Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Can We Be Kinder?

George Saunders is an award winning writer of short stories and children's books, and a creative writing professor for the MFA program at Syracuse University. His tone is often tragicomic and his work often questions consumerism, corporate culture and the role of mass media. Saunders' satirical tone reminds some readers of Kurt Vonnegut, whose work inspired him. Last year, he gave a well-received commencement speech at Syracuse that has just been released as a short, 64-page book called  Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness (Random House, 2014). It's well worth reading.

Saunders asserts that as a goal in life, we could do worse than to try to be kinder. He recounts how on his biggest regrets so far in life are failures of kindness. In particular, he remembers a girl is seventh grade who was new at school. He wasn't one of the kids who teased her, but he regrets that he didn't do more to stop her suffering. She just moved away. He wishes he did more to stand up for her and be kind.

We remember people who are kind to us. Can you picture the people along your life path who have reached out to you with support, encouragement and kindness? Did it make a difference?

What regrets do you have about not being kind at some time in your life, either through hurting someone else or failing to stand up for someone you could help protect?

Kindness may start out easy, but may require you to speak up, take a stand or do something different.
Kindness can be messy or complicated. It may require you to go out of your way.

Saunders contemplates why we aren't kinder to each other in his book. I liked his ideas. He thinks sometimes we see ourselves as central to the universe, as if our story is the main or only story. (It's not, by the way. Turns out that everyone has their own narrative.) Saunders believes some of us mistakenly believe that we are separate from the universe. Others of us think we are permanent, and will death will never impact us. We actually know on an intellectual basis that all three of these possibilities are not true, but we might like to act like they are.

How can we become more kind, present, loving, open and less self-absorbed?

We can observe our own life history and our own periods of high and low kindness.

We can seek out art, literature, spirituality, meditation, prayer, time with children, or a conversation with a dear friend who is honest with us to reconnect with what really matters.

If all goes well with our development as a human being, we should get kinder as we age and suffer more losses. Hopefully we grow less selfish and more loving, but there is an optional element to this. Aging happens to most people, but emotional maturity is optional.

I highly recommend Congratulations, by the way. It reminds me that the world needs more kind people, probably more than it needs more successful ones.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Difficult Conversations: Let's Be Honest and Direct

Things are so much less complicated and simpler if you are honest in your relationships. Don't wimp out by avoiding difficult but potentially healing conversations. By going direct, you talk with the right person who can potentially do something different in response to your concern. By being indirect and talking with a third party, you triangulate and make any relationship problem more difficult to solve.

In my counseling practice, I often see relationships get damaged when people break trust by not being brave enough to be honest and direct. All grown ups need to develop their courage enough to have difficult conversations that need to happen. While going direct can seem intimidating or scary, it usually works out with a better ending. Being direct, honest, and transparent with those you love makes you respect yourself more, and ultimately shows more care for the other person. It gives them a chance to do things differently with you and perhaps open up with more of their true feelings.

The poet Mark Nepo writes that when we aren't honest it is as if we put on gloves that separate us from the people and events in our life. There is something unnatural coming between us.

When is honesty and directness needed?
  • When we are unhappy in a relationship, or feel our most important needs aren't being met.
  • When we are hurt by someone's behavior who matters to us.
  • When we feel we are being taken for granted.
  • When we need to set a limits.
  • When we need to do something different.
  • When we feel disrespected or misunderstood.
By being honest, we allow the other person to help in making things better, more fun or upgraded between us. It is a shared responsibility to make a relationship vital, engaging and supportive. While it might be scary to be honest, it gives the other person the respect they deserve, a chance to improve things rather than be blind-sided, or just notice that you fade away. Relationships are dynamic and always changing and without healing conversations, the relationship can't grow.

We need to encourage our children to be brave, direct, and honest as well. Whenever possible, help  empower your child to role-play with you, and handle situations directly at school, with family or with friends as it is age appropriate. If you do it for them, they don't get to build their confidence in relationships.

Having the courage to go direct to the person that you have a problem with makes you grow stronger and more confident. As psychologist and writer Barbara De Angelis wrote, "Living with integrity means: not settling for less than what you deserve in your relationships. Asking for what you want and need from others. Speaking your truth, even though it might create conflict or tension. Behaving in ways that are in harmony with your personal values."

In your relationships, whenever possible, go direct and lead with honesty and your true feelings. Being able to master the ability to have difficult conversations with your partner, your parent, your sibling, your close friend or your child is a key skill for building deep lasting relationships. Avoiding difficult conversations causes relationship atrophy and short circuits your emotional growth. Be brave.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Celebrating Mothers (and Others Who Nurture)

There is nothing quite like having a mother or grandmother who loves and supports you. You know they are in your corner. You are certain that they care and want the best for you.

To be a good enough mother, you don't have to be perfect.

Even if you don't get a mother who is loving, life may present you with the opportunity to be that kind of mother yourself, or serve in a supportive 'mothering' role to other young people whose lives touch yours, perhaps as an aunt, a mentor, sister, or friend.

Being a supportive mother takes transcending self and caring as deeply for someone else as you do for yourself.

Mothering takes patience, especially when your child is pushing away from you or testing all the limits at certain developmental points.

Good mothers set limits and boundaries, and set a tone of mutual respect within the family.

Good mothers encourage their children to develop their natural strengths and interests, and try new things. Their belief in us helps us believe in us, too.

Mothering takes endurance and resiliency because there are a lot of days of cooking meals, helping with homework, getting the children up, tucking the children in, meal times, driving to school, sports, and lessons, and a million other little daily routines that are up to you to make happen.

Good mothers teach their children independent living skills all along the growing up years. They foster independence.

Mothers are needed when your child is discouraged, and you try to give them a word of encouragement to pick themselves up and try again.

It is from being loved by mom that many of us learn to attach, love others, and feel safe.

Good enough mothers apologize when they make mistakes. They role model being kind, forgiving others, and forgiving yourself for your imperfections.

Mothers often teach us to recognize our own feelings, and be aware of how our behavior impacts other people's feelings.

Being a mother is a powerful responsibility, and an opportunity to leave the world a better place by the children you leave behind. As Mother's Day approaches, let's honor mothers who made or are making a positive impact, and be aware of the importance of nurturing others when and where we can in each of the lives we each touch. Being a mom can be one of the most meaningful, transformative experiences in your life. It has been for me.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

10% Happier

Dan Harris is a reporter for ABC News, and co-hosts the weekend edition of Good Morning America and Nightline. He also just wrote his first book called, "10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story"(HarperCollins, 2014).

Harris is a colorful guy. He is brutally honest about his past drug use, his on-air panic attack, the internal dialogue in his head which keeps making him afraid his career will fall apart and he'll have to move to a flop house in Duluth. He openly admits to having been a jerk at work, throwing papers around, and letting his ego run away with him. He seems competitive in a highly competitive business. He copes with reporting from war zones, not completely understanding the impact it's having on him. In one war zone, shots ring out near him, and his first thought is that he hopes the film crew kept the camera running, because it will be great footage for the news.

He seems like a regular guy, and has a nice self-depreciating sense of humor. He's open about his experiences in therapy. He gets assigned the job of being a spirituality reporter, even though he's an agnostic. He ends up interviewing Christian evangelicals, as well as new-age experts like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle. On his journey, he also gets to meet and interview his Holiness the Dalai Lama. Next, he meets experts in mindfulness and meditation, including Mark Epstein, M.D., who becomes a mentor and friend.

So what does a skeptical, stressed-out, agnostic reporter do with all this information? He tries out meditation, including a 10 day silent meditation retreat. In a hilarious, self-effacing way, he chronicles his struggles to learn to be mindful, and do meditation and compassion meditation. Amazingly, it helped. Harris learned to calm his 'monkey mind' and be more present. He feels he is 'less of a jerk now', overreacting less. In the process, Harris demystifies the practice of meditation.

I liked that Harris is relatable as an average man, and that he gives us an inside view that makes trying meditation much more simple and inviting. He actually breaks down the basic steps of meditation, into something any of us could do for five minutes a day, sitting quietly and focusing on our breath. He encourages the reader to be more self-accepting and less self-critical. If your mind wanders off, just guide it gently back to the breathing.

"10% Happier" is an easy and fun read. His language can be a little colorful, but his inside view of the television news business, and his skeptic's view of the useful practice of daily meditation to quiet our minds and build compassion is well worth reading. His explanation of the usefulness of learning to detach from outcomes, and ask ourselves "does this really matter?" when we are worked up and upset is something most of us can put right to good use. It might just help us be 10% happier, or even more.