Best worst day

20 Jan. 2017

I mark today as one of the best and worst days of my life.

It is a best day, because January 20 is and will always be my son’s birthday, a day that changed my life forever.

Before my son was born, parents would sometimes talk to me about how much they loved their kids. I thought I understood, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was prepared to love him, to love him a lot. But what I didn’t understand was how his arrival would affect my capacity to love. Like the Grinch, my heart grew at least 3 sizes that day…and it is filled anew, every time I see him. Every day that I get to share my life with this wonderful, exciting, loving, challenging boy. I love you, my son, with all of my heart.

Those who know my story understand that so much of what my life is about now began with this small boy…even those parts that, like my professional life, would seem separate from him. It was he that taught me to be the shelter, and the storm. It was he, and my desire to be the parent he deserved, that gave me the courage to confront my irritability and anger, which prompted my immersion into Buddhism, which taught me the power of compassion, which led me to Compassion Focused Therapy, which gradually became almost the whole of what my professional life is now about. Without him, I can say with certainty that I would have a comfortable, entirely different life. But there would be no books, no workshops, no TEDx talks, no Skype chats with wonderful mental health professionals from all corners of the globe. And there would be a whole lot less joy, and peace, and love, and passion, and resolve. So this day will always be one of my best days.

Which is why it is also one of my worst days. Before my son came along, what our country faces today would likely have been much easier for me. The cynical version of me has always suspected that the human race would sooner or later end up getting what we deserved, and that it wouldn’t be pretty. I sort of always assumed that we’d end up making the planet uninhabitable or some bringing some other sort of history-altering catastrophe upon ourselves. But I was sort of strangely okay with it. The concept of karma has always made sense to me…as a child, my atheist father – the most moral man I know – used to often say, “As you sow, so shall you reap.” We’ve been sowing poison for millennia now, sometimes purposefully, sometimes not.

But when my son came along, I suddenly had some real skin in the game. And not just in that “this is the world my son will live in” sort of way, although that piece of it is not small. Somehow, his arrival brought me the equanimity that I’d never come close to before – not because it had eluded me, but because I’d never sought it to begin with. After he came, it wasn’t just about loving him. Somehow, his arrival forced me to love everybody, because somehow it forced me to really see them for the first time. Having my own child, and watching him grow, helped me see the beautiful child inside of everyone else. And the toddler taking his first steps. The adolescent getting her heart broken for the first time. The adult trying to figure out how to make his way in the world. The elder reflecting upon her life, and closing her eyes for the last time. And when I see this in people, all of these versions of ourselves that each of us contains…well, when I see someone like that, it is almost impossible for me not to love them.

Almost. I am struggling to care about the present version of Donald Trump, and the present versions of his supporters. I mourn for the child he was, who was almost certainly miserable much of the time. I mourn for the adult, who seemed to never truly feel loved or to know how to love, no matter how many beautiful women he threw into the lonely pit at his core, no matter how many children he sired. And I mourn for Mr. Trump at the moment of his passing, when I suspect he may finally sense the hollowness of his life.

But the present version of Mr. Trump scares the hell out of me.  While some seem surprised by his consistent selection of relatively unqualified billionaires to his cabinet, it seems clear to me that this is the only sort of person that Trump can allow himself to admire – those who seem to embody his preoccupation with wealth and power…those whose own way of life seem to reflect, validate, or perhaps excuse his own.

This feels deeply important to me, because I don’t think it’s that Mr. Trump simply doesn’t care about the people of this country. I think that at some place deep within him, there may be the recognition that allowing himself to care about the people of America, and particularly those less fortunate than he, is akin to psychological self-immolation.   Because these are the people he’s spent his whole life exploiting for his own gain. These are the people he’s wantonly hurt, again and again and again, in pursuit of wealth and power. How can such a man begin to acknowledge or care about others’ pain without being overwhelmed by how much of it he has caused, without seeing that the golden god he imagines in the mirror is a shell of a man whose wealth is inseparable from the harm it was born of. It’s hard to feel compassion for someone so callous, but in the ways that matter most, Donald Trump may be one of the poorest souls we’ve ever witnessed.

And despite his every effort to dissuade us, we’ve elected him to the presidency. Not me. Probably not you. But we. We who voted for him, and we who tolerated and ignored the causes and conditions that, for just enough of us, made voting for someone like Donald Trump seem anything less than unthinkable.

Mr. Trump, as much as I hate to say it, this is your day as well. And since you share this day with my son, I will honor you by allowing your influence to shape and inform my commitment to him on the day of his birth:

I will do my best to help my son feel loved, to know that, whatever happens, he is deeply held in the hearts of people who wish only for his happiness.

I will do my best to teach my son to see the beauty and the vulnerability in himself others, and to be courageous in working to alleviate suffering – others, and his own.

I will do my best to teach and model for him a respect for women that recognizes them as equal to himself, to value their wisdom and listen to their voices rather than to simply strive to assert his own, and to use both his voice and his silence to support them.

I will do my best to teach him and model for him a reverence and willingness to learn from people whose culture, and experience, beliefs, and backgrounds are different from his own, to use his voice to advocate on their behalf, and to rest solidly in silent witness when it helps their voices to ring forth and be heard.

I will do my best to help him learn that cruelty is never acceptable, that the suffering of others is never something to rejoice in, and that harm to others or himself should never be a goal.

I will do my best to teach him that sometimes we must soften, and soothe, and that sometimes we must fight for what we know is right with every fiber of our being.

In short, Mr. Trump, I will do my best to give my son the things that, had you received them, would have made the current version of you impossible.

And finally, I will do my best to help my son learn to hope, and to dream.

And on this, your day and his, I will do my best to hope and dream for you, Mr. Trump. I will hope that I am wrong about you, and that you can find your way to wisdom, or at least to allow yourself to be guided by those who possess it. I will dream of a world in which you can find the courage to care about those less fortunate than yourself, and the fortitude to rise above your history.

And I will do my best not to hate you when you fail, because I do not want to be the one that teaches my son to hate.

Hidden in plain view

 

 

28 Nov. 2016

So this has been a tough few weeks, with little end in sight. Despite this, or maybe because of it, I thought I’d share something exciting from my life.

A few weeks ago, I made a bit of a bold move, and for the first time, rented office space. The Inland Northwest Compassionate Mind Center is no longer just an idea, or a set of activities. It is a place.

I know this will sound amateurish to those of you with lavish offices, but for me, it felt important. While I’ve done therapy continuously since becoming a psychologist, this is the first time I’ve had my own space, and the first time in my life I’ve been able to build a therapeutic space from the ground up. Before now, I’ve either done my clinical work within the confines of other agencies (university counseling center, prison, residential facilities, schools) or sub-let office space at a per-hour rate to accommodate my small private practice, with no chance to create a space of my own. Even my cozy professor’s office at the university is filled with hand-me-down furniture from faculty who retired as I arrived, and the clutter endemic to academic offices. I’ve sometimes arrogantly joked that all I needed to do therapy was two chairs and a reasonable source of light…a joke that made light of the fact that a good bit of the time, that’s about all I had.

But it seemed time to take the step, and the process of creating this space has soothed me during tough times. Those of you who know a bit about CFT know we group emotions generally into 3 systems: threat, drive, and safeness. While I haven’t had the chance to write about it yet, I’ve long believed and built my therapy and teaching around the idea that an optimal learning and growth environment involves healthy doses of safeness and inspiration (drive) (and there’s research that speaks to this, using different language). No need to purposefully add any threat to the mix – growth and learning, particularly in therapy, tend to carry that with them.

So in building this space, I looked to create safeness and inspiration for myself, my clients, and my supervisees. I wanted a varied palette of colors, containing both synchrony and some chaos, in which any attire would fit if not match. I wanted warmth. I wanted something of simplicity in a manner that would feel familiar to my Danish friends.

And finally, I wanted some symbolism subtly embedded within the space – to inspire me whenever I enter it, to remind me of my purpose for being here, that this is a place of healing. The first symbol I chose was kintsugi – the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with seams of gold, to represent that in healing our broken places, we can become even more beautiful than before. I placed a print of a relatively local artist’s rendering of a kintsugi bowl on the wall, and scattered a few mended bowls about the office, some prominently placed, some subtly.

The therapy room was coming together nicely, but there was still a big wall-space behind the couch upon which my clients would sit. It needed something.

A number of years ago I attended a talk at a ‘Frontier Days’ celebration with my Uncle Eddie, in rural Kansas, in the heart of a world filled with the working white folk who years later would do the heavy lifting in electing Donald Trump to the presidency. The talk I attended was about quilts. Specifically, about the ways that slaves had used quilts in the Underground Railroad, hanging out quilts with various patterns and shapes drawn from their African heritage to guide other slaves on their way to freedom – to indicate safe pathways and havens, to warn of danger. For those who are interested, this is documented in a lovely book called ‘Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad” by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard.

I was fascinated, and mentioned this to my mother – a master quilter whose hand-stitches are so consistent that people sometimes assume her work is machine-quilted. True to form, she made me a quilt featuring the patterns used and discussed in the book, using civil war reproduction fabrics.

The gift moved me, but the quilt lay folded in my blanket-closet for years, wrapped in plastic so it wouldn’t become soiled. I wanted to hang it, but knew it needed to be displayed in the right sort of place. If anything I own could be called sacred, it is this quilt, featuring the same images that slaves used to help their own navigate their way to liberation. This week, looking at that big space on my office wall, I knew I’d finally found the space.

 

I wondered at it. I wondered if it was too “country,” if it would fit in this space. And then I realized, if it doesn’t fit here, then neither do I. I grew up in rural Oklahoma, and if you know me, you’ve likely heard my accent surface on occasion, like a flavor you might not have expected in an otherwise unremarkable dish. Liberal apologists self-flagellate with claims that progressives didn’t bother to understand the white working class before the election. I didn’t bother, but I understood. It’s in my blood. I’ve played in those all-day softball tournaments on the fourth of July that don’t start until after the turtle-races finish. I’ve gone skinny-dipping in that hidden swimming hole, carefully scanning for cottonmouths before jumping in. I’ve knelt in that red dirt.

So I hung my mother’s beautiful quilt lovingly behind where my clients will sit, in the hopes of honoring its sacredness. In the hopes of honoring the slaves who protected and aided their own in secret ways displayed in plain sight, and the rich African heritage that gave them a language to do so. In the hopes that it can lend my clients some safeness and inspiration on their own precarious journeys to freedom.

So I love this place, filled with two messages, hidden in plain view: First, that we can heal ourselves, and become stronger and more beautiful – not despite the broken places, but because of them. And secondly, that even in the darkest of times, we can join together – with those like us, and those unlike us – to help one another discover the pathway to freedom, one courageous step at a time.

Safety pins

16 Nov. 2016

After having an unexpectedly productive last 12 hours or so (except for getting only 5 or so hours of sleep), I thought I’d post on something I’ve been thinking about the past few days.

There’s been a fair bit of talk on social media about safety pins, and whether wearing them is a show of support that could actually help vulnerable people feel safe, or whether it is a sad way for white people to help themselves alleviate their guilt and to feel good about themselves in the face of recent events.

In thinking about this, I’ve been very influenced by my friends who are pioneers in the area of contextual behavioral sciences (CBS). In CBS, a distinction is made between the topography of a behavior (what the behavior looks like – for example, wearing a safety pin), and the function of that behavior (what actual effect the behavior has – what purpose it serves). In this way, many different behaviors that take different forms (topographies) can serve similar functions, and depending upon factors like context, motivation,et cetera, identical behaviors (like wearing a pin) can have very different functions for different people (and in different contexts). Sorry for the minor geek-out, but this point feels important to me here.

From this perspective, wearing the safety pin could either be a powerful statement to ourselves and others, or a meaningless effort at self-congratulation. It all depends on the *function* of wearing the pin, which again, depends on the context of the pin-wearing (whether, for example, the pin-wearer engages in other, real-world efforts to make things better for vulnerable people), and the motivation of the person wearing it.

So here’s the point. I’m wearing a safety pin, and will be doing so in the near future. I’ve even thought about getting a tattoo of a safety pin on my left inside-wrist/forearm. There are a few reasons for this:

First, if there’s a chance that someone who is feeling scared, hurt, or vulnerable sees that pin and realizes that they have an ally in me, that makes it worth wearing. For me, the pin represents not only that I won’t harm them, but that I will listen to them, will actively intervene if I see them being victimized, and will continue to advocate on their behalf in other ways.

Secondly, I’m aware that wearing the pin may elicit negative reactions from those who don’t understand what it means. I’m hoping that some of those reactions might turn into interactions that give me the opportunity to explain to these people why I wear the pin, and to help them empathize with the very real experience of vulnerable people everywhere, so that maybe we can be less divided, and there can be more allies.

Finally, and most importantly, the main reason I’m wearing the pin is as a reminder to myself. As a straight, white, cis-gendered male, it is so easy for my good intentions to support others to slip off of my radar, replaced by the omnipresent and overfull to-do list. It’s so easy for the victimization of others to be invisible to me, because almost none of it affects me in any direct way. I’d never mean to forget, but it’s just too easy for that to happen. But when I put on this pin in the morning, and every time I see it on my chest, it is a visible reminder of my intention to fight for the welfare of vulnerable others, and to use my voice and my life in ways that can be helpful to them. To put my money, my time, and my effort where my mouth is.

Historically, this has been effective for me…from wearing a mala beneath my clothes to help me carry my spiritual practice motivation through the day, to carrying a British pound in my pocket to remind me of my compassionate intention (a pound because it has heft and reminds me of England, where I first learned about CFT from my friend Paul Gilbert).

Anyway, that’s why I wear the pin. It’s all about function. So I’d like to encourage you to find ways to help yourself make sure that the way you live your life matches your values and your commitment to them.

Apprehensive, he said.

14 Nov. 2016

It’s almost been a week, and as a dear friend and I mused over beers at the pub yesterday, just trying to watch my Chargers lose in peace as a Trump voter spent the entire second half of the game trying to engage us in a political conversation, it feels like a death.

The man didn’t understand. He made fun of the protesters. When I tried to explain the fear, he said, “That’s what I’ve felt for the last 8 years.” He didn’t understand. When I expressed concern and asked him to put a name to his feelings when Obama was elected, he said, “Apprehensive.” Apprehensive, he said. He talked, and talked, and talked. We listened, and listened, and listened. On occasion a rare moment emerged in which there was space for us to speak. We tried to help him understand that the fear, and the pain, and the anger were real, and valid. He said, “I understand, but…” Again and again, “but…” Countless times, “but…”

He didn’t understand. He didn’t understand the terror, the fear that comes from knowing that you could be hurt at any time, for no reason other than being who you are. He didn’t know the humiliation that my friend spoke of today, when she told me that two of her friends had already been “grabbed” this week.

We shook his hand, thanked him for the civil conversation, and walked out of the bar. And on the walk back to the car, we spoke of mourning.

Like mourning the loss of someone we love. The death of a dream that we once took as reality, that we eventually came to sometimes doubt, and which we now realize never really existed at all.

And I am the most privileged one. I am in turns heartbroken, filled with anger, overcome with sadness, terrified that I made a mistake bringing my son into the world, and lost in mourning, almost on rotation. And I am a straight, white, cis-gendered male with a good, secure job and more people that love me than I could deserve. I can’t imagine the fear, the horror, and the sheer existential rage that so many women, people of color, people of different faiths, and sexual minorities must feel. It breaks my heart.

Some reading this will wonder why I have to be so damned melodramatic. But here’s the thing: because I write these books and give talks about compassion, I hear from lots of people…and more this week than ever before. People reaching out to me, sharing their stories. So I’ve seen and heard about much of this pain, from person after person after person. I’ve also received messages of support, kindness, and encouragement, from people all over the world – people who only want to help, and like me, aren’t sure how.

For those who are scared, hurting, or feeling the horror of trauma experienced in the past reawakened and flowing over you once again, I want you to know that I am sorry. I am sorry for the hurt that has been thrust upon you, through no fault of your own. I’m sorry I can’t make this better.

But if you’re hurting, and scared, and angry, and feeling alone, there’s something I need you to know.

You are not alone. You are loved, and cared for, by me and by people all over this world. We are on your side. We care about your suffering. We care about your pain, and though we’ll never truly understand it, we will do our very best to try. We will fight for you.

Just this evening before leaving work, I was talking with a dear friend and colleague who said to me, “I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to be an activist. But I am going to find out.” We are on your side, and we will fight for you.

Because your strength is inspiring.
Because you are beautiful and worthy of love.
Because your goodness fills the world with light, and helps us believe that there is something worth fighting for.

And for those who read this and feel an eye-roll coming on, please roll your eyes silently, because this message is not for you. You don’t yet understand, and though a part of me prays you will come to, I would never wish upon you that pain which is the most common entrance to this understanding. But should you come to know that pain, know also that you have people who care about you.

And if you feel a mocking comment coming on, I ask that you keep it to yourself. Because right now, if you share it, it will be the last interaction that you and I ever have. Because the pain is real, and I will not suffer those who knowingly make it worse. You will have plenty of opportunities to point out the depths of my hypocrisy in contexts that won’t harm others. Now is not the time.

To those of you who are hurting, know that I am holding you in my heart.

On election night

8 Nov. 2016

My heart is broken tonight. Not about the outcome of an election.
But what it means about the soul of a nation, and for the world.
Overcome with horror. And anger. And sadness. Most of all, sadness.
I cannot believe that this country voted for this. I say “this country, because I cannot say “my country.” Because right now, this country feels like no place for me.
And I cannot promise that I can stay here. I will try, but I can’t promise. I just don’t know. My fantasies of leaving disgust me as the height of my privilege. But I don’t know that I can stay. I will try.
Donald Trump may win this election. But we cannot allow the messages of Donald Trump to win.
We cannot allow our boys to believe that women are objects to be used for their pleasure, or that it is acceptable to treat them with disrespect.
We cannot allow our girls to believe that their worth lies in their appearance, that their bodies are props to be used by men, and that it is allowable to speak of them disrespectfully.
We cannot allow women to believe that they are second-class citizens in the eyes of this nation.
We cannot allow our Muslim brothers and sisters to feel hated, isolated, and alone.
We cannot allow our Hispanic brothers and sisters to think that their vital contributions to this nation go unrecognized, or that anyone truly sees them as rapists or murderers.
We cannot allow our sisters and brothers who are gay, lesbian, or other sexual minorities to think that we believe their love is worth less than our own.

We must stand. We must stand up for those who have been trodden upon. We must use our voices to speak for those who have been taught that their voices do not matter. We must do our very best to help the vulnerable feel safe, and to let them know that their lives are valuable, and valued.
We must fight tirelessly, not with guns or fists, but with compassion, and courage, and love, and kindness.
I don’t yet know how to do this. But I’m going to fucking figure it out.
Because there are people in this nation, and in this world, who are terrified tonight. Who need someone to fight for them. Who need someone on their side.
I am on your side.