“Sleep my little baby-oh
Sleep until you waken
When you wake you’ll see the world
If I’m not mistaken…
Kiss a lover
Dance a measure,
Find your name
And buried treasure…
Face your life
Leave no path untaken.”
― Neil Gaiman,
Most people aren’t really sure what they are getting themselves into, when they come talk with someone like me. What we do at that coffee shop, or while walking by the river, has little in common with what happens on television or Netflix. You are not Tony Soprano and I am not that horrible psychiatrist who sucked at counselling and committed ethical violations on an episodal level. You won’t spend the whole time complaining, and I am intrusive when it comes to the nitty gritty details. I get paid to act as a professional and you can go home and talk to your cat for hours about your medical problems or how much that person makes you mad at work. People want ideas and conversation and help, that’s why they make the appointment. Most counsellors are sedentary by nature and I am a screaming ball of ADHD and philosophy and other words that they offer at universities for those who don’t really want to earn much money or get their teeth cleaned on a regular basis.
Most of my clients have tried it their way, and life has a way of humbling the most stubborn of us every once in a while. I have written extensively about this topic and you can read about it here, here, here, or here. Moving forward in your life is usually more complicated in the real world, and we rarely get to live on Saturn or have a robot maid like on The Jetsons. Life is hard and they don’t post the rules on a website, and lets be honest, I usually did things the hard way because I’m naive and idealistic and not as self-aware as I thought at the time. For the love of god, don’t write your treatise in your 20’s. We shouldn’t have to review the reasons, this one is rock solid. I am startled at how dumb I was when I was 25. I’m not telling your story, I’m just speaking to those of us who have had to admit that we didn’t know what the crap we were talking about and some of those opinions we yelled so loudly, back when we knew everything, were utterly moronic.
At the risk of becoming a Hallmark Card, it really is true that most of us don’t live at our potential. I’m not talking about you.
I am working on another project or two with a few friends, and there is this feeling (and if you’ve had it you know what I’m talking about) at the beginning of a new adventure that is cocaine for me. The entire entertainment industry seems designed solely for the purpose of providing adventures which allow us to live lives in ways and places not connected to my grinding job or upset partner. We are neurologically wired for novelty. This has a profound impact on everything from our relationships to our addictions to our sexual satisfaction. I go to movies to be alive, but maybe it’s just me. When I am inside a great audiobook or an old fashioned paperback it triggers parts of my brain which include those yummy juices bouncing around in my neurons. Unlike many, I am blessed with primarily pleasant dreams, and I may be a child inside, but under countless moons I have been a secret agent or kung fu legend or somewhere warm drinking foofy drinks on a beach. I do this for a living and I know what living in a fantastical dream state suggests. The real world blows when it does.
Kiss a lover
Dance a measure,
Find your name
And buried treasure…
Face your life
Leave no path untaken.
Here’s to you making that trip to Europe. A good one on those of ya who have decided to go back to school, or go on a road trip, or start to sculpture; just for the joy of getting your hands muddy. It is very easy to learn to play the bass… poorly. My wife just brought a 300 ton piano into our house, and her relentless pursuit of something that hard is inspiring (she doesn’t read my writing so I won’t get credit for that). In The Graveyard Book, Nobody Owens grew up in a graveyard, was adopted by ghosts, and mentored by a vampirish thing and a Hound Of God. With his life in danger, he was forced to spend the majority of his childhood playing with dead people, a witch, several nasty goblins, with only one friend who had a pulse and almost killed him, by accident of course. Those words, face your life, its pain, its pleasure, leave no path untaken, reminded Bod that his life was among the living, not the departed. It was his turn to have experiences and see oceans and taste coffee in faraway lands.
And how’s that working out for you?
That sounds so tiring, he said partly in jest. Life is ridiculously busy, and my freaking phone is becoming an addiction, and I dream of going to Kitts or a Balkan State or a castle in Scotland; but right now I’d settle for another hot day to float in my Canadian Tire pool. Everywhere I look, people complain about the pace of life in the 21st Century and the noise, noise, noise. It’s only 95 days until Christmas. See what I did there?
The good book says, without hope the people perish. Philosophers create theories to describe the meaning of life. Existential Psychoanalysis plays with creating meaning from meaning, or something nerdish like that. As Victor Frankl said, the person who has the why can bear almost any how. That sounds like a cheeseball meme until you find out the dude was in Auschwitz. Having a reason for staying alive another year is a powerful thing. Words like meaning and purpose, dreams, and hope, are powerful aphrodisiacs. Having that why makes this crappy how worth living.
…leave no path untaken.
I like socks. Strange socks. People who don’t know what to get me at Christmas usually land on the weirdest socks they can find at EA Games. So when I found out there was a socks company that donated a pair of socks for every pair purchased, it had my attention. But that’s not even the cool part.
I started listening to some different podcasts today. I downloaded an app and the next thing I knew I was listening to Ear Hustle. It’s a podcast written, produced, and starring longterm inmates at San Quentin Prison. Honourable mention is given to Pelican Bay Supermax. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m interested in a lot of things, and Maximum Security Prisons are on the list. I have attended several prisons in various roles, and the psychology of the experiences that humans are subjected to in places like Pelican Bay is staggering. As a Canadian it is a surreal experience to watch your first documentary about American prisons. Our maximum security prisons are no joke, but what happens in the deep south is beyond most idealistic Canadian’s imagination. I knew a salesman who was sent to Pelican Bay for a very long time, and I imagine there are few humans who have had to endure the level of intensity such an experience would invoke. I have swapped prison stories for years with persons who have real world experience, and have spent an inordinate amount of energy asking questions about the gritty detail. So yes, the first podcast I happened upon was Ear Hustle.
Here’s where the two stories connect. That sock company is called Bombas and they sponsor Ear Hustle. As an entrepreneur I can appreciate the subtle marketing potential of such an enterprise, but that pales in comparison to the good that one company can do if it tries. To date they have also donated 4,000,105 pairs of socks. No wait, 4,000,110. As Bombas points out, “Socks remain the #1 most requested clothing item at homeless shelters. So for every pair of Bombas you purchase, we donate a pair to someone in need. So far, you’ve made over four million small acts of human kindness possible. We can’t thank you enough.”
They aren’t quite weird enough for me, but that’s still very cool.
It really amazing what one company, or one person, can do when they decide to change the world. One of the best parts about my job is that I get to hear stories, thousands of stories, and many of them have a happy ending. I have known people who walked in the door so entirely messed up they were seemingly beyond the pale. They sat on the white couch or in my little office and fundamentally changed who they were, once they decided to step out. There are many ways to deal with your personal issues, and finding a greater purpose or learning about the meaning of your life may sound cliche, but few techniques can take you as far as a reason for living. Hundreds of people I have cared about have told me stories, tales of redemption and loss, staggering failures and unbelievable saves.
You might not think giving a pair of socks to some homeless dude is not your thing, but it’s a hell of a lot better than not giving out 4,000,000 pairs of socks to people who often have not felt the warmth of human kindness in some time. People and organizations that follow their hearts, and not just their wallets, genuinely feel better about their lives. Believing in something bigger than your worst moments is better than living a purely self-indulgent, puerile life that ends in meaninglessness, unless you’re a complete sheep (in which case you would not be reading this in the first place). This, unfortunately, compels me to remind you that no one wants to see another stupid picture of you on social media. We know what you look like, and it’s nothing like that doctored pic of you standing in a pose which is oddly reminiscent of what we imagine you would look like if there was something up your hiney. We’ve even talked about how mildly narcissistic that can become, so turn the camera around and show me a picture of nature, or culture, without your duck lips in the picture.
Liking a post on Facebook may give you warm fuzzies, but it’s the getting off your butt and living your life for something of value that will take you to the next level. Living in the moment is important, yes. So is mindfulness. So is having a reason to get up in the morning.
Get a life.
This story is not about how I feel politically about the growing homeless population in my local area. People who know me know that I never discuss local politics, and the only reason I look at anything in a political column is because of the craziness going on south of the border, and just over the land-bridge to Asia. What I’m about to say is controversial but I’m too inoculated to really care what trolls say in the comments section of blogs and articles. I won’t respond to your criticism unless it’s intelligent and not nasty, so let’s begin.
This is what really happens to that money you gave that poor guy who just needed to get enough money for a bus ticket to Chilliwack at the Mission 7-11 store. That dude has been trying to raise the money for a ticket for almost three years. That money went to buy methamphetamines. No, I am not saying that every homeless person is an addict, I’m not done yet. What I am clearly going to say is that in the part of the world where I live, every homeless person is afforded a minimal stipend, on a monthly basis, and there are at least three agencies feeding them. In the town I work in we will literally house everyone who really wants a place to live. Everyone. Canada is a socialized culture and agencies like the one I work at are given money from the local and provincial government to help people who want help. That last phrase was very important and we may return to it later.
Today I was getting propane for my BBQ and I had to drive around a man in his 30’s with a sign that read, “homeless, starving, need bus fair to Chilliwack”. It’s always Chilliwack. All three of those statements are subject to review. I am a raging liberal, and I get paid not to judge people and I can tell you right out, if you gave him money you should have looked 20 feet down the road. I came back ten minutes later and another guy was holding the sign. There were four of them, smoking on the side of the curb. This is their daily thing.
And now the kicker.
I know those guys… quite well. They are not headed to Chilliwack. They are not even homeless. They are all on disability. Giving that gentlemen 10 dollars is fine, noble even, you just need to know all the information. These are hurting people, but giving them money at two in the afternoon may not really help them better their lives. This issue is far more complex than mere charity. Persons on the edges of society have almost always come from a history of trauma, generations of dysfunction. It is a gigantic feat to imagine that they have had the same opportunities that the rest of us middle-class kids have had. Many of my friends at the camps have gruesome stories of abuse and neglect, anger and fear. They were not given a college fund. They did not get to be on the soccer team or go to bible camp or have a yearly family vacation. I’m not excusing the behaviours that piss you off so very much, but it’s important to understand the details on both sides of the equation.
The majority of our clients who are moving forward in their life, in spite of terrific challenges and often lacking the capacity to even understand normie culture, much less flourish, have been able to break free of the insane cultural and personal reality they have believed to be normal since childhood. This is, of course, a generalization. So is this – many of our most at-risk clients do not even understand cultural protocol. They don’t have proper ID. Many of them lack personal hygiene, sometimes because of a lack of opportunity and sometimes because a portion of our most vulnerable people have never learned how to fit in, or how to talk to authority, or how to walk through confrontation with grace. Giving that person 10 bucks is completely your call, I’ve done it myself. The difference is, some of us are still under the illusion that this will make a positive or substantive difference in their life. The best I can offer is that, for a majority of those (predominantly males for varied and sometimes tragic reasons) who hold cardboard signs at Safeway, you might provide them a temporary relief from their difficult lives. There are probably those who take that money and make good use of it, but they aren’t the people I know in my town and the town next door.
For ten dollars you can get enough meth to feel decent for six or ten hours.
Some of the homeless population are there by choice, but I don’t mean that in the way you might read it. There are people in the homeless camp that have housing. There are many people who have been offered services but cannot, or will not, conform to the parameters we as a society are sometimes forced to place on cultural participation. You cannot function in mayhem and there needs to be a measure of conformity and cooperation and some people are not down with that. There are others that are just so defeated, so checked out, that they are hard to reach. Mental illness is more common than you think, and without a good support network there is a likelihood that a percentage of those folks will also end up on the fringes of society. Many are in throws of addiction and people who have never had the monkey screaming in your ear have a difficult time understanding why they don’t just quit and get a job. When your life is hell, a little self-medication can often go a long way… at least for a few hours.
Some people are there by choice, but those choices are heavily influenced by ten or twenty generations of abuse and pain and misery. They are incapable of thinking like you and I think because their life experience is so vastly foreign we really don’t operate in the same realities.
I have friends who live in downtown Vancouver. I’m a small-town kind of guy. Driving in heavy traffic makes me feel feelings I really shouldn’t ever feel. It stretches my imagination to think like someone who lives in poverty off Main and Hastings in downtown Vancouver. Their day-to-day reality is profoundly different than mine. Living in downtown Hong Kong is beyond my understanding. If I have difficulty imagining a life in Hollywood how can I possibly begin to comprehend the reality for a person born and raised in abuse and poverty and broken dreams and screaming. This isn’t a liberal snowflake way of excusing unacceptable behaviour, or the naked guy outside Dairy Queen in Maple Ridge, or the fact that you’ve had all your bikes stolen. As a society we must have certain behavioural standards or it’s thunderdome. And some people are just assholes.
This isn’t about that.
Giving him ten bucks makes you feel better. I’m not saying you did it for selfish reasons, it just is what it is.
So let’s recap:
- giving money to a person, believing they are starving or just need to get enough money to get to Chilliwack may be commendable but may, just may, be a tinsy bit naive.
- The problem is much bigger than just a lack of ten dollars.
- The problem is much bigger than just a lack of ten dollars.
- There are no easy solutions.
- The problem is much bigger than just a lack of ten dollars.
- Ten bucks may not get you to Chilliwack but it might get you to Nirvana, albeit temporarily. This is not always a good thing.
So give the money or don’t. You will be providing temporary, though potentially harmful relief. Best case scenario, they will buy something to eat or a pack of smokes.
Who knows, maybe a few will even make it to Chilliwack.
Growing up, so many years ago, I loved the pounding beat and consuming rhythm of Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight. The intense drumbeat was stirring; the story behind the song even more so. What follows is my own flawed memory of how the story went:
One day, while playing with a friend beside a river, Phil’s childhood friend got in trouble and began to drown. The young Phil Collins was too small to rescue his drowning companion and begged a passerby to help. The adult simply laughed and walked away. His friend died.
Years later, while on tour with Genesis, Collins anonymously sent this individual tickets to his upcoming concert. As “In The Air Tonight” began to play, Collins belted out those now famous words:
Well if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand
I’ve seen your face before my friend, but I don’t know if you know who I am
Well I was there and I saw what you did, I saw it with my own two eyes
So you can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been
It’s all been a pack of lies
And I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
Well I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord
I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
Well I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord, oh Lord
Well I remember, don’t worry. It was the first time, the last time, we ever met.
And I can feel it coming in the air tonight…”
Collins turned to the audience as the lights came up on one seat, one man, and yelled something like (accounts vary) “It was you, you S.O.B.!
Powerful stuff. Revenge.
So what, then, is the moral of this story?
The moral is that this story is not true. I told that story for over 20 years in front of thousands of people and it was complete crap. Fabricated nonsense.
The moral is that we love a great story, that we are prone to believe untruths when they are packaged in such a way as to draw us in. Disinformation. The moral is that it is very tempting to blindly accept anything you read for the sole reason that it is sending a message with which you want to agree. These fairytales are powerful because we all want to believe in words like destiny and fairness and happy–endings. The moral is that you are far more likely to believe something if you already agree with it; and the age of mass media is overwhelming our critical systems. The exploding cacophony of information eventually strips us of unbiased thought, and we were always friends with Eurasia. Big Brother is programming you. See, I just did it again.
Bringing the apocalyptic into my story creates a defining moment which just happens to be bullshit. Calling your opponent Hitler is a convenient way of labelling someone in such a way as to discredit further investigation. Easy labels diminish the truth. Things are rarely as absolute as in the land of stories, and the impact of such things as the rise of bionomics, media, and reductionism, is profoundly beyond what we can imagine. Let that sink in for a moment. Humanity gleefully embraces a future that it does not understand; has not reckoned with an impact we have yet to invent.
Reality cannot be contained in a YouTube video. Your primary belief systems warrant intense scrutiny. The world is filled with loud and profoundly ignorant voices, screaming for your attention.
Phil Collins confirmed it hadn’t happened. Like most of the polls and trends and arguments between the huddled masses, this was the creation of a storyteller whom no one took the time to investigate. One discredited study on autism and a child dies in the prairies because people believe stuff that seems right to them at the time. Some pseudo-scientist creates a Youtube video about the earth being flat and seemingly reasonable people start to think that the sun is 3000 miles above the earth, and the government is spreading mind-altering drugs using airplane contrails. The president of a neighbouring country was actually born in Kenya. Carrying a concealed weapon becomes a must if you want to avoid a terrorist attack. Those Syrian refugees, fleeing unimaginable persecution and a situation you literally know almost nothing about, are all terrorists. Jayden Smith knows the mysteries of the universe. Muslims cheered when the twin towers came down. Donald Trump is the messiah, or the Anti-Christ. The list of the ridiculous is seemingly endless.
This is by no means a confirmed fact, but it is apparent that many of us watch a single YouTube video or read an article and are willing to fundamentally change our belief systems or argue about a belief we know virtually nothing about. I cannot count the numbers of people who are convinced that something is true because they spent 20 minutes online or heard it from a “reliable” source. It is a sure bet that millions of people get their politics or religion or theories about life from a few solitary sources that agree with them anyway. That Zeitgeist movie seems to make sense. Those documentaries on the way they treat chickens, or that conspiracy about how the moon landing was faked, the FACT that the government is covering up contact with aliens, or the opinions of uneducated actors or musicians or some geek with iMovie, appear entirely believable. I have witnessed arguments at parties between individuals who clearly know very little about science or reality but are willing to virtually come to blows over a topic they watched on YouTube or read about in a forum of like-minded and biased idiots like themselves. Few of us take the requisite hours to actually perform real research. We are the media generation, subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous opinions and 5-minute ready to believe theories.
The objective truth is that it takes hundreds, even thousands of hours to understand concepts like philosophy, politics, or basic scientific principles. When Will Smith states publicly that he considers himself a physicist, he speaks in ignorance. The profound insights of actors and amateurs are usually neither profound nor insightful, in any real sense. Becoming an expert in any field requires years of directed study. You cannot become a martial arts practicioner by watching a series of videos and you certainly aren’t qualified to even speak about vaccines if you base your opinions on something you read in a chat room or online.
By now most of us have heard of the Dunning-Krueger Effect. To put it another way, we don’t know what we don’t know. We lack context. It is impossible to assess something you have never seen before. The first warriors on the receiving end of gun powder lacked the capacity to appreciate why they were about to die. American troops in World War Two were flummoxed by the Kamakazi. The thought of a volunteer willingly slamming their plane into an aircraft carrier seemed ludicrous in the extreme. We can only comprehend that which we already know, at least in passing. We cannot understand what we have never even imagined. As Heisenberg so eloquently mused, “Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.” There is the world as we understand it, the philosopher said, then there is the world as it really is.
We must be careful of our own thinking. When I was younger I knew everything, or so I thought. The older I get the less I seem to know. The essence of wisdom is not intelligence alone. We must experience in order to comprehend. We must, as Covey quipped, seek first to understand, and then to be understood. There must be humility, wonder, and hard work, before we can really know anything of value. Abandon your absolutist opinions and spend a hundred or a thousand hours learning about that thing before you make a fool of yourself in that chat room.
You’ll be glad you did.
In the early 2000’s Ricky Gervais was one of the first to harness the power of the podcast to reach millions of people. Together with one of my favourite deadpan comedians, Stephen Merchant, Gervais hired a location and a production geek and set to work. He and Merchant would host an off-the-cuff radioesque podcast made to seem like it was made up on the spot. Early in Season One Gervais began throwing a few bones to the tech working the show and Internet history was born.
Karl Pilkington seemed to have a normal and successful life. He was married and an Executive Producer at a legit media heavyweight, seemingly a position which would require a good deal of smarts and an exceptional talent for getting ahead in a cutthroat industry. It was apparent from the start, however, that Karl Pilkington was no ordinary media geek, he was comedy gold.
Merchant was actually the meaner of the two. He was fond of telling Pilkington that he was a subhuman ape, a moron or an idiot or one of those amazing British ghetto language terms, thrown out with practiced indifference. If you look up Karl on Wikipedia you will read:
Pilkington was born in Manchester in 1972. He worked as a journalist for the Sun for a period of time  and moved to London from Manchester to work with XFM as a producer, at one point unintentionally causing Gail Porter to leave the station in tears after only one show by criticizing her performance, which Pilkington maintains was an attempt to encourage her to improve. After several years he began work on The Ricky Gervais Show, broadcast on Saturday afternoons. Initially Pilkington was solely the programme’s producer. As Gervais and Merchant began to invite him to make the odd comment, Pilkington’s persona came to light and his popularity increased. Pilkington was eventually included as a main element of the broadcasts, with large amounts of airtime often given over to his thoughts on various subjects, or various childhood stories. In December 2005, Pilkington stood in for two BBC 6 Music shows for Nemone, and co-presented the shows with Russell Brand.
Pilkington was an internet phenomenon. The series was downloaded over 300,000,000 times. People composed music to Karl’s head, his various axioms for life, and his offbeat look at life among pretentious smart people who unrelentingly compared Pilkington’s head to various fruits and extremely round spheroids. I always find it amusing, when rereading his bio, that both Gervais and Merchant felt compelled to defend his persona as real. I read somewhere that Merchant was to have said that Pilkington had to be real because there was no way he would waste such good material on this “poxy” radio station or some such.
It is crucial to listen to the whole series beginning at Season One. The shows were free and this allowed the hosts not to give a crap. Both men are well educated private school boys who portray as hard-line antagonists who paraded their atheism and delight at their own observations, a detached and comedic spin to everything. It was brilliant.
Clearly friends, the shows were both a row and a tug at Pilkington’s seeming endless ignorance of common words or phrases, and an homage to his brilliance and fearless stupidity in the face of endless ridicule. By the end of the first season, 12 brief shows, the podcast was the biggest in the world and everyone loved Karl Pilkington.
Without a clear or present agenda, the men simply talked about Karl’s week, read his diary, listened to his epic blunders in “Monkey News”, and took part in a series of bizarre and often hilarious misadventures and incoherent games and stories and questions about life. Throughout the series Gervais and Merchant refused to admit that Karl Pilkington was a persona because the guy was just too weird to be normal by any definition. Hundreds of questions were asked of him and it became immediately apparent that the next thing out of his mouth was not what you were thinking.
The podcast was turned into a cartoon. Watching the animation it feels like a completely new experience, all over again. It reminds you a bit of the Flintstones, one of Gervais’s favorite analogies when making fun of Pilkington’s lack of understanding of history.
Season Five was different. The team had just come off a break, Gervais and Merchant were international stars and Karl Pilkington had a T-shirt with his round head on it and millions of people wanted to ask him questions. I remember tuning in to Season Five and finding that I had accidentally put on my Counsellor hat and things were pinging everywhere. This was a different Karl Pilkington. His head was still as big “as a fucking orange”, to quote Ricky Gervais.
At first it felt like I could understand him in a different way. The things he said had an air of bizarre legitimacy; and it occurred to my counsellor brain that he knew exactly what he was doing. The entire premise of the show was built around Pilkington’s ignorance and suddenly Karl appeared different, but not necessarily stupid. He had been, after all, a significant player in the entertainment engine. They talked about Karl’s wife like she was a real person and never lobbed a disparaging word in her direction. Karl knew all about Ricky’s house, had been there playing pool the night before. He knew Ricky’s girlfriend, they had spent time together. One begins to understand, as the show progresses, that the seemingly endless ego that is Ricky Gervais’s public persona clearly cares about this Idiot Abroad and it’s hard to imagine that Gervais would spend quality time with someone who appeared to drive him crazy when behind a microphone. There is a bit of a con going on, though you could argue this is a natural by-product of any chaotic show whose sole purpose appears to be making fun of a far lesser intellect.
I will never meet Ricky or Stephen or Karl so I cannot say with absolute certainty what is really going on. What is certain is that Karl Pilkington is more than a big bald head and a vision of reality skewed a little left of mental illness. One could even be offended on his behalf, if it weren’t so apparent that Pilkington is crafting euphemisms on an intentional level. It is easy to fall for the apparent and be swept away by his infectious personality and ludicrous charm. People love Karl Pilkington, he is charming without meaning to be and everyone loves an underdog. Merchant and Gervais are spectacular boors, and even before Season Five you can tell they are smiling as they talk. Merchant loves to feed Ricky’s ego and even Gervais is only screwing with your head some of the time. These people hang out.
In Season 5 it feels like Pilkington is winking while he speaks. Some of his offbeat ideas make actual sense. There is a little too much Hamlet in the ham. Far from witless, you begin to wonder if Pilkington has been playing you, all along.
I can imagine a world where Gervais or Merchant might actually be reading this and laughing their ass off because Karl really is a twot and apparently I am as well. (Un)Fortunately this blog is beyond obscure and there is little danger of that. If he really is that dense than I’m totally fine with that, assuming that I am not laughing at someone with serious mental health issues.
Karl, and you immediately feel like you can call him that, may be different, but not in a wholly bad way. Remembering, for the sake of argument, that this is merely a futile exercise because we are talking about a radio personality, one is left to wonder how brilliant he really is. Pilkington has a staggering openness, a childlike sense of wonder, and a serious wit. He understands how to roll a phrase and speaks profundity in such a way that you laugh at him while you go “hum”. When asked what is the most important thing to him he replied, “learning stuff”. Brilliant.
I have no doubt. The thing is, one never doubts Karl’s sincerity. Things may be more staged than they are made to appear but it is evident that Pilkington looks at the world in a profound and complex way, in spite of the obvious barbs in the other direction. Step out of your belief system and cultural context and really listen to what he is saying. He may understand reality but he does understand something about reality, and in a way which confounds. He is disgusted by old people trying to live forever, his is a pragmatic and supine viewpoint. He is baffled but some of the most basic concepts of reality but occasionally makes observations which are both incredible and beautiful.
Pilkington is an exile. He may live in London and have a wife and hold a job but he is only visiting this reality. Pilkington is a one-in-a-million, a seriously weird dude who is adored by the masses. Most marginal personalities don’t get to co-star in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In An Idiot Abroad this fool was paid to travel to 30 countries and his antics attracted audiences that numbered in the millions. One can only imagine how much filthy lucre was made by someone who appeared to hate travel and managed to be underwhelmed at the Great Wall of China. Pilkington is an internet meme.
But chances are, you aren’t.
*the apparent lack of a feel-good ending is due, at least in part, to the fact that this is part of a larger project.
I went to a boring conference, not so very long ago. The speaker, it progressively became clear, seemed like he was under the influence of something. A conference organizer was heard to say that they had to hire a driver, that Mr. Speaker seemed confused, didn’t know where he was, and seemed to ramble. There was a uncoordinated feeling of aggression, though he was simultaneously quiet, even passive-aggressive – if that was a look. He made a few completely unscientific claims which caused me to mutter an expletive loud enough to be heard two or three rows away. I am way too ADHD for most conferences in general, but this one was particularly memorable. Don’t get me started on the sad fact that most professional speakers in the mental health field simply don’t have the speaking chops to warrant being paid to do this professionally. We have settled for people who write books, or have gone to a special course, or who happen to be the flavour of the month at your local health authority. Most speakers kind of suck. Like I said, don’t get me started.
While it may be true that this speaker was altered in some way, that really wouldn’t surprise or even dismay me anymore. Drugs are almost legal and scores of very smart people become addicted to prescription medications or smoke weed more than they know that they should. The list of professionals who have been walked off the property is probably longer than most people would imagine. But alas, this still isn’t our story.
This speaker, inebriated or no, reminded me that when it comes to early childhood development it is the very first part of the story, from a few months before that child is born until 3 or even 4 or 5, that is the most important. Humans do an incredible amount of growing, especially in the brain, during this initial few years of life. They are defined, in a very literal sense, by the experiences and impressions that imprint them in these first few tender months and years.
Now listen to this part. This part is important.
Any psychologist worth their salt will tell you that affection is one of the most important things you can give any child in the first three or four years of their life. We throw around words like “attachment theory” because the first people that love a baby will, in a very real sense, imprint a bazillion things through expressions of love and cuddling and affection and attention. The people that tell you not to spoil your baby are flat-out wrong. Spending time touching that kid, reading them books, giving them hugs, and playing hide-and-go-seek will do more for a young human than any diet or program or trendy stupid crap young parents will believe if they are granola enough. Study after study points out that if a child has at least one adult who will completely love them and help them feel safe than that kid is going to have a much better chance at a complete and happy life. Loving your nieces and nephews and grandkids and those 8 or 10 kids of my friends that I love like an uncle is an incredibly important thing, and the more time you spend with those young ones, especially in those first three or four years, the more they soak in that safety and unconditional love.
That crap sticks.
This is why my kids are so intoxicated with their young children. I must admit to some guilt as well. We are evolutionarily compelled to become fixated on our babies and take way too many pictures, and send me videos every damn day of you life. Sorry, I was projecting. We love our children because that kind of stuff is primal and no one really cares about those pictures of your kid in a raincoat anymore. Family is family; everyone else’s kids are cute for only 5 pictures, 6 tops. Early Childhood Development practitioners would tell you that it is critical that you spend significant time rolling around on the carpet and dancing to those stupid children’s songs sung by neutered hipsters. Watch Baby Jake videos. Embrace the Disney.
Please, spoil your kids and your relative’s kids and be that amazing person in the life of someone you know. Invite your nieces or grandkids or friends kids over for a sleepover and use flashlights. Make tents and do hand-spiders and kiss them over and over and chew on their toes. Read about Attachment Theory.
And don’t forget, some day that beauty is going to be a teenager and tell you off, and you’re going to remember how nice it felt when they were two.
Wisdom comes in many forms. Right now I’m watching The Passionate Eye, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, an excellent expose on an important chapter of American History. I do not, out of interest, spend much time thinking about American History; it bombards Canadian culture 24 hours a day. There is more to the world than one country, and my interests lie closer to Charlemagne or Marcus Aurelius than Lincoln or Kennedy. I love stories of ancient kingdoms and empire building, war and anthropology, Kierkegaard and long-gone cultures. American History is too recent and predictable for my tastes, though I’m not willing to have a Comments battle if you think U.S. history is the bomb.
Like many romantics, I am sucked in by stories of underdogs.
The Black Panthers have been wildly misinterpreted by those too close to the culture to reflect with any measure of detachment. They are often painted as some fascist paramilitary; hell-bent on getting even with the ‘honky pigs’ whom they believed took joy in imparting racist justice. As an integral part of American recent history, the Black Panthers were difficult to separate from the political mania of the 60’s. Racism and guns and Vietnam, assassinations and acid trips and movie stars sleeping with Mafia Dons. It was a decade that stood apart from much of American nationalism and precipitated a revolutionary movement led by African Americans whose grandparents had firsthand knowledge of slavery; and a racism so profound that it labeled an entire race as sub-human. Blacks were beaten and even raped, often for exercise or because of some perceived slight to white arrogance.
The Americans were not alone in this practice, one that now seems so vulgar and wrong. As with any study of history, however, the rule of thumb is that you must not judge historical events only through your liberal 21st Century morality. Fundamental to historical studies is the awareness that people who lived hundreds of years ago were very much like us, but they were also very different. You are a montage of your world. You grew up in a free country with enough food to eat, a television, and without having to worry about having the crap kicked out of you because of the color of your skin; in a culture which does not go out of its way to ruin your life.
People started letting their Afros grow. Imagine an entire people who felt bad about their heritage or skin color or the way they wore their hair, trying to dress more like those who belittled them because of their genetics or country of origin. The Black Panthers came across as arrogant and uppity. Ronald Reagan publicly stated that anyone who acted like these young, black upstarts was out of their mind. He wondered publicly why they couldn’t just use the regular channels, a rigged system which honored rich white males like Ronald Reagan, and literally everyone he ever hung out with.
It is a horrible thing to feel powerless and subject to the whims of the powerful. Anyone who has ever been in an abusive marriage or terrorized by a violent relative can relate, just a little, to the feelings of an African American in the middle sixties. Less educated, unable to pursue their piece of the American Dream, they finally decided that enough was enough. Exercising their Second Amendment rights, a part of the American milieu I will never fully understand, they began carrying rifles and standing in circles around police who were in the process of hassling or arresting their neighbors. What began in Oakland soon spread throughout the states, and eventually the Black Panthers opened an International Office in Europe.
I have not talked about the American election, at the beginning of 2017, though I have been sorely tempted. At one point I realized that I could contribute little to the conversation, although I should have written more about micro-expressions because… holy crap. That’s all I’ll say about that.
Love him or hate him, soon-to-be President Donald Trump’s election is clearly a metaphor for the fight against the status quo. It is not only Americans who feel the sting of elitism. When you are poor and rural, with very few options and a factory that is closing which has employed your clan for generations, you understand the staggering frustration of watching the rich get richer and the pretty people spend thousands on glittery crap when you can’t afford your truck payment. My father was poor and an orphan, and not everyone has that made-for-television story of catching breaks after working really hard. For millions of us, hard work does not automatically translate into media contracts. It wasn’t until Making of A Murderer that some people realized that even white people can feel the sting of prejudice. I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to be a Palestinian or a Syrian refugee right now.
The Black Panthers have slipped into the annals of Americana, with past members looked upon as folk heroes, or at very least a cool part of history. We no longer can recall the sting of these emotions, and most of us realize that J. Edger Hoover was bat-crap crazy. It was a different time.
There is a part of your story that I will never understand. I may get paid to talk with people about their problems and secrets, but we did not share the same history. In much the same way that we must look at history through a different lens, it is important that we remember everyone is on their own unique, and ofttimes lonely, journey. We all die alone. There is no possible way that I can understand what it is like to be treated like an animal just because of a pigment in my skin. You were right all along, I really do not know how you feel, how could I? You are wired up in a spectacular and bizarre way, too complex and sometimes, and you know what I’m talking about, living your own brand of crazy. There is no synergy strong enough to allow me to fully comprehend what you are going through. I can feel your pain but I cannot ever fully know it.
I don’t want you to tell me, “I know how you feel”. No you don’t. I’m not even always sure I know how I feel, and my brand of cray cray is fed by a thousand or a million facts and experiences and beliefs you know very little about. It sounds funny coming from me, but most people don’t really want a bunch of advice when they tell you how crappy their day is. I have had multiple clients tell me that my job is just to agree with them while they spew out a wellspring of pain or problems or confusion.
And besides, most people shouldn’t give out too much advice. First and foremost, advice is tainted by our experiences. I have spent an inordinate amount of time learning how to step outside the drama, and it is still hard. How can I truly know how to help you if I am trapped in the narrative? And while we are on this topic, I would encourage you to accept advice sparingly. Most people don’t really know what they are talking about when it comes to this complicated crap, and those who have a smattering of knowledge are often emotionally entangled in the show. This also applies to professionals as well. If your psychiatrist diagnosed you after a 20 minute interview than chances are they don’t know what the hell they are talking about. I cannot tell you how many people have carried a label or a diagnosis for decades that was spuriously flung at them by a condescending expert who didn’t have a clue what was really going on. If you were diagnosed as a kid or youth, that goes double. Dozens of people have confessed to me that they were pegged with a mental health issue as a teen, after having lied or exaggerated symptoms to get out of school, or make the old person shut up, or to impress a friend or parent. It takes months to understand what my clients are about, and even then I’m just going on biased information from an emotionally invested one-side of the story.
Chances are, I don’t know how you feel. Not really.
I was discussing sex with a colleague. I know, that sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Punctuation is important. Put your mind on pause, we were speaking in an entirely clinical-ish manner.
I have been a therapist for some time now. Without exaggerating, people in my field, with the requisite amount of full-time experience, have literally counseled thousands of strangers… and usually most of their friends. People know what I do for a living and sometimes, because my family and friends are all cheap bastards, they make me give them advice for free. Some of my buds, and you know who you are, casually refer to me as “Dr. Death” because I have a habit of showing up every time someone gets in an accident or a close relative passes away. If you are a counselor or a physiotherapist, a social worker or a kinesiologist or a medical professional, you totally know what I am talking about. Therapy is expensive and Scott is free to friends and relatives. Yay.
So back to the sex. I know I said that wrong.
People have secrets. There are stories from our past, and ofttimes our present, that we don’t talk about while watching hockey. Habits we have struggled to break, decisions made and regretted, dirty little secrets of which we are ashamed. If I have learned one thing in all my years as a counselor, it’s that quite a few people have things tucked away in the closet they would choose to forget. I get that.
I remember many days, many confessions. The point is, I have forgotten many more. Life goes on and at some point the only person carrying that baggage is probably you. As the comedian said, “You know who cares as much about your problems as you do? No one.”
Counseling, for reasons I understand and several I do not, actually works for many people. Even stripping away all the psychology and philosophy and relationship-building, there is something powerful, something cathartic, about telling someone else the truth, without worrying judgment or your partner finding out. Counselees regularly report feeling better, though I am often dumbfounded as to what I have actually done for that person. There is a power in the process, not just the result.
This is the obvious reason why change happens slowly, over extended periods of time. You cannot really change your attitude, much less your philosophy of life, in 8 sessions; the idea is usually ludicrous. It took you decades to get this way, and I’m not a televangelist or a medium. The process itself, that long and arduous journey of infinitesimal change, you can’t fake that. Wisdom takes time.
But I digress, as usual.
You have a dirty little secret, perhaps more than two. It may not be perverted or gross or abuse, but most of us carry a regret, or ten; something that has scarred us, a wound which has never completely healed.
People tell me stuff. Any illusions you may have about counselors knowing a whack of gossip is unequivocally correct. Unfortunately, the sheer volume and weight of thousands of horror stories bleeds any of the guilty pleasure out of knowing someone’s secrets. At some point in the journey, it became clinical. Therapists who can’t take the misery get a different job.
So when you told me that dirty little secret, chances are I didn’t flinch. As you have surmised by now, this isn’t bragging, it’s just math.
Where is this headed? Shame is a powerful thing. People carry embarrassment and that dirt, and we all have that story where we came clean with someone and they hurt us. It may sound pedantic but there is often that old voice in our head reminding us we are such a loser that no one could really accept or love us if they knew how messed up we really were. If they knew the things we’ve done or the places we’ve been…
I’m not a catholic but I get why people go to confession. People in my profession often surrogate as a secular priest for clients, that cathartic thing again. My friends who have done a 12-Step Program remember Step 5 – I’ve heard a few myself. Step 5 is my day job.
One more thing. I have heard stories that involve really sick crap that would blow most minds, and perhaps your masturbation problem or weird fantasy, or history of abuse, or… whatever, could benefit from an outside, possibly more objective, perspective. And that’s why I get paid the money. This is, in no way, an attempt to belittle issues you have struggled with for years; I hope you can see my heart in this. Many words with one singular purpose – maybe it’s time to demystify your dirty little secret and get a clean perspective from someone who won’t judge you or make light of your journey. Catharsis can be a powerful tool for healing.
It will only sting a little, I promise.
Amazing mindfulness music video
(thanks to Lori Abercrombie for the idea)
*if you like this stuff you should check out Neil Gaiman’s story about what to do if you find yourself inside a fairy tale. I have it in audio and am fond of using it to distract myself and others…
Robert Frost’s famous poem has been a reference point in my thinking and practice for decades. Considered by many to be a populist poem for the poser, it touched my life in Grade 11. For some reason, and I have no idea why, I almost liked poetry in high school. It wasn’t very cool for a guy who played competitive sports to spend too much time discussing poetry with girls when you could be kissing, so I pretended to think poetry was stupid. Something stuck.
My grade 11 English teacher seemed 100 years old. She was one of those old-school marms who wore her hair in a bun because she hated fun. We couldn’t stand her, but we were exposed to a ton of poetry, and I learned how to put a sentence together. Thank you, Miss Enns, wherever you are.
My roommate and closest friend at the time once, when asked to compose a ditty of his own, compiled the first lines of a few dozen poems in our textbook and named this epic “As Winter Fought”. He got an A. Glen is still a legend in Grade 11 English.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
I am a believer in the concept of The Journey. My life has been a series of adventures, some amazing, some boring, some hurtful. We all have our lists, our columns of successes and failures, and it seems to me that seemingly small decisions in my life have often had a profound effect, in ways I could never have imagined. One day you turn left instead of right, or you agree to do something, and your life becomes an Owen Wilson movie where you visit Paris and wonder how your life could have gone so sideways. I would have never imagined, when I was 20, that I would be the person I am today.
Here’s where I am headed. So many of us have been hurt, and hurt bad. My slice of the world may not be indicative of the whole pie, but I imagine a strong case could be made that most people find this time in history stressful. Significant numbers of us deal with one or more mental health challenges, or we’ve experienced trauma, or our self-esteem could use a tiny bit of tweaking. Working as a clinician you meet scores of people who have experienced things in their life which threaten to ruin them on the inside, if not the outside. Some of us continue to struggle with processing relational hurts. Divorce or breakup can almost certainly taint our souls. Losing a loved one, or watching what you have worked for, for so long, shrivel up and die, is enough to make people bitter… and that’s the point.
I was speaking with a colleague this morning when it occurred to me – the hardest time in my life is the thing which continues to define my philosophy of life and coping mechanisms, for good or ill. As cliché as I know this to be, the time life broke me has influenced my decisions and outlook far more than any class or conversation or trip. As cheesy as it is to admit, I am thankful for what I have learned in my darkest hours. There were lessons and experiences there which I could never otherwise know. Still, I wouldn’t wish some of those crazy nights on my second greatest enemy.
I hung out with my parents this summer. My dad and I shared a sailboat in Mexico, then a week in British Columbia with my mom and niece. When I get together with my dad we tend to talk about philosophy or history or life. He plans to finish his Bachelor’s Degree, part-time, by the time he is 87, a few years early. Floating in my Canadian Tire pool he pointed his finger at me and said, “Don’t forget, always have a plan. I have a 10 Year Plan. Always have goals.” That’s my old man.
Dylan metaphorically said it, “you can serve the devil or you can serve the Lord but you’re gonna have to serve somebody”. Some people who come to my office, or meet me for a Dairy Queen Blizzard, have been through hell and back and they are wiser and stronger and more determined than ever. Others have not been able to sustain the relentless attack and they are still chasing bitterness, in spite of best intentions. This is not meant as a negative indictment, far from it. Moving beyond the biggest kick in the face of your life seems impossible for some people. I know that some kicks are also harder than others. You try to tell a parent who has lost a child that “things are going to be ok”. As I have stated on several occasions, you lose a kid and you get a free pass the rest of your life. You can swing gophers in a pillowcase, as Brent Butt says, I’m not sure I could survive some things.
There are people in my life who have chosen to keep fighting, and some of them have begun a journey of self-discovery. They begin to understand the meaning of their life. This is what gets me up in the morning. There are those, whether on purpose or through sheer luck, have come through tragedy and decided that they don’t want to end up like that. I have watched people wade through hellish madness or grief or anxiety on levels which would stagger the uninitiated, and yet somehow are able to dream about graduating from university at 87. We will not diminish this by pretending this is a Hallmark Card and your attitude determines your altitude, staying engaged in a world that has kicked you in the groin is very hard and requires a butt-load of work.
Few of us are going to radically redefine our attitude towards life and stop being pessimistic without taking significant time for you. As we have quipped before, I want to learn enough I want to change, not hurt enough I have to. My clients who move forward drink the Kool-Aid just enough to believe that things will change if they keep trying to give a damn. I can just hear several of my clients saying, “yes but I’ve tried that before, many times, and yet here I am”. I believe you. All I can say is that I have names of people who have a richer life now than during that time we dare not say out loud. At the end of the day that ridiculous greeting card may hold some truth after all, I do have a say in how I choose to look at life.
I had one other thought about this subject this morning: Why do some people tell me that the worst time of their lives has turned out to be the time when they grew the most? While there are certainly circumstances which I would not be qualified to judge, times when a life has become untenable, for many of us our greatest heartbreaks only almost killed us.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I pray I never become a bitter old man who spends all day talking about his medical problems.
The BBC breakout hit Sherlock is perhaps one of the most famous television series in the world. A relative unknown, Benedict Cumberbatch has become a worldwide sociopathic genius heart-throb. One of the attractions of the show is the filming and presentation. When you watch Sherlock you are transported into his mind, you see what he is thinking; it’s very fascinating. He has an incredible brain, an eidetic memory, and he’s super weird.
Sherlock uses a technique he is famous for called a mind palace or a memory palace. The Mind Palace is a place where genius’s store memories so they can recall anything with library-like precision. At the end of the last series, it was literally mind palace vs. mind palace as two super geniuses tried to outsmart each other. This memory technique allows the user to remember seemingly endless lists or events or details which escape the rest of us.
I can teach you how to have a mind palace in 30 minutes of soft labor. True story.
We are into our ninth month of Mental Wellness Curriculum and we continue to do this because the leaders of this thing are a bunch of dreamers and idealists who really think that we can make a difference in people’s lives by using martial arts to build better people. Wiser people. We started this year talking about the most famous month of curriculum we ever put out called, “Becoming A Lifelong Learner”. We invited people to learn along with us and together we would try to find meaning for our lives and learn how to live a healthier, more whole, futures. Over the months we have shared stories and talked about important things. This month we want to get very practical. This month we want to help with some tools that work, tools you can use.
So this week we invite you to learn how to learn better. One very practical way you can improve your life drastically is by remembering more stuff. Our counseling team can tell you that learning how to become a better thinker, a smarter and more interested person, really changes your forever.
Here’s the easy way. Darren Brown is a world-famous illusionist who made a guest appearance on Sherlock in the episode where Sherlock jumps off the roof (spoiler alert). He has a three-part podcast/book with only three chapters called Tricks Of The Mind. In this minibook he teaches you, in 30-minute segments, how to understand magic, memory, and hypnosis. The book is brilliant. In thirty minutes you will know how hypnosis and illusion works, why people are gullible and prone to believe in unusual things, the basics of magic and a few cool tricks, and last but not least – how to build your own Memory Palace.
I have a Mind Palace. It is literally my house in Mission. I have recreated my house in my mind and Darren Brown taught me how to put things around my place so my brain can remember them. My mailbox is my first trigger. In my mind I open my mailbox and there is a bunch of vegetables inside. I must remember to pick up vegetables when I get to Safeway. Next, I open the door and that triggers another little silly picture in my brain involving a door knob and a slab of meat. Don’t even go there. Sherlock’s Memory Palace is a cheesy way to learn how to remember 35 things on your grocery list or where you put your car keys. People who can remember more will learn faster, retain more of the important stuff, and that skill leaks over into their lives every day.
So learn how to have your own Memory Palace. There are plenty of places online willing to teach you in about twenty minutes. I also use the Link System as a party favorite with friends, or when I want to remember six or seven things real fast. Learning how to learn faster is an incredibly important skill for everyone.
How do you swallow an elephant? One bite at a time.
This week I spoke with one of you about eating elephants. It seems more and more apparent, at least in my small part of the village, that at some point in any journey worth taking you are going to feel overwhelmed. The 20th Century has redefined the art of being busy. Remember when you thought you had no time in the 20th Century? Amateurs. The onset of the biggest culture shift since the Reformation is redefining who you are and what pounds into your head, 14 or 16 hours a day. The noise, noise, noise; the Grinch was right. Text messaging and Facebook and your constant web companions are literally rewiring you on a neurological level, and few of us have wondered to what degree the virtual world could transform world culture and what effect that will have on your brain and your psyche and your family in generations to come. I told someone today that the single worst mistake I made in my parenting was buying my youngest an Xbox. He used to play outside. He owns a bike. A good snowboarder. Too bad so many of our kids would prefer to stay at home and molt into the furniture if we let them.
Last week my son, my dad, and I took an eco-tour via sailboat to the Marietas Islands Bird Sanctuary with Pegaso Charters, the coolest dudes you will ever meet. We spent an entire day on a classic sailboat and it was absolute nirvana. It will change your life. Eight-and-a-half hours of warm ocean swells, weird and cool facts about the local ecosystem, snorkeling and lounging at a private park beach; way out in the ocean. I wanted to go again the next day. I love to sail. For six hours I stood, back against the thinnest of insulated cables, dancing with the ocean. At first it is difficult to find your sea legs, though this passes quickly. For a time you hold on to the cabling and feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme. Later you begin to let go and move with the music.
Two people spent much of the day texting. What is happening to us?
Sailing is a very holy experience for me. Years ago my friend Julie had a sailboat in her family and we got to steer the 34 footer across the Vancouver Bay area. This was different. We were headed somewhere, a point in the horizon aboard a vessel with dimensions similar to Ragnar’s and Leif’s Viking galleys, 500 years before Columbus hired a better publicist. It is almost immediately apparent, aboard that beautiful sailboat, how sailors and fisherpersons and Vikings wrote about becoming one with the ocean. My daughter-in-laws family is filled with tugboat captains, they know what I mean. Swaying with the ocean for hours at a time is a deeply religious experience if you choose to pay attention. My geek friends know what I am talking about. Thinking about philosophy or being one with the great vastness of the ocean is very zen when you are catching the wind in those lily-white sails.
But I digress.
Life is very complicated if you look at it, all at once. If you are negotiating a tough present or future, if you struggle to feel like you give a damn, if you wonder if you will die alone, this world can sometimes be too much to bear. Remember when we were talking about how overwhelming you life was? The only way to deal with that noise is to begin at the beginning. Days aboard sailboats are few and far between, and it is very easy to fall out of sync with the ocean. Problems seem enormous when we are tired out and fond of losing, when we feel like losers or when the situation is going on and on and on and there is no relief in sight.
One bite at a time. Parents ask me everyday how they can get through to that child who is lost, or consistently high, or struggling with body issues, or depression, or anxiety. When your baby is doing cocaine you want an action plan. It’s tempting to storm into that room and put that kid on an episode of Intervention, but that isn’t the real world and it isn’t going to work unless your kid is Amish. It’s time to listen to your counselor.
You need to sleep and eat something made of fruit. This may not be sexy but when lives fall apart people lose 24 pounds and go bat-crap crazy. I remember nights of absolute insanity, like really made-for-tv weird kind of stuff. You are going to be no good to anyone if you are freaking crazy. I know you need to tell me the story, one more time, again and again. I get that you want the world to change in one day and your spouse to know you have really really changed for good, but I’m not the one who is barking at the moon. Becoming a Jedi is about consistency, not climaxes. People who figure themselves out have spent thousands of hours living the program, one day at a time, one argument or heartache or anxious experience at a time. Everyone wants a golden ticket but complex psychological change takes years.
Start by taking better care of yourself. You are definitely worth it. Learn the tools you will need to cope with your spinning thoughts. Practice what you preach. Watch Midnight in Paris or The Razor’s Edge (1984) or the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I know it’s cheesy but that’s kind of the point. If what you are doing is not taking you there, than all a guy like me can tell you is to switch game plans. You have been programmed by our chemistry and our family and those stupid 80’s sitcoms like Three’s Company. Literally the entire planet is trying to convince you of something, and chances are your childhood didn’t prepare you for the crushing relentlessness of real life. If the horse is dead get off of it, don’t try to ride faster, or however that cliché goes. Counselor types constantly harp on self-care for a reason, and that reason is usually that you aren’t doing it enough.
Most of us experience times when we really have no idea what to do. You cannot force that kid to stop smoking weed but you may be able to get them to talk to someone about their anxiety or why they need to self-medicate their crappy lives. A decent counselor can provide you with a few dozen strategies that you will inherently already know, but cannot think of, when your life is screaming in your ear. The journey to wholeness is a series of little life hacks and the discipline to keep working on this crap long after it stops being fun. STOPP Therapy and Neil Gaiman horror poems and obscure foreign movies. Dozens and dozens of cheesy tools that sound like they were created by a seven-year-old. Thousands of conversations and failed attempts and tiny victories.
I have spent some time thinking about you lately. I know, that sounds so creepy.
You told me that you have lost some faith in the process and life is not working out for you, right now. I can hear you talking and sometimes there are silences because I am absorbing the weight of your despair. You carry a very heavy burden, and have been for a while. This has been a long drought.
At this point in the journey counseling rarely helps in any tangible way. I think a person gets beaten up for so long that, like in any prize fight, eventually you are so punch-drunk that it’s impossible to stand up straight; and it seems like you will never stand tall again. I get that. Counseling is hard enough to believe in when things are going your way.
There is a cardinal rule in counseling that, as a therapist, you never make it about you. Good counselors don’t abscond with the pain and diminish the journey of those who are suffering. But this is a letter and I’m not charging you for this session. So I will be ever so brief when I contend that I know a little about what it feels like to be suicidal, and I’m familiar with years of gut-wrenching pain. In a very unfortunate way, many of us can relate to this living death, and this is a club that no one wants to join. Welcome to our team, we suck.
There are lessons in life that you only learn in hell. As cliché as this may sound, it is oft repeated because it also happens to be very true for oh so many of us. You are visiting the living death, and I can only imagine how soul crushing that must be. In your particular case, there was no life-killing death or disease, just the relentless grind of the ordinary, and the profanity of a world that kills our dreams. Someone hurt you very bad, all those years ago, and some kinds of scars don’t go away without mountains of therapy. Those of us who have been neglected, or bore physical or mental “deformities”, those who were bullied or beaten or raped, that stuff is very real and it will wreck your life if you don’t take this very seriously. But enough preaching.
Don’t give up. Nothing I can say to you is going to help right now, but there is one thing I do know for sure. If you stick this out you are going to be wiser. This is meaning of life stuff. You believe that this life is going to go on forever and that’s normal. Virtually no one really understands where the journey is going to end when it has been months and years of failure and broken promises.
Sometimes, when I listen to the stories all day long, I get caught up in the hopelessness. There have been times in our sessions when your frustration and hurt washes over me, and I get just a glimpse of what it must feel like to live in your reality. I have literally watched hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who have been punched in the throat and are convinced that their problems are terminal, and are tempted to give up. Hell, many of us give up all the time.
I have known others in this journey who have spent years, and I mean years, struggling to cope with a reality they never dreamed possible. Lives of loss and loneliness and the fear that their lives don’t matter and they will die, forgotten.
Don’t give up. Someday is coming, it’s just probably going to take years longer than you have been promised or believe. Longer than anyone imagines. I told something this morning that it could take years to move beyond some mental health challenges. Keep reading and thinking and arguing with me, I can take it. I do this job because I firmly believe it is possible to create a different future, and I watched my father systematically do so as I was growing up. The people in my family believe that the future is not set because my orphaned parent fought against all odds and fixed his shitty reality. Some lessons only come with time and sometimes it isn’t time, quite yet. Most of us don’t have an inspirational orphan story to keep us going when we have only known failure all our lives. How can you embrace a future you believe only exists in movies and for other people.
Reminds me of that quote, “passing on what you didn’t learn”.
Let’s be honest, dealing with that stuff from your past isn’t easy. Truer words are rarely spoken. Like you, I have heard hundreds of experts groan on about how their system or mindset or new book on sale at Amazon (mention this program for a 10% discount) will “transform your life in 8 weeks”. Real mental health clinicians usually take those claims with a grain of salt. Anyone in my field can give you a formula for success and it won’t take 8 weeks.Knowing the right answers has very little to do with being serious about being different. The tools you need to address you issues are relatively simple to learn (in theory) and very difficult to master. If you have a major issue with anxiety or depression or abuse or any number of mental challenges, it is going to take work and time. Oh ya, real change takes time, and usually lots of it. But with the right tools, and a dedication to do whatever it takes, you can begin to experience significant change in just a few months.
One of the reasons change takes time is because of this principle in psychology: Real change begins with changing your mind, not your activities or emotions. Most people want to change their situation or their location or their income or any number of outside things. As the therapist says, “change your mind and your butt will follow”. It’s rarely the other way around. There may be little you can do to change those people and problems in your life which constantly try to push you down, and knowing that is very important. We have all tried to fix others and eventually we come to realize that at the end of the day, we can only work on ourselves.
As your online friend I would like to challenge you to deal with your thoughts, show you how to practice taking back control of your impulses, and help you learn to address your dysfunctional coping skills and cognitive distortions. More on that later.
Hurting people can move forward. This reminds us of another truth about change: You either hurt enough you have to or learn enough you want to. Wouldn’t it be nice to learn enough to change, just one time? I hate learning every lesson the hard way. You may need to drag your emotions and garbage and racing thoughts, kicking and screaming, back into your control. You will have to fight your own dysfunctional thinking and learn to get control of your mind, battle your obsessions, say no to your desires, and question your own beliefs. This is a great deal of work and pain but the reward is sanity, hope, and a shot at a happy life. As the saying goes, we’re not telling you it’s going to be easy, we’re telling you it will be worth it.
Don’t be discouraged. These things take time but, before very long, you will begin to see positive results. You only have one precious life and wouldn’t it be amazing if you could learn contentment and wisdom?
There are no shortcuts, contrary to what many people are selling. You can begin today to make your life different. Some people are finished products and have decided to settle for a broken life. Don’t be like those people. To do so is to succumb to bitterness and misery, if not now then soon. So begin right now. Begin small.
Many people work on their mental health like they diet. Every now and then they shake themselves awake and decide to read a book or see someone. These are both very good things but, like most diets, this is a lifestyle change, not a passing fad. As we said months ago, the goal is to become a lifelong learner. It’s not about one book or one documentary or one more crazy article on the internet about bacon or the ozone or why you should drink 8 glasses of water a day. The journey to mental wellness requires humility and the understanding that there are things I still need to learn, this is not just about great intentions.
Talk to someone. Listen to an audiobook or sit in the sun and pretend to read something good for you. Go back to school. Take on online course. Watch a documentary. Learn enough about your own issues that you gradually change, one experience at a time.
One of the coolest parts about being a counselor is the opportunity to walk alongside people from that first frustrated, hopeless, impossible day; and watch them gradually begin to morph. It may be virtually impossible to see your own change, you live with that mess every day. I get to sit on the outside and watch the genesis take place.
Then one day you walk into my office or table at a coffee shop and it becomes apparent something is different. Neither of us can point to a time or a day when things got this way, it seems to have happened by accident. Most real change, in my experience, doesn’t come from an epiphany or conversion experience. For the rest of us, there is only slogging forward and hoping for the best. And on that day, you suddenly realize something a few of us have noticed for months – you are changed, somehow.
I’m a part of a cool new martial arts Startup. They let me write some of the curriculum. Here’s a sample from this week:
This is our third instalment for our February Theme: Making Your Life Count. Every week we bring you resources to help with your mental training, as well as your physical one.
My good friend Lori is a great writer and has started taking virtual vacations. This is a great mindfulness exercise for anyone who needs a break from the rain or the snow or the office. Ever wanted to go to England but don’t have the time or money? Just sit back and let Lori be your tour guide.
For years I have introduced clients to Neil Gaiman’s five-minute and twenty-three second walk through fantasy land called, “Instructions”. A Buddhist may encourage you to listen to a rock grow. Some people go tanning. Many of us have a go-to song for when we are feeling low or pouty. I’ve recently reconnected with my 12-year-old self who likes doing “Dot To Dots”. Some of us go fishing or take a nap or watch that channel with video cameras at places on the planet where people are having way more fun than you are right now. The vehicle doesn’t really matter, it’s the journey and the destination which counts. Continue reading “Mindfulness Exercises: And Now For Your Virtual Vacation”