The Idiot Genius That Is Carl Pilkington

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 [6] 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.[7] 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.

An interviewer for The Daily Telegraph concluded that Pilkington’s persona is genuine.[12]

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.

An interviewer for The Daily Telegraph concluded that Pilkington’s persona is genuine.[12]

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.

Early Childhood Development: Why It’s Really Important To Spoil Your Baby

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.

Giving Advice To Your Friends

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.

Your Dirty Secrets

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.

Dying Bitter

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.

Not bad.

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.

Learn Like Sherlock

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.

One Bite At A Time

How do you swallow an elephant? One bite at a time.
Old Fable

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.

A Letter To A Friend

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”.

Dealing With Your Stuff

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.

 

 

 

Making Peace With Me

I remember, as a young child, being told, “quit bragging!”. Adults told me, told you, not to brag, because bragging about yourself was very, very, wrong. Be humble, I was taught. People who talk about themselves are egomaniacs. We tell our kids they are amazing, but don’t really want it to go to their head.
Psychology is cool. If you take the time to learn about people you begin to understand that it’s possible to like yourself without turning into a jerk. The science on this is fairly straightforward, insecure people brag too much. People who have made peace with themselves and have a decent self-image tend to be humble, and for one very obvious reason: the more you learn about life, the more you understand how much you still do not know. Most of us struggle with crippling self-esteem issues and if we do not deal with this lack of self-confidence, this stuff isn’t going away. As your Mental Wellness Team we would like to remind you that you are pretty darn amazing and there is plenty to like, if you allow yourself.
Liking yourself does not automatically make you arrogant or insecure. People who accept who they are do not need the approval of others, and are usually not fixated on jumping through hoops to be loved. Self-confidence is a very good thing, when it comes out of a healthy state of mind and body. Appreciating your skills and personality, even loving yourself, is a very good thing. It’s time for someone to say it – it’s important to like who you are.
It’s time to make peace with you. Many of us are keenly aware that we will probably never be perfect; the challenge is to be good with that.
Here’s another little gem from psychology – The opposite of poor self-esteem is not good self-esteem; the opposite of poor self-esteem is self-acceptance. Learning to like and appreciate who you are is perhaps the meaning of life, or at least the beginning of wisdom. What an amazing family this would be if we could learn to like ourselves, in spite of our long list of failures or shortcomings. Healthy people realize that it is important to also have a list of their pure awesomeness.
There is no magic formula for good self-esteem. There is no way you can suddenly think you are amazing when you have spent a lifetime loathing who you are. Healing begins by putting away the microscope and the unrealistic expectations. You don’t need to pretend you are something you can never be. You can stop looking at the blemishes and begin to focus on your potential. Making peace with your shortcomings has nothing to do with thinking you are beautiful or perfect or brilliant, and everything to do with putting down your weapons of self-destruction and refusing to fixate on what is missing. Like many things on this journey called life, this is about changing how you think, not how you look.
So go ahead, crow!
*thanks to Marie Pudlas for her photo

 

Mindfulness Exercises: And Now For Your Virtual Vacation

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”

Teen Spirit

First blog post from a colleague and friend who is perhaps the best youth counsellor I know. Welcome aboard Dawn!

Dawn Taylor Counselling

Youth groups are truly an amazing beast. They tend to take on a life of their own, for good and sometimes not so good. When I am facilitating a youth group I am often in awe at the wisdom that comes to the table and when the mood is just right, we get to hear the most brilliant morsels of teenage insight.

Yesterday I ran 2 youth groups. One group is for youth who are deemed to be relatively stable and without much substance use. I created the course content with two colleagues in my field and we each bring to the table a unique perspective on our training and experiences in working with adolescents. The other group is a drop-in style where we merely open the floor for discussion based on what the youth need to discuss in that given day. Each group has its challenges, and yesterday was…

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My Dog Has Generalized Anxiety Disorder. And He’s A Racist.

My dog has Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This is my day job and I have watched literally hundreds of human clients who have struggled with GAD so I feel qualified to diagnose my dog. Human persons with mental health issues are diagnosed primarily on symptomatology; you tell the doctor what is wrong with you and he sends you to a psychiatrist who will, after talking with you for a part of an hour or two, tell you what is wrong with your head. Don’t get me started on misdiagnosis. Continue reading “My Dog Has Generalized Anxiety Disorder. And He’s A Racist.”

Go To Sleep

I have three grandchildren. Young kids marrying young kids, marrying young kids. Now that they have spawned, I regularly tell my children they are redundant, sperm donors who no longer serve any other familial purpose. I am a counselor so I’m used to being honest with people for money.

Isaac is two-years-old and a force of nature. He is the one in the beer hat, although we would never do that and I get one first. Isaac and I are joined at the hip and he is definitely my little man. Continue reading “Go To Sleep”