Over the past several weeks I’ve provided a flurry of short professional talks. In an effort to keep up, I’m posting a one-page handout from my presentation at the Pediatric Mental Health conference in Fairmont on April 29, 2022. If you’re into parenting and/or working with parents, this handout and content may be of interest.
Remember: Parents are Facing Immense Challenges: Many parents are isolated and reluctant to reach out for support they need. Many parents feel super self-conscious and judged by American society, not to mention grocery story onlookers. Some children can access porn on the internet before they can tie their shoes. Children have more mental health problems than ever before in the history of time. No wonder parents are just a bit hypersensitive to criticism.
Use Your Common Wisdom and Take Time to Make Empathic Statements: Never say, “I know how you feel” or imply that parents are being silly or dumb (even if you think they are), or react to parents out of irritation. Instead, make empathic statements like, “You’re managing a lot” or “The challenges parents face today are bigger than ever.” As time permits, listen to a story the parent tells you and follow that with an empathic summary before offering ideas.
Know Your Buttons – Cultivate Self-Awareness: Be aware of things parents say that push your buttons and be aware of how you react. Make a personal plan to deal with these a little better every day. Replace your judgments with compassion for parents. Stay calm.
Teach Parents a Brief Problem-Solving Model They Can Use with Their Children: Join with parents to discuss problems and solutions. Hope and believe along with parents for positive outcomes: “I know you can do this.” Remember the five steps: (1) identify the problem, (2) generate alternatives, (3) review and rank the alternatives, (4) select one or more, and (5) evaluate what you tried. Consider giving a mutual problem-solving tip sheet: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/tip-sheets/
People who write obituaries use small words to describe big lives. I recently wrote one for my father, but could only capture a shred of the immensely positive, honest, kind, generous, and loving man, husband, and father he was. The words I have to describe him and his life are terribly insufficient. Nevertheless, below is the long form of our family’s obituary for Max Richard Sommers.
Max Richard Sommers, 95, passed away on May 1, 2022. Max was born on August 18, 1926 in Portland, OR, to Fern Langdon and Sam Sommers. If the past can be judged by the future, August 18, 1926 was an amazing day. Max attended school in Portland, graduating from Benson Tech in 1944, and attending one semester at the University of Portland, before joining the army and serving, partly in Korea, from August 1945 to January, 1947.
In 1949, along with his wife Paula, Max started a business called “City Shade Company” in downtown Vancouver, Washington. Max was more dedicated to his customers than he was to making money. He took great pride in and responsibility for the window coverings and awnings he installed. He watched the local weather with such intensity that we all believed he wished he had become a meteorologist. He did love watching the weather, but he was also watching for storms. Although he could have made substantial money on repairs, when strong winds were forecast, Max hopped in his van and drove frantically around Vancouver securing awnings he had installed. Max and Paula owned and operated City Shade for over 44 years.
Max lived life with passion. He loved fastpitch softball, golf, bowling, pinball, gin, cribbage, and poker. He loved nearly all competitive games, and never let his children win. If any of us happened to beat him in cards, we might have to stay up as long as it took for Max to win and regain the family card-playing crown. Max also loved watching sports, especially Oregon State Beaver football and Seattle Mariner baseball. A few days after nearly dying from a heart attack, Max hosted a raucous group of men in his hospital room to watch the Beavers beat the “evil” Ducks in the Civil War.
Max was simple, yet complex and adaptive. Hard work and honesty were his deepest values. He taught his children to “Never lie” and that you should never claim to be “sick” unless you can’t get out of bed. Max lived his values, getting out of bed every day and getting to work. Most mornings, he met some configuration of his best friends, Ed, Milt, Willie, Diz, and Bob for breakfast in downtown Vancouver at Spic n’ Span restaurant. Most weeks, he put in six workdays, but scheduled work around his children’s activities, Thursday afternoon golf at Green Meadows, and Paula. There was only one 3-day family vacation each year, over Labor Day weekend at Long Beach Washington, where Max loved to fish and dig for clams.
Max’s first love—above all else—was Paula. They overcame religious differences (she was Catholic, he was Jewish), forging a stable and loving marriage that lasted 70 years (until Paula died in August, 2020). After 40 years of marriage, Max finally donned a pair of shorts and headed out on his first real vacation, a cruise with Paula. Together, they went on several more cruises, returning with stories of great food and great fun. In addition to the sports page, Max suddenly started reading novels, biographies, and occasional nonfiction. He had many favorite books, including Seabiscuit and The Brothers K. Despite his Jewish roots, Max lived the quotation from Father Theodore Hesburgh, former president of Notre Dame, who said, “The greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother.”
Max loved Paula for better and for worse. When Paula began having memory problems, Max quit golfing to stay home. When she began asking him the same question 30 times a day, he repeatedly answered her with great patience, explaining, “She doesn’t mean to forget, so how can I be annoyed with her.” Max’s capacity to adapt to life’s challenges continued . . . after his heart attack, after colon cancer surgery, after a double bypass, after breaking his hip, and after a stroke. When Max—a man who had thrived on physical activity and competition—had been bedridden for over three years he still maintained his cheerful and kind disposition. Even in the end, when asked by his children, “How are you doing dad?” he struggled to awaken and would then say, “Good” and grin. Max was so wonderful that his caregivers quickly came to love him. One caregiver took to calling him “the Brother of Jesus.”
Max is survived by his children, Gayle Klein (Terry), Peggy Lotz (Dan), and John Sommers-Flanagan (Rita); and grandchildren, Chelsea Bodnar, Jason Lotz, Patrick Klein, Aaron Lotz, Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, and Stephen Klein. Max is also survived by nine great-grandchildren along with many nieces and nephews. Max was preceded in death by his parents and sisters, Geraldine Goldberg and Barbara Smith.
Our family would like to thank Noble AFH for providing Max with loving care over the last year. Memorial plans will be announced at a later date. In lieu of donations, Max would like you to get up, work hard, be honest, treat everyone with love and kindness, and enjoy a strawberry shake. If you have memories of Max you would like to share, sprinkle them here or anywhere you like . . . including his old Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100007868177628
This Saturday, graduation ceremonies were held in college towns across the United States. Every year, I’m stunned and humbled by the event here at the University of Montana. Even more, I’m struck by the incredible commitment so many students, young and old, have made to learning, growing, and making the world a better place. I know many college campuses have fallen on lean times, but when it comes to learning and fulfilling intellectual and career potentials, there’s really nothing like colleges and universities.
Our department planned a small informal post-commencement 1pm event with minimal light snacks in an outdoor plaza adjacent to a large auditorium. TBH, after about 1:05pm, I’m not sure what happened. Maybe it was post-shut down enthusiasm, but students, parents, friends, families, supervisors, and adjunct faculty started pouring in at an unexpected rate. Before anyone could take control, the masses had flowed into the large auditorium (that ordinarily has to be specially reserved) and taken seats, as if a formal event was about to begin. Other than having a few positive comments about each graduate, we (the faculty), had no formal event planned. With about 200 people gathered expectantly in an unreserved and likely “off limits” venue, the faculty briefly conferred, and made a simple and short plan for the festivities.
As they have been for the past 2+ years, our counseling graduates were amazing. Along with their guests, they whooped and hollered and clapped for each other throughout. The 50 minute spontaneous event was, IMHO, the most fun, genuine, warm, and fuzzy feeling graduation event ever.
As a first-generation college student who started out as an athlete at a community college and experienced an intellectual and personal transformation, I have an irrationally passionate love for all colleges and universities. Although colleges and universities are always imperfect, the goal and process of intellectual development as a purposeful life activity is phenomenal. I am grateful to play my small role at the of the University of Montana.
Happy graduation day to everyone. If you haven’t experienced an intellectual developmental epiphany yet, I’m hoping there’s one in your future. If you’ve already had one, I wish you many more. Education is the road to our better selves.
Grief is always personal and universal. Nobody understands anyone else’s grief . . . except possibly everyone and anyone capable of empathy. You don’t have to be an empath to resonate with another person’s grief; you just need a heart that lets you feel along with someone who’s suffering pain and loss. At some point or another, we all experience pain and loss. Grief is always a unique and common experience.
I’ve written about and practiced psychotherapy for about 35 years. In my classes I give impassioned lectures about the power and significance of emotion. Nevertheless, I’m still stunned and puzzled and humbled when the waves of emotion roll on in. There’s nothing quite like the rush of powerful sadness.
Last Thursday I made the mistake of playing a melancholy song of loss at the beginning of my University of Montana Happiness class. Maybe it wasn’t a mistake, because I learned that if you want to cry about the death of a loved one, this particular song—Golden Embers by Mandolin Orange—will help with that. If you want to cry now or later, you can listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEt2lf7L13g.
On the other hand, if you don’t want to begin your online Happiness course by struggling to contain your tears and grief, take my advice, don’t play it right before class starts.
I’m a fan of emotional openness, honesty, and vulnerability. But choking back tears as you welcome everyone to Happiness class isn’t the nuanced and titrated professional vulnerability I prefer. Perhaps no one noticed my misty eyes via Zoom; perhaps they also didn’t notice my brief my slide toward verbal incoherence.
After a long unplanned, and unpleasant dementia experience, my mother gracefully died of COVID last year. We (my sisters, family, and I) were all very sad. My mother was the Queen of Caring. She never let a conversation end without an “I love you” and never let an in-person meet-up end without a hug. For me, the long, drawn-out dementia experience muted my grief. I was glad for her passing. I believe, had my mother had a functional brain, she would have been even gladder. We had lost my mother several years earlier. COVID just made it official.
But that damn Mandolin Orange song punched the mute button off my grief. Had the class not been ready to start, I could have been in heaving sobs. You probably know what I’m saying. Have you ever had the experience of envisioning and knowing how deeply emotional you could be, while barely managing to keep it at a distance? I could see myself sobbing . . . and . . . I stopped myself from sobbing.
Ironically, the first focus of class was a quick recap of James Pennebaker’s 1986 study on the physical toll of emotional inhibition. Seriously. Who writes these scripts? Pennebaker’s hypothesis, later affirmed through many more studies, was that emotional expression plus insight is emotionally and physically healthy. The opposite, the stuffing of significant emotions, along with the deadening or distancing from understanding our emotions, is emotionally and physically unhealthy. The physical unhealthiness seems linked to the physical exertion it takes to engage in chronic restraint of emotional expression.
Emotions are more like a river than not. You can try to dam them up, but they prefer flowing freely.
The next day, my partially unexpressed emotional river of grief over my mother joined up with my relatively unexpressed anticipatory grief for my father. As I write this, I’m in the Seattle airport waiting for a flight to take me to see him and possibly say goodbye. He’s been on this particular deathbed for years (literally), and so this may or may not be the end. Being the cosmic inverse of his wife (my mother), his brain has continued to process information, crunch numbers, and engage in abstract reasoning. Instead of dementia, his body wore down. He’s been bedridden for about three years. . . bouncing back from a broken hip, then a re-broken hip, then a stroke, then two collapsed lungs, and a myriad of other near-death experiences. In his latest medical exam, the verdict was that his skin is wearing out, splitting, coming unhinged, revealing muscle and bone.
Despite all this, the next day (after my Seattle airport writing and late arrival into Portland), when I walk into his room, he briefly awakens, offers a grin, and exclaims, “Hi John.” He says nothing more, and quickly drops back to sleep, because talking has become immensely difficult; it takes all he’s got to get out two words.
On this visit, I’ve been on the emotional edge, remembering vividly his reliable presence for me and for others. Being self-employed, he worked long hours, including many evenings and weekends. Being self-employed also gave him flexibility. He might go back to his shop to bend steel pipe in the evening, but he managed his work schedule so as to never miss one of my baseball, football, and basketball games. When I got in my first (and only) fight in 8th grade, he found me walking home alone, ashamed, embarrassed, and with a swollen eye. When my sister and I were in a car wreck, he got there nearly as quickly as the ambulance. When the Black kids or the Gay kids down the street wanted to come over to shoot baskets, swim in the pool, or eat food, he’d open the gate or the door and his heart, and let them all in . . . never scolding, never yelling, never criticizing. He even welcomed the White Christian kids.
For this visit, I brought old photos, scrapbooks, my old baseball glove, and game balls from the two no-hitters I pitched my senior year of high school. I had hoped for some mutual reminiscence. Instead, he slept, awakening occasionally with looks of confusion, while I murmured on about our trips to Boston and New York, his favorite dog, being dumped into the Belize River, the first time he let me work with him, and random memories that only we share.
Today, that’s the hardest pieces of my particular grief. We have shared memories. No one else has them. As soon as he passes, I will be the sole keeper of our mutual memories. The loneliness of that thought crushes my heart.
In the world of grief, there’s a thing called complicated grief. Grief becomes increasingly complicated when the person grieving has mixed feelings and bad memories of the person dying. My grief is simple. I loved my father. He was as near to perfect as I can imagine. I am grateful to have no bad memories to complexify my grief. In my simple grief, I only have the stunning and painful emptiness of a world without him.
Before I leave for the day, I wake him up. His eyes struggle open. I say, “Dad, I’m going now. I love you. You know I love you.” I watch his massive effort to respond, “I love. . .” He tries for the third word, but comes up empty. I say, “I know. You love me.” He relaxes, and immediately loses his grip on the slippery slice of consciousness he has remaining, and drops back to sleep.
Earlier this week Rita and I got to talk about love for 90 minutes with Dr. Tim Nicolls and his Honors class titled “Love” at the University of Montana. It’s a fun gig. We get to tell stories about our own romantic history, weave in Alfred Adler’s many amazing love quotations, and walk though Julie and John Gottman’s six predictors of divorce, along with six strategies for addressing and shrinking those predictors.
Back in our courting days Rita lured me up onto the underside of Orange Street bridge in Missoula. We’re so old that we were courting long before they blocked off the underside to romancing couples. Rita—being a balance-beam genius in a previous life—started walking comfortably along an 18 inch wide steel beam about 40 feet above the shallows of the Clark Fork river. Being naïve and adopting the good constructivist mindset of not knowing, I followed. She just kept on walking as if there were no particular danger. I looked down at the rocks and water. By the time she turned to peek back at me, I was on my hands and knees and crawling very slowly along the beam.
To this day, Rita insists I’m afraid of heights. Of course, that’s not true. I’m not afraid of heights, but I am afraid of falling. I believe I was simply showing good judgment and trying to avoid dying during our courtship.
Our romantic bridge story links well to the classic social psychology bridge study on the misattribution of arousal. You can read the abstract here: https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fh0037031. Rita insists that she didn’t learn about how easily male college students can be manipulated into misattributing their fear-related arousal to romantic arousal until AFTER she led me onto the Orange Street bridge.
We like to call our lecture “Love Skills,” because of our mutual belief that although love usually involves passion, lasting love also includes a generous array of relationship skills. As Adler pointed out, long ago, long-term romantic relationships also require the right attitude. He wrote:
“There are too many people in our society who take, and [who] have great expectations, and too few who give. It seems that too much of human kind is caught in a love and marriage formula that states: Because I love you, you must obey me!”
In case you’re interested, here’s the link to our Love Skills powerpoints.
As a part of my presentations for ACA last week, I prepared a couple of short video clips. These clips are part of a much, much longer, three-volume (7.5 hour) video series produced and published by psychotherapy.net. Victor Yalom of psychotherapy.net gave me permission to occasionally share a few short clips like these. If you’re interested in purchasing the whole video series (or having your library do so), you can check out the series here: https://www.psychotherapy.net/videos/expert/john-sommers-flanagan
IMHO, although the whole video series is excellent and obviously I recommend it, these clips can be used all by themselves to stimulate class discussions. Check them out if you’re interested.
Kennedy is a 15-year-old cisgender female referred by her parents for suicidal ideation. Although a case could be made for using a family systems approach, this opening is of me working 1-1 with Kennedy. When I show this video, I like to emphasize that I’m using a “Strengths-based Approach” AND I’m also asking a series of questions that pull for Kennedy to talk about her distress. This is because clients generally need to talk about their distress before they can focus on strengths or solutions. Instead of practicing “toxic positivity” this approach emphasizes the need to come alongside and be empathic with client pain and distress.
Chase is a 35-year-old cisgender Gay male. In this brief excerpt, I try (somewhat poorly) to use a pattern interpretation to facilitate insight into his history of social relationships. Chase’s response is to dismiss my interpretation. Back in my psychoanalytic days, we talked about and used trial interpretations to gauge whether an abstract-oriented psychodynamic approach was a good fit for clients. Chase’s response is so dismissive that I immediately shift to using a very concrete approach to analyzing his social universe. Then, when Chase isn’t able to identify anyone who is validating, I use a strategy I call “Building hope from the bottom up” to help him start the brainstorming process.
A big thanks to psychotherapy.net and Victor Yalom for their support of this work.
As always, if you have thoughts or feedback on these clips or life in general, please feel free to share.
Last week I had the honor of presenting three times at the American Counseling Association meeting in Atlanta. Today, I’m posting the Abstracts and Powerpoints from those presentations, just in case someone might find the information useful.
On Friday, April 8: The way of the humanist: Illuminating the path from suicide to wellness. Invited presentation on behalf of the Association for Humanistic Counseling.
At this moment, counselors are hearing more distress, anxiety, and suicidal ideation than ever before. In response, we are called to resonate with our clients’ distress. On behalf of the Association for Humanistic Counseling, John Sommers-Flanagan will describe how humanistic principles of acceptance and empathy can paradoxically prepare clients to embrace wellness interventions. Participants will learn five evidence-based happiness strategies to use with their clients and with themselves.
Also, on Friday, April 8: Using a strengths-based approach to suicide assessment and treatment in your counseling practice. Invited presentation on behalf of ACA Publications.
Most counselors agree: no clinical task is more stressful than suicide assessment and treatment planning. When working with people who are suicidal, it’s all-too-easy for counselors to over-focus on psychopathology and experience feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. However, framing suicidal ideation as an unparalleled opportunity to help alleviate your client’s deep psychological pain, and embracing a strengths-based orientation, you can relieve some of your own anxiety. This practice-oriented education session includes an overview of strengths-based principles for suicide assessment and treatment.
On Saturday, April 9, Being seen, being heard: Strategies for working with adolescents in the age of Tik Tok. Educational presentation (with Chinwe Williams).
Counseling and connecting with adolescents can be difficult. In this educational session, we will present six strategies for connecting with and facilitating change among adolescents. For each strategy, the co‐presenters, coming from different cultural and generational perspectives, will engage each other and participants in a discussion of challenges likely to emerge when counseling adolescents. Social media influences, self‐disclosure, and handling adolescents’ questions will be emphasized.
Yesterday I submitted a manuscript for publication in a professional journal. The journal portal insisted that the telephone number linked to the University of Montana began with a 770 prefix. For us Montanans, that’s blasphemy. We are 406.
The automated message from the journal portal arrived instantaneously. That was amazing. The fact that the automated message was also copied to a former doc student from Pakistan who wasn’t listed as an author was less amazing. That’s the point now, I suppose. We live in a world where we’re pummeled by glitches and errors into desensitized or over-sensitized submission. Every time I start up my Outlook program it drones on about “Profile error. Something went wrong.” At this point, even Microsoft has given up on figuring out what went wrong with its own programming.
My high school friend who has an answer to everything tells me this is a universal experience wherein our expectations that things will work are repeatedly and systematically crushed. That could be a Buddhist outcome, because we’re forced to let go of our expectations. Unless, of course, we have the anti-Buddhist experience of outrage over our overattachment to things working.
This morning I’m checking in for my flight to Atlanta for the American Counseling Association conference. I’m worried by a message in the fine print from ACA implying that I may need a special adaptor to connect my computer to the conference center sound system. I’m also worried about why Delta has decided to charge me to check a bag, even though I have their coveted American Express Skymiles card.
Good news. My worries are mostly small. If there’s no sound system at the conference center, I can yell and mime the video clips I’m planning to show. I can easily (albeit resentfully) pay to check a bag, or I can reduce my packing into a carry-on. If my doc student from 10-years past gets the email, she’ll be glad to hear from me.
Delta is now telling me that the card I downgraded to a couple years ago—because of minimal travel during pandemic lockdowns—doesn’t include a free checked bag. In response, I have to check my emotional response to my overattachment to not paying a baggage fee. Easy-peasy (maybe).
On a brighter note, if you’re planning to be at ACA, I hope to see you from behind our masks. I’m presenting three times. Here they are:
Friday, April 8 at 11am to noon: The Way of the Humanist: Illuminating the Path from Suicide to Wellness in the Georgia World Congress Center, Room B302-B303.
Friday, April 8 at 3:30pm to 4:30pm: Using a Strengths-Based Approach to Suicide Assessment and Treatment in Your Counseling Practice in the Georgia World Congress Center, Room B207-B208
Saturday, April 9 at 10am to 11:30am: Being Seen, Being Heard: Strategies for Working with Adolescents in the Age of TikTok (with Chinwe Uwah Williams) in the Georgia World Congress Center, Room B406.
There’s a button on the Delta page saying “Talk with us?” I click on it and am directed to pre-prepared answers to common questions. Sadly, none of the common questions are my uncommon question. Like Moodle and Quicken and Microsoft and Qualtrics and Apple and Verizon and Grubhub and Tevera and Garmin and Xfinity and Chase and the many other corporate entities in my life, Delta doesn’t really want to talk with me. I suppose I could get into the weeds here and complain that pre-prepped answers aren’t exactly the same as talking, but we all know how this ends. My high school friend’s hypothesis would be affirmed. My expectations would be crushed, only to rise again, in the form of a rising blood pressure event not worthy of my time.
Speaking of time, as I get older, the decisions over how to spend time get pluckier. Do I write something silly like this, or do I go out to the garden, or do I set up another speaking event, or do I work on our Montana Happiness Project website, or do I volunteer somewhere, or do I wash it all away with family time?
This afternoon, I’ll fly to Georgia, where, on Thursday, I’ll teach my happiness class and engage in various consultations from a hotel, before giving three presentations at the American Counseling Association World Conference on Friday and Saturday, before I fly to Portland to see my ailing father in Vancouver, WA, before I fly back to Billings to get back to gardening. I’ll miss my 8-year-old granddaughter’s play in Missoula . . . and many (I was tempted to say “countless” but as a scientist, I’m philosophically opposed to the words countless and tireless) other possible events.
Irvin Yalom likes to point out that one choice represents the death of all others. Truth. There is no multitasking, there’s only the rush to sequentially tasking as much or as many life permutations as possible to fight Yalom’s existential dilemma of choosing and freedom and the angst and weight of our decisions.
My internal editor is complaining about how many “ands” I’ve used in this speedy essay. Even more sadly, the last editor-friend who told me about my penchant for too many “ands” and too many “quotes” has passed away. I miss him.
As a consistent voice and source of support, Rita is recommending I let go of my rigid hopes and expectations and pay the extra $120 to check my bag. At the same time, I’m resisting the death of multitasking, which is why I’m downsizing my packing for seven days into a carry-on bag.
I suppose that’s what the 1970’s band Kansas might say.
Carry on my wayward son
There’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more
At the risk of worrying you all more than I’m worrying myself (I’m doing fine; this is just creative expression or long form slam poetry), I’m in disagreement with that last line from the Kansas band. Don’t you cry no more is terrible advice.
Maybe the lyrics from that old Leslie Gore song fit better.
It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to . . .
That’s not quite right either. It’s more like,
I’ll cry when I’m moved to . . . for Ukraine, for the forgotten children, for the marginalized and oppressed, for my father, for the hungry.
We all have many good reasons we to cry. Grief, whether from the death of friends or ideas or choices, is a process; it comes and goes and comes and goes.
It’s easy to forget that grief is what’s happening in between our times of being happy. Happiness begets grief. And . . . that sounds like something my friend who has an answer for everything might just agree with.
Several months ago, Renee’ Parker Schoening, executive director of the Montana School Counselor Association, all-around master-organizer, and unstoppable inspirational force, asked me if I could provide a closing keynote speech for the MSCA spring conference that was evidence-based, uplifting, and funny. Channeling my internal family systems (IFS) inner scientist and entertainer selves (while ignoring my own good judgment), I quickly said, “Yes. Sure. Of course, I can do that.”
This exchange is an example of saying yes to ambitiously unattainable ideas, and then needing to find people to help me accomplish whatever it is I’ve agreed to do. In honor of my disdain for pithy, rhyming, oversimplification (think of trite things like, ugh, “fight or flight”), I’ve decided to enhance my influencer legacy by delivering profound wisdom using pithy, rhyming, oversimplifications. In the case of today’s description of last week’s questionably unattainable commitment to providing an evidence-based, uplifting, and funny closing keynote speech, I’m saying (and you may want to write this down), “If you’re running out of steam, it helps to have a good team.”
For the potential MSCA debacle, I asked two talented graduate students in Counseling at the University of Montana to help me create closing keynote magic. I suspect, because I’m a faculty member and technically one of their supervisors, the grad students may have experienced my “ask” as an offer they couldn’t refuse. Regardless of (or despite) their internal lamentations, they accepted the offer they couldn’t refuse . . . and planning started happening.
Turns out that Lillian Martz, one of the grad students, has a history of competitive Karaoke. She’s a current doc student, former M.A. student, and former school counselor. In honor of her expertise, I may or may not have suggested we infuse Karaoke into our keynote. You know how it is. With three people together generating bad ideas, it’s hard to discern where the blame belongs. Anyhow, Lillian agreed, later noting in an email that she felt “regret” for having made said agreement. But it was too late to back out; she selected a song, transforming it into a school counseling narrative (apparently that’s what competitive Karaoke people do), and suggested that the other grad student and I provide choreography.
Turns out the other grad student, Dylan Wright, has a strong theatre background, having worked a couple decades for Missoula Children’s Theatre, which is my way of saying Dylan thought him and me teaming to supply choreography for Lillian’s crooning was a fabulous idea, which is my way of admitting to, once again, saying yes to something that I might have had the good judgment to decline. All I remember is hearing Rita’s voice in the back of my brain saying, “Don’t hurt yourself.”
Dylan’s presence on our “closing keynote” team is why, somehow, we decided to weave in a brief improv experience. As many of you already know, I co-invented Karaoke, along with Mike Bevill, Neil Balholm, and Greg Hopkins, back in Mike’s basement back in 1974, and so saying yes to a Karaoke performance felt right. But, I’ve never done improv. Dylan was all-in on the improv, down with the Karaoke, and loved my terrible idea that we should open the keynote by spontaneously breaking into inappropriate songs.
Lest you worry, we did have content. Our main themes were savoring and gratitude, both being evidence-based practices popular in the positive psychology movement.
One of the lessons I’ve learned over the years is that it’s not unusual to end up receiving the gift you’re trying to give others. What I mean is that, at the conclusion of our phrenetic, non-traditional keynote speech, I experienced big doses of savoring and gratitude. Lillian and Dylan were marvelous planners and co-presenters and Renee’ was moved to tears by the video Dylan and Lillian created for the ending. Thanks to being on a great team and thanks to presenting to a generous and amazing audience of nothing-less-than-fantastic Montana school counselors, my savoring and gratitude cup were full all weekend.
Although there may be concrete evidence of the magnificence of this event in the form of video clips and photos, I’ll leave you with two short testimonials.
So much FOMO. I can’t make out any of the audio, but the visuals are very impressive. At one point it seems as though they become Zumba instructors. – UM faculty member, watching via social media video clips
I feel like I’m in a fever dream! – UM M.A. student
One of my biggest delights this semester has been reading my happiness students’ homework assignments. They’ve embraced each assignment with what Zen masters might call “Shoshin.”
Shoshin is a Japanese word referring to beginner’s mind. Beginner’s mind involves approaching experiences with an attitude of “not knowing” and maximum openness to learning. If you already know about something (say meditation), your natural inclination will be to close your mind, because you already have knowledge and lived experience about meditation and so there’s less openness to learning. Shifting from an expert (closed) mind to a beginner’s (open) mind requires intent and effort.
For many of my happiness students, some of the assignments have been old hat. Like when I ask someone with a degree in divinity and an active meditation practice to meditate for six minutes a day . . . or when I ask someone who is a faculty in counseling or a psychiatrist to try a little cognitive therapy on themselves . . . or when I ask university athletes to exercise, breathe, and consider the concept of flow . . . or when I ask a bartender to focus in on listening to others.
Despite me offering up some “old hat” assignments, my students have responded as if they were encountering everything for the first time. So. Very. Cool.
Those of you who aren’t enrolled at the University of Montana may not realize that today is the very end of spring break. Although spring is often about new beginnings, the end of a university semester is often about time management and emotional survival. Tomorrow, after a week or so of a “break” my students and I return to our studies to finish the semester. My hope is that we all return refreshed and with a renewed passion for learning, so we can Shoshin through our next six weeks.
This hope isn’t just for my happiness class students. Far too many painful events and situations are out there happening in the world. On top of that, everyone on the planet is facing unique and personal challenges that I don’t and probably can’t fully comprehend. We have these global and personal challenges AND in the Northern hemisphere, we’re experiencing spring. Even though there will be distractions and we will be imperfect, let’s do our best Shoshin and approach all of spring like a sponge, soaking up all the learning we can.
In 1970, Shunryu Suzuki wrote: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few” (from, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind).
Let’s stay watchful and open with a beginner’s mind. This is a new spring, a never before spring, with new opportunities. As James Garbarino once wrote: “Stress accumulates; opportunity ameliorates.” Amelioration. What a great word for today . . . and tomorrow.
The place to click if you want to learn about psychotherapy, counseling, or whatever John SF is thinking about.