Monday, August 25, 2014

Do You Have Too Much "Attitude"? What's That?

Has anyone ever said this to you:  You need to fix your attitude.

Your high school principal?
Your parents?
Your parole officer?

You look at them through slitted eyes, lips curled into a snarl, and think, "If you weren't so disagreeable, I wouldn't have any attitude."

Or maybe you wonder, "What does that mean?  What attitude?"

They would like to tell you what they mean, but there is no way they can explain it clearly with you looking at them the way an electric knife looks at a Thanksgiving turkey.

They wish they could tell you how to change your attitude, but whatever they say next is pointless when no ear catches the meaning.

Because when they say "you've got an attitude problem," they want you to realize that when you enter a room, your anger sneaks in ahead of you.  They think that your life would be better if your humility, your curiosity, or your open heart preceded you.  

You think that your attitude has everything to do with the room you've entered and the people who are there.  You think that they are judging you and trying to control you.

In addition, you have every reason to be angry.  You have been birthed into this world, merely a thinking monkey in clothes, bouncing around until you die.

But the attitude that precedes you into the room, your totally justifiable attitude that led someone to say you have it, is not going to get you what you need, unless you need enemies.

What they want to tell you is this:  Something is preceding you into the room and while people want to help you, that thing is driving them away.  It is yours.  You can take a look at it and think about it. You can ask the other person to name a specific behaviour that led to the attitude comment.  Indeed, you might not have attitude.  The other person might be the malefactor.  They might be projecting their own bad attitude onto you.  I don't know.

But if you are seeing a lot of anger and negativity around you, maybe you brought some of it with you.


Sadly, the people suffering from bad attitude often believe it is everyone else's fault.  The hardest thing to do is see our own contribution to our unhappiness - but when we are able to see it, we can change our lives.

Click here for a few examples of specific bad attitude behaviours.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What Did You Learn about Yourself from Your Last Relationship? Part II

I've discussed this before and will probably discuss it again.

Relationship are a great source of affection and companionship.  Relationships help us to experience the depths and heights of love.

At their best, relationships can create a profound sense of belonging in the world and feelings of connection that transcend the here and now.

At their worst, relationships help prepare us for our next relationship -- especially if we are reflective and able to assess our contribution to every stage of the relationship.  After all, we were a co-participant.

You don't need to break up to learn about yourself -- but the break-up lessons are vital and unique.  A break-up is painful and you want to avoid the pain next time you venture into a love relationship.  Often, though, we paddle headlong into the next cohabitation collaboration without pausing to reflect.  We follow our heated heart and hope for the best.

Here's some things I learned about myself from past relationships:

Lesson:  An emptiness caused by a lack of direction in my own life will not be filled by a relationship.

Resulting Action:  Find out what I want to do and do it.

Lesson:  A trip across the continent to get away from an unsatisfying relationship will not necessarily protect you from the next unsatisfying relationship.
Realization:  You don't have to leave town.

Lesson:  I can be a magnet for psychopaths because I tend to overlook bad behaviour.

Resulting Action:  Don't trust my own judgement.  Screen for psychopathology.  Ask my 50 closest friends about a potential romantic partner.

I also learned that I'd rather be alone than be in an unequal or unsatisfying relationship. That was probably the best lesson.  I had to learn to live without someone reflecting back my value.  If I needed someone's love to feel worthy, then my value disappears when the relationship ends.

What did you learn?  About yourself?  From your last relationship?

Friday, May 30, 2014

What's the Difference Between Secrecy and Privacy?

My friend John asked me to be the best man at his wedding to the beautiful Rachel.  In my wedding speech, I talked about the top three things I learned from John.  The last part of my speech went like this:
I learned openness from John.  He told me, "Before I do anything, I always ask myself, "Will I be able to tell Rachel?"  He wisely trusted Rachel's moral compass more than his own.  That policy deepened their trust for one another and brought them closer.
I continued:
I was very impressed by John's statement and wanted to incorporate his policy into my own life.  My husband, travels often and one may be inclined to exercise more freedom in a spouse's absence.  If my temptations are not leading me in the direction of goodness, I always ask myself, "Will I be able to tell . . . Rachel?"
I recalled this story when my friend, Raymond, in Vancouver wrote me this question, "Do you feel like some element of secrecy is essential in most personal relationships?

I wrote back saying this:
Given human variety nothing is essential.
Given human complexity, it is unlikely a shared experience is shared in exactly the same way that it occurs so there is always a privacy to experience – but privacy is not the same as secrecy.
There is a mystery to each person that cannot be successfully explained through language, art, or actions.  Our interpretation of one another is always coloured by our own expectations, beliefs, and experience.  We might not want to share an experience because we know that it will not be seen through our eyes.  We are more likely to share everything when we have an empathic connection to the other person and know we will not be immediately judged.

1.  Secrecy arises when you violate a previously agreed upon deal.  Secrecy arises when no deal has been made, but you suspect there is an understanding of some sort that you do not subscribe to wholeheartedly.

2.  Secrecy can also be a stated preference of one of the partners, as in, "I'm more interested in what we do together than what you do when we're apart; so do whatever you like, just don't tell me."

The first kind of secrecy tends to be unhealthy and lead to more and more secrecy and deception.  Note the lyrics to the Steve Goodman song "Lookin' for Trouble":

The first time you shade the truth
You want to run and hide
Your tongue gets tied
Your throat gets dry
And you start thinkin' that maybe no one knows you lied
And now you're shady all the time

The second kind of secrecy can be frustrating if you want complete openness.  Your partner, though, trusts you and respects your need for self-expression.  You have to respect your partner's strategies for protecting his or her heart.

My conclusion is this:

1. It seems healthy to strive for greater and greater degrees of authenticity in our own lives.
2. Make agreements that you can live with. When you can no longer live within your agreement, speak up and deal with the consequences. Alternatively, remain silent and deal with the consequences. Relationships are hard.  We all probably need to find our own blend of openness, privacy, and secrecy as we discover and rediscover ourselves and determine the best way to live our lives.

Raymond and his partner are considering opening their relationship to include others from time to time.  He wrote, "Am I wrong in wondering if this is a course that most people in long-term relationships find themselves forced to contemplate?"

It’s hard to know what most people do.  I suspect that the more rigid the rules of the relationship, the more secretive people become.

When you “open” a relationship in the direction of endless possibility, you become aware of the dimensions of your heart.

  • It’s not for everyone.
However, if you love someone, you are supportive of their needs.
You realize that your fears are yours, and you might need to face them.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Are You Reflective?

My friend, a traveller and a poet, wrote me this:  "We just got back from Savannah and the Okefenokee Swamp (three alligators).

I replied, "Did the swamp make you thoughtful?  Do alligators inspire poetry?"

Or did you enjoy the face-to-face encounter with wilderness - without having to transform it into something else?

Direct unmediated experience is valuable in and of itself.  Direct unmediated experience is life itself.

By unmediated, I mean without an intermediary -- no computer, no Twitter, no camera, no interpreter or guide, no priest or minister to stand between ourselves and the infinite. No words.

Many experiences are thrilling without reflection.  For me, these include fireworks, baseball games, everyday bicycling, the Great Wall of China, the Grand Canyon, shooting stars, eclipses, earthquakes, and vistas beyond description.  The experience itself can be entirely consuming and requires no reflection to be enjoyed.
Note:  All these experiences can also be sources of reflection. For example, how much did the fireworks display cost?  Is the cost from taxpayer money?  Could that money be better spent training people or feeding people?  How do the fireworks affect the environment?
The questions themselves can be interrogated.  What is their point of view?  How does the availability of certain words in a language make only some modes of asking available?  As Paulo Freire says, "Language is never neutral." 
I imagine, though, most people watch fireworks with gratitude, without questions.
Other experiences are enriched by the thoughtfulness that flows from them.  Best of all there would be several people sharing their thoughtfulness.

For me, unless an art experience is itself transcendent (filling me with joy or cathartic grief), I prefer a post-experience discussion.

So I asked, "What did the alligators inspire in you?"

My step-father, Berko Devor (of blessed memory) used to say, "Our lives should be 70% experience and 30% reflection.  If those percentages are reversed, you would be a very boring person."

I suspect my life is 70% reflection and 30% experience.  I argued that reflection itself is experience, but he disagreed.

What is your experience/reflection ratio?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

When Have You Felt the Most Free?

On the eve of Passover, I turn my thoughts to questions of freedom.

This year we will discuss this:  "What does it mean to be free?  Given the influence of family, culture, and society, are we free to make our own decisions?"

I'm beginning to see freedom as more of a spectrum.  It is not difficult to imagine slavery and oppression at one end of the spectrum.  But the other end?  What would it mean to be the most free?

We still live in bodies.  We are always a slave to oxygen and food and the many needs of the body.

Since we are social animals, we prefer to live in the company of other humans.  In order to keep them around, we must be pleasant and attentive - we lose our freedom to be unaccommodating.  (If you want to keep people around you without being pleasant and attentive, you either have to pay them, enslave them, or in some places, marry them.)

Asking "What is freedom?" or "What does it mean to be free?" leaves me swirling in definitions and interpretations from philosophy, psychology, and politics.  It seems more concrete to look at some moments when I have felt free:

Every day in July 2012, my back hurt.  I treated myself with hot showers and yoga, but the pain continued.   During a visit to Dale Alexander, a massage therapist, he readjusted something quite dramatically, and in an instant, the chronic pain was gone.  I felt free of pain.  I am always aware and appreciative of the times I am free of pain.

In 2003, I moved to Toronto.  I was busy with work and family, but I was a stranger in a strange land and felt out of place and unsettled; however, I had a bicycle.  When little kids get their first bikes, the entire neighbourhood and beyond opens up to them.  Perhaps they have their first taste of freedom.  Maybe I was re-experiencing my childhood joy, or maybe it was the connection to the wind, sun, and street that a bicycle provides.  I only know that whenever I was on my bike, I felt free and happy.

I bought Co-Dependent No More on a whim one day in the 1980s, but never read it.  However, during one period when I left a violent and substance-using spouse, I picked up the book again.  Every word I read spoke to me.  My situation was not unique.  The slavery I felt, the inability to break free, was not unique.  Ultimately, the book said, staying in the situation was not even helpful to the abusive spouse.  To be really helpful to him, he needed to face the consequences of his unpleasantness.  The heavy weight of my own beliefs lifted.  I felt light and free and able to make changes in my life.

Perhaps the Israelites of Exodus felt something like that after crossing the Red Sea.  Standing on the far shore, they looked back and saw the sea close behind them, crashing down on their oppressors.

There were many problems ahead, but maybe for that moment, they felt the most free.

When have you felt the most free?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

When Have You Felt Most Spiritual?

A couple of days ago, my buddy Steve said he might create a podcast about "religion as it relates to spirituality."

He was interested in hearing people's feelings about religion, as long as no one debates the existence of God.

I was rattled.  I began contemplating questions of spirituality looking for an entrance to the topic.  How do we talk about something so intangible?
Net Spirituality

What is spirituality?
What does it mean to be spiritual?
What is the spirit?

These questions led me nowhere -- at least nowhere sufficient.  Answering those questions would be like capturing spirituality in a butterfly net and pinning it into a display case.

As I explored the topic, I discovered that every attempt to explain or define spirituality involved words that were undefinable.  "Spiritual" led me to "peak experience" which led me to this definition on Wikipedia:

"Peak experience is a kind of transpersonal and ecstatic state, particularly one tinged with themes of euphoria, harmonization and interconnectedness. Participants characterize these experiences, and the revelations imparted therein, as possessing an ineffably mystical and spiritual (or overtly religious) quality or essence.

"Transpersonal is an experience in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche, or cosmos."

We might get closer to understanding spirituality if a variety of people answered this question:  When did you feel most spiritual?

Was it spiritual when I imagined that I was deeply in love with another human?  At times, I was in an altered and ecstatic state.  At other times, in the presence of the lover, I felt peace, harmony, and rightness.  Once I looked in a lover's eyes and I saw my future unfold, but I would not describe those times as spiritual.  Those times were rooted in a physical present and full of contingency.  

Perhaps I could say I felt a spiritual awe when I was faced with raw nature:

  - an earthquake in Vancouver -- the explosive bang, the earth moving
  - a rainstorm in north Ontario when sheets of lightning filled the night sky for hours
  - the view from the top of Squamish Chief
  - the sunrise -- any sunrise

Those experiences bring me closer to a sense of spirituality.  I am conscious of this magnificence, but have no part in creating it.  It is bigger than me and goes on regardless of my presence. 

Just as the creations of nature fill me with a spiritual awe, so do some human creations -- what I have called transcendent art.  As I wrote in an earlier post, these creations took me beyond myself, outside of time.

I also feel spiritual when I participate in family rituals.  In my case, some of these are Jewish rituals.  Once a year, I sit with my family and talk about slavery and freedom.  It's a moving spiritual experience because, in doing so, we are participating in a ritual that has been passed on from generation to generation since Biblical times.  I imagine our way of telling stories and singing union songs is unique to our family, but the motive, the spirit, and many of the rituals are the same as they have always been.  I am present and bring my perspectives, but it is not about me and it is not about any other family member.  It is about human history.

My examples are not far off from the definitions of "peak experience" and "transpersonal."  For me, feeling spiritual involves connection with nature, creativity, and other people past and present.

However, I find that, more and more, I crave silence, emptiness, and stillness.  Only then can I hear my own wondering, creative spirit.  My spirit voice speaks in a whisper -- it is hard to hear her when I'm surrounded by noise.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Who's the Crazy One?

My friend XX is in therapy and feeling much better overall.  In one discussion with her therapist, she said,
When I tell you how crazy my family is, I feel bad.  I think, 'Who am I to be judging them?'  They are probably saying that I'm the crazy one.
Her question seems to be, "How do I know that my perception and judgements of sanity are reliable and fair?"  
Her therapist said,
The fact that you're wondering is a good sign that you are able to see a perspective other than your own.  You can see more than one possible interpretation.  People with personality disorders often think that there is nothing wrong with them.  Everyone else is crazy or stupid or evil.  Your ability to ask -- is it me or them --  suggests that it is not you.  
Meanwhile, the crazy person knows with absolute certainty that it is everyone else.
DISCLAIMER:  My friend and I used the word "crazy" -- and in the context of our friendship and understanding of one another, we knew what we meant.  I would not casually use that word as it has far too many meanings.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Wither Shakespeare? Part X: What's the Difference Between Tragedy and Comedy in Shakespeare?

When I was studying literature in university, we told this joke:  What's the difference between tragedy and comedy in Shakespeare?

1.  Tragedies are longer;
2.  At the end of a tragedy, there are more bodies lying dead on the stage than standing; and
3.  Comedies end with a wedding.  Tragedies start with one.

The joke was obviously a warning, but I began to wonder:

Are these statements true?

Yes, tragedies are generally longer:
  1. Hamlet          The longest of all of Shakespeare's plays at 4024 lines.  TRAGEDY
  2. Coriolanus     The second longest at 3824 lines.  TRAGEDY
  3. Cymbeline     The third longest:  "Tragedy looms but never strikes."
  4. Richard III     The fourth longest  HISTORICAL TRAGEDY
  5. Antony and Cleopatra    The fifth longest  TRAGEDY
  6. Othello          The sixth longest  TRAGEDY
  7. King Lear      The seventh longest  TRAGEDY
  8. Romeo and Juliet  is still in the top 50% of longest.
  9. HoweverMacbeth, Julius Caesar, Timon of Athens, and Titus Andronicus are among the shortest.

A tragedy ends with more bodies dead on stage than standing? 

This probably refers to Hamlet, more than any of the other plays.

Of the characters in Hamlet who had spoken lines, the only one left alive at the end is Horatio.  Fortinbras arrives to see the bodies of Hamlet, Claudius, Laertes, and Gertrude.  Every other important character in the play, including Polonius and Ophelia are already dead.

I'd rephrase difference #2 like this:  Tragedies end with much death and often have death and murder throughout.  I would add 

Cordelia dead

  • the more sympathy you have for a character, the more likely that character dies at the end
  • both the good guys and the bad guys die violent deaths (Macbeth, Othello, Richard III)
  • and if your name is the title of a Shakespearean tragedy, you will be dead by the end; if your name shares the title one or both of you will be dead.

A comedy ends with a wedding?

A lot of comedies start with longing.
Lucentio upon first seeing Bianca:

I burn, I pine, I perish, Tranio, 
If I achieve not this young modest girl
  - The Taming of the Shrew Act 1, Scene 1

Hermia, upon hearing that her father is forcing her to marry Demetrius:

I would my father look'd but with my eyes.
  - A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 1, Scene 1
Orsino in love

The Duke, Orsino:

. . . when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence!  
That instant was I turn'd into a hart;
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me.
  - Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 1

A wedding at the end relieves this longing at least for some of the characters:

Come, Kate, we'll to bed 
We three are married, but you two are sped.  
  - Petruccio, The Taming of the Shrew Act 5, Scene 2  

And yes, many of the comedies, and even the problem plays and romances, end with a wedding or at least permission for the lovers to marry.  These include As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Love's Labours Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Tempest and others. 

Some of these marriage scenes show an awareness of a dark side to marriage.  The Merchant of Venice suggests some tension between Lorenzo and Jessica

 and two of the three newly married couples at the end ofThe Taming of the Shrew already have issues.

 A tragedy starts with a wedding?

Hamlet begins with the wedding of Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and his father's murderer, Uncle Claudius.

Othello begins with Brabantio, a Venetian senator, discovering that his daughter has eloped with Othello.  Iago puts it somewhat more graphically:

I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.

Macbeth does not start with a wedding.  It starts with a gaggle of witches, news of a battle, then more witches.  However, not long into Act I, we meet Lady Macbeth and soon after we see Macbeth and his wife together.  We see a married couple in a conversation about their future.

By the end of Scene 2, Richard III, our title character, has won Lady Anne's agreement to marry him. She is mourning her husband and husband's father, both killed by Richard, who says triumphantly:

Was ever woman in this humour woo'd?
Was ever woman in this humour won?   

King Lear divides his kingdom between two of his daughters.  The third, Cordelia, who would not play the game of lying to their father, is quickly married off to the King of France.

By Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, we meet Paris who is seeking Capulet's permission to marry his daughter.  From then on, it's all talk of marriage.  By Act 2, Scene 4, Friar Lawrence leads Romeo and Juliet off to officially marry them. 

I conclude that the joke is mostly true.

When you're hooked on Shakespeare, you love both tragedy and comedy.  Both have wit and wisdom, joy and sadness, heroes, heroines, and villains, and characters with many dimensions to inform our lives.

What's the difference between tragedy and comedy in life?
Perhaps only time.

As author Charles Yu says, "Time is a machine that turns pain into experience," and if you wait long enough, tragedy into comedy.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

What Made You Know the Relationship Was Over?

Did you know suddenly?
Did you know gradually?
Was it something she said?  He said?
Was it something he did?  She did?
Were you surprised to get the text?

or read the billboard?

Knowing is one thing; making it end is another.  Making it really end might require packing up and moving or shipping someone else out of your life.  Both options can be cruel and time-consuming.

But this blog is not about leaving.  It's about the moment of knowing.  When I knew for sure that I had to leave a relationship, I felt like Brutus when he realized he would join the rebels and murder Julius Caesar:
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream (Act 2, Scene 1)
I suspect that many relationships just peter out.  One or both of the parties involved become unmotivated to keep it going.  They know, on some level, that it's over, but have not admitted it to themselves or each other - and besides, they are too busy to act on their knowledge.

Falling out of love -- which is all dread and fear and disappointment is much more nuanced and complicated than falling in love -- which is all hope and hormones and happiness.

Falling out of love is the rude awakening, the realization that you made a mistake, the coming down from a trip.  The first response is to blame the other person.  Only much later do you admit your own responsibility in the situation.  You grow up.

I've written before my belief that you never hit bottom, but sometimes if you're lucky, the universe will come up and kick your ass out the door.  That is, you knew you had to leave, but for many reasons you did not make the move.  What was the moment of knowing?  How many of us actually knew the relationship was over before we got married and had kids?

Maybe you had a moment of knowing it was "over" or would be over in due course.  Here's a few of mine:

  1. He said, "We can have a child, if you really want to."
  2. He said, "I'm not sure we can be in a relationship if you only want to be a teacher and not an aerial photographer."  [Yes, he had his pilot's licence and insisted that I become an aerial photographer.]
  3. He (a different one) had a psychotic breakdown and was hospitalized.  When they let him out, he denied it had happened and didn't want to talk about it.
  4. He (a different one) threw a cast iron frying pan across the kitchen (that was before the wedding). [I know how to pick winners, eh?]
  5. He (a different one) said, "OK, let's go for therapy."  I said, "It's too late."
What about you?  Was there a moment when you knew the relationship was over?