416. Joy Joy Joy!!!

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Happiness is one thing we all desire; it’s the great American compromise concept for property, which our founding fathers substituted as follows,  “the pursuit of happiness” for “the right to own property” at the last minute in our Declaration of Independence. It has a sexier and less materialistic ring to it. Happiness is, however, an illusion that cannot be sustained anymore than a snowflake on your fingertip can be preserved.  As soon as you get it, you begin to lose it.  So it is appropriate that we are granted the inalienable right to pursue happiness, not to attain it.

 Joy, on the other hand, is a sustainable state of the heart. It lasts in ways that include moments of happiness but supersedes happiness like jet planes supersede kids’ kites and birthday balloons. Allow me to explain further on this joyous day. If happiness is episodic bubbles which float to the surface of our lives that eventually pop open into wonderful moments, then joy is a constant photosynthetic relationship that steadily goes on and on. Happiness ends and must be pursued again and again. Joy is self sustaining.

Let me give you three examples of happiness and then three examples of joy in order to make the distinctions clear.

Image result for christmas applesHappy 1. My wife’s coworker gave her a battery operated galloping horse that lit up and played the tune you all know from cartoons, The William Tell Overture. The gift was not for my wife but our granddaughter, who was temporarily thrilled and mesmerized by the equine-amity of it all. However, like all sources of happiness, the thrill began to degenerate soon after is was unleashed. Today the horse is in the infirmary with an amputated back leg. Happily, it still plays the William Tell Overture, but, as B.B.King sang, the thrill is gone.

Happy 2. Two years ago we traded in my old white 2000 Honda CRV with 215,000 miles on it for a brand new 2015 ocean blue Honda CRV with 3 miles on its odometer. It was fascinating and fabulous to drive my cushy new car around, so quiet and sleek and modern and comfortable. Then I began to notice all the other new blue Honda CRV’s out and about. The cool factors slowly slipped into routine conveniences that depreciated over time. Now it has 26,ooo miles on it and my heart does not swell when I drive it. Truth be told, I need to have it detailed because I have not been a good car boyfriend. “The frill is gone,” as my youngest daughter Jess would have said twenty years ago.

Happy 3. The slick suit, the big screen television, the treadmill, the computer… all brought brief happiness over the past years. Now, however, they sit by idly unappreciated; used without any excitement. Not so long ago it felt glorious to chill with these things.  Now, like a broken down refrigerator, the chill is gone

Joy 1.  Last year at this same time, my daughter Grace, son in law Stu, and my only grandchild at that time burst through the front door weighed down with gifts and luggage. Darling Leah was given permission to make the Annunciation she was bursting to share, “Mommy has a baby in her tummy!” I was beyond happy. I think I fell to my knees and hugged my granddaughter as my heart soared at 30, 000 feet. Unspeakable joy began its fission in my mind/body/soul interconnections.  I felt lighter, gushing with optimism in the anticipated future. Somewhere in my memory vault this moment connected to Grace’s wedding years ago when I walked her down the aisle of Christ the King Cathedral in Atlanta as sister Jess sang an angelic version of “Ave Maria”. Gravity stopped for me that day, and it felt like I was ice skating through cream cheese. Wonderwurk. Weightless fluff. Beaming faced joy swept me up and up pas the elegantly carved ceiling.

Joy 2.  “I’m pregnant.” Four and a half years ago I heard those words over the phone and fell into my wife’s joyous arms. Our family was moving into another generation. My daughter’s marriage was fruitful. We were grandparents!! I had no idea what to expect, but the anticipation was intoxicating. Unlike a drug or alcohol it did not diminish over time.  Strangely I was the only healthy member of the East Coast family who could fly out to Arizona when little Leah came home from the hospital.  She slept on my chest for hours, so I dubbed her The Glowworm and hummed songs to her new ears.Image result for glow worm toy pictures

Joy 3. Last night Zach proposed to my youngest daughter and gave her the ring he had designed around my mother in law’s diamond. Once again my heart filled past bursting, even though I knew this moment was coming. Joy rolled in waves off of Zach and Jess, hitting each of us as we admired the beaming bride to be and her ring. No church bells rang out, but in my head a chorus of a thousand church bells pealed and chimed, resonating joy across the landscape. Once again the promise of many tomorrows breathed out deeply. Joyously I inhaled all the imagined moments that would come to fruition.

As I ponder all of these moments I am feeling the warm tug of joy pulling at my cheeks and my guts like a shot of propofol. I only had one dose of it for my colonoscopy a decade ago, but I woke up thinking I was James Brown inside Michael Jackson’s body. When the nurse asked me how I felt, I sang, “I feel good, butta butta butt butt, like I knew that I would now. I feeeel nice, like sugar and spice….” Then my wife put her hand over my mouth apologetically to cover up, “So good, soo good, I got you, bump bump bump bump!” But like all earthly based things, the propofol did not last. I went back to being a cleaned out old white guy without polyps.Image result for james brown and michael jackson together pictures

Ultimately, my good blog aficianados, joy is found in relationships that last.  And on this Christmas Eve I want to encourage you to look beyond happiness, beyond materialism, and into the Divine. Joy lives in mystery, the promise of a sustainable future, and, I believe, a ray of God’s love that infuses your heart.  Whatever you believe, I pray that you will have a blessed Christmas filled with moments of happiness and suffused with enduring joy.Image result for rays of light in space pictures

408. Delta/Change

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I’m in the change business, I say, because folks come to see me to change something– their anger, their grief, their loneliness, their self esteem, their fears, their obsessions, their addictions. They come like big waves every hour.  Truly, if you think of the cumulative effect of such a torrent of dysfunctional waves capped with needy foam splashing through your door five days a week, well, it’s overwhelming. It is. Let me pause  with a redundant comment and take a breath. Whew!! Many of my clients are so consumed in emotional deserts or feeling furnaces that they forget to breathe, so I feel compelled to take deep breaths for them. Inhale– one, two, three, four. Hold– two, three, four. Exhale–two, three, four. Nothing–two, three, four.  Ahhh!! A furious funnel of suction pulls like a rip current as one client is sucked away by life out yonder while another crashes onto my couch. How is it that I don’t also get sucked out into that ocean of pathology?

This is not a deep philosophical question. Rather, it’s about strategies or habits that allow a mental health provider not to become exhausted by the constant pounding of issue after issue, rolling above pain, fear, sadness, guilt, shame, abandonment, self loathing, and much more. No matter how much you sympathize with the client, you cannot jump in their quicksand or dive into their rip tide. You will no longer be of any help to him/her, nor will you be any help to yourself. Jackknifing into their frozen waters or their boiling cauldrons just creates a bigger mess for someone else to respond to later. First responders know this. Don’t become another victim in the rescue.

How does this process of counseling work? I don’t know; I just know that it works more often than it doesn’t. Researchers like to isolate factors that contribute to a good counseling outcome– relationship, empathy, firm boundaries, validation, guiding treatment plans, probing questions, etc. etc. I agree that there are many components, but the whole of counseling is not equal to the sum of its parts. No, something very special happens when two folks share in episodes of vulnerability, peeling back layers of social wallpaper to expose the cracked plaster underneath.  No one needs another layer of wallpaper, as fashionable as it may be. Get to the source, the cause of their sagging, crumbled soul, and the wall paper illusion will curl away. But how does the counselor not also come unglued?

I like to think I am grounded, deeply anchored below the beach sand, safely outside the quicksand, above the wallpaper. Not to sound arrogant or superior, no. Rather, I feel comfortable with others’ big emotions. Some folks have endless patience with jet engine noise or crying babies. That’s not me. However, I can sit with a person in deep pain and not feel an urgency to stop their flow or correct or educate them. Instead I act as the talking mirror and inform them of what I see or feel, trying to accurately reflect them to themselves. At other times I’m the cognitive crane operator lifting heavy loads out of their psyche that they have identified. I hoist up ugly beliefs and past episodes, and  then roll them out for inspection and processing. It’s the client’s call whether to lift or drop it or put it back in the dark waters of their psyche.Image result for building crane pictures

Nevertheless, the arrow of change goes both ways. You cannot be profoundly present with another human being for hours without changing in some way. You can’t be surrounded by the shifting sands of change without changing yourself. Water, wind and sand over time will smooth your rough edges, while invading fissures and crevices. By constantly dealing with disparate selves, your own self awareness mushrooms. If you played golf 8 hours a day, you’d get better, right? If you played chess for 7 hours a day, you’d see things the occasional player never experiences. The same learning and skill development takes place when you provide therapy 8 hours a day.

Image result for man in leather chair pictureThe therapist can give away skills and empathy and knowledge, but he cannot give himself away. The next hour’s client needs something entirely different, and so you must adjust accordingly.  This one needs hope, that one needs firm authority. The angry teenager needs to complain about his parents’ ineptitude. The perfectionist needs to learn that perfect does not exist. Grievers need comfort and faith in the future. The divorcing partner needs validation and objectivity and the name of a good hitman. And sure, they all need God.  Some go there; others don’t. I have to start with God or I’ll be swept away in meaningless pain.

I love this word origin for delta, a letter used as a symbol of change.Image result for images of letter delta

c.1200, Greek letter shaped like a triangle, equivalent to our “D,” the name from Phoenician daleth “tent door.” Herodotus used it of the mouth of the Nile, and it was so used in English from 1550s; applied to other river mouths from 1790.

An open tent door. How cool! Somehow in my associative mind, I think that going into the open tent is like going to counseling. It takes courage to enter this private space. There is an acknowledged boundary, i.e., the tent walls. The chief or leader or shaman operates in that space. Ideally one leaves something negative on the tent floor and takes something positive away in the exchange process, in and out of the delta, tent door. Image result for nomad tent door pictures

Insurance companies will never get this concept. Rarely do they ask the consumer if he/she benefitted from the counseling experience. That would be too obvious a question. Instead they have scales and expected time frames for disorders. If the client improves rapidly, that’s okay. Metroplaco United saves money. However, if anther client has complex issues or isn’t moving the measurement numbers, well, it must be time to discharge. I don’t worry too much what the bean counters want, though. I do my thing the way I believe it should be done. The human heart changes if and when its owner decides to change. You can take that truth to the bank, my blog dogs.


359. where are you from?

Simple question.  Where do you come from? Everyone has a different answer.  You come from your Momma’s belly, and she… may not be available or even known. Orphans don’t know where they came from, which can cause some primal insecurity. On the other hand, there are folks who are equally insecure because they know exactly where they came from and are ashamed of it. “That drunk woman on the floor of Aisle 9, that’s my mother. She’s pretending to have a seizure now to get the pharmacist to fill her fake OxyContin script.” Or maybe something less dramatic– “That’s my father. He never learned English and just wanders the town all day, lost and dizzy, hopelessly alone, searching for his village in India.” Where we come from is not necessarily where we are going to, though.

Image result for brooklyn movie still picturesMost folks came from a family unit, no matter how dysfunctional or reconstituted.  And that family unit came from somewhere, some place that is tattooed on the family’s consciousness somehow. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches of home are wrapped around our brain stems.  This past Saturday a bunch of us went to see the film Brooklyn,  about a young female Irish immigrant named Eilis . Lovely film, never in a rush to tell its story. Superb acting. Every character comes alive and imprints on your heart for better or worse. The original home place is Wexford County, Ireland. Simple and plain and the Dead End of a vibrant life. The destination place is Brooklyn, N.Y.

Our friends met  us in Gettysburg for the evening. They come from New York, Ohio, Charleston, and nearby Newville. “We’re all immigrants”, Sue said later at the Irish pub where we had dinner and a pint. True. Some of us are orphans as well. None of us is from Gettysburg. Now Gary almost went to college there  but was put off by fraternity life. What an odd advertisement for the Greek system… “We make you uncomfortable in our debauched  brotherhood neighborhood…until you conform to OMEGA DELTA OMEGA.” One decision alters everything, you see, because Gary eventually met his lovely bride Suzanne in Charleston. Heck, it’s a love story inside a pinball machine inside a cosmic drama. Then again, so is your life, my Lucky Blog Mates. We all have a home, a story, and a destination.

Place is more than geography, so it is. What we call home is a feeling more than a blue gps pinpoint that blinks on your I-phone map. The main character, Eilis, is sent by her loving older sister to America for a chance to make a life. Why? because her hometown has no prospects of any sort for her.  Big sister Rose sacrifices to make a way for Eilis, who soon replicates home in Brooklyn by living and worshiping with all Irish folks. Funny, quirky Irish women. Though she struggles with homesickness for weeks, she flourishes after falling for Tony, the Italian guy who adores her. And no wonder, she is angelic with her auburn hair, pale blue eyes, and unfreckled milky complexion.  Home is truly where the heart resides, and her heart is given to Tony, the Italian plumber. Until…

Eilis must go home due to a family tragedy, and this is where the weird juju starts to flow. Her historic home has unspoken power over her. Folks start telling her what to do, how to behave, and whom to love. It’s all so familiar and nearly unconscious. The locals possessively nudge her toward a destiny that they have created. Brooklyn, freedom, individuation are all put on pause as guilt-inducing prospects are opened up for her.  Eilis is almost swept away by it all, except that IT is petty, jealous, gossipy, predictable, nosey, and suffocating. She suddenly  remembers why she left the first time and who she is. Eilis sails for Brooklyn again, a much wiser woman. Free from the constraints of small town Irish life.

Image result for compass picturesWhere are you from? The answer changes for lots of us. My folks would answer, “Boston. Cambridge actually. Fenoe Street and Mass. Ave.” I would answer “Virginia Hills, Alexandria, Virginia. Dorset Drive and The Parkway.” But that was over forty years ago. I am still from there, yet I say, “South Central PA, not far from Gettysburg.” And this may change again before I cease to be from anywhere. I’m hoping to say, “I live in Tucson” in the near future. Like Eilis I left a place behind. Must be some wandering Irish gypsy gene. My children too live far away, or should I say too far away? Ironically my oldest lives in Brooklyn, though she is not from there yet.

So, full disclosure, I am 100% Irish, but I am not from Ireland because I have never been there. It is a destination I’d like to visit along with Italy, where my wife’s DNA arose. But for now we are from here, trying not to be self centered and blind to the bigger world around us. And yet, there are deep unconscious tugs on our souls to be somewhere else. This is not our home yet.

Interviewing a candidate for associate pastor of our church years ago, I was the only non-local on the conference call. The senior pastor directed the candidate’s question about the town’s ethos to me. “Tell him, Burrito. You moved here back in 1980, right?”

“Well, buddy, it’s like this. If your grandfather is not buried in a local church graveyard, then you are not from here yet. And you can’t bring your grandfather’s coffin with you and rebury him here. That won’t count.” After a chuckle, our pastor concurred. “That’s about right.”

Where are you from, mate? What’s your story?  Where are you headed?

346. Learned Helplessness

We all know someone who revels in victimhood, who burrows into their miseries like a tick on an old mangy dog, and won’t let go, sucking their toxic sustenance from the sick host. If you try to create some daylight between the host and the parasitic sucker, the career victim says, “Yes but my childhood, my schooling, my family, my lousy birthdate, my skin, my height, my hemorrhoids, etc.” It’s hard to spend time with these folks because after a while you realize that they are sucking whatever optimism you came with right out of you. They deflate the bouncy beach ball of joy into a flat inner tube of despair. The longer you are around them, the more your mind wanders toward making nooses out of inner tubes. Being compassionate, however, you decide to make two. You would not want to inflict this pesty pessimist on any other human being after you hang only yourself. Any optimism on your part is met by the Elite Red Guard of Defeatism and utterly destroyed. After all is said and done, Dark likes it dark.

Learned helplessness is behavior typical of an organism (human or animal) that has endured repeated painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it was unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn escape or avoidance in new situations where such behavior would be effective. In other words, the organism seems to have learned that it is helpless in aversive situations, that it has lost control, and so it gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness. (Wikipedia, support them, blog dogs! I do.) No successful outcomes can be imagined in the dark land of stinking thinking.

A buddy of mine from way back in the day was a functional depressive. He expected to be crapped on in life and just rolled with and in it, never pushing back. His wife dominated him totally. His kids played him like a fiddle. His dog peed on his refrigerator grille just because he knew no consequences were coming. I remember once talking with him about seeking treatment for his depression. He explained,

“Oh, I’ve thought about it, sure. But, see, as bad as my life is, I figure it would take several years of therapy and medication to get better, and by then I’ll be in my early sixties. I don’t expect to live past 70, so I’ll just about be dead by the time I figure out my miserable life. So why bother? I keep a calendar in the basement. Every night I write ‘Life sucks’ in that square, cuz every day life sucks. Month after month after month, life sucks. Then you die. The only question is this: how many more ‘Life Sucks’ boxes between here and ‘Then You Die’?”

I had to agree with him. The matrix he had constructed to insulate himself in misery was a concretized reinforced bunker of resistance. He had grown comfortable in his cell of despair, carpeted it and had cable installed. Why move now? Just have burned pizza delivered to Apartment B, 333 Hell Avenue, Tartarus, until you owned the deed.

I know of an experiment where fatigued swimming rats were rescued just as they were about to drown. When placed in the same cruel water tank again, these rats swam longer than control rats, suggesting “learned optimism”, the reverse of learned helplessness. Apparently, some lab rats want to live more than others.And if a rat catches a break, it will try harder next time.

Learned optimism was defined by Martin Seligman and published in his 1990 book, Learned Optimism. The benefits of an optimistic outlook are many: Optimists are higher achievers and have better overall health. Pessimism, on the other hand, is much more common; pessimists are more likely to give up in the face of adversity or to suffer from depression. Seligman invites pessimists to learn to be optimists by thinking about their reactions to adversity in a new way. The resulting optimism—one that grew from pessimism—is a learned optimism. The optimist’s outlook on failure can thus be summarized as “What happened was an unlucky situation (not personal), and really just a setback (not permanent) for this one, of many, goals (not pervasive)”. (Wikipedia, again.) That’s a long, marshmallow crème sort of prescription. Steve with a V  from Coffee Nation would summarize it succinctly into this:  “Growaset!” I would set up business somewhere between Steve and Martin Seligman.

Falling in love with your excuses is just as weird as dressing up rats and squirrels that will one day chew through your electric wires or your face.  “Aren’t they cute? tick, tick, tick. Look at them in their little Santa suits. Oh, they’re climbing up the Christmas tree. No! Don’t chew the lights!!! Zap. Doggonit!! I paid good money for those Santa suits.” See? I am a chronic loser. I can’t even control pet squirrels.

There is an oddly positive takeaway from chronic depressives, however, that is  similar to being released from a cramped sauna where you have been smashed up with eight sweating sumo wrestlers for an hour. When you hit that clean, cool, dry air outside the cabin, man it feels better! You feel free and light and dry and safe and less awkwardly naked. Yeah, you can’t really reason with over weighted emotions. Like the sumo wrestlers in the sauna, they will just crush you. So here’s a note to self: never sauna with eight sumo wrestlers at one time, or with one depressive.

Oh, the self anointed Realists will tell you that your optimism is silly, naïve, and irresponsible. Better to be prepared for the worst than surprised by it. But the sun never shines on their side of the street. It’s always dark in that mindset because that is the original premise. At best they swim with half inflated life preservers… you know, cuz reality is hard and you have to swim or sink on your own efforts. So why did God give us positive emotions if  we aren’t supposed to expect good things in life or celebrate when something like victory occurs? Again, my depressed buddy’s philosophy– “I think God will punish me if I have a good day. He’ll give me a bad one to keep the score even. So I just hope for mediocre.”

And not surprisingly he hits the target every time.



19. Jammingly

Waiting this morning in my car while cold rain fell. I listened to the radio and talked on the phone with my buddy Clark, who deserves a thousand posts. His grandson is getting better every year and what a gift it is to Granpa Clark. Things did not start as nicely as they are now. It was a question of discipline and the almost too late wrestling match of authority. Clark was ready, “Just give me a week with him and I will straighten him out.” That would have been a week with a grizzly bear, okay. Anyone will behave when a madman breaks out the firearms and begins ranting and raging. Not that Clark would have started with firearms, but they would have been an option at some juncture. In any event # 1 grandson grew and adapted in socially acceptable ways. Hallelujah! Another miracle in my agnostic friend’s life. He’s had many miracles rain down on him in the last third of his life; however, the horrors of the first two thirds of his life have nearly obliterated these sacred late life gifts. They are like drops of deeply hued pigment poured into ten gallons of white paint. They are making a difference but there is an ocean sized desert to redeem, reclaim, and colorize.

We talked for 20 minutes or so, mostly him talking and me listening, which is how it usually goes, but I’m not complaining. He is a whirlwind of thoughts and feelings and insights. I did not realize that I had left my running lights on; nor did I realize that my battery is as old as my car– 12 years. As the cold increased, I decided to run the engine and blow some heat into my little CRV cabin. “Wah,wah, whoa, uh,uh, uh.” Oh, no. It’s cold and rainy. I’m waiting for my college daughter to finish an interview at a school that’s 5 miles from my house and 8 miles from my trusty mechanic. I shut down my lights, the radio, and hoped that my battery would make one last start for me. I shared none of this with Clark, who lives 20 plus miles away. He would have offered to jump start me, but that would have taken two hours out of his day.

Image result for worried faces picturesI got out of my car after I said good bye. I popped the hood and found my battery. I’d never noticed it before. Hondas are just so reliable and I don’t do any mechanical work beyond checking my oil. I not only found the battery, but I could see corrosion all around the positive pole and cable. I shook the cable and blew off some of the cakelike corrosion. I had a moment of prayer, and what do you know? My car started. What a relief. I still called my mechanic to have my battery replaced. He confirmed that it was the original battery, “I just replaced a 13 year old battery. That’s the record for me.” Suddenly I felt like I was in the Honda battery hall of fame, albeit in second place. I’m used to three year batteries, I guess. Somehow my little inconvenience turned into a good thing. Gratitude came over me slowly. It’s a good thing, a very good thing to shift your perspective and be grateful that you have a car, enough money for a new battery, a trusted mechanic, a friend over the mountain, a hard working daughter who rarely complains, a job that you love doing. And a blog, of course, where I can spew all of this mundanity.

I was not jammed up after all. Everything worked through as it should. The little wisp of anxiety that started to rise up, evaporated in an instant. I find this to be the case much more often in my older days. How is it with you, Blogee? Are things working through in your life? If so, why? If not, what do you think is jamming you? Do you have a dead battery issue or a long term relational issue like my buddy Clark? I  put problems in two camps– solvable and unsolvable. Most problems are solvable. The relational issues are harder to get hold of, like a slippery eel. A lot lighter touch and flex are needed to hold a relational issue. People cannot be switched out like batteries, even if they are crazy brothers with no place to go.