"I'm done with traditional medicine," my father announced at dinner. "There's nothing they can do for me."
As my father will soon be 87, it wasn't necessary to say that traditional medicine hasn't done too badly for him up to now. But I got his point. Because I knew that what he has been hearing directly and between the lines from doctors and others is, "what do you expect? You are 86." What my dad expects, however, is not to be satisfied with survival. What matters to him, and undoubtedly to most octogenarians, is quality of life. He is not asking to live forever, only that if it is possible to have more energy, be capable and independent and do those things that matter to him, that he be given encouragement and whatever aids that goal.
This skeptical attitude has evolved over time, partly, I suppose, because his doctors got younger and younger. And partly because his generation, raised to venerate experts and authority, realized that those experts were somebody's children, just like their own, whom they knew for a fact to be quite fallible.
Dad has long been interested in alternative medicine, done much research and tried things, a case study of one. He is pleased with what he has found, and recently he has learned something new he would like to try, "what if it would do as promised?" Once again he is proactive in reaching for his health and well-being. His mood for several days can be made by a good workout at the fitness center.
There's much to say about what I have learned from my father, a natural optimist, but this late life lesson is huge to me. He has ever been a man of action, no procrastination. He starts habits, stops habits, whatever he comes to decide is the best course of action. He shows up in his life, and has that trait of courage--- persistence--- in measures I long for. Is he at all set in his ways? Sure, just try cutting an onion or tomato in front of him, or taking out the garbage. He has many instructions. But this openness to the new, and the willingness to dig for information even if initially skeptical, is an example I value.
One of the first things he taught me was "never assume." This was learned the hard way, trying to excuse my way out of faulty judgments or actions. But, ah, yes, "never assume." Find out, know your stuff, take the time to be thorough, and take responsibility, it's your life. Trust yourself, take a leap, there's always something to be learned.
I expect I will give my doctors a hard time, too, if they try to get me to "settle." It's my father's legacy to me.
This is not a trick question: You are traveling with a companion of the opposite sex, and you lose your way. Someone will suggest asking for directions. This person is....
A. Male B. Female
Odds are, that the person who asks is female, right?
Know why? In essence: a female does not feel "one down" asking for information. Nor does she feel obligated to act on information she receives, FYI.
Visualize a ladder. What images and words come to you, associated with ladder?
People in workshops on this topic have told me words like these: up and down; straight; narrow;ascending; scary (might fall off); one- way; useful; tool; steps; one at a time; strong; rigid; helpful; balancing....
What does it feel like to be on a ladder, in one's view of things, sense of self?
People have used these words: focused; know how far I've come, how far to go; alone; clear path; getting higher; getting somewhere; feels better to be up, or in front of others climbing behind, but fearful if I fall I could take others down with me; only room for one on each step; independent; risk-taking; brave....
For life on the ladder, "Knowing" is what protects and helps, information is what one has to offer, and that is perceived to be a gift.
Now, visualize a web. What images and words come to you? Are they like these words?
Connecting is what protects and helps, and is the valuable gift when offered.
Imagine that most men in our culture tend to have a "ladder" worldview, and experience the dynamics and energy of life as a ladder, i.e. life as hierarchical. Primary challenges are about how to ascend. Harmony is often derived from clarity about where one stands on the ladder, and what is needed to maintain or move upward. Anxiety comes from not knowing, or being pushed out of place.
Imagine that most women have a "web" view of life, i.e. that life is a web of relationships that need to be created, maintained, watched over, and that harmony is best felt when all is well in the web. Anxiety comes from feeling a lack of connection, or being too far on the periphery.
How do the ladder and the web relate to each other?
By acknowledging that each has a different experience, beginning early in life, and that each worldview has its benefits, contributions and costs. No one view is right or wrong. Gifts are different , but all are part of the same Whole.
Might this awareness offer increased freedom and appreciation to us all?
(This article is excerpted from my book Live in Harmony: Notes on Daily Peace. Thanks are due to Tannen and Gilligan*, cited below)
*For more on this topic, check out the seminal work done by Deborah Tannen, sociolinguist, e.g. You Just Don't Understand Me, and Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice
It is a hot, sticky August night, and I know I will have to wet my hair to get cool enough to fall asleep. I am sitting on the porch of a rustic cabin with an angry teenager. Earlier, I had spoken briefly with my best friend of twenty years, who
is being admitted tonight to the hospital to get treatment for recently
Just now, I am "intervening". This is the kind of thing I do all the time, but in this case I am a volunteer, helping out with a grief recovery wilderness camp. In neutral tones and repetitive brief statements, I lay out the alternatives to the sullen, argumentative teen who has been disrupting the program.
And I am thinking, "What am I doing here? I should be at the hospital!" Although I don't know it, my friend has only a week to live.
Eventually the teen chooses, by default, to go home, and I stay up waiting for her ride. She is calmer now, we speak of other things. Watching the taillights of her mother's car recede, I have an epiphany. In a flash I see a lifetime of choices that too often separated me from friends and family.
Is it hard or easy for you to say "no" ? What ---or who---are you most likely to say "no" to and who or what gets your "yes"? Which choices of how to spend time and energy are hardest to make?
Sometimes, the hardest choice is between two good things. Sometimes, it is between different people we care about that we must choose our "yes" and "no".
Each "no" inherently holds a "yes." When we say "no" to a commitment, task or activity, to what might we be saying "yes"?
To begin with, a certain amount of time and energy belongs to us again, to be redistributed in a different way.
Saying "yes" to projects and activities splinters time into fragments, more and more as we say "yes" to more.
I used to say "yes" to nearly every opportunity that was the least bit attractive--- opportunities to lead, serve, explore, learn, teach. I fractured myself into bits because I couldn't see that saying "no" really meant saying "yes" to something I valued. My ego was served by all the opportunities to do something new, different. In retrospect, I don't deny the value of those. I learned a lot, met a lot of people, probably did some good in the world. But I regret not being able to accept my own limitations as I ran as fast as could, year after year. Everything was kind of blurry as I sped by. Much that could have nourished my soul was deferred as I focused on being productive and engaged in many good things.
Some of this is developmentally typical, at least in our culture. Many folk engage in lots of volunteerism in their 30's and 40's, in order to gain a presence in the community and begin to give back, after getting their lives otherwise established. This is by and large a good thing for society. Giving back to our communities, or to those we don't know or will never meet or never see again, is both a privilege and responsibility to the world outside our narrow pathways.
I am not saying the balancing act is easy.
But in reflection that August night years ago, I thought, "does it have to be me, sitting here, this night? On this night, where am I uniquely needed to be, i.e. that place in my journey where I most belong, right now?" Maybe that question is not always the best criteria, but it is a starting place, in keeping the balance.
What I faced, sweating on that porch, was the pain of looking at the relationships of my life, and recognizing when I had been present and when I had been absent. It was not an easy reflection. But it was the start of transformation.
Are you busy, over-committed, overwhelmed? Do you meet yourself coming and going, pass your closest family and friends on the way out the door? Is it seductive to feel busy, important, involved, engaged,entertained, efficient, please others?
When you say "no", what are you saying "yes" to? Could your "no" be a resounding "yes" to feeling more alive, focused, healthy, whole, available to important relationships, noticing what's important, nourishing your soul?
The best thing we have to offer is our careful, focused attention. Who or what do you want to pay attention to?
Our exhibit, “Listening to Life: Psychologists create”, was a new project for our organization, reflecting a relatively new and growing area of research in psychology. The research is not only teaching us more about creativity as a trait and/or a process, but highlighting how creativity contributes to wellbeing, learning, business, science, you name it.
So I was excited to find this CBC report on research* at Harvard Medical School regarding medical students taking art classes. By learning how to look closely at faces, bodies, they improved their powers of observation. The result? Better diagnostic skills in comparison to their colleagues who elected not to take the art classes.
This is pretty cool, isn’t it? The researchers found that, in developing this “visual literacy”, even studying abstract art is helpful, because it enhances pattern recognition skills. Besides the additional medical skills enhanced by art studies, there has been a side benefit ---- some doctors pick up art-making as an avocation. Which we know, from other research, will serve them well.
Paying attention, deep listening, seeing more clearly, flexibility.. All these skills, so important to science, innovation, creative thinking, and successful relationships, are key aspects of making art.
Vision is the Physician
Art is the Prescription” --- Fred Babb
So why have arts programs in schools been sidelined or even cut out entirely? What is being lost or diminished, and for what purpose? Why are we still treating art-making with such ambivalence, as if we cannot figure out its function once we get out of pre-school?
*Thanks to About.com:Painting for bringing this article to my attention.
Don’t you love it when one of your personal theories gets, well, proven in some way?
Most of us have theories for everything, given the chance to expound. A basic starting place for cognitive therapy is to ask about and explore those personal theories. Most are based on history and perception with little chance of being proven or disproven. So we investigate based on utility and outcome, on functionality and impact.
But occasionally a pet theory can be validated (or clearly rejected) out in the real world.
For some years I have been saying that while I used to be excellent at remembering facts, I seemed to have lost the ability. When I read an article, then try to tell someone else about it, it quickly devolves into vague abstraction. I can recall the essence but not the evidence, so to speak.
I attributed this cognitive change to having acquired so many facts, my brain must let go of some. But also I think in big pictures, and my brain is organized by overlapping sets of associations. New learning gets put into the most closely associated system, gets integrated, shifts my big picture accordingly. The details are lost in the gestalt.
I haven't viewed this change as losing ability/facility but as processing information differently. Besides, facts seem to change a lot. A lot of facts I learned in school for example, even graduate school, would just hold me back now. Nonetheless sometimes it makes me look bad to flounder for factual memory.
So imagine my delight at reading this May article by Sara Reistad-Long in the New York Times---even the title gives me joy “Older Brain Really May Be a Wiser Brain.” Hah!
Reistad-Long writes: “ ….the research finds, the aging brain is simply taking in more data and trying to sift through a clutter of information, often to its long-term benefit.”
She further reports on research by Shelley H. Carson, a Harvard psychologist. While not denying that some brains do deteriorate with age, Dr. Carson notes that what may be happening in others is “a gradually widening focus of attention that makes it more difficult to latch onto just one fact, like a name or telephone number“. Hah! again.
Not only that, but “distractibility….may increase the amount of information available to the conscious mind.” Dr. Carson reports finding that while older people may read a passage interrupted with new information more slowly, they absorb and process the out-of-place information better than college students.
Older brains transfer information gained from experience to new situations and as a result make more or different connections and read between the lines. Which seems exactly what wisdom is about, doesn't it?
Interestingly, in previous research Dr. Carson found that students deemed to be more creative were also less able to ignore out-of-place, seemingly irrelevant information, suggesting that the ability to attend more broadly may be related to creativity. (Not being able to filter irrelevant information can be problematic, too, of course. Carson theorizes that stages of attention and working memory--being able to hold several things in your mind at
once--- is part of what keeps wide-ranging attention from causing problems.)
I find evidence in this research to support another theory of mine, i.e. that curiosity is fundamentally connected to creativity. What is curiosity if not a broad attention span? Still, for creative products to emerge, curiosity has to be kept on a leash enough for completion. Hence the need for focus and persistence, an attribute of courage.
Our best personal theories come from close attention and asking questions, being flexible enough to reconsider. What's your favorite theory about aging, or creativity, or aging creatively? Maybe someone out there is trying to prove it, even as we speak.
I stepped back from the painting with dismay. I had gone on painting as the light faded and colors on the palette had become indistinguishable, but that wasn't the source of my dismay. No, it arose from sudden recognition that the composition was ill-conceived, apparent only now that the canvas was full of paint. I was annoyed I hadn’t understood this earlier. What was I thinking? Contentedly applying paint, expecting good things to emerge, I had missed the “big picture”. Ah, the metaphors that present themselves as we move through our days.
So I walked away, dissatisfied, disappointed, frustrated, looking for an escape from all those feelings.
For me, engaging in art- making or writing is like falling in love. And when it’s not going well, it’s kind of yucky and lonely.
Distracted, disheveled, not eating or sleeping. Disorganized, forgetful, not listening. Messy, irresponsible, moody----have you heard creative people described in these ways? Odds are that you have, since this constellation of behaviors is part of a common stereotype, e.g. the “artistic temperament.” What if there is truth to the behaviors described, but not because of personality so much as the creative process itself?
Have you noticed how often these same adjectives are used in literature and casual conversation to describe someone in love?
When I am working on a project that fully engages me, it is infatuation. I lose track of time, forget to eat and sleep. I am constantly pre-occupied. If I am writing, then the words are always coming, always, while I drive to work, vacuum or wash dishes. It is like living in a different reality. I want to be with the project, I fall asleep thinking of it, wake up wanting to be with it. I yearn for its company when I am away. I dream about it at night. As situations arise, I capably focus on the people and needs in front of me, but I am livelier, glowing a little, because of my new love.
Remember what it’s like to be in love, especially that early infatuation phase? We think about the person we love, long to be together, think about what we will say when we next meet, guard our time jealously, close out the rest of the world, and when apart, savor memories of our time together. ( continued)
Are you creative? Does even the question make you cringe? Do you secretly think you are but dare not say so to others? When I started doing workshops on art and spirituality, I encountered a lot of people with what I call "fear of art-making." There is much to be said about how this came to happen to so many of us, this assignment of creativity as a trait to a precious few. But for the moment let's pursue a more inclusive, optimistic idea about creativity.
Robert Sternberg, former president of American Psychological Association, has written extensively about “defying the crowd”, about psychologists and other scientists who were creative and faced many obstacles gaining acceptance in their own professions. He posits that creativity is fundamentally a decision, connected very little to innate ability. He writes that people are creative largely because they have the will and the courage to:
do things like define problems differently than the ways their colleagues do, and to have enough humility to accept new and better ideas and be willing to grow, and to continue to believe in themselves when no one else does.
Deciding to create depends on persistence in the face of obstacles and rejection, requires flexibility and humor, and the willingness to encounter different ways of thinking.
Sternberg writes, “People generally decide against creativity because the creative way often is too painful, at least in the short run. It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s change it.” (RJ Sternberg, "Creativity is a decision", APA Monitor on Psychology , V. 34, No. 10, November 2003).
I like this idea. My sense is that the heart of creativity is about seeing--in both the broadest and finest sense of the word. Putting things together in a new way requires seeing different aspects or angles, seeing possibilities and connections, seeing new relationships. It is perspective with fresh results. It is "taking a long loving look at the real", as Walter Burghardt advised, but also at what might be. The way we see is based in who we are. It is looking at the world with eyes of wonder and appreciation, and asking questions. The techniques of expression are myriad, but it all starts with seeing. There are people who the world calls creative because they make things. But they do not necessarily see nor have the courage to say what they see. Change for change’s sake alone is not particularly creative, nor is a random juxtaposition that doesn’t result in new perspective, but rather just clangs.
So what is "seeing differently" about? This process is visual, perceptual, intuitive, emotional, contextual, experiential, attentive, contemplative. It can be a felt sense (i.e. located in the body), in rhythm with or in reaction to (dance, responses to music, singing). The viewer/listener/reader interacts with the art and "sees" differently as a result of the encounter. Thus art is fundamentally social. Creative people seek out the stimulation of different media to fuel their own process. Seeing is about fresh encounter, it is about being awake.
What are your ways to stay awake, mindful? It isn't easy. Sometimes it helps to create a little jolt of change. Simple things to change familiar routines can provide that "just enough" change. Things such as driving a different way to work every few days.(see an earlier post "Take a Wrong Turn".) Or enter your home by a different door, it changes your movement and your perspective. Look for things in the environment intentionally, thematically. For example, one day on the way to work, why not look for the color red? The next day look for blues. Or how about taking a 5 minute "sensory break" once a day? Taste, touch, smell, listen , look at what is around you in just that moment.
My nephew was 7 and we were exploring the Fort Worth Nature Center. We had walked a long way on this particular trail, and mindful of the time, I knew we had come to a place to start the return trip. Ethan was disappointed, he wanted to keep going to see what was at the end of the trail.
"Ethan," I said, " you know, things will look so different on the way back, it will be like we are on a new trail. Keep your eyes open, and you might see some amazing things." Sure enough, we soon came upon a beautiful iridescent lizard, like I have never seen before.
"Wow", said Ethan. "That’s an amazing thing!" A little later we came across a very large turtle crossing the path right in front of us. "Two amazing things!" Ethan shouted. Now his eyes were roving the area with expectation, he was completely engaged in our walk. Sure enough, we came upon a beautiful green snake. "Three amazing things, three, Aunt Carol! You said we would find amazing things and we did! "
I was grateful to Ethan, and grateful for a synchronous universe, and being able to keep a promise…..
What is "seeing"? Some of you may be like me, and read the dictionary for fun. Will anyone confess to this? At any rate, I looked up the word "see" for fun, and found 13 definitions. Let’s look at the synonyms for these definitions:
Perceive Come to know Discover Undergo Visualize Recognize Understand Suppose Examine Read Judge Visit Receive Accompany/escort Call Grasp Pay attention Apprehend Investigate or inquire Acknowledge or consider something being pointed out
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness; touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” Frederick Buechner
Imagine that you have some good news that you want to share. Who comes to mind that you want to tell immediately? Who do you joyfully anticipate seeing so you can tell the news? Who would you delay sharing it with? Why do you think you delay?
Many relationships are made stronger, deeper, more satisfying, by the way in which good news is shared.
Shelly Gable, Ph.D., associate professor of social psychology at the University of Santa Barbara, is doing innovative research on relationships. One aspect explored: what happens when people tell good news? Dr. Gable reports that telling good news boosts overall mood and well-being, as we might expect----yet isn't it good to get confirmation for things we might easily overlook? Another finding is that particular responses to the good news are far better than others. In fact, she has found that the ways a relationship deals with positive events is a better predictor of the future of the relationship than how negative events are dealt with. The best response, briefly, is to be enthusiastic and supportive.
Isn't this useful, wise? It rings of intuitive truth, when we stop and think about our own experiences---both in giving and receiving good news. The research has so far focused on stable individuals and relationships, finding out what works. Best part of all this? There's every indication that giving good responses to good news is a skill that can be increased, taught and learned with practice and attention.
So think about a situation with a spouse, a significant other, a good friend, a parent, a young adult child. This person, dear to you, comes to you with good news. What is the best response to give? First of all, it is not to point out the downside or potential pitfalls, just to be sure he or she will be sure to be aware, notice such things. Ah, this is tempting to do sometimes, isn't it? But there is time for such discussions later, if need be. In the moment, what is important is the deep attention to this beloved person, to be engaged, focused, getting the whole story, matching energy and to celebrate. To be supportive, delighted, pleased---but most of all, in the present and truly "with" the other. These are actions that build closeness, and potentially bring out the best in ourselves and others.