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I Cut, You Choose

Growing up, whenever my sister and I had to split dessert, my very, very wise father had a wonderful rule that ensured we’d be fair to each other. He would say, “I cut, you choose.” Such a simple statement made sure that, whoever cut into the cake, cut it as evenly as possible. Otherwise, the other person would clearly choose the larger slice. The point was always to remember that when we choose to divide something, we need to keep the needs/wants of the other person in mind. Over the years, as I enjoyed my fairly distributed slices of cake, I realized that sharing is an interesting concept.

According to Dictionary.com it can be a noun, an adjective, or a verb. For example, when used as a noun it might refer to the part allotted to or belonging to someone, such as a share of stock. When used as an adjective it might refer to sharing data online; as an idiom it might refer to sharing the losses or profits of a company. As a verb, it is used to indicate a division or distribution of something, such as sharing food. What is most interesting is that the definition does not indicate or require that the division/distribution of the item must be done equally like my father suggested. We just like to think that it means everyone gets an equal amount. Well, we like to think that most of the time.

Sharing, to some extent, is natural. It is based on empathy. A child will offer a favorite object to a parent, sibling, or another child if that other person seems distraught. Sharing is also taught. We share food with our children and they learn to share with us. We do not always want their soggy, half eaten offering, but it is important to demonstrate the reciprocity of sharing. Sharing can only happen between or among people; it is not a solitary action. As children grow, we encourage sharing. We tell them to share their toys with others, to take turns, to give a cookie to everyone at the table, to invite everyone in the class to their party.

We not only encourage our children to share, sometimes we demand it of them. If there is a toy they do not want to share, we take it away from them saying, “If you won’t share then no one can have it!” What we fail to realize is that we do not always model that behavior. There are many things we ourselves will not share with everyone. We do not share our cars with every friend; they must be a very particular “status” of friend. We do not share our favorite piece of jewelry with every friend; we must really trust them to return it. Most of us do not share our significant other allowing them to have an intimate, sexual relationship outside of what they have with us. So, a child who does not want to share a special toy feels the same way. If they will not share anything, well, that is a problem. But, it seems to me that to really help them understand sharing, we have to help them understand why they are willing to share some things and not others.

It is important for all of us to examine what makes some “things” – including our feelings, vulnerabilities, secrets – sharable while others are not. The answer is not easy because what we are willing to share varies for all of us. For example, some families purchase duplicate toys so that siblings won’t fight because the need to share has been eliminated. We have multiple televisions, computers, mobile devices of all kinds, so we don’t have to share what we are watching or what music we are listening to – we can all have what we want. I am often concerned that this need to make everyone happy at once will impact our thinking about the power of sharing: it increases our connection to our fellow human beings, allowing us to influence the life of someone else.

If we are given the option to detach ourselves at an early age, it can affect our ability to share as an adult. It is interesting that for many people, it is easier to share (or over-share) what we are doing on social media, rather than to share one’s feelings or to share what we perceive as our weaknesses with those closest to us. Sometimes we fear that what we share will put us at some kind of disadvantage. It will mean we have less – less food, less time, less information that gives us status. It seems that this is a powerful concern in our world today. If I share my wealth, I won’t have enough for me and mine. If I share my knowledge at work, someone younger who can be paid less than I am being paid will replace me. If I share my vulnerabilities, someone will use that against me.

Such thinking is present in our personal relationships and in the larger societal picture. The healthcare debate has become one where we segregate the ill into a separate pool so that the healthy can pay lower premiums. We will let the ill, who have less resources than the healthy, pay more than the healthy do. We will call that fair because we do not want to share the benefits that our health has given us nor do we want to share the burden of the cost of healthcare. I am guessing, however, that when poor health hits “home”, our perspective about sharing will change just a bit.

I say that because it is actually common that when we have the largest amount of something, we don’t really want to share equally. We want to keep the largest portion for ourselves. It seems to me that when we have the largest amount of anything, those very wise words “I cut, you choose” encourage us to consider the reason for our hesitancy to share, allow us to amend our decision based on the facts of the situation rather than on our fears, and, most importantly, guide us to a decision that allows us to embrace our humanity.

“I cut, you choose.” ~ Jerry Chiappise

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The Joy of Parenting

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are often billed as days for children to “pay back” parents for all they do for them all year. Parents forgo personal desires for them, devote themselves to them, and struggle for them. Some parents see Mother’s and Father’s Day as a reimbursement for all the sacrifices and struggles. While mothers and fathers certainly deserve love and attention, the term “payback” makes parenting sound like a chore rather than a joy. I like to think of it differently.

For me, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are opportunities to sit back for a moment and reflect on the wonders of family. Instead of rushing around, we have the opportunity to observe the love that surrounds us. On such days, we indulge in the luxury of watching our family. We watch our toddler share their blanket, or their cookie, or their toy; in other words, we watch them share their heart. We watch our teen struggle to say, “I love you” with a card. Whether that card is funny, near silent with so few words, or two pages of heart-felt words that are not said on any other day, we watch them learn to share their heart and expose their vulnerability to others. We watch our adult children navigate the world of including their significant other into their family while they also navigate how to become a part of someone else’s family.

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are opportunities to celebrate our successes – the times we parented with poise and grace, the times we said and did just the “right” thing, the times we were able to provide just the right amount of support. It is also a time to celebrate our less successful days – the times we yelled, the times we hurt their feelings, the times we said all the wrong things, the times we provided the wrong support (too much, too little, the wrong kind). These are, after all, the times they had to learn that they could stand on their own and figure out the world on their own, and survive the curveballs that life would throw at them. These are the times we taught them the power of forgiveness and the continuity of love. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are days to celebrate our strengths and weaknesses as people, as sons and daughters, moms and dads, as siblings, and as members of our family.

They are days to express our gratitude to those who have shared their love with us. I am grateful to my mom for showing me how to be strong on the outside when inside I may want to cry. That is something that has been so helpful to me professionally and personally. I am grateful to my dad for showing me that I deserve to be treated like a princess – like a person who is confident, respected, loved, listened to, admired, and fun to be around. I am grateful to my husband for helping to create a family bound together by love, respect, fun, and mutual support. I am grateful to my “mom friends” who shared growing up with me (our children’s growth and our own). I am grateful to my children for helping me see that parenting is not a chore; it is a joy.

I wish you all a day of reflection. Happy parenting!

  • ~”Parenting is a journey that takes us from total responsibility for another person to the development of a responsible person” Diane Urban, PhD ~

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the sign-up box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

 

Feeling Safe in an Unsafe World

 

There is anxiety about the safety of pesticides on food, lead in our water, road rage, terrorist attacks, school shootings. And the list goes on. Feeling safe in the world today is not easy. We are confronted with so many situations that make us anxious. The situations and the anxiety they provoke are on a continuum, but it seems that the uncertainty of our safety has resulted in an almost constant state of anxiety. Sometimes we are well aware of our anxiety; at other times, it is below the surface, but can be easily pulled to the top. So, how can we help ourselves and the young people in our lives cope with this world of uncertainty?

I need to stress that feeling safe is different from being safe. We cannot always control the reality of the world. Parents cannot eliminate pollutants, lead in water, road rage, and so on. They can, however, help children develop a sense of trust in the world. We do that from the moment we hold our newborns in our arms; we make them feel safe. When we hold them and feed them, we let them know that their needs will be met. When we respond to their cries, we let them know that their communication has meaning and they can trust that communicating will have a positive consequence. When we reassure them by going in their room when they are calling us, we let them know that we will do what we can to keep them safe. As they get older, we let them know that we trust that they can take care of themselves, meet their own needs, and make good decisions about their own health and safety. This process is ongoing; even as adults, we know we need to trust our safety to others sometimes (our physicians, our lawyers, our significant other, our own children).

This development of trust, therefore, is a critical factor in feeling safe in an unsafe world. It can be enhanced by various strategies:

  • Recognize the impact of the availability and representativeness heuristics. Heuristics are “rules of thumb” that we use to make our “everyday” decisions. They allow us to make decisions quickly and efficiently. For example, the availability heuristic is based on the “rule of thumb” that if something is easily recalled, it must be important. For example, when we search for a gift for our significant other, our search is not random. We start with the things we “know” they like; that is, we start with the things we easily recall about their preferences (he/she likes movies, theater, sports, gardening and so on). The representativeness heuristic is based on the “rule of thumb” that if something is easily available, it must represent the bigger picture. If we stick with the “problem” of getting a gift for our significant other, then a gift we selected in the past (which is easily recalled/available to us) becomes representative of their preference for future gifts. (If they liked the flowers last time, flowers come to symbolize or represent the category of “appropriate/good gift”). Thus, the easier it is for us to think of something (the more available it is to us) and the more we think that it is the “rule” (representative of the total situation), the greater impact it will have on our thinking. In essence, these heuristics combine to form the basis of a stereotype. Based on the example that comes to mind, we generalize to the larger group. So, if we watch the news and see stories about bullying, illness, murder, and terrorism, then we will think of these things often and come to believe it is the way the world is. If we hear stories of helpfulness, kindness, and compassion, then we will believe that the world is full of such attributes.
  • What we are exposed to via all forms of media, influences what is available and representative. We need to make a conscious effort to seek the balance – that is – to seek out the stories that remind us of the safer parts of our world. When we are talking to children and teens, we need to make it a point to mention the daily kindnesses we experience. Sometimes that is difficult for adults to recognize, but such things happen every day. Someone picks up something we have dropped, someone offers us candy while at a meeting, someone offers a seat on the bus or train, a baby offers their blanket to a parent, someone offers condolences, and so on. These “simple” acts are as much a part of human nature as any horror we hear about on a daily basis; in fact, they are the norm while the horrors we hear are the deviance from the norm.
  • While it is important to teach our children about stranger danger, it is also important to let them know why we, as adults, can talk to other adults we do not know. The same way they make friends with other children in school or at the library or in the park, we can make friends with other adults in the supermarket, or at the park. Let them know that when they are grown-ups, they will be able to make friends with other grown-ups. After all, this is the basis of all future intimate relationships. Relationships without trust are fragile at best.
  • Once we hear something that makes us feel unsafe, and the anxiety begins, then we must control the anxiety. The first thing we need to do is calm our body down. This is best accomplished by taking a few deep breaths and concentrating on breathing (rather than on the event that caused the anxiety). The second thing to do is “think good thoughts.” We need to have a “go to” list of happy, good thoughts that are easily available to us (this can be those pictures of kittens and puppies or the list of kindnesses discussed above). Third, we need to have a “what if” plan – a plan of what we will do if the thing we are worried about really happens: if that bully at school is trying to get you alone, you will ask the teacher if you can stay after class to talk or offer to buy a snack for a friend so you are walking with someone else; if there is a terrorist event that once again eliminates cell service and electricity, we will have a specific meeting place set up and we will get there as soon as possible, etc. Finally, as an adult, you will model feeling safe. You will breathe, say good things about the world, talk about how you will handle things if they do not go as we would hope. You will not be afraid.

The world we live in bombards us with realities that are frightening.   As adults, we feel it on a daily basis. We need to remember that the children and teens in our lives have an even more difficult time dealing with these realities. We need to let them talk about what they are feeling when the see the children in Syria living in the rubble, when they see the children of undocumented immigrants crying as their parents are arrested for minor infractions, when they see parents crying because their child was born ill because they were bitten by a mosquito when pregnant, or crying because their child was a victim of a school or random shooting. We need to help them process these thoughts cognitively and emotionally. We need to provide them comfort and reassurance while we also model how doing even a small act of kindness can make a difference in the world. We need to let them know that these events, while easily available to us, are not representative of the human race. Humans are born with the capacity for empathy and retain that capacity throughout their lifetime. We need to make it clear that the instances of empathy, kindness, and compassion are representative of who we, as humans, really are.

~“Looking down, you’ll see just shadows. Looking up, you will see the sun” – Jon Gilbert ~

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

The Immigration Dilemma – Part 2

As the conversation about immigrants continues in the news, I would like to add the humanist view to continue our conversation. A psychologist in the humanist tradition is concerned with the discrepancy between our ideal and real selves. As an ideal American, we embrace the downtrodden, we allow anyone and everyone to pursue the American dream, and we are a melting pot of cultures. Our real selves – the Americans we are – might have some reservations about these statements. We may have fears that if we allow these things to happen, there will be “less” for “us” – fewer jobs, fewer chances to achieve the dream, and an end to whatever American culture really is. We fear that sharing what we have will result in our own destitution.

A humanist would examine these issues via the “shoulds” we say. We should help; we should look out for ourselves; we should help only the children. For a humanist, the dilemma is resolved, in large part, by changing the word “should” to “need” or “want”. We should help becomes either we need to help or we want to help. We should look out for only ourselves might become we need to consider our own situation as well as that of others.  The idea is for all of you to play with the spoken and implied “should” statements you hear and say. This will help to reconcile the ideal and real selves that make up the American you are.

In that spirit, I am connecting with a guest writer for my blog. He is an adjunct professor earning his PhD in sociology and he is my son. I hope his words will inspire you to think critically and humanely. I hope it will facilitate your exploration of the question of our real and ideal selves and help you to decide the kind of American you want to be and the kind of country America needs to be.

Thoughts on the Immigration Ban: A Challenge to the American Conscience

By Nicholas Urban, PhD Student – New School for Social Research

I very rarely speak out in a public sense because I know that the words we say to each other in public are often “empty”, and that the “verbal jousting” of political rhetoric that occurs at dinner tables, restaurants, and social media, are just a “game” that we like to play with our friends and families. But we have to stop playing this game and put down the ideological masks we use to play it in this moment.

These walls that are being constructed are not rhetoric. They are real.

As a American, a sociologist, a catholic, and countless other identities I could list out, I have been taught that empathy and compassion are requirements of membership in the human race. Empathy and compassion are at the core. Furthermore, they are the very essence of the notion of “human rights” in a democracy. In the United States, the phrase in our constitution “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is not a suggestion. They are inalienable rights.

I have read and studied for the effects that fear (both justified and unjustified) and instilling hatred can have on populations. I have read how, as a result of this fear and hatred, neighbors can – willingly – murder their neighbors in the name of an ideology, ethnicity, or culture. I have met holocaust survivors and Rwandan Genocide survivors. I have listened to them talk about their experiences. I have cried countless times as I struggle to comprehend how we as human beings can justify standing by and doing nothing as men, women and children are slaughtered in the tens and hundreds of thousands. I have grown disheartened as I have seen a growing sense of fear of the “others” around the world translate into walls and bombs.

I implore you to watch videos of “barrel bombs” being dropped on Syrian cities – bombs that are unguided and indiscriminate, and thus kill indiscriminately. I implore you to think what the conditions must be like for a person to risk their lives and safety to cross the southern border of the United States in search of a better life. I implore you to imagine your life as one of these people. I implore you to think of what it must be like for a person your age and gender, of what it must be like for a family, or what it must be like for a small child. Just for a moment.

And then I want you to think of why someone would want to become an American.

To those that say “what of the risks to our safety and security”, I reply that there are risks associated with every action and non-action we take in our personal lives and as a society. There are no guarantees that an immigrant will not become radicalized or a criminal, just like there are no guarantees that those of us who are already American citizens will not become radicalized or a criminal. Stating otherwise just creates a false dichotomy and inspires fear and hatred of the 134,000,000 people from the seven countries affected by the immigration ban, the 11,000,000 undocumented immigrants residing in the United States, and the 122,000,000 Mexicans that share our southern border.

There are real problems that we have with border security, immigration, and terrorism. But there are compassionate solutions to illegal immigration and the refugee crisis in Syria. We can achieve our safety and our security and simultaneously maintain our American values of compassion and empathy. Simply creating walls where there should be none because of fear and hatred of the “others” goes against every value and ideal that we have and hold dear not only as Americans, but also as human beings. It is just not the right thing to do.

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the sign-up box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

The Answer

We all crave “the answer”.

What made a relationship with a friend end? What made a relationship with a significant other end? Why did (someone we know but don’t particularly like) end up with such a great partner? Why is school so hard? Why am I always the one who gets in trouble? Why don’t you ever yell at (insert sibling name here)? Why did I – or someone I care about – wind up with a chronic or terminal illness? Why am I alone? Why can’t people leave me alone? Why am I unhappy? Why don’t people believe in climate change?

So, what is the issue we need to consider? It is that there is no the; there is no one factor that could account for the event in question. The answer really rests in accepting that we must seek out answers.

Let’s start with a fun one.   Why am I always the one who gets in trouble? We have all either said that as a child or heard a child say it. From the child’s point of view, it is a fact that he is the only one who gets in trouble. The reason he will give for that fact is that the parent favors the other sibling. Of course, parents see it very differently. Parents will say, “Yes, I do reprimand ________ more often because he/she is older, knows or should know better, is the one who takes it to an extreme, is the instigator…” In other words, the parent is considering multiple reasons. Why? Again, one might be tempted to give one reason, but I can think of a multitude of reasons: the parent has a broader view of the situation, the parent is older/wiser/more experienced, the parent is trying to justify their unfair practice. Yes, that last one is a bit of a game changer. It opens up an entirely different path of possible reasons for why something is happening.

Let’s consider another. What made a relationship with a significant other end? Over the years, I have had countless clients grapple with this question. Again, the search begins with a quest for the thing that went wrong. I was too pushy. They were selfish. They cheated. I was young. Drugs/alcohol. I wasn’t ready. The timing was off. Finances. He didn’t give me flowers. She gained a lot of weight. The sex wasn’t the same. I lost interest. We had kids. Monogamy isn’t natural.

Each one, at first glance, seems like a reasonable explanation. Once we consider the reason as reasonable, our search for understanding comes to a close. However, when we decide to examine the answer in greater depth, we quickly see that, once again, many paths emerge. For example, “I was pushy” leads to another question: Why were you pushy? The answer to that one can be: my needs were not being met; I felt like I was not a priority; our energy levels were very different; we enjoyed different things; we had different goals; I thought he/she was unmotivated. Each of these answers lead to further questions such as: Why would you want to be with someone who did not meet your needs? Or did it make you happy to be with someone who had a different energy level? What does it mean that they were unmotivated? Each question represents different problems and different categories of issues that would have had to be addressed in order to keep the relationship alive or justify its end. The questions represent the futility of looking for the reason.

I will add a little psychological science here too: correlations are a common tool used in the social sciences. A correlation represents an association between two variables/events. For example, there is a relationship between number of hours one studies and success on an exam. However, that is all we can say. We cannot say that number of hours studying causes success on an exam. It is tempting, but it is not what a correlation allows us to do. After all, a person can spend hours studying the wrong material and therefore do poorly. Or someone can spend hours studying, then become so anxious that one’s memory is negatively impacted and therefore performs poorly. Or a person can have an eidetic memory, not have to study at all, and do very well. It is far more productive to search for the multiple factors associated with success on an exam because causation is more likely to rest in the grouping of factors.

Why am I going on about this? Well, in part, because it demonstrates our desire for simplicity over complexity and for causation rather than association. To bring it back to our earlier examples, a child associates getting in trouble with a parent favoring a sibling and then comes to see that as the cause because the child is unable to understand that is a combination of factors – none of which have to do with favoritism. A person hurt by the end of a relationship associates “I was pushy” with the breakup, attributing causation to that single factor of pushiness, rather than looking at the whole picture.

So, when we are tempted to find the answer, let’s remember that real life is not based on multiple choice and the identification of a single correct answer. Let’s remember that even sophisticated multiple choice tests give us options – you know those answer options we so dislike such as “all of the above”, “only B and D”, or “none of the above”. The fact is: life is more like that. Even more so, it is like an essay question where we choose the facts to consider and present and with those choices, we select a path for our response, a path for our future. So, embrace the question, generate even more questions, and have fun finding the answers that will bring you satisfaction, acceptance, and, hopefully, a joy-filled future.

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

The Day After

statue-of-liberty

The day after.

Although not a complete sentence, it does conjure up immediate associations in us. Some of those associations are filled with regret (the day after an argument, the day after a night of excess, the day after a night one can’t remember) and some are filled with joy (the day after meeting someone special, the day after a big win, the day after a night one will remember forever). It seems to me, the words “the day after” mark an association with a passion for something or someone.

For many of us, this election was marked with passion.

Now, on the day after, we need to wash off any regrets we may have and focus our passion on the future.

Democracy is not really about Election Day. It is about involvement. It is about the daily passion of working toward making our nation the best it can be today, tomorrow, and in the years to come. The only way to have leaders who lead with integrity, commitment, insight, and awareness of the needs of the people is to be actively engaged in the process.

So, in the “days after”, write to your legislators. Write to your President. Tell them how you feel, what you think is the right choice on issues. Tell them your story. They cannot, and do not, make decisions in a vacuum. They make decisions based upon the information they receive. If you do not participate in the dialogue, then you cannot complain about the outcome.

No one person, not even the President, determines policy in our country. We have an awesome system of checks and balances. So, today – the day after – channel your passion into a commitment to be involved in forging our future. Volunteer in your local political party, attend meetings held by your local legislators, write to your elected representatives. If all that seems like too much, then commit to watching more than one news channel or reading more than one newspaper so that you are committed to achieving a balanced view on the issues we face through an open mind. Regardless of the extent to which you do so, make involvement in our democracy an important part of your life.

We, the people…the day after – and every day – determine the present and the future. Embrace that responsibility with the degree of passion commensurate with the challenges that lay ahead.

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

You’ve Got to Be Taught to Hate and Fear

Over the last few days, I have heard random people list their hatreds. People hate (insert food). They hate (insert weather). They hate (insert animal).   They hate (insert political candidate/person). They hate (insert religion). They hate (insert ethic/cultural group). They hate (insert sexual orientation). They hate (insert occupation). “Hate” is an incredibly strong word and while it may seem okay to use it when describing momentary discomforts (like the weather) or preferences (such as one food versus another), the word has much more significance when used to describe characteristics that one cannot choose (such as place of birth) or the core values of others (like religion).

Every time I hear the word, I think of a song from the musical “South Pacific”. The musical is set during World War II, a tumultuous time that defined my parents’ youth and early adulthood. My father fought in the war. My mother watched her brothers, cousins, and friends go to war. So, the musical (and its lessons) stuck with me.  One song in particular declared, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear…You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are 6, or 7, or 8…. You’ve got to be carefully taught” (Rodgers & Hammerstein). I grew to understand that hate was a strong word, a word that caused “terrible things” and I carried this lesson into my professional understanding of hatred.

Psychologically speaking, hate and fear do go together. They are both emotions and as such, they are both physiologically based. They are set in motion by the hypothalamus and trigger our autonomic and endocrine systems to activate. In essence, they both involve the arousal of our “fight or flight” response. Our respiration changes, our perspiration changes, our muscle tension changes, our digestion is impacted. They also both have a cognitive or learned component that helps us cope with the “fight or flight” response. The physiological responses are similar: the cognitive element is based on how we define the situation we are in, and the definition is based, in large part, on what we are taught by our families, our friends, our society as a whole. Just as Rodgers & Hammerstein warned us in “South Pacific”, our culture and our own experiences can teach us to fear or to hate just about anything.

Yet, fear and hate do have their differences. Fear is defined as a response to a serious threat to our well-being. Hatred is defined more loosely – as we can see by the number of ways we are able to use the word in a sentence. Fear is a closed system, by that I mean it often turns us insular; the goal is to protect ourselves. Sometimes, this may include protecting those we care about, but in either case, it tends to reduce the size of the circle. We must protect ourselves and those we love from what is “out there” – an idea that blends well with the development of hatred. Hatred is the justification for reducing the circle: we must keep those things/people out because they will hurt us. As the circle tightens, the mechanism for keeping others out must be enhanced.

Before you know it, we consider building walls, believing they can keep us safe. Humans have been doing this for centuries. We have built forts, castles, and electric fences – all designed to keep “us” safe and “them” out. In this physical sense, walls are seen as a way to protect us and enhance our sense of well-being. Clearly, in some ways this is true. It is better to live in a home than on the street. However, psychologically speaking, walls have a very different connotation. Walls keep us from sharing who we are, they stunt our growth, and they keep us from going outside of our comfort zone. They are things we hide behind. They are things that block us from our emotions, from our ability to see inside (or let others see inside), or from moving to a new or better place. By building these walls, we limit our ability to achieve our full potential. In a psychological context, walls isolate us, make us feel that the only one we can trust is ourselves, lead us to feel more fear because we KNOW we cannot survive on our own.

I can go on and on about psychological walls, but I think Paul Simon gave a remarkably good summary of what it is like to live inside the walls we build: “I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty, that none may penetrate. I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain. I am a rock, I am an island…A rock feels no pain, and an island never cries” (Simon, Paul. EMI Music Publishing, Universal Music Publishing Group). Whenever I hear that song, I feel sad. Ironically, even though Paul Simon doesn’t want to care about anyone, the words evoke empathy and I share the pain of his situation. If we were all to build walls, we would block out that key human quality of empathy, something even infants are capable of experiencing. If you have ever been in the presence of a group of newborns, you would know that when one cries, they all begin to cry. It would seem to be a collaborative effort setting out an alert for the adults “out there” to come and do something to help. Toddlers will share their blanket with others who are in distress. The fact that these behaviors are present without training speaks volumes about their survival benefit; our instincts tell us we need each other.

Fear of other humans is not innate; it is, as I said before, taught. The fact that we must teach “stranger danger” speaks volumes. I am not suggesting that we eliminate teaching our children about the danger of some strangers, but I am cautioning about how far we have taken this. We need to consider how the fear of others has grown too expansive. We need to evaluate the criteria we are using to define strangers and question the validity of these criteria. We need to carefully consider how much fear we instill in children when we tell them that physicians, police officers, teachers, babysitters, relatives, all possess some element of danger. We must consider what this level of fear is doing to us. When our neighbors become defined as strangers, when we don’t look at the people we pass in the corridors at work, when we assume that most people are evil, we create a world where our fight or flight system is always on, where our bodies are physically taxed, and where our emotional life is drained. We add to our stress because when we do need to reach out (we are sick and need someone to get our medicine; we lost our wallet and need money for public transportation; we are lost and our phone is out of battery), our circle is so small that those within it may not be able to or available to provide the needed assistance.

It is crucial that we expand our thinking and come to recognize that there are billions of good people “out there”. We cannot be fooled into thinking that the “bad” we see on the news on a daily basis represents all of humanity. We know that is not true. My heartfelt belief is that we need to develop mutual dependence and recognize that we are not meant to survive on our own; we are meant to survive and thrive as a group.

 

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  -Edmund Burke

 

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

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The Walking Dead

I see them everywhere. I see them on buses and trains, with their heads bobbing uncontrollably. I see them holding onto steering wheels in cars while the traffic moves, sometimes at high rates of speed, other times in the slow, rhythmic stop-and-go traffic characteristic of cities. I see them in restaurants staring at their phones, mesmerized by the screen. I see them holding on to magazines and books with their eyes closed. I see them holding their babies. I see them in class trying to hold their heads up, fearing that if they move their hand from their chin they will fall onto the desk and fall asleep – not because they are bored, but because they are bone tired. When I ask my students, “If I shut the lights and told you it was naptime, how many of you think you could fall asleep?” almost all of them say they could. We are an exhausted society.

Sleep, while incredibly important for our physical well-being, is often put at the bottom of our priority list. First we have to complete our list of things we need to do (go to work/school, complete an assignment, get food/water, ensure that we have clean clothes to wear, and so on). Then we have to complete our list of what we want to do (talk to our friends, watch some Netflix, exercise, and so on). I know we also all have the unending list of things we should do – but if you read my first blog you know I prefer to change that list to needs/wants. In any event, sleep tends to go to the bottom of all these lists – it is something we do when we complete the things we need/want/should do – or something we do unexpectedly…we fall asleep while doing something on those lists.

Let’s go back a bit. I said sleep is incredibly important, but I gave no supporting evidence. We all get by, so what is the big deal, right? Well, sleep is restorative. It is where growth happens; as adults we tend to think “I’m grown, so who cares?” Our cells are restored during sleep; we would not need the soaps that claim to rid us of wrinkles or the shampoos that claim to give luster to our hair. Sleep would give us those things. Sleep refreshes us, helps us process and recover from the day’s events. It helps restore our energy for the next day. Lack of sleep, on the other hand, reduces our concentration, our attention, and our motor skills. It makes it more difficult for us to be patient, so our mood fluctuates and we seem angrier. If our concentration is reduced, our attention is less focused, and we seem less energetic, then we are also likely to be described as less motivated than our more well rested peers.

Most of us cope with our lack of sleep by increasing our caffeine consumption. (I will not entertain the use of more serious stimulants as an option here, although I am certainly aware of their use and impact. We will stick to a discussion of caffeine because it is legal and readily accessible, with no real constraints even with regard to age). It is in soda (even some that are not cola based), coffee, tea, chocolate, ice cream, some pain medications, energy drinks – including water that is marketed as energy packed. It is difficult to know how much caffeine we are ingesting a day; it is not a nutrient so it is not listed on the Nutrient Facts Panel; if it is added to a food as an ingredient, then it must be on the food products label (http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/Basics/ucm194317.htm). The point is, very few of us are keeping track of our daily consumption of caffeine, but it is likely impacting our sleep patterns.

Caffeine is not “bad”. It certainly, like all stimulants, gives us a burst of energy, increases our optimism, making us feel like we can get it ALL done, helps us feel like we can concentrate on the task at hand. Problem is, our energy is not always focused. We sit down with that cup of coffee and our book to read. Then we jump up because we forgot our highlighter. Then we get up to get our phone that we forgot near the coffee pot. Then we…anyway, our focus is not always there. Sometimes we are so unfocused that the “fall” from the burst happens before we accomplish our goal. The solution? More caffeine. No, not really: the solution is more sleep. After all, it is sleep that actually restores our energy and helps us concentrate and helps us maintain an optimistic mood.   I guess this is the right place to mention that caffeine, if we overdo it, does have some negative associations. It can make us anxious (our heartbeats will certainly increase), it can cause dehydration, stomach upset, and lack of appetite. If you really want to understand its side effects, try giving it up for a day. My students often try this as a challenge I offer them; they write about their withdrawal headaches, their irritability, their fatigue. They are miserable for the day. That has to tell us something about our over reliance on it.

So, back to the idea that we need more sleep. How can we really get more?

  1. We need to relax before bed. Clear our heads of what is bothering us. Children are great at that. We can be with them all day, asking about their day. They have nothing to say until they are in bed and then they “remember” about something they forgot to do, or got in trouble for doing. They call out to a parent, who comforts them. They fall asleep, sometimes the parent does not, taking the worry on as their own. Interestingly, many couples do this too. They wait until they are in bed and then say things like “Did I tell you I forgot to pay the credit card bill?” or “Did I mention that I’m going out of town this weekend?” Upsetting conversations do not belong at the end of the day or in the bedroom.
  2. Make the bedroom a relaxing place. Sending children to their room as a punishment only creates association of bed with “bad” and withdrawal of love. Those emotions are not compatible with sleep. Making the bedroom their playroom is also a problem, blurring the line between playtime and bedtime. For adults, too, bedroom associations of relaxation and intimacy are far more likely to produce a restful sleep than associations of arguments and rejection.
  3. Allow yourself time to daydream before bed. That can be much more relaxing than watching the news or even reading a book that keeps you wanting to find out what happens next. A good daydream allows us to escape from the realities we face, while affording the opportunity to put ourselves in the role of “winner”. We can accomplish anything in a daydream and, with enough rest, we could more easily turn those daydreams into realities.
  4. Concentrating on what you accomplished is more relaxing than concentrating on what you did not do during the day or what is left to do tomorrow. Thinking about what you did provides closure. I did make that phone call, I did send out resumes/do my homework (or some of it), I did text my friends. When we concentrate on what we did not do, it increases our anxiety, not only about the day we had and the decisions we made, but about what the next day will be like as well. Whatever we did do during the day, we did because it had value to us. If we accept that fact, then a positive closure follows, and so does a more restful sleep.
  5. If you have the same list of things you did not accomplish every night, make a note to figure out a better plan after you get that sleep. For example, if you did not do laundry 4 days in a row, maybe it is time to ask someone else for some help with it. Or maybe it is a chore you do not like and you can “trade chores” with a housemate. Or maybe you can save money somewhere else and pay to have the laundry done for you. Sleep helps us be more creative problem solvers.
  6. Turn down the lights – especially on your devices. The light mimics daytime and confuses your brain into thinking it should be awake. Less light, more sleep.
  7. Tackle the shoulds. Write them down so they do not continually play over and over again in your head. As we try to remember our list, we get more anxious and sleep evades us. So, write them down. Look the list over in the morning and make a real effort to convert them to needs and wants so the “should” can either be accomplished or discarded.
  8. Make a “happy book”. Put some fun pictures or nice quotes in there. Look at it before bed so you end the day thinking of good thoughts. Good thoughts can be elusive, and something concrete to look at can be very helpful.
  9. Did I mention reducing that caffeine during the day? If that is difficult, end the caffeine intake earlier in the day. Being able to drink a 20 ounce coffee before going to bed is a sign of caffeine tolerance; it means you need more for the same effect of energy. However, that tolerance is impacting the quality of your sleep.
  10. Blow some bubbles. Yes, you read that right. Blowing bubbles helps us take a deep breath. Then we need to release it. Then we can imagine our troubles floating away in the bubbles. It can be a great way to end the day.

I wish you restful nights and energetic tomorrows!

“A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow” ~Charlotte Brontë

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

Just Act Drunk

I grew up watching Westerns – and I think they taught me pretty much everything I needed to know about alcohol. It’s an antiseptic. It can clean a bullet wound and prepare the area for surgery. It is a pain reducer. Take one swig and removing that bullet will be painless. It showed the town drunk and established the idea that when taken in excess, it destroys one’s life. In other words, Westerns depicted the pros and cons of alcohol and gave a pretty balanced view of the situation.

But, let’s be serious. No one today is drinking alcohol to alleviate pain while a bullet is being removed from one’s body. Today, alcohol is consumed to have fun. It is used to relax. It is used to allow us to sing karaoke, or dance, or talk to someone. It is used to give us courage. It is used to give us the courage to be ourselves. Alcohol reduces inhibitions and allows us to face our fears. We fear others will laugh at us when we sing or dance or ask for a phone number. So, we use alcohol so that we express these true desires because, after all, if rejection occurs, we can blame the alcohol for our failure. We call it “liquid courage”. But I think it might be more of a liquid crutch – something we lean on when we fear falling apart in some social situation.

Why discuss all this? Well, March 17th is National Drink Until You Get Sick Day. It is a day that we celebrate not just drinking, but excessive drinking. It is strange to me because we know the dangers, yet, as a society we refuse to fully acknowledge it. I have more parents come to talk to me about their concerns about a child who daydreams (why are they daydreaming? Is it because they have no friends?) than to discuss their concerns over a child who is recovering from alcohol poisoning (because after all, “all kids drink”). In our society, alcohol used to the point of getting sick is a rite of passage to adulthood.

What we need to be aware of, however, is that alcohol does not change our life circumstances; it simply changes the way we perceive them. For example, if we are nervous at a party, alcohol (a depressant) slows our thinking and reflexes. It helps us manage the anxiety; it does not eliminate it. It will return at the next party. Alcohol quickly becomes the crutch used to handle the anxiety. The bigger issue that must be solved is why we are so nervous in the first place. These people our friends. Are they really going to judge us so harshly? If they do, then are they really our friends? If we cannot be comfortable with our friends, isn’t the real solution finding new friends? If we are “bored” and alcohol makes us feel that life is more exciting, then can’t the money spent on alcohol be used to make life truly more exciting by doing something new and different with that money?

The videos taken at parties prove that alcohol can’t improve ones voice or dancing. Alcohol certainly does not improve sex since the act of sex requires energy, not relaxation. What alcohol does do, though, is reduce one’s inhibitions regarding sex. Again, if one is hesitant to engage in this level of intimacy, then why do it? If a person is ashamed or worried about his or her partner judging one’s desires, then perhaps the couple needs to discuss that, rather than avoid the discussion by being able to blame the alcohol later. Sex is way more fun when the couple trusts each other, are full of energy and enthusiasm, and are capable of facing the consequences that can result from the act. Drunk sex provides none of the positives (for example, erections take longer to produce; are more difficult to maintain; are often interrupted by the need to urinate) and increases the risks of negative consequences (the condom is used incorrectly or not at all, increasing the risk of STDs or pregnancy).

Let’s go back to an earlier blog about the importance of the word should and relate that idea to the use of alcohol. Some shoulds related to alcohol: “I should be able to talk more. I should be able to dance better. I should be funnier”. All of these reveal a break between our ideal self (who we think we should be in order to please others) and our real selves (who we actually are). This break is further clarified when we change the word from should to want or need. “I should be able to talk more…I want to be able to talk more so I will fit in…so I need a drink”.  The use of the word need…oh, that’s where it gets risky. Alcoholics need drinks, after all. Therefore, our ideal self, if it is truly ideal, “should not” need one in order to be social. It is helpful to listen to the wants/needs related to our use of alcohol – those we say sober and those we say drunk. It will help us be responsible drinkers if we can replace some of these shoulds. For example, it could be changed to “I need/want to continue to be a good listener…every party needs one!” or “I need/want to take dance lessons” or “I am glad I can laugh with funny people…every comedian needs an audience”. These reformulations help us to be more accepting of who we really are and help us to stop needing a drink in order to relax.

Trust me, I am not seeking to go back to the days of Prohibition. I don’t want to ban the use of alcohol. I do, however, want to differentiate between having a drink and needing one to have fun. I do want to differentiate between having a drink as part of an activity and drinking as the activity. Binge drinking is a problem not only among high school students, but among all ages. I know people in their seventies who still need to drink when they go out. And the key word is need. They still believe that one cannot have fun without alcohol. They still cannot relax and be themselves. The problem with such drinking is that it results in alcohol tolerance. More alcohol is needed for the same behavioral effect. The problem is that the person no longer “seems/looks” drunk, but their alcohol level reflects it. They think there is no problem, no danger to themselves or others. This is simply not the case. The drawback of binge drinking is that other neural messages can be delayed and important ones—like telling the heart to beat faster so blood flow works properly or telling the lungs to breathe because oxygen is needed.

Excessive alcohol use is a tragedy waiting to happen. Why? Because the decisions made sober are very different from those made drunk. I am certain that all of us already know that it is dangerous to drive drunk. I am certain that most people appoint a designated driver. The real problem is that alcohol alters our thinking. What makes sense to us sober doesn’t make sense to us when we are drunk. Therefore, our sober plans get tossed to the side and our new plans, made in an altered state of alcohol, now make sense to us. I know too many stories of such poor decisions – and the lives lost because of them, and the lives crushed because of them. But those who have lived it can tell that story better than I. I encourage you to read the blog by Erin Maher as she tells what it is like to be the sibling that is left to deal with such a loss http://216.172.169.132/~getaterr/1465/

Most of us simply want to enjoy ourselves like we did when we were toddlers, before the worry began about what others thought of us. If that is what we all want, then the solution is to find the courage to accept ourselves. Alcohol is not the solution. If we can only talk or sing or tell people we love them or want to have sex them when under the influence of alcohol, then our sober life is not fulfilling.   The solution is to find the courage to do these things sober—when you can truly enjoy them. Sobriety isn’t for prudes and losers; it is for the courageous and self-assured.

So, don’t drink until you get sick (or your tolerance is so high that you forget to get sick and go into a coma instead).

Instead, really let yourself go. Have an adventure and sing, dance, tell someone you love them or are attracted to them. In other words, just act drunk while you are sober. It is really fun! Give it a try and let me know how it turns out.

If you enjoy reading my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that confirmation email, you will get updates on any new items I post. It is my hope that these blogs are a starting point for great discussions and shared ideas. I look forward to reading the comments you post.

 

The Meaning of Love

We’ve all learned about love in different ways—through movies, songs, books, by watching people interact on the subway, and by observing the relationships of those closest to us.

I remember as a teen hearing the line from the movie Love Story (a film based on the novel by Erich Segal) “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” and wondering if that were true. It sounded so beautiful then, but I eventually learned that apologizing is part of the process that keeps love alive; it helps to acknowledge that you are aware of the other person’s feelings. Then there are those love songs that taught me about love. The Association sang, “You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could mold into someone who could cherish me as much as I cherish you” and I learned that love was sometimes unrequited. The Four Seasons sang, “Dawn go away, I’m no good for you” and I realized that love can mean saying goodbye. When The Police sang, “Every breath you take, every move you make…I’ll be watching you” I learned that love can be controlling and frightening.   As I grew older, I started to appreciate songs that taught me about the love between a parent and a child: “Daddy’s Little Girl” (“you’re everything nice”), “Butterfly Kisses” (“Oh with all that I’ve done wrong I must have done something right to deserve her love”) and “Wind Beneath My Wings” (“I can fly higher than an eagle, for you are the wind beneath my wings”).

We learn about love in so many ways and I believe that Valentine’s Day, a day set aside to think about love of all kinds — love of self, love of friends, pets, country, food, nature, travel, movies, books – is just wonderful. Romantic love is just one kind of love, so no matter where you are or what you are doing, I hope you use the day to connect with someone or something you love.

In that spirit, I am connecting with a guest writer for my blog. She is a high school English teacher, she is earning her MA in Theater Education and she is my daughter. She is writing about what she learned about love from my parents. I learned it from them too. In the spirit of this being a psychological blog, it means we learn through social learning – we learn from watching others. We think about the rewards those we are observing receive by performing certain actions and we decide if we want to imitate those actions in the hope of gaining the same rewards. I know their love was special. I hope it will inspire you as well.

“How I Learned About Love” by Amanda Urban

“Just don’t cry, okay Millie?” were the last words that my grandfather said to my grandmother before he died. He was 88 years old. In his final moments, he walked from the bedroom to the hallway that was filled with pictures of his family. My grandmother helped him walk down the hall because he was having trouble using the new walker that the doctors gave him the week before when he started complaining about back pain (that probably hurt much more than his calm, World War II soldier demeanor ever let on). He lost his footing, in turn pushing the walker against the wall and squeezing my grandmother’s hand that was holding on to the walker along with his. Tears began to form in my grandmother’s eyes from the pain in her hand. “Don’t cry Millie,” my grandfather said. And he fell to the floor. My grandmother tried to shake him awake, “Jerry? I’m going to call 911, okay Jerry?” His eyes opened, he nodded, and he said, “Just don’t cry, okay Millie?” And then he was gone.

I, along with the rest of my family, like to believe that my grandfather wasn’t telling my grandmother not to cry about her hand; he was telling her not to cry after he was gone. He was telling her she would be okay without him. He was telling her that he loved her more than anything, and that he wanted her to be happy even though he wouldn’t be with her anymore.

I believe in true love. And I believe in it because of the love that my grandparents shared. It was clear from the words he chose to say in his last breath that my grandfather cared deeply for my grandmother, that her wellbeing and her happiness far outweighed his own.

My belief in true love does not just stem from his beautifully romantic final moments, but rather from the small, routine acts of love that they displayed for one another every day for 63 years. My belief in true love comes from my grandmother devotedly cooking them dinner every single day and from my grandfather dutifully making a salad every single night. It comes from when my grandmother would scream “JERRRRRRYYYYY!! What are you?! Stupid?!” and my grandfather would sit patiently and absorb her anger until it was done. It comes from the way that my grandmother always reflected on what a good man he was and how lucky she was to have him. It comes from watching my grandfather crack chestnuts open after Christmas dinner and pass them to my grandmother without ever being asked. It comes from their ability to tell stories together, and know exactly what the other was going to say. It comes from the quiet comfort they had as they sat next to each other watching Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. It comes from the palpable joy they shared at each stage of their life–going on dates, getting married, raising their daughters, and watching their grandchildren grow.

I once heard that true love is not Romeo and Juliet, it is the grandmothers and grandfathers who stay together for sixty or more years of marriage. I believe that Romeo and Juliet loved each other and that their love story that spanned all of three days was enchanting, but I believe more in my grandparents, who made it through 22, 925 days of marriage. I believe that love is patient, and love is kind, and love is sometimes yelling “JERRRRRRYYYYY!!”. I believe that my grandfather is watching over me. And I believe that one day, I will find a love as beautiful as the love my grandparents had for each other.

 If you enjoy my posts, please subscribe using the signup box at the bottom of the page. Once you sign up, you will receive a confirming email. When you respond to that email, you will get updates on any new items I post.