Finding a Path Through the Chaos

November 17, 2015

I don’t often write about current events because it can get political which distracts from the universal quality of the re-booting experience, but today I am. One of the most salient characteristics of a re-booter is the effort we make to maintain perspective and continue to feel hopeful about life. Some days that’s easier to do than others. So much has happened in the last week that my thoughts are muddled—none of it to me, personally, but all of it impacting how I feel, making me wonder whether the world is spinning out of control. The struggle to maintain a common sense balance when part of us teeters on the brink of overwhelm is something we all understand. What is the point of fretting over developments about which we have no control, and yet, their import weighs on us, clouding our days.

 

What should do we do?

 

Ranging from personal to global matters, over the past week, I feel as though I’ve withstood a series of body blows. I’ve watched as my dad struggles with his sadness over friends who have died or are hospitalized for long durations. The cold wind of aging frightens him and I stand by as his capabilities to manage life become less robust. Then, there’s the quagmire of conflicting beliefs, allegations, and knee jerk responses that has hijacked higher education as illustrated by events unfolding at the University of Missouri and Yale. The debates swirling around about freedom of speech versus creating a “safe space” arise from the litany of grievance and identity politics is strangling so much of this nation, creating a distraction from the business of governance, learning, and the exercise of critical thinking. People in Syria and Afghanistan have reason to worry about finding a safe space, not kids on university campuses. I know, first hand, how these bouts of righteous indignation devolve into scream fests of hyperbole, hate, and overreaction. And then, of course, there’s the murder of all those poor people in Paris who were simply enjoying a Friday night, living their lives. My heart breaks at this tragedy.

 

The pace at which life can move leaves us gasping for air, hoping we misheard.

 

In an effort to regain proportion, I remind myself that it does nobody any good to sit around feeling despondent and helpless. Our kids take their cues from us, watching what we do, how we behave during troubled and confusing times. What are you modeling for them?

 

In my quest to retain perspective, I remind myself that we live in a world where news travels in a flash makes everything feel that much more immediate, but the truth remains that most people in Paris are alive and well. It’s also true that for as much as college students appear to be pampered, politically correct, whiny babies, not all of them are. Eventually, they will step into the world and, at some point, grow to realize that reality isn’t much interested in whether or not their very particular sensitivities are attended to and that they can rise above the onslaught of disappointment or insults which all of us experience at one time or another. Perhaps they may even get to a point as to see these struggles as a proving ground of sorts, preparing them to withstand the rigors of the real world. And thirdly, I remind myself that as sobering and lonely as it must be to watch friends and peers succumb to the mortal coil, it is the guaranteed end of all our journeys. Besides, my dad is not alone. I am by his side to help, to cheer, and to distract. Re-booters recognize the irony of the fact that each previous generation feared the world was going to hell in a hand basket, and yet, here we are—making discoveries, babies, and laughter where we can…

 

I think that’s the best we can do. That and pray.

 

 

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A Re-booter’s Reconsideration of Hardship

November 12, 2015
Every hardship has a positive buried within

Every hardship has a positive buried within

November always feels like such a “homey” month, doesn’t it? Between the brilliance of the changing leaves, the kids’ sporting events well underway, and clear, cold nights we marvel at how time speeds along, reminding us the end of the year is nigh. Looking up from the long list of tasks that need attending to as the holidays bear down, it’s useful to dedicate a few moments to consider our immediate difficulties and enumerate the good things that come from them. It may not make sense to recommend such an inventory, but even in hardship, we can find good. This is well worth remembering as we rapidly approach this emotionally fraught time of year.

Having a positive frame of reference (especially when life starts to feel burdensome) makes our loads lighter. You’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating because certain insights only come to us after we’ve spent time reconsidering how we perceive them. Say for instance, you’re unemployed, retired, or are on an extended hiatus due to illness. On many fronts this can feel terrible, but a break in routine enables you to regroup, possibly relax, reevaluate what you’re doing, and presents an opportunity for you to strike out in a new direction. Undergoing this process is that much harder to do when you’re exhausted or consumed with deadlines and inventory. Think of it as a gestation period.

Alas, I am keenly familiar with the excruciating discomfort that can arise when we feel caught in-between. It’s terrible to feel adrift, without a clear purpose. What’s my identity now? But what we tend to forget is that not all good ideas can be birthed when we’re frantic or drained. “I’m too responsible to make a change,” we mope, nearly catatonic as we stare at the tv with our half finished beer. Have you ever found yourself in such straits? Do you recall that feeling of resignation or helplessness? Did you do anything about it? How many people have you known who are simply spinning their wheels, impatient to break free but terrified of what’s required to do so? I was one of them

My point in today’s post is to consider some of the aspects of your life which are hard and reflect upon the positives that spring out of them. This doesn’t mean that the positive outweigh the negative, but is intended to cultivate a more reasoned, less emotional perspective so you can make better choices. It’s far less “fun” to be sensible than emotional about matters that strike close to home, but this is part of maturity—you know this! (A big problem in today’s society is the celebration of emotionalism we see all around us.)

Re-booting requires us to reconsider everything. What we previously consigned so readily into good or bad, now appears to have greater nuance. Maybe it’s not the end of the world that you got fired. Maybe getting older actually brings with it certain advantages, releasing us from certain expectations. Maybe dating in mid-life isn’t as fraught with heart rending rejection as it was when we were younger because we actually know more now. Maybe we’re far enough in life to recognize that having a relationship end is not the end of the world.

Ordinarily, any of these events could reasonably be categorized as distressing and sad, and I don’t mean to imply that they aren’t. But, what I’m saying is that they’re more than that. Just the other day, I was torturing myself that it was “too late for me.” I’ve missed the boat in so many ways as to render my life perplexingly pathetic and sad. I should just accept my sad little fate. But then, I reminded myself of all the things I get to do, all the burdens I don’t have, and just how much I’ve changed over the last five years. How miserable I’d be if I’d remained in my old life. And then I felt better…

While it’s a certainty that nobody is going to point to me as a shining example of someone who’s got life by the tail, I suppose that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m a lot farther ahead than I was and while it’s been a long, rough road for me, these years in the wilderness have enabled me to reconsider my priorities, rehabilitate certain relationships, and explore my writing on a serious basis. The fact that I can’t list those things on Linked In or anywhere else doesn’t lessen their importance, buoying me up when I feel down.

This is what I want for you.

This is why you need to take some quiet time today to reflect upon the positives of your very trying situation. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t work to change where you are, but I want you to give credit to the positives that do exist. We always have more than we lack. Always.

Now that You Know More, Would You Do It Anyway?

November 10, 2015

As indefatigable optimists, re-booters strive to improve our attitudes, techniques, and approaches, using past mistakes as a basis upon which to learn. And, as any re-booter knows, we get things wrong all the time. People zig when we knew they’d zag. We take wild risks, underestimate the significance of the random rumblings of others, and look for confirmation of our expectations rather than watch for signs of deviation. Everybody does this. When we screw up, get it wrong, or are left dumbstruck by the actions of another, in hindsight, it’s usually straightforward to weave the narrative together. “Oh,” we mutter, “now, I see. Huh. I guess I should’ve realized … If only I’d known, I would’ve done it differently.” Maybe yes, maybe no.

Any of this sound familiar?

The thing about hindsight is that having more or better information doesn’t mean that we would’ve made a different choice. Knowing in advance that your boss is an irredeemable asshole doesn’t mean you’d be any less shocked when they turn their guns on you. There are some things we just can’t bring ourselves to admit because what happens afterwards is so awful to contemplate. I guess what I’m trying to posit is that information has its limits in terms of influencing our decisions. Repeatedly, I am astonished by the murky, counter-intuitive depths of the human psyche. How much of our obtuseness is naiveté and how much is willful blindness?

The topic of intelligence failures and whether or not more knowledge would’ve made any difference is the subject of today’s post. All too often, we say to ourselves, “If only I had known…” Yeah right. That’s what we tell ourselves, but even we can’t be fooled all the time. Sometimes knowing more information not only would not have changed the outcome, it would’ve made everything harder. That’s an odd thing to say, isn’t it? Having more knowledge doesn’t always enhance our position or alter our choices. Sometimes, we’d do it anyway, even knowing as much as we do today. Huh. We are a reckless random bunch, we hominids.

These days, I am wading my way through a dense (and recently declassified) report on intelligence failures using the fall of the Shah of Iran and the allegations of WMDs as case studies. It’s a fascinating read in which the author deconstructs the flow of intelligence and why certain developments were ignored or glossed over. To me, such breakdowns in understanding have as much relevance to our personal lives as they do for the US Government.

People are almost always too slow to take account of new information…sudden and dramatic events have more impact on people’s beliefs than do those that unfold more slowly…. people can assimilate each small bit of information to their beliefs without being forced to reconsider the validity of their basic premises. They become accustomed to a certain amount of information which conflicts with their beliefs without appreciating the degree to which it really clashes with what they think.”

In his text, the author stresses the critical importance of considering alternative explanations, arguing that doing so leads to overall better analysis even if the conclusion remains the same. In other words, spending the time and energy to speculate what else might explain why something happened probably won’t change your overall conclusion, but what it will do is make that conclusion that much more solid because you’ve actually thought it through. For instance, there are going to be several ways to explain why your spouse is gone every Saturday. Taking the time and trouble to run through these possibilities gives you a more reasoned and thoughtful basis for your assessment.

Does any of what I am saying make sense?

Years ago, had I subjected my own situation to this sort of scrutiny, I would’ve been uncomfortably aware that the odds of X happening were far higher than I told myself—which is precisely why I didn’t do so. I was afraid. I was naïve. I didn’t want to deal with the implications of drawing such a conclusion. And, I might have been wrong. Instead, I opted for the Slow Boil School of Frog Cooking.

Of course, it’s always easier to see patterns and problems when we have some distance from the situation—which was precisely what the analysts didn’t have when it came to reporting about the health of the Shah’s regime. There were too few analysts with too much to do and they had neither the time nor the institutional incentive to sit back and provide some analysis of what was happening–which is why so few alarm bells were sounded in the summer of 1978. Afterwards, it was too late.

So, too, with you. You’re swamped with car pools and deadlines and payrolls to meet. You know you’ve been stressed, so it’s likely that whatever little hiccup occurred last night has to do with momentary thoughtlessness on your (or their) part. Put it behind you, it’s not important…Re-read that quote I cited above.

Does this apply to you?

I haven’t finished my Intelligence Failures book yet, but it’s certainly got me thinking. Would I have stayed where I was for as long as I did if I’d known what was coming? I still don’t know. I still can’t answer. It’s sobering to subject ourselves to such scrutiny and realize we wouldn’t have made any different decisions—especially when the end result was so agonizing. Fatalism is not what I’m driving at in this post. And many times, we’re set on a path and there’s no way around it. But, what can we do with our greater base of knowledge today to avoid similar situations in the future? How can minimize our own intelligence failures from here on out?

When Your Experience Gets in the Way

November 5, 2015

Seeking a distraction from my relentless ruminations about the Rest of My Life, I turned on the boob tube to find Titanic playing. Although I was far too old to get swept away in the adolescent wave of enthusiasm for the 1997 film, it’s sufficiently well acted that I decided to watch it rather than flick through a hundred other channels with nothing on. Depending on my mindset, different things about movies catch my attention–this time, it was an observation about the ship’s captain. “26 years of experience working against him. He figures anything big enough to sink the ship they’re gonna see in time to turn. The ship’s too big with too small a rudder. It doesn’t corner worth a damn. Everything he knows is wrong.”

As we all know, Captain Smith’s realization came too late, resulting in deadly consequences. As soon as I heard that piece of dialogue, I knew I had the makings of a blog post exploring the nature of risk and desire versus caution and humility. Experience, confidence, ambition, and arrogance are so often intertwined and can lead to both wonderful and disastrous results. All we can do is our best, but humanity is rife with stories on both sides of this weighty equation which is what makes considering it so interesting…

The older we get, the more unlikely it is that we’ll challenge what our experience tells us. Life is far too complicated and moves at far too fast a pace for it to be practical to dedicate time to double checking our knowledge base or asking ourselves what might be different in this particular case, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Feeling under the gun and embracing a certain amount of confident laziness, we reasonably rely on what’s worked before, often overriding any warnings that flash in our gut. If we held back in every instance, we’d never get anywhere, right? Right. It’ll probably all work out just fine…

And usually it does.

The reason I am drawn to this as a re-booting topic is because we need to recognize that sometimes shifts occur for no explainable reason. (This isn’t a direct analogy to poor Captain Smith but stick with me.) Let me give some examples. Let’s say your relationship is going along, status quo, as it always has, but one day the sand shifts–the easy going energy between the two of you disappears, replaced by an odd tension you don’t initially recognize. Something is off, but maybe it’s just you. So you ignore it. The problem is that relying on your “tried and true” problem solving skillsets won’t help you here but that possibility doesn’t occur to you, so you try them again. And again. Like Captain Smith relying on the watch to see the ice bergs and believing his rudder will do its job.

Where have you plowed ahead, crashing spectacularly, unable to use any of your previously successful rescue moves?

In my life, I always relied on the fact that honesty, capability, and hard work would be rewarded. It was a solid belief and worked all the way up until the moment it didn’t. And when that moment came, I was utterly unprepared. I couldn’t believe it. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that this formula wouldn’t pay dividends, so when I crashed into reality, I had the wind knocked out of my lungs good and proper. I couldn’t breathe. I had no back up strategies on which to rely.

Fortunately, unlike the ill-fated Captain Smith, most of us can find a way to stay afloat, however much we feel like drowning. But it takes time to understand what’s happened. It takes time to realize we were spectacularly wrong—even if all the times before we’d been proven right.

How do you prepare for moments such as this?

You don’t. At least not the first time. It’s a cold comfort for me to tell you that you can’t prepare to have your life turned upside down, I know. It’s deeply discomfiting to realize that those possibilities exist, but they do. And they’ll happen to each of us. I guess the best I can come up with is to try to be less arrogant and a bit more philosophical, trusting that we can improvise through the worst of whatever happens.

So, how does what I’m saying fit in with the arrogance vs. confidence equation? After all, nobody wants a philosophical airline pilot or surgeon! I guess what I’d say is that the occasions in which our lives or most fundamental understandings of what our lives will/should be like get turned inside out are rare. Most of the time, we’re ok to rely on our experience. Most of the time, some version of what’s worked before will work this time, too. But experience can weigh us down and limit our choices. We need to retain greater flexibility, be more fleet of foot, practice greater humility while not making us indecisive. Does any of what I’m saying make sense?

Could the tragedy of the Titanic have been avoided? Yes. Was Captain Smith contemptibly reckless for trying to break the Atlantic crossing record? No. Like distracted driving or leaving the kids in the pool for just a second while we dash inside to grab the phone, permanent consequences arise under otherwise normal conditions, changing our lives forever. I guess you can’t prepare, but it’s good to remain humble. There’s just so much we cannot know.

In this instance, everything he knew was wrong.

In this instance, everything he knew was wrong.

Rewriting History: The Dangers of Overcorrection

November 3, 2015

As we grow, our understanding of what happened to us changes. We gain more information. We develop a more sophisticated and nuanced perspective. We acquire greater sympathy for the other dramatis personae crossing the stage of our flawed lives. An evolution in character and maturity is typical for any adult with a modicum of curiosity and honest insight.

But what happens when we interact with individuals whose highest purpose is to present themselves in the most flattering light possible, no matter how far this takes them from the truth? How do we handle such blatant distortions?

As seen in too many Congressional hearings to count, politicians and bureaucrats are guided by the precept that truth is a flexible concept, a rough approximation of what happened. More often than not, history is written by the victor, so certain inconvenient facts may be glossed over or eliminated. Unsurprisingly, we’ve all done this at one point or another. What becomes tricky for a re-booter is when our pursuit of an objective and fair an understanding collides with the wildly inaccurate but emphatic version someone else espouses. The closer they are to us, the trickier the situation becomes.

What do we do?

Do we speak up and correct them? Do we silently label them crazy or hard core liars? Do we bitterly complain to their shrink? Or, do we counsel ourselves that it doesn’t matter?

How have you handled such scenarios?

I have close, personal, and painful experience with self-serving tellers of revisionist history, which have left me feeling both flabbergasted and angry. But now that I’m neck deep in this re-booting business I force myself to question whether I might be casting the same series of events in an unfair or inaccurate manner. Whether there might be more room for deviation from the narrative than I have previously admitted. Such uncomfortable scrutiny is difficult, but doing so has brought with it certain advantages…

Because I recognize that I’m vulnerable to interpreting events in my own favor, asking myself these questions has resulted in slowing down my swift and clear condemnations of the other person. Instead of focusing my energies on what was said, I now look behind it to explore why this person said it, why they believe this is so. What is it about their version that helps reduce their anxiety? Their warped perspective serves a very particular purpose (usually related to minimizing all traces of their own responsibility).

For example, when my parents split up, my dad was furious, livid, claimed to be shocked and betrayed, and outright accused us kids of being Benedict Arnolds by supporting our mother in any capacity. He (along with my grandparents and extended family) held firm to this narrative for a good thirty years. They talked of family love and loyalty in the exacting and unforgiving terms of war—I’m not kidding. Words cannot express how awful it was and what a searing impact it has had on my life. One of the main reasons I returned to Washington has been to heal this rift.

These days, my father presents himself as nothing but sweetness and light. Conveniently for him, there is zero recollection of the single minded hatred and rage he perpetuated. No concept of the impacts his behavior had or the gasp inducing unkindnesses of what he used to say. None at all. Tabla rasa. While I am old enough and have had enough therapy to know that I am responsible for my choices and reactions to his behavior, there is a part of me that fumes at his revised self-portrait, blithely unaware of the long term consequences of his actions. To him, I’m just his perplexing but charming daughter who never managed to get married—never once even questioning whether or not his behavior might have something to do with the course I charted.

Of course, it’s wonderful that he now strives to be gentler, more patient, and supportive. All that’s very good and vastly preferable to the alternative. But it’s been done with zero recognition of how he was prior to this… At the end of the day, there’s nothing I can do about it; I’m certainly not going to stir up old resentments by disputing his version of what happened around the divorce—what constructive purpose would that serve? Just so I can witness him experiencing a few moments of devastating guilt before conveniently forgetting it all over again? No. I won’t go there. Not with him and not with others.

Instead, what I can do is 1) remind myself to watch for instances where I start weaving my own fantastical tales, 2) keep in mind that whatever I am hearing from someone else may not be a full picture, and 3) try my best not to get upset. When you think about it, these are pretty good takeaways.

So, where does this leave us in terms of our re-booting journey and today’s post?

Revising history happens to all of us—we are both its victims and its perpetrators. The best a re-booter can do is to strive to be aware of this danger, to have a mature sympathy for its practitioners, and to retain a humility about what it is we think we know. Even when the facts are accurately told, there’s always more to the story

Just how did that cloud get there? Is it a cloud at all?

Just how did that cloud get there? Is it a cloud at all?

What is it you truly want in your life?

October 29, 2015

A few days ago, I was minding my own beeswax at the gym when a man looked at me and after a few mild comments about stretching and flexibility asked, “What do you want?” It is probably one of the most extraordinary questions I’ve ever been asked by a stranger and launched a conversation that lasted nearly forty minutes. There we sat, side by side, exploring the conundrum of what it means to “want” something and how our wants change and the things we do to impede achieving our stated goals. This was followed by an exploration of when people say they want something but really don’t, or those who say they don’t want something but really do. Note to self: dirty hair and spandex do not appear to deter fantastic philosophical discussions.

What DO I want? How does one answer such a question? Did this fellow being a stranger give me greater license to be honest or less because I’ll probably run into him again? Do I tell him about my needs, my aspirations, or my most personal private wishes? Do I give him the equivalent of a shrug, mumbling something about: love, acceptance, contentment, purpose, and meaning? Have you had an honest conversation with yourself about what it is you truly want? This is the heart of the re-booting.

 

What do you want? Do you understand why you want it? When you do a gut-check, does wanting this make you afraid, excited, or both?

Long ago as a student, I was taught that when writing a research paper I needed to ask who, what, when, where, why, and what of it? Although mining the depths of our innermost psyches is far less straightforward, the five Ws present a framework that may be useful when figuring out what the hell it is we truly want and why, of all the various things we could choose, we want “this.”

Because it’s easy to wind up talking in circles when it comes to such a confusing and complicated topic, I’ll provide an example of the deductive reasoning involved:

  1. Why do/did you want to get married?
  2. Why do you want to marry X?
  3. What does being married to X represent to you? Is it an indicator of social status? Is it a vehicle for having children? Is it a financial decision? Is it a guarantee against loneliness? Or is your reason something else entirely?
  4. Why do you stay married?

Or the obverse of this line of inquiry:

  1. Why do you want to stay single? What makes it sufficiently preferable that you’re willing to forgo all the pleasurable aspects of steady companionship?

Any answer is fine. The point of this exercise is to gain clarity about why you’ve chosen these particular priorities. Take this line of inquiry and apply it to whatever is important to you–whether that’s your profession or your living situation or your outside activities. Why did you make these choices? Do these choices reflect what you truly wanted at the time or what you believed was important to achieve? Why was it so important to achieve this? And do these same goals continue to reflect what you want today? What we want changes as we evolve, mature, and grow—what you coveted in seventh grade is not the same as what you hanker for today (at least I hope not). (Truth be told, I look askance at anybody who claims they’ve retained the same priorities for decades. Life has changed all around them—haven’t they?)

Here’s an example from my life: I went to law school because I knew it was 1) a respected degree, 2) my favorite uncle was a lawyer, 3) I could always work for myself if need be, and 4) I was terrified of trying to find a job right out of college. I didn’t go to law school because I had some passionate interest in the law or thrilled at the idea of a future spent arguing about some arcane legal principle. What happened? In less than three years after graduating, I walked away from the practice of law, and in the subsequent twenty odd years have drifted further and further away from any semblance of a white collar, office-based career. While this choice feels deeply right, it has been a confusing struggle to get here. I continue to wrestle with my feelings about abandoning a prestigious-seeming career. However, I’ve set aside these more outer-oriented concerns in order to have the time and opportunity to do things more important to me: like repair my relationship with my dad and pursue my writing. Nobody else is going to care about what I do, but I care. And that’s enough.

Having laid out this example from my life, I want you to go back and ask yourself why you made the choices you did? Is studying to become a concert pianist a goal you pursued because you loved the piano so much or because someone thought it up for you? Are you a workaholic because you love your work so much or is it a way to avoid other obligations? What in your life is more about prestige or security versus arising out of a genuine and heartfelt interest? (Btw, it can be both, but it’s useful to get clear on your various personal agendas.)

That conversation with a stranger at the gym was invigorating. I love the fact that there are other people floating around asking themselves these sorts of questions and that they’re so interested that, every now and then, they’ll risk asking somebody else such a deeply personal and universal question. Which is what I’m doing here right now with you:

What do you want?

Ten Tips for Dealing With Difficult Relatives

October 27, 2015

With the holidays approaching, I thought I’d use this post to examine another aspect of love: familial, with all its wonders and complications. For anyone fortunate enough to have lived with family, we know that doing so enables us to feel a sense of identity and home that no other type of relationship can quite replicate. This is where we learn our first emotional vocabulary. It is within the bosom of family that we discover things such as our favorite foods, the joys of playing, or the nurturing reassurance of a warm hug. But it is also where we first get laughed at or misunderstood or punished. We learn that, too.

No other relationship strikes the same chord of emotional rawness simply because we don’t let anyone else see so much. Those moments when we’ve let ourselves go–furious or devastated about something we care about–are rarely witnessed by anyone outside the family. They know our weak spots. They know our history. If you have anything in common with me, you will know what it’s like to feel outright loathing or consuming rage at a relative. The kind of hurt and rejection they can inflict is light years beyond what anybody else can do. The problem with family is that we can’t truly divorce ourselves from them. Whether in person or as a memory, like a bad penny they keep turning up, reminding us of parts of ourselves or our lives we’d rather forget.

How can we love and loathe somebody at the same time? What’s a re-booter to do when forced to interact with those from whom there is no escape?

Not too long ago, I read an article about forgiveness where the person leading the meeting asked who in the room was not speaking to at least one close relative within their circle. Nearly every single audience member raised their hand. When asked what the feud was about, most of them couldn’t remember; what lingered, however, was the ill will, intransigence, and distrust the experience engendered. Can love for a relative exist under such searing conditions? What does this sort of love look like? What does it obligate us to do (that’s different than what we’re obligated to do for anyone else)? What do you think?

It’s hard to know what to do when you find yourself confronting such a searing breach. Forgive and forget is one adage. Trust and verify another. When grappling with ongoing, low level but chronic unkindness, someone close to me says, “It doesn’t matter,” which always drives me crazy because it does matter! It matters very much and pretending it doesn’t is, to me, the equivalent of rolling onto your back and saying, “Stab me. It’s ok, I won’t bleed much.” Nuh huh, not me. I’m way more martial than that. The way I see it, there’s a clear line between putting things behind us versus allowing bad behavior to go unchallenged. Not all may agree with me on this, but I have extensive personal knowledge which informs my opinion. (Of course, learning how to make this challenge without blowing everything up has been a critically important lesson I’ve had to learn…)

So, how does a determined and dedicated re-booter tiptoe their way through the minefield of family grudges and insecurities to extract the very best of those same relatives?

One: approach the relationship anew. Try thinking of these people as strangers. You’re likely to think and speak with greater care, making far fewer assumptions about what they’ll say or do next.

Two: control your facial expressions. Neutrality in appearance is key!

Three: don’t leap to assumptions. Rather than leaping to the hostile shorthand of intimates, start off by giving them the benefit of the doubt before deciding you’ve been dissed.

Four: Initiate an obvious and sincere gesture of goodwill. Be courteous. Be flexible. Be cooperative. Try to find something you can both laugh about.

Five: Don’t expect to be thanked or that your gesture will be reciprocated. Do it for yourself, for your tranquility, and for the satisfaction of knowing you’re trying.

Six: Try to see beyond their insulting behavior. So often, what they’re doing has way more to do with them than it has to do with you (or whatever bullshit attitude you’re dishing out–yes you do it, too). They probably treat everyone this way.

Seven: Don’t rely on old data. Making the assumption that you know them as well as you once did may not be correct. Give yourself a chance to observe them now before jumping to conclusions.

Eight: The less said the better. You’re older, wiser, and far more independent now, so is it really so important that you stake your ground? You’re leaving in a few hours, so why not just hold your tongue. (Bonus points for this one.)

Nine: Take pity on them. You don’t know everything they’re dealing with. If they refuse to budge, if they remain as horrible as before, there will be nothing you can do except feel sorry for them.

Ten: Learn to embrace the new, downscaled normal between you. It may not be the warm fuzzy relationship you had before, but if it’s civil with at least a modicum of cooperation, you’re doing well. Find a way to be content with that.

This isn’t easy and it isn’t fun, but it is worthwhile, if you can manage it. You’ve got a few weeks before the holidays hit. On your mark, get set, go!

Managing Our Reactions to the Excesses of Others

October 22, 2015

Excess is one of the pleasures and pains of the human experience—it’s why in the midst of the severely moralistic Victorian era, men would visit prostitutes 2-3 times per week. In a manner reminiscent of the fishes and the loaves, my father feels compelled to purchase endless amounts of fish and rice. We now have so much that we’ve run out of freezer space (farm raised in China, so no way am I eating that). I can assert with utter confidence that, if needed, I have on hand sufficient quantities of rice to feed five hundred people this very instant. No problem. Right now. Bring it.

This domestic debacle reminds me, as well, of Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice which alluded to the idea of tapping into a power without the ability to fully control it—it’s how I feel about the unknown quantities of fish and rice that continue to flow through my kitchen. Unstoppable and terrifying. Repeatedly, I have tried impressing upon my dad to halt this assault, but he ignores my pleas. The truth is he forgets—it’s a reflection of the dementia, but it’s also how he’s always been. I am confounded by his ability to recall with precise detail the names and dates of players involved in Tennessee politics leading up to the Civil War, but unable to remember that we already have six industrial sized packages of tilapia waiting to be consumed. So, our Long March continues as his fish purchases remain unaBAITed (ha ha)…

As this is a situation utterly out of my control, I have struggled with how to manage my reactions to it. It serves no purpose to get mad and almost none to point out (again) how well stocked we are. A friend suggested I start throwing the stuff out, but the idea of wasting food feels like an anathema, so I resist. What this example highlights is the situation we all can find ourselves, in which someone close to us insists on repeating behaviors that don’t serve themselves or the greater good—be that any of the garden variety of addictions, bad relationships, credit card debt, hoarding, or getting themselves overextended in some other manner. Whatever it is, their excess impacts us.

The sense of resulting helplessness played out over time is universal. Until the other person learns to control their own impulses, the situation will not improve. Fortunately, for me, no innocent bystander is harmed in my Wagnerian fish opera, but that may not be the case for you. Like the apprentice whose spell results in endlessly multiplying pails of water, the spillover effect/unintended consequences can directly impact others. What do we do when we see the locomotive bearing down?

According to Murray Bowen’s systems theory of psychology, the core unit of interpersonal dynamics begins with the family as the emotional unit, not the individual. Within our families we operate as part of a system, adjusting our behaviors to counterbalance those of others. If I were to stretch this theory out to its maximum, I’d liken it to quantum mechanics (where previously entangled objects can instantaneously affect each other’s behavior, even from a great distance). This can easily be seen in families of alcoholics where the various players adapt certain roles to compensate for the chronic underperformance of the addicted member. An integral part of breaking away from such chronic dynamics is for the individual to step out of these carefully choreographed family ballets by no longer engaging in the expected steps.

Growing up with my dad, yelling was his modus operandi. He is a big man with a fierce temper from which the rest of us could not escape. To be fair, he grew up in a family where this excruciating behavior occurred regularly, so he was simply repeating the pattern. Fortunately, my mom didn’t do this, but it’s taken me a long, long time to recognize that there are better alternatives to yelling or inflicting the silent treatment on those with whom I am displeased or frustrated. Not easy stuff.

So, as re-booters, how do we do it? How do we learn to create sufficient distance from those we care about that we don’t upset ourselves when we see them being destructive–especially when those pails of water start washing around our ankles? How do we remain constructively engaged without getting washed away?

Here are my recommendations. The first and most important thing we can do is to remember that most of what happens to them is out of our control. We can’t do it for them. Second, we need to recognize and respect that this is their journey, not ours; it’s not about us, even when we become collateral damage. Such recognition can be terribly painful. Third, we need to leave enough room and compassion in our hearts that we are able to step in and help pick up the pieces should they ever reach a point where doing so would be productive. This third one is particularly tricky since so often it is less painful for us to cut them off rather than continue to witness their dissolution. And fourth, if we can find something funny about it–do so. Humor goes a long, long way in terms of preserving our sanity.

As re-booters, it is our challenge and responsibility to seek out a better way to manage our reaction to such scenarios. What comes up for you when you think about this? What new approach might release some of the pressure? How might you manage it better?

An endless abundance

An endless abundance

Island Hopping: The Search for Community

October 20, 2015

Ok, so last time I wrote about the struggles we experience when confronted by foundering love; today, I wish to redirect your attention to a very different aspect of love–our need to feel bonded with others. I believe that most people go through life feeling somewhat adrift, dreaming of the day when they’ll find a collective of kindred spirits who live nearby, readily available to happily do stuff together—sort of like a fantasy college dorm but without the smelly hallways or unappetizing cafeteria. We all know that reality is different. Like any school reunion, when thrown together for much more than a day or two, our collective warm fuzzies fade. So, where does that leave us in terms of finding a group of people with whom we feel we “belong”?

Having a spouse or children or living somewhere for decades doesn’t guarantee a sense of understanding or fulfilling connection. I know many people who lay claim to all three and, yet, still feel disconnected. As heart warming as Norman Rockwell’s imagery is, we know there’s a shadow side. “What am I doing here?” is a common refrain. Is it the human condition to remain ever seeking? Perhaps. At least for those of us who are more inquisitive about our true place in this world…

Although Washington is where I was born and reared, the city and I have changed so much that in many deep seated ways, I feel like a stranger. Driving past the National Cathedral, attending a performance at the Kennedy Center, or walking along the canal in Georgetown are bittersweet experiences because I’m not sure how I feel about any of it. I’m not sure I merit frequenting such wonderful places, as ridiculous a notion as this is. Sometimes, I wonder if I’d be more at home starting out somewhere entirely different, like a small town in West Texas. As if that would be any better…

Is a secure sense of connection a mythical construct? Are our expectations for collective relationship unreasonable?

Recently, I was chatting with someone who has lived in DC for thirty years but continues to feel unmoored. “Maybe it’s because Washington is so transient or because we live on a busy street, but people don’t interact much. We don’t want to live here when we get old or sick because who would be there for us?” Who indeed? I don’t think this worry is so unusual. And yet, and yet, community does rise up to support its own when they’re sick or hurting. I’ve seen this, too.

The poet John Donne tapped into the longing for communal relationship asserting, “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main…” So what do we do? How do we create community for ourselves? Can there ever be a true cleaving together or is it much more sensible to accept the possibility that we’re mostly on our own?

I believe we can create community—as long as we don’t hope for too much and are willing to keep watering those seeds.

This is how I look at it: #1) it’s enormously important to be as self-sufficient as possible. Having the confidence and presence of self to enjoy your own company enables you to be happy independent of others and makes it that much more likely that others will want to spend time with you. Nothing drives people away faster than the giant sucking sound of some emotionally needy attention hog.

We must be judicious in how much we can expect from sympathetic others. What I mean by this is that shared interests are a perfect place to start, but beware of letting the conversation drift too far off into unchartered waters. The fact that you both enjoy raising bees does not mean you’ll share similar views on the Keystone Pipeline or the immigrant crisis confronting Europe today.

#2) Politics and friendship is worth addressing in particular because it’s such a hot button issue. Maybe it’s more prevalent here in Washington than elsewhere, but I have watched longtime friendships splinter as a result of differences in politics—no matter that none of the policies in question had any direct impact on their interactions. The fact that these people shared so many other things in common was simply not enough to sustain the relationship—and so, a slow freezing out process began. It’s happened to me.

How we differ on our views of abortion or the Congressional debt ceiling or whether or not the Redskins should change their name really shouldn’t make a difference to our friendship, but so often it does. It’s hard to feel happy around someone who (silently) disapproves of our opinions, disdainfully consigning us into that abhorrent group of “them.” Politics didn’t use to use to be so dispositive, but over the last twenty years, its troubling shadow has chilled many an otherwise happy friendship. The political litmus tests we use to assess whether another person is “worthy” of our time and affection are so often the wrong measure.

So, does this mean we need to high tail it to our local central committee to find people we genuinely want in our lives? No, it does not! I know someone back in Santa Barbara who shares very similar views to mine who I can’t stand. I go to great lengths to avoid being anywhere near them, find them odious, obnoxious, and wonder how in the world they ever found a decent seeming spouse—which makes me seriously question the wisdom of my own views if we share so many in common. Gag. So much for politics making good bedfellows. Now what? Now where do I turn?

#3) The third recommendation I have is a combination of determined effort and a bit of kismet. Building community requires time and initiative. It’s a question of priorities: you either make the effort or you don’t. “Chrisanna, nobody’s going to come knocking on your door,” as a friend recently lectured following a venting session on my part. Sigh. How much did I loathe hearing that? Where are you? Why don’t you come knock on my door? Maybe we could be friends! Eh, whatever… I suspect that finding this sort of connection is harder for men than it is for women who are far more socialized to forage together rather than hunt the forests alone, but for any adult, but it’s never easy. Sifting for those rare gems whose particular sparkle and energy meshes well with our own takes dedication and luck—but the good news is they do exist! “I want to get to know you; you’re fun to hang with.” When was the last time you thought that about another person?

Ok, so the point of these musings has been to articulate the sense of disconnection and desire for community most of us have—this is a form of love. You’re not alone in feeling disconnected. You’re not alone in wanting something more. As re-booters, we’re old enough, experienced enough, and wise enough to recognize that we may have to adjust our ideas of how much we can hope for, while simultaneously leaping at those opportunities when we do meet someone who makes us sit up and take notice. It doesn’t happen everyday, which is why it’s so critical to act when it does. It’s worth fighting for. Otherwise, we sit by ourselves, staring out the window and wonder.

old men talking

Love and Friendship Change: Struggling with Faltering Flames

October 15, 2015

I’ve had a couple of people ask me to write about the topic of love. Of course, as we all know, there are many different types of love and more energy has been devoted to this subject than just about any other, but that doesn’t mean I can’t weigh in, too. Today, I think I’ll examine the way love can change over the course of a relationship and how we can love someone and yet reach a point where we can no longer remain with them in the same way.

Two people meet, become fascinated with one another to one degree or another, and decide to merge lives. (For purposes of this post, I am working from the presumption that they both believe they are in love or at least deep like.) There’s something enormously reassuring to know that you have someone to come home to, someone who will tend the hearth fires, provide warmth in the middle of the night, and provide nourishing companionship. The comfort of knowing one has a welcoming home base cannot be underestimated. With the world as crazy as it is these days, we all want a soft place to land and a purpose for working as hard as we do. Finding our way to this person and relationship status sometimes means we override our early system warnings, telling ourselves that we’re being nitpicky or unnecessarily severe in our reactions.

But, what happens when the other person’s personality quirks or decisions start to bug us, again? What happens when they are simply being themselves but we grow ever more easily irritated by this splinter?

Are they doing something wrong? Are we being unfair?

No and no.

So what does this mean for the health of the relationship going forward?

 

All I can do is answer based on my own experience, but what I have seen (drawing upon romantic, professional, and platonic relationships) is that those “minor” annoyances that we discover early on rarely disappear, despite all the years, experience, and goodwill that we enjoy in between. Usually, such chronic, low grade vexations point to fundamental, irreconcilable differences between the parties—they just happen to manifest in ways which leave us (the irritated) feeling petty.

For instance years ago, 1) a fellow I knew came to visit me in Boston and dedicated forty-five minutes talking about a suit he bought from Neiman Marcus (I timed it)! 2) In Santa Barbara, I watched another engage in behavior I considered deeply wrong but shunted my concerns aside because there was so much that was good about what we had (with the promise of more). And then, 3) there was the instance where the relationship, physically, simply was unfulfilling/non-existent and I kept telling myself that intellectual stimulation was enough. It wasn’t. In each of these cases, I chastised myself for feeling the way I did, telling myself I was being overly critical or sensitive or needy—but in a desperate effort to frame the relationship in an acceptable light, I wound up being unfair to myself and unfair to them because I wanted them to be someone other than who they were.

When looked at objectively, there is nothing terrible with what any of these individuals did—they were well within their rights to discuss their wardrobes enthusiastically or play hardball with other assholes or choose to live a physically passionless life. And I can promise you that each of them was enormous fun to be around. In fact, I continue to remember them in an affectionate light, but our relationship could not last.

So, what does this mean? Am I an unreasonable prima donna who must have every exchange “just so,” unable to tolerate any flaws in others?

No, it does not. There is another side to this relationship coin. The truth is that there is a great likelihood that the other person senses the dissonance just as much. These shifts are rarely one sided. They may more easily pretend the problem isn’t there or perhaps they are fearful enough about a “you-less” future that they are willing to grit their teeth, but in the vast majority of occasions, irritations exist for both parties.

Love changes. Love has its limits. And, most importantly, you can love someone without being able to stay with them. Even if what appears as minor differences between the two of you, over time those differences may become untenable…Trying to course correct against your natural path in order to remain parallel with your partner is a recipe for great unhappiness. I have watched people do this time and time and time again, losing a little bit more of themselves each time they do so. The only time I have seen such efforts work to any degree is when both parties flex sufficiently to accommodate the changes occurring in their partner, but behaviors or attitudes which rub you the wrong way early on in your relationship are not likely to ebb as you become more invested.

I am not here to champion flying solo or here to tell you that all relationships carry a time date stamp on them. What I am here to say to those of you who struggle with what to think when you no longer can live with someone you’ve loved, you are not a bad person for feeling this way. It happens to so many of us—most, if we’re being honest. Having a comrade in arms, having a friend, having a lover to come home to is a wonderful thing and makes life worth living, but not if you have to crowbar yourself into it. Deep down, they may be looking to you for the courage which will set them free, too.

What relationship are you struggling with? What makes it hard to let go? What are you afraid ending it would say about you? If the tables were reversed, if the other person felt the way you do, what do you hope they would do?


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