiologically, loneliness can raise our levels of the stress hormone cortisol, resulting in high blood pressure and a compromised immune system. On a practical level, lonely people are more likely to perish in a fire, forget to take their medication, or be left for days undiscovered if they are in a fatal accident of some kind at home.

Simply put, we all need human interaction and to experience sociality. The root of loneliness is feeling unworthy and unwanted, which you are NOT! Whatever you do, DO NOT give into the loneliness and believe that it is just your destiny. You were put on this Earth for a reason and you are worthy of friendships and love because you exist.  When loneliness comes calling, shut the door in its face and pick up the phone instead. Nourish your relationships. Fill your lunch hours and spare time with social interactions. Don't just fall back into the comfy pants - they'll still be there when you come back home.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Turn Off The Voices Part 3

There's a fantastic song by Kacey Musgraves called "Follow Your Arrow." Here are some of the lyrics:

If you can't lose the weight then you're just fat
But if you lose too much then you're on crack
You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't
So you might as well just do whatever you want

Can't win for losing you just disappoint 'em
Just 'cause you can't beat 'em don't mean you should join 'em
Say what you feel, love who you love
'Cause you just get so many trips 'round the sun
Yeah you only live once

So follow your arrow wherever it points
Yeah, follow your arrow wherever it points.

The message of the song is of course, to just be yourself no matter what anyone else thinks.  Same as the message of so many books, movies, songs, and every episode of Sesame Street. I agree wholeheartedly with this message and I hope that everyone who is reading this blog isn't afraid to be 100%, wholly, authentically themselves every minute of every day.  Because that can really be the key to having a happy life - living it the way you are truly meant to.

What I also want to address in this third installment of what has become my "Turn Off the Voices" series, is the simple and unpleasant fact that no matter what we do, we will be judged. By someone. By someones. By a lot of people or just by a few.  But no matter what, somebody will be judging us for every moment that we are living fully as our authentic selves.

Why is that? From an anthropological standpoint I don't really know.  I suppose the earliest people compared themselves to one another from a purely procreational standpoint - the stronger the man, the better hunter and provider he would be?  The more feminine the woman, the more she resembled and emitted survivalist motherly characteristics? I honestly don't know if current human behavior can be traced back to our earlier models.  But here's what I do know:

No matter how hard you try, there is going to be someone who doesn't want to you to succeed.
No matter how good you are at something, there is going to be someone who thinks they are better.
No matter how highly you think of yourself, there is going to be someone who doesn't agree.
No matter what your intentions are, there is going to be someone who doesn't "get" what you're trying to do.

No matter all of these things....because they don't matter.

In the grand scheme of things and on a day-to-day basis. They simply don't matter.

The naysayers don't matter. The dragger-downers, the joy-stealers, the bull-headed self-righteous snobs, and the too-sad-to-understand-how-someone-else-could-be-happy people don't matter.

They want so desperately to matter though. They need to pull the happy people down to their miserable level to help make themselves feel better about themselves and their lives.  They derive satisfaction from crushing other people's dreams and insulting their way of doing things.  There will always be these kinds of joy-suckers who will gladly ruin your life if you let them.

The trick is NOT. TO. LET. THEM.

The trick is realizing that it's not you who has a problem, it's THEM.

The trick is being strong enough in your own self-worth that it doesn't matter what anyone else says about you, you KNOW that you are good enough just the way you are right now.

How can you know this to your very core?  It's not just looking in the mirror and repeating affirmations to your reflection every day (although I'm told this helps a lot). It's realizing on an intrinsically deep level that the very fact that you are standing on this Earth means that you are worthy to be here. You are worthy to be happy and fulfilled simply because you exist.  It was a million to one chance that you would be born and it's a million to one chance that you are still here.  Always remember that you are a miracle, that your life is a gift, and it is up to you to spend it either squandering away precious moments on what some rude person said, or letting that nonsense roll off of you, leaving you free to enjoy every glorious living moment you can.

To that, you need to make the choice to surround yourself with people who will lift you up and support you and share in your happiness.  You need to make the choice to let go of those people in your life who no longer fit your vision of yourself, the same way you get rid of clothing that is old or stained or doesn't fit well any more.  If someone is going to disrespect you or put you down then you do not need them in your life. Period.

We're going to be judged no matter what we do. That's a bummer, but knowing that fact frees us up to consciously do whatever makes us happy since the unsolicited judgment is coming regardless.  As Kacey put it so eloquently, we're damned if we do and we're damned if we don't so we might as well do whatever we want...and not waste our time and effort worrying about what anyone else might be thinking.

P.S. It's also a lot easier to feel less judged when we stop judging others.  It's amazing how that works.

Turn Off the Voices Part 2

Sometimes I'm amazed at how many people feel the need to weigh in on my life and the choices I've made.  And they usually do so quite vocally and directly to my face.  Do I give off a vibe that says "Please, come and judge me and make sure it's mean and unhelpful?"

I must, because so many people do it to me, whether it's a clothing choice, or a life decision, or my music, or my non-profit - people just can't seem to get the hang of saying, "Good job," or "Nice work," or "Love what you've done with the place."

While I know that none of these judgments should affect me or my choices in any way, the words and actions directed toward me do hurt, especially when they come from people who claim to care about me and my well being.

Here's an example: Years ago a close family member was visiting our new house.  We were so excited, happily showing him around, gleefully pointing out this or that, and then about halfway through the tour he looks up at wall, shakes his head and exclaims, "I've never seen so many pictures in one house! Why are there so many pictures?" (He's talking about photographs of loved ones, not painted art.) After letting the indignation at trying to steal my joy settle down, I responded this way, "Well, people fill their houses with what they like to look at, so that's what I like to look at."  He didn't say anything, but just kept on shaking his head in disgust.

Here's what I wanted to say:
"Do you live here? Is it any of your business what I care to put into it?"
"Did you pay for this house? (No.) So what do you care what I hang on the walls?"
"Just because your house has absolutely no photos in it, or anything remotely personal at all, and it's cold and impersonal and looks like a show home at all times even though you've lived there for 40 years doesn't mean that that's the only right way to do it!"
"Don't you have any manners? Don't you know that even if you are thinking something unkind the polite thing to do is to keep it to yourself?!!"

Of course I said none of these things but every time he visits now I brace myself for the rude, unsolicited comments about my inappropriate decorating choices.

So annoying and uncalled for.

Another example: About 13 years ago we had house guests staying with us for a few days.  We showed them around the city, provided several meals for them, and prior to them arriving we cleaned and prepared the house for their arrival and stay. (Quick backstory: at this time I was working on Sunday mornings and I had this thing about how I liked to be the one who got first crack at the Sunday paper. I didn't get upset if I didn't, but it was just one of those little things in life that brought me joy.  So my husband would always leave the complete untouched paper for me out on the table for when I got home and I would get the chance to open it up myself.  It was actually a very sweet and romantic gesture because there were times when he would carefully pull the comics out, read them, and then refold them and put them back exactly where they were so I could have my little bit of fun. I realize this all sounds perfectly silly and inconsequential, but it was our thing and we enjoyed it.) So I got home on Sunday around noon, greeted everyone (they were just sitting around reading and relaxing contentedly), sat down at the dining room table with my full, unmarred Sunday paper, and started happily pulling out my favorite sections: the puzzles, the comics, Parade magazine, Life and Arts, the coupons, etc. and put the rest of the paper aside. One of our guests got up from the couch, came over, watched what I was doing and asked, "Is that all you're going to read?" I looked up, realized that this might have been considered rude, so I held out the removed sections and said, "Oh I'm sorry, did you want to read these? You can have them." He looked down at me disgustedly and said, "No.  Is that ALL you're going to read?" I looked at the sections in my hand, then at the pile of the rest of the paper, then up at him and said, "Umm...yes, for now." He shook his head like he was terribly offended and asked again, "That's IT?" I looked down at my paper and suddenly waves of shame started washing over me.  Without waiting for an answer, he turned and walked out of the room, continuing to shake his head like he was appalled by even the sight of me.

Seems like a ridiculous little exchange doesn't it? But the truth is, even though this happened more than 13 years ago, nearly every time I riffle through my intact Sunday paper, I feel a little pang of pain, remembering what he said and how much it hurt my feelings.  I know that I should not let this person's opinion of me affect anything I do in my daily life whatsoever, but unfortunately it has stayed with me to this day. I still hear his judgmental voice and see the shaking of his head, both stealing away my joy and replacing it with my all too familiar self-reproach.

Again, why did this person, who claims to be my friend and care about me, give a horse's behind about what sections of the Sunday paper I chose to read? Was it offensive to him in particular that I wasn't devouring Op-Eds or Real Estate? Why did he care so much about my bad (in his mind) choices that he had to speak up in front of everyone to point them out? Why was it more important to him to make sure I knew just how exasperated he was with me than to even consider for a moment how it might make me feel.

What I wanted to say:
"You're welcome for all of the meals I've made, for all of the time I've taken to show you around, and for allowing you to stay with us in the first place."
"You're welcome for all of the time and effort it took to get the guest room and bathroom clean and ready for your arrival."
"You're welcome for all of the times that I held my tongue and didn't express to you exactly what I thought of the choices you were making or the things you were doing."
"You're welcome for treating you the way I would want to be treated even though you can't possibly return the favor."

Just one more example: On my most recent CD I was working with a studio engineer who was also a wanna be musician/recording artist. He had found no success in his music career so he started a recording studio instead.  I hired him as an engineer (not as a producer) to record some vocal tracks that I could send to my producer in another state. In one session (that turned out to be my last with this guy) I was singing one of my original songs to get a reference take and all of a sudden he comes bursting out of the booth yelling, "Hold it, hold it, stop singing, this song needs some work." He proceeds to take my lyric sheet off of the music stand, picks up a pencil, and starts crossing off lyrics from the sheet. Literally. He was going through the song saying, "You don't need this, you don't need this, we get it...this is too repetitive, cut this chorus and go straight to the bridge," etc.  I couldn't believe what I was seeing.  I reminded him that the song itself was already finished, the instrumental backing tracks had already been recorded, all that was left to do was to record the vocal.  To which he responded, "Well you're just going to have to re-record all of it this way."

WHAT?!

Not only was this my 4th professional CD recording, not only had I worked with several other engineers and producers who would never have dreamed of doing something incredibly offensive like this, but when I spoke to other engineers in the field about this they all responded unanimously with things like, "Wow! That was incredibly unethical and out of line. That's not how things are done when you're a professional." I had another engineer who fancied himself a producer try to change a chord progression and the time signature in one of my originals.  Not his place, not his job, and not the way it works with people who actually know what they're doing.

I had become friendly with one of the studio musicians who worked frequently with the first guy and after the whole situation happened I asked him, "What was that all about?" To which he answered, "Well, you're too nice."

Too nice.  I'm so nice that people feel completely comfortable walking all over me like a plush carpet.

Apparently I'm also so nice that people have absolutely no problem with tossing good manners out the window and returning gifts I've given to them directly back to me.

Yes, you read that correctly.  Over the past 20 years or so, I have had 6 different people accept gifts from me, and then either at that moment, or at a later date, give them right back to me, telling me either that they didn't want it, it wasn't their style, or they couldn't use it. One person did it twice.

Those of you who know me know that I love giving gifts. I do it for birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and very often just for no other reason than I saw something I thought someone would like so I got it, wrapped it, and gave it to them.  While I try to be an extremely thoughtful gift giver, of course I miss the mark sometimes.  Everyone does.  So how should a person react when they are given a gift they'd rather not have?

(I know the answer to this because it has happened to me many times.)
1. Thank the gift giver graciously, either in person or in a note of some kind, remembering that the giver took time, effort, and money to purchase and wrap this tangible expression of thoughtfulness expressly for you.
2. If the gift has been sent through the mail, always let the person know that it arrived - this is an item that falls under the category of "common courtesy" that many people tend to forgo.

If you don't like the gift, or can't see yourself using it you have a few options:
1. Find out where it was purchased and try to return it to the store.
2. Rewrap and regift it to someone whom the original giver does not know.
3. Donate it to a charity of your choice (be careful about trying to resell it online if the giver visits the same sites that you do).

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES IN A CIVILIZED SOCIETY IS THE POLITE THING TO DO IS TO RETURN IT DIRECTLY TO THE GIVER LETTNG THEM KNOW IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS JUST HOW MUCH YOU DON'T LIKE IT!!!!

I can't believe that things like that need to be pointed out to the grown-up, adult, college-educated people I used to know.  (And yes, I call them ones that I used to know because I do not need the overt callousness of those unhappy, rude, and unappreciative people who had the gall to do that to me in my life any longer.)

I guess because I'm generally a pretty easygoing person, people see me as a low-risk opportunity in which they can show their true selves.  But I know plenty of women who are not as agreeable, who are not as laid back, and whom no one would dare treat as unkindly as I have been treated. Does that mean I need to change who I am to avoid harsh judgment? Is it possible to be a nice, happy, non-confrontational person who doesn't get bombarded with judgment and criticism at regular intervals along the way?

Answer? No.  Better answer? No, but I don't care. My constant criticizers have no place in my life, and more importantly, no place in my head.



Turn Off the Voices Part 1

I am so incredibly sick of judgmental people.  I seem to find them everywhere I go and they are all abundantly comfortable spewing out their judgements of me and of people I care about, knowing entirely in their hearts that they are 100% right and anyone who may disagree with them, even slightly, is 100% wrong. Negative judgement of others seems to be en vogue right now, and it feels like the more judgements a person can sling on social media the better.  It shows the world around them that they care (doesn't really matter about what) and that they are not afraid to blast their righteousness emphatically, out loud, with guns blazing.  Yes, pun intended.

I'm so tired of it all.  I'm rarely on social media for that, among other reasons.  But I realized that most of the outside judgements I struggle with on a daily basis aren't coming from other people.  They are coming from inside my head (originally placed there by other people).  They are the voices telling me over and over again that I'm not good enough, that I'm not smart enough to make the right choices for myself and my family, and that I shouldn't open my heart up to hope and trust because I will inevitably get hurt if I do.  I know that many of us have to deal with these voices inside of our heads that have made intrinsic neural pathways in our brains. For us, it's a reflex, and these judgments are as a natural as breathing and walking.  It takes tremendous, dogged, and very specific effort to change these automatic synapses, and I'm on a very determined mission to try.

I've been thinking recently about what I'm calling "Conditional Judgements."  As in, someone who has very strong opinions about something but may change his/her opinion about his/her staunchly steadfast convictions depending upon the condition.  For example, I know a woman who was raised in a community where if you did not marry within their specific faith you would be judged, and most likely shunned and abandoned.  This woman ended up having a series of horrible tragedies happen in her young life, and when she finally found love with a person outside of her faith, the same people who would have shunned her said things like, "She's been through so much pain, she deserves to have some happiness."  Which makes me wonder 1. How strong were those convictions to begin with, if you can easily toss them aside?  2. Why does a person's deservedness to be happy have to be based on a condition of former unhappiness?  Does a person who has suffered a lot deserve to be truly happy more than a person who hasn't suffered as much? Isn't every person on the planet entitled to as much happiness as they can possibly glean from this one life we all get?

Another example: If a person who is tremendously unhappy in a job but is making good money, decides to quit that job and take a job with less pay but a healthier work environment, that person is often judged by people who will say, "How could you leave that job? You were making so much money? Who cares if your soul was being eaten away daily by the stress and tyrannical atmosphere of the place?"  BUT, if a person loses that job, and has to take a job with less pay, everyone is much more sympathetic and understanding.  They will say things like, "It's good that you got out of there because it was making you so miserable.  Now you can find something that will be better for you." Again, why does a person's happiness have to depend on what happens to them, rather than the choices we make for ourselves? There are plenty of poor people who are happy and just as many rich people who aren't.

I have found that judgmental people are also usually hypocrites, and those who judge others most harshly are doing so because they are ashamed of that same behavior that they find in themselves. The working mother who admonishes the stay-at-home mom for not working outside the home often does so because she feels guilty about leaving her children at day care every day.  The bully who teases the "nerdy" kid is secretly upset about his learning disability that interferes with him getting good grades.  The diet-obsessed woman who thinks fat people are stupid losers is terrified of gaining weight and becoming one of them. And the unhappy people who consistently put down the cheerful ones just can't seem to get a handle on feeling true happiness themselves.

No one likes to be judged.  And there is most definitely a difference between constructive criticism and judgement.  If someone lovingly offers advice to help someone so that their work, their school project, their performance, their health, etc. before it is completed and therefore can be changed, I'm  in favor of that, especially if it comes from a place of actually caring about the person and wanting them to succeed.  If the criticism comes after something is completed, then it's just disapproval and judgement. Which no one needs. Ever.

Example: I used to have a friend who was extremely critical of everything I did.  I redecorated my kitchen years ago and I absolutely loved it.  This friend of mine walked in, slowly turned around evaluating the change, then started in with the critiques: "Why did you do this? What's with that? Oh wow, I would have NEVER done this," on and on and on.  To this day I'm not sure why she felt the need to be so harsh about a place where she wasn't living.  Was it so offensive to her that she could no longer come over when invited?  This same friend had a reaction I will never forget when I sent her one of my original CDs.  I was very proud of the accomplishment and how it turned out after the years of work that it took to complete it.  She had since moved away (was it my kitchen that drove her away?) and so called me from across the time zones to say this: "Thanks for the CD, it sounds great...if I had a criticism it would be..." and off she went, letting me know everything that was wrong with it.  To which I wanted to respond, "Why do you HAVE to have a critcism?!?! I guess she just couldn't help herself.  No matter what I put in front of her, she was going to HAVE TO have a criticism.  Not to mention that her criticism had no point because the CD was done.  Finished. Completed. Nothing could be changed.  So if her words couldn't yield any kind of improvement to meet her approval, why bother saying them at all?

Answer: Because, quite simply.  She was a critic.  At least to me. I can't speak of how she treated others, but in my case she found an easy mark and took every opportunity to cut me down and try to dull my shine.  Sadly, I know, and have known, many many people like her.

There are some brilliant lines from the film Ratatouille that go like this:

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so." 

So true. People spend immense amounts of time, effort, and money creating something dear to their hearts like a film, or a book, or an art exhibit, and then all it takes is a few unkind words from a critic to have it disappear into oblivion. Money is lost, hopes and dreams get shattered, and the person feels like all of their years of hard work were essentially wasted because one random person didn't "get" it. It's really tragic, and the saddest part is, it happens all the time.

So it seems that those of us who put ourselves out there in any way for others to judge us - in our art, our writing, our cooking, our clothing style, our mannerisms, our speaking voice, the list goes on and on - have a choice.  We can choose to either not put ourselves out there and risk feeling the hurt of rejection, criticism and judgment (often by people who don't have any idea of what we were trying to say or accomplish), OR, we can keep doing what we're doing and consciously force ourselves to not care what anyone else says or thinks about it.  Because more often than not, the roots of judgment are jealousy, fear, anger, unfulfilled desire, dashed hopes, envy, sadness, resentment, skepticism, and mistrust.

These are strong emotions who truly have voices all their own.  It is up to us to turn off those voices, whether they are coming from others or within our own heads.  Because no matter what we do, the critics only have power if we let them.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Beauty that Remains...

Anne Frank famously wrote: "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart."

I used to believe that.  I'm sad to say that I no longer do.  I do believe firmly that most people are born good, and it is only after going through heartbreak or suffering or the steady chipping away of their self-esteems, that goodness gets either beaten out of them or buried deep inside them where it's barely accessible anymore.

Anne Frank started writing in her diary at age 13.  The quote above was written when she was 15 and had been in hiding for more than 2 years.  She was brilliant beyond her years and her dream of living beyond her death has blessedly come true.  She died at 16, getting to live and breathe for only around 5,700 days (roughly 750 of those days spent completely indoors and in fear).  I am very grateful for her words that continue to live on and inspire others when they are going through difficult times.

I wonder though, would she still have felt that people were truly good at heart had she witnessed the unspeakable horrors that were going on nearby?  She writes with the optimism of a young heart, who while in her prison had also been sheltered from the heinous acts that human beings were inflicting upon other human beings. It's understandable that she would have this view because thankfully she did not see the truth of what was going on until she herself was shipped away to witness it, her unfinished diary left behind.

Obviously I am not comparing anything in my life to her life.  That is not my intention at all because, quite simply, that is absurd.  But I am taking that phrase that she wrote, and trying to attach it to my older, scarred, oft-wounded heart.

I can't do it.

I sincerely wish I could.  The truth is, I know a lot of very good people. They have good hearts and good souls and they don't try to make the world more difficult for other people.

But the truth also is, I know a lot of people who were probably once good, but who have allowed the cruelty and injustices of the world around them penetrate their hearts and replace the good intentions and feelings with ones of resentment, anger, and frustration.  These people's goodness is buried so deeply inside of them that I don't think they can even find it anymore, much less those of us who are outside of their damaged souls.

It seems that most people are looking out for themselves first, and consideration toward others isn't even on their radar most of the time. I believe that, ideally, acts of kindness like helping someone on the side of the road, rescuing someone from a flood, or paying for someone's meal anonymously shouldn't be so rare that they make news headlines.  Instead, shouldn't this behavior be the norm?  We are all on this Earth together so it seems to me that we should be seeking out ways to help one another and lift each other up, instead of taking every opportunity to get in the way or bring each other down.

It's gotten to the point where my family and I are genuinely surprised when we have a pleasant, no-strings attached conversation with a salesperson or acquaintance.  It also makes us think, "Wouldn't it be nice if most people acted like that on a regular basis?"

But everyone has their own demons and issues that they are carrying around and often times spewing them about onto others.  And while I believe that everyone views themselves as nice and caring and kind, nine times out of ten a person will throw their fellow human being under a proverbial bus if it will save him/herself from blame or misery or unpleasant consequences.

Nine times out of ten.  Yep, that's what I said.  Why do I say that?  Because I've seen it. I've experienced it in every job I have had, and also with people who had claimed to be my friends. I've seen it happen to family members, I've read about it in history books, and I've seen it countless times on television and social media.  It seems that no matter how good we try to be as people ourselves, we still have to face the people who are far from good at heart.

But enough of that cynicism. Let's try to figure out a way to deal with the fact that the majority of people we come in contact with every day are not whom we would consider to be good at heart, even though they may truly want to be.

I turn to Anne for another quote: "I don't think of all of the misery, but of the beauty that still remains."

Ah yes. Thank you Anne, for these amazing words of wisdom, and ones that I can actually get on board with.

It's true that people will be unkind no matter what you do. It's true that people will try to sabotage your good work and bad-mouth you to others for the purpose of making themselves feel better. People will insult you to your face, make rude, unnecessary comments about aspects of how you live, they will degrade, demean, and belittle you without giving it a second thought, and yes, sometimes people will also betray you and lie and take advantage of you and your relationship.  It happens, and it hurts every time.

But thankfully, we have a way out of this mess, and we must get ourselves out of it or we're in danger of becoming like the people who have wronged us.  And that way is, to see the beauty that still remains. Yes, this person who said they were a friend stabbed us in the back and made us doubt our ability to connect with and trust others.  But, this OTHER person remembered our birthday and dropped off soup when we were sick.  A-ha! We can choose to focus our attention on the first person or the second person.  We can fill our mind with how badly we feel and how wrong it was for us to be treated that way, or we can change our thoughts to appreciate the good things, and the good people in our lives.

This is not easy to do. For some reason it is always easier to focus on the misery rather than the beauty.  Maybe if we plan for the misery and stay prepared in our headspace for it, then that will help us deal with it when it comes. Well guess what? It doesn't work that way! Misery comes to all of us at one point or another, and staying miserable doesn't prevent it from happening nor does it make it easier to deal with when it's there.  It's coming whether we think about it or not, I so think it makes sense to spend our precious time here on Earth focusing on the good things, the joyful things, and the things that make us happy.

I've said it before: Happiness is a choice.  We can choose to look at every situation positively or negatively and it's all going on inside our heads.  Some people curse the rain because it means they have to stay inside while others praise the rain for it helping to make their gardens grow.  It's all in how you look at it.

So where does that leave us?  Well, it leaves me still believing that most people are not good at heart, but I'm making the choice to focus on the people and things that I know ARE good - good for me and good for the world around me - and keep my eyes on the beauty that remains.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Pain is a great equalizer

So I've been in varying amounts of physical pain for the past 3 1/2 years.  Over the course of my life I  have also had times when I have been in severe emotional pain.  Just 2 hours ago I woke up from a horrible nightmare that left me filled with intense, agonizing, and all-too-familiar inner pain.  The kind of deep, throbbing pain that makes you desperate to do anything to just make it go away and leave you with some remnants of peace.

Pain is an extremely powerful and motivating thing.  And it can actually be beneficial at times. More than that, it's an essential tool for survival for every living thing on the planet.  When you are in physical pain it's telling the brain that a part of your body is broken or in distress and the body goes into immediate earnest action to heal that part.  It sends a signal to your synapses to take your hand off of the hot stove burner so you don't do damage to your skin and nerves.  It helps cuts and bruises get better and hopefully reminds us to walk around the coffee table instead of into it next time.  Physical pain, while painful, is usually temporary, and at some point our neurochemical analgesics hopefully kick in to help relieve us of the pain while our bodies try to fix the problem.

Emotional pain however, is different. It's not caused by a one-time action like a fall or an accident. No, emotional pain is caused by unseen injuries and torments, often inflicted by people we have loved and trusted.  Years of abuse, loneliness, grief, disappointment, despair, frustration, and neglect can result in overwhelming, long-lasting, and often perpetual emotional pain.  It can be worse than physical pain because for some people, it never goes away.

Here's the thing about pain:  It has a mind of its own and no one is safe from it.  It doesn't care about how much money you have, where you went to college, how big your house is, or the height of your position on the org chart at work.  It also has no interest in your goals and aspirations.  Even if you are living your life to the best of your ability, doing what you believe to be right each day and making a positive contribution to the world around you, pain can come at any time and smack you upside the head (sometimes literally) and leave you gasping for breath and searching your soul (and medicine cabinet) for the slightest amount of possible relief.

Everyone, at any time, is at risk, and everyone knows what it feels like.  And from what I've learned, nearly everyone around us is in some kind of pain at any given time.

We're all the same when it comes to pain.  We don't want to feel it, and some of us will go to great lengths to prevent ourselves from experiencing it at all costs. And while this may sound strange, I finally understand why some people participate in destructive behavior.  I am not doing this myself, nor am I condoning it by any means...but at this point, after all that I've been through and continue to go through, I can understand why people turn to certain things to numb or dull their pain.

Why do people get addicted to painkillers?

That's an easy one, because they are in pain.

Why do people get addicted to things like sugar, sex, shopping, gambling, and other activities that release endorphins in the brain and therefore make themselves feel good, even briefly, on a chemically physiological level?

It's actually very simple. They are in pain.

On a  deeper level, why do spouses beat their loved ones?

Pain.

Why are some people mean-spirited, verbally abusive, vindictive, and take great pleasure in the anguish of others?

One word: Pain.

I knew someone in a loveless marriage who smacked her children, insulted her friends regularly, and was $30,000 in debt from buying shoes and purses at an alarmingly high rate.  I used to think she was just foolish and angry and "didn't have her act together," but now I can see that the main motivator for her actions was pain. Pure and simple. Instead of dismissing her and her behaviors with scorn and disdain, I can now feel empathy for her and the pain she is clearly feeling every moment of every day.

That's the other thing about pain: It's the same for all of us.  If a human being breaks a femur bone, that body will feel acute, excruciating, phenomenally intense pain.  It doesn't matter what color skin covers that body, how many pounds that body weighs, or what special or distinctive abilities that body has.  If the femur bone breaks, in any body, it hurts like hell.

On any given day, in any given moment, probably every single person we come across is in some kind of pain. It might be physical - his back went out earlier from shoveling snow, she has achy calves from overdoing her workout the day before, he or she has an ingrown toenail, or a cavity, or a headache from not getting enough sleep...the list goes on and on and on.  Or, possibly more likely, they are walking around in emotional pain - from deep personal injuries inflicted upon them years ago that they are still carrying around despite their best efforts to get rid of them. The truth is, we all bleed when we're cut, we all know how difficult it is to think clearly when we have a sore mouth, and we all know the debilitating grief and despair that comes from losing someone we have loved.

So what does this mean? Well I believe, on a fundamental level, that we should be kinder to one another.  It doesn't mean that we have to approve of everyone's behavior or accept people's actions when they are wrong and hurtful to others.  Absolutely not.  But maybe realizing the egalitarian nature of pain can make us a little more patient with our fellow human beings when it's clear they are suffering.  Maybe we can all try to cut each other some slack and give people the benefit of the doubt when they are act or react in ways that we might not agree with.

Pain can be a terrible, awful, exhausting and isolating thing to deal with.  And yes, pain thresholds vary so it's difficult sometimes to sympathize with the pain of others.  But from the very first time we fall down as babies we know what pain feels like, and we should remember that every single human being on the Earth knows it too.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Facebook - A Cautionary Tale

Ah Facebook. Some people love it, some people hate it, very few are indifferent about it.  It is an incredibly influential entity of our current time, which is fascinating because it's only been a part of the public consciousness for fewer than 10 years.

As I've said before, I am not wholly anti-Facebook. I think Facebook can be great when used healthily and in moderation. (Kind of like sugar.) For myself personally, Facebook has been a great asset in promoting my music and performances and for staying in touch with people whom I was sorry I lost touch with years ago.  I haven't been on much since my last post about it, but I did recently check out the tributes to Carrie Fisher and some of the "In Memoriam" compilations from the end of the year.  As usual however, along with those touching and uplifting posts, there were the all-too-typical vitriolic rants about politics, religion, conspiracy theories, and the generally dismal opinion of the current state of things.  I also was privy to many shiny happy holiday highlight reels posted by people I know, many of whom are living vastly different lives from the ones they are projecting into the world.

This last jaunt made me realize 2 things: 1. Sharing the good stuff in spite of the difficulties is probably a coping mechanism for these people.  They are putting the positive out there in the hopes that their real lives will eventually mirror their shared ones.  Not a bad idea. Of course, this is also a mode of escapism, but maybe that's what these people need right now.  2. The people who post every meal, every Christmas gift received, and selfies everywhere they go must have a pathological need for attention and approval.  Which is kind of a shame.

For example, I know someone who posts A LOT.  A photo and description of her breakfast, followed by a selfie on the way to the gym, followed by something funny she saw at the grocery store, followed by the book she's currently reading, followed by something inspirational she saw online, followed by the pile of onions she's chopped for dinner, followed by her son's soccer game after school, followed by her glass of wine and Netflix selection for the evening...it's several personal posts nearly every day.  And on every single post many of her Facebook friends post positive responses and comments. All of those posts encourages her to post more and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.  I totally get it - I mean, who doesn't want immediate gratification and approval from our own personal cheerleaders because we went to the gym or made a nice dinner? But I think a person can become dependent on those responses, so therefore her trip to the gym doesn't "count" if no one else knows about it and gives her a virtual thumbs up for going.  It's not enough to simply share her expert dicing skills in the dish she prepares for her family, she has to get kudos from people outside of her house to reassure her that she's skilled and admired and worthy of the accolades.

What is that?

I read a study that measured people's happiness after quitting FB and the researchers found that after only 7 days, the quitters were 88% happier than the non-quitters.  Are you kidding me? Those are some mighty significant results I think.  Not only did so many of these people feel happier overall, but they also felt less angry, less alone, less depressed, more decisive, more enthusiastic, and enjoyed their lives more.  Makes sense - if you're living your life according to your terms without having to worry about posting your actions; and then seeing the reactions you might get as a result, it takes a lot of pressure off of yourself and opens up a world of freedom to do what you want no matter what anyone else thinks.

No. Matter. What. Anyone. Else. Thinks.

Facebook is designed to be all about putting yourself out there and therefore opening yourself up to feedback.  And for some people, getting no feedback is worse than receiving negative feedback. No feedback means that people may not have even bothered to look at their posts! And if they didn't have their post looked at, and/or they didn't receive comments on it, then it might as well not have even happened.  It wasn't validated in any way, so the person posting isn't validated either.

Why do some people seek this day to day, seemingly minute to minute approval from others?

Again, I'm not talking about sharing photos of proud moments or family reunions or special occasions or trip slide shows.  These keep people updated and tend to bring a sense of joy and inspiration to others when they see them. (i.e. "The Smith family went to Australia! We're going there next year so let's call them for travel tips." Or "Do you remember Jenny from Nevada? Her mother has cancer, let's be sure to send her a card." Etc.) I do not have any problem with using FB that way, in fact, I welcome the opportunity to find out about these things. Used in this way I think can be beneficial.

But another problem that I have with Facebook, and I know I'm not alone in this, is that it can be a huge time sucker.  I was talking with an acquaintance who said to me recently, "The kids were with my ex over vacation and I was so bored that I ended up going on Facebook for 2 hours!"

She was bored, so instead of doing something fun or productive with her time, she spent that time sitting all alone, staring at her computer screen, watching what other people were doing.  (And this, by the way, is from the woman who is always too busy to read the books for book club!)  This made me think, how many books have gone unread, or unwritten for that matter, because people were squandering their precious free time by gaping at other people's lives?  How many pictures have gone unpainted, how many songs have gone unwritten, how much fashion has gone have gone unsewn, how many museums have remained empty, the list of creative and inspiring things people could be doing with their time is endless.

Not to mention, what is so wrong with being a little bit bored from time to time?  Think about it: If we're not constantly rushing around, hurrying from one thing to another to make sure we're never bored, then we may actually get an opportunity to figure out what we'd rather be doing and assess what our true passions are.  It's only when we have nothing else to do that we can realize what it is we'd LIKE to be doing instead.

My friends and I never complained about being bored to our parents because that would have inevitably resulted in us being assigned something productive to do around the house.  So how did we occupy ourselves and procrastinate without social media? In other words, what were the time suckers of our childhoods?  I was a reader, some kids spent hours on the phone, some hung out at the mall, and some played sports with the neighborhood kids.  While these activities definitely kept us from doing things like our chores and homework, we always managed to take care of our responsibilities anyway.  Why? Partly because parenting was different back then and there were serious consequences when our household chores went undone.  But even more than that aspect, I believe that the biggest reason we didn't get completely immersed in our distractions was because they all had definite ending times.  The book eventually ended so I could put it down and attend to my obligations.  The mall eventually closed, or we had a set pick up time so we couldn't stay there forever. Stickball games ended when the street lights came on so everyone could go home and eat dinner.  We didn't expect to do any of these things without a defined completion time.

But Facebook isn't like that.  Nor is YouTube or Twitter or other social media sharing sites.  Because the internet has billions and billions of data items on it, and that number is growing every single day.  This means that even a casual user can literally never be done with it. (As of September 8, 2016, there were 4.3 billion Facebook messages posted every day and 5.75 billion Facebook likes posted each day as well.)  Once you click on one video to watch, another one pops up that's similar, and then there's another followed by another followed by another ad infinitum. So it's very easy to see why people end up spending so much time on Facebook (and other sites too) - with a book you can put it down when it ends but with the internet, there's never an end.

I am by no means longing for the simplicity of my youth when books and 3 television channels were our main sources of entertainment.  Not at all!  But I do think it's worth remembering the time before social media sharing when we did things that we enjoyed without constantly thinking about showing them to everyone we knew. There wasn't pressure to keep our hair perfectly done at the pool because there was no danger of someone snapping a photo and sharing with with the world.  We could go to a restaurant and simply enjoy a meal without feeling the need to take a perfectly framed picture of it to prove to others that we know good cuisine.  There wasn't the stress in the back (or front) of our minds that we had to do certain things or go to certain places to make sure we were keeping up with everyone else's accomplishments that we were hearing about multiple times during each day.

Facebook can be a wonderful tool of support when people need it. I personally received a lot of loving messages of encouragement from dozens of people when I was going through my failed back surgery and complications.  And I think if someone wants to go on it every few weeks to catch up on people or news that's perfectly fine.  But when people focus all of their energies on doing things just so they can post them, or when they spend copious amounts of time watching and envying other people instead of concentrating on their own lives, or when hard-hearted souls decide to broadcast their prejudices to demean and belittle others, then I think it's a detriment to our psyches.  Children have committed suicide, marriages have broken apart, and life-long friendships have ended due to people placing excessive meaning on what they see on Facebook.  I'm assuming that Facebook wasn't the only reason these tragedies occurred, but it certainly seems to have played a tremendous part.

One more time, I'm not scorning Facebook as an entity. It is the best way we currently have to find and keep in touch with people we'd previously lost touch with.  It's a fun, efficient, and no-cost way to get the word out about life events like new jobs, new homes, new family members, and birthday milestones.  It helps artists publicize their gigs, business owners to drum up new customers, and a great way to solicit advice from a vast cross-section of the virtual population. But when it becomes the barometer by which you measure your self-worth, your main motivation for what you do, or an endless black hole into which your real life goals and dreams disappear,  I believe it can be dangerous.  I encourage you to find another way to fill your leisure time with something that is REAL, that satisfies and sustains you, and that is creative, invigorating, relaxing, and truly fulfilling. Volunteer at a community garden, knit scarves for your grandparents, paint the walls of your bedroom a new color - whatever makes you happy and fills you up while remembering that the activity is just for YOU. There's no need to post the results because it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks about it. If those things are too strenuous, then find something to do that's pleasurable but has a definite ending point. Watching Netflix, reading comic books, baking cupcakes, whatever - but they should be things that you enjoy that don't have the potential to go on forever.

Life is short.  It's up to you how you want to spend the time that you've been given. Do you think anyone's final thoughts on his or her deathbed are "I wish I'd spent more time on Facebook?"