The Rapey Boy of 21st St

He wants it intensely. No matter how many times you say “no” or try to push him away, he keeps coming back, holding your leg, pressing himself against you. He has needs. How can you be so cruel as to deny them?

Readers may be relieved to know at this point that I am not describing a human assailant or an even slightly traumatic experience. Rather, I am talking about my puppy’s desire to get on the couch with me. Continue reading “The Rapey Boy of 21st St”

With Liberty and Justice For All

I had a vague idea I might do something about Independence Day for my July post, but we were busily on vacation and there wasn’t anything I particularly wanted to say, anyway, so I let it slide. In fact, my muse didn’t show up until a few days before the end of the month (right around the time a client requested that I do three months’ worth of work in the space of two weeks, which I take as more than excuse enough for this post being late), and when she did, she wasn’t bearing tidy platitudes. But she sure had something to say about Freedom. Continue reading “With Liberty and Justice For All”

"I can’t hear you!"

We are all permanently 8 years old.
You remember this: on the playground, at recess, little Billy or little Susie said something you didn’t like, so you stuck your fingers in your ears, shouting, “Lalalalalalala!” and adding, quite superfluously, “I can’t hear you!”
I wish I could say that, as adults, we’ve all grown out of this, but we haven’t. We’ve just gotten more sophisticated about it and driven it underground – instead of advertising that we aren’t listening, we don’t even notice it ourselves.
At a recent gathering I had the opportunity to listen to a lively debate about a potentially controversial subject. As it happened, both the speakers and myself agreed about the bottom line, so there was no opportunity for it to turn into a real argument, or at all nasty; it was more, “If X is true (which we all agree on), how did it get to be that way and how should we view that process (admitting that we all know none of us have the answers)?”
I’m fond of a good debate and enjoyed this one very much, but after about five minutes I became conscious of a deep, instinctual resistance to everything that was being said.
This struck me as odd. If I agree with someone in the areas where I think I have the answers, why should it bother me if they have a different theory in an area where I have no strong opinion? Why should I have so strong an urge to shut down the whole discussion?
That is something I don’t have an answer for yet, so my point is more along these lines: wow, the level of awareness that is needed about oneself.
I think I pay attention to these things more than most people, and having recently read Buy-In and Good Boss, Bad Boss and listened to a lecture about how we have no control over other people, it was top-of-mind for me… and I barely realized it.
So I don’t think I ever realized before how much effort it is to keep a truly open mind.
And also, as a speaker, it’s worth being aware that your listeners may be having these reactions too, and if you or they don’t realize it, you’re not getting through to them any more than if they were plugging their ears and shouting, “I can’t hear you!”

Complaining for Peace

Here’s a thought that’s going to sound very strange: The way to have harmony with others is not to reason ourselves out of being offended.

I know, it sounds crazy, right? Somebody does something to annoy you and it’s so natural to think, “It’s not worth making a fuss about such a small thing, so I’ll be the bigger person and will just put up with it.” But you put up with it for years and suddenly when you do mention it, out it pours in a heated tone nothing like what you intended, and now it is a fuss.

It’s tempting, too, to praise ourselves for patience. “I didn’t complain for so long!” But what has that actually gained?

And how often have we refrained from saying the difficult thing to someone about their own behavior because we’re afraid of offending them? It’s right to be concerned about their feelings, of course. But is it right to be so concerned about their immediate feelings that we doom them to stay in patterns that may well hold them back in life, or lead to less happiness in the long term?

It’s never pleasant to hear criticism of my behavior, but it is a greater favor to me to force me to hear it than to say years later, “I have noticed this bad trait you have for a long time, but haven’t given you the chance to do anything about it.” Does more peace result from grudgingly putting up with, say, a harsh and condescending tone, or from helping the person see and change it?

Granted, there are some – perhaps many – people who don’t accept this reasoning and don’t allow others to offer them correction. But they’re not doing themselves any favors. Everyone has at least one failing. Right? Anybody disagree with that? I didn’t think so. Here’s another poll: anybody happy that they have flaws? Anybody not want to be the best person they can be? Yeah, there are a few, like my old boss who told me he’d “earned the right to be a jerk.” But most people want to think of themselves as good people, rational people capable of acting in their own best interests. Isn’t it in your best interests to hear and consider what others have to say about you?

And it’s true, not every criticism is accurate. But most have a grain of truth that can be used. For instance, an acquaintance recently told someone something about me which, when repeated to any number of people who actually know me, was greeted by shouts of laughter and the comment, “You are the last person who would do that.” But on reflection, I could see why someone who didn’t know me would think that, and consider whether some aspects of my behavior could be improved.

As the sage says, “If one man calls you a fool, ignore it. If a second man calls you a fool, consider it. If a third man calls you a fool, believe it.” So if you are someone who doesn’t like to listen to criticism, consider: you can ignore it! But listen, so you’ll know if you hear the same thing again.

A final thought for those special readers who really don’t have any failings: please take pity on those of us who do. Most people are afraid of offering even the gentlest criticism because of the large minority (majority?) who don’t take it well. That is the direct cause of Well-it’s-not-worth-making-a-fuss syndrome. So the next time someone approaches you with an obviously wrong criticism, please, listen calmly. Hear them out. You’re still free to disagree. But respect the courage it took to approach you – even if you wish they hadn’t. That way, those of us who actually view constructive criticism as an act of friendship can have more friends – and maybe one day we’ll be as perfect as you.

This is Your Brain on Happiness

Happiness is scary. At least if you’re sad or frustrated, you’re motivated. But happiness is like a warm bed on a cold morning: there may well be, and probably are, things you need to do outside of it, but why would you want to?

And so, it seems to me, happiness can be its own enemy. The happier you are > the less motivated you are to deal with things, be it growth or grocery shopping > the more things pile up > the more likely something reaches breaking point > chaos and stress > not happy.

But is it maybe even scarier if you stay happy and float along in blissful unawareness of all that’s not getting done? Is that even possible? Or the similar problem – getting sucked into a vortex of contented routine and going along for years without noticing that the happiness is gradually evaporating. It’s unhappiness without motivation… until somebody wants a divorce. (Hmm, maybe I’ve been reading too much Ladies’ Home Journal lately.)

Happiness is like sleeping sickness for your brain and I’m happier when my brain is alert and childlike with curiosity and amusement. This is a strange conundrum. Strange enough that, while I’m sure I can’t be the only person who’s ever run across it, it feels like I might be.

Accomplishing Something by Doing Nothing

Last weekend I finally did what I had to do: I declared that I was officially becoming a hermit, and then cut out all thought of everything that didn’t absolutely have to get done to make as much time as possible for nothing. And Monday morning, I actually felt refreshed for the first time in memory. I learned a few things along the way.
Lesson 1: Know what works for you. Take the effort to really observe the effect, rather than assuming it.
A few months ago I ran across the first hint about what needed to be done in a Rands in Repose article titled Chill. Rands talks about trying biofeedback as a way of curing migraines: 

It gets interesting when you start ignoring the feedback. “Rands, we’re going to try different relaxation techniques and see what works. How do you relax?” 

TV? She turned the TV on for ten minutes. “Yeah, that doesn’t relax you. Your brain is working.”

Closing my eyes and breathing deeply? Five minutes later, “Again, it looks like you’re thinking too much about not thinking. You’re not relaxing.”

What about reading? She pulled a book off her shelf and I started reading. Within a few minutes, all of the feedback pointed out that my body was diving into a deep relaxation.

“Rands, reading chills you out.”

I realized, as perhaps I had suspected before, that watching TV is not particularly restful for me; watching at my desk, as I often do, is even less so. And yet it has been my “chill out” of choice. I reason, watching TV burns about the same amount of calories as sleeping, so it should be almost as restful, right?
Lesson 2: You have to prepare to relax just like you would any other activity. It’s like dieting, when you remove the junk from the house and stock up on fruits and veggies, knowing that you’ll eat what’s on hand rather than going to the store for what you really want. Make a path of least resistance to something that’s actually good for you.
The other reason I use TV to unwind is that it’s something that doesn’t have to be thought about at all. I have several favorite shows, and I simply click on the next episode of whichever one I’m most behind on and let it pour into my brain effortlessly for the next hour. 
To not do that, to do something else, becomes quite an ordeal by contrast. What should I do? If I read, what should I read? One of the “should reads” stacked around the house? But that requires so much mental energy. Something lighter? But which exact flavor of lightness would I like? And so on. But I know there are authors whose work is serious enough that I don’t feel guilty, and compelling enough that I can’t put the book down – just what you want in this situation. I happened to have one on hand for the past few weeks, and will definitely be going to the library regularly for more.
Lesson 3: Priorities change, and balance is needed.
For many years I embraced the school of thought that “People who need people are too needy for me.” Then I reached a place where I was lonely every Sunday, so I adopted an approach much like Jim Carrey’s in Yes Man: I said yes to everything I possibly could. Eventually I built up a social life to the point that, in recent weeks, I resented every social activity I “had to” go to, yet felt socializing was too important ever to refuse. 
A friend reminded me of the extrovert/introvert continuum: some people get their strength from being around people, and some people get it from being alone. Most fall somewhere in the middle and need both within reason. Sure enough, a few days of determined solitariness – I hardly spoke a word or heard a human voice that first day – were enough to make me cheerfully accept company again.
Lesson 4: Once you know a thing – don’t forget it.
I knew about the effect of reading vs. TV. I knew about my need to be alone sometimes. And I knew that 10 p.m. is my magic bedtime. For some reason there is a disproportionate difference for me between eight hours of sleep starting at 9:45 and eight hours starting at 10:15. And yet, night after night, I would go to bed well after that cutoff. Remembering that and shifting back to a schedule that works better for me has had a huge effect. 
Granted, many of the pressures of the past few months lifted at least somewhat in the past week, which helps. But I have no doubt that these “new” practices are largely responsible for the improvement in my sense of well-being.