Category Archives: Personal Reflections

Cultural Specificity and Universality: An Indigenous Example

These days mostly we tend to orient toward the culturally specific, and that’s a good thing. Much of intersectionality, cultural competency, and cultural humility is all about drilling down into unique and valuable cultural and individual perspectives.

But these are also the days of Both-And.

In contrast to cultural specificity, some theorists—I’m thinking of William Glasser right now—were more known for their emphasis on cultural universality. Glasser contended that his five basic human needs were culturally universal; those needs included: Survival, belonging, power (recognition), freedom, and fun.

Although Glasser’s ideas may (or may not) have universal punch, he’s a white guy, and pushing universality from positions of white privilege are, at this particular point in history, worth questioning. That’s why I was happy to find an indigenous voice emphasizing universal ideas.

I came across a quotation from a Lakota elder, James Clairmont; he was discussing the concept of resilience, from his particular linguistic perspective:

The closest translation of “resilience” is a sacred word that means “resistance” . . . resisting bad thoughts, bad behaviors. We accept what life gives us, good and bad, as gifts from the Creator. We try to get through hard times, stressful times, with a good heart. The gift [of adversity] is the lesson we learn from overcoming it.

Clairmont’s description of “the sacred word that means resilience” are strikingly similar to several contemporary ideas in counseling and psychotherapy practice.

  • “Resisting bad thoughts, bad behaviors” is closely linked to CBT
  • “We accept what life gives us, good and bad, as gifts from the Creator” fits well with mindfulness
  • “We try to get through hard times, stressful times, with a good heart” is consistent with optimism concepts in positive psychology
  • “The gift [of adversity] is the lesson we learn from overcoming it” and this is a great paraphrase of Bandura’s feedback and feed-forward ideas

In these days of cultural specificity, it makes sense to work from both perspectives. We need to recognize and value our unique differences, while simultaneously noticing our similarities and areas of convergence. Clairmont’s perspectives on resilience make me want to learn more about Lakota ideas, both how they’re similar and different from my own cultural and educational experiences.

How To Do Suicide Safety Planning: A Case Example

Earlier today I had a 90-minute Zoom meeting with the staff from Bridgercare of Bozeman, Montana. Bridgercare is a medical clinic focusing on sexual and reproductive health. Our meeting’s purpose was to provide staff with training on how to integrate a strengths-based approach to suicide assessment and treatment into their usual patient care.

It’s probably no big surprise to hear this, but even through Zoom, the Bridgercare staff was fabulous. They’re clearly dedicated to the safety and wellbeing of their patients. I enjoyed meeting them and wish I could have been there live and in-person (but, having gotten my second vaccine shot today, more live and in-person events are in my future!).

One member of the medical staff asked if I had material on how to enhance the safety planning process with patients. After fumbling the question for a while, I remembered that I included a safety planning case example in Chapter 8 of our suicide book. I’ve included the excerpt below. Although the case is written in my voice, as you read through, think about how you might put it into your voice.

This case description illustrates a positive working relationship and outcome. Just to make sure you know that I’m not too Pollyannaish about suicide-related work, the whole book also includes cases and situations with less positive scenarios and outcomes.

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Below, the counselor is discussing a safety plan with a 21-year-old cisgender female college senior named Kayla. Kayla was attending a large state university and living off campus in a small apartment. In this case, Kayla was social distancing in compliance with state stay-at-home orders; the session was conducted remotely, via an online video-based HIPAA-compliant platform (e.g., Doxy.me, SimplePractice, etc.).

The Opening and Unique Suicide Warning Signs

Counselor: Kayla, I’m putting your name on the top of this form [holds form up to camera]. It’s called a safety planning form. Some very smart people made up this form to help people stay safe. There are six questions. We’re supposed to fill it out together. If you hate it when we’re done, we can toss it in the trash. Okay?

Kayla: Okay. That’s possible.

Counselor: That would be fine. Here’s the first question. I’m just going to read them to you. Then you answer, I’ll write down your answers, and then we talk about your answer. What are the signs, in yourself or in your environment that will be a warning that tells you that you need to do something to keep yourself safe?

Kayla:    I just like feel a wave of sadness and defeat. Like my life means nothing. Like I’m a damaged, bad person who should die.

Counselor: Okay. A wave of sadness and defeat. How will you know that wave has come? What do you feel in your body or think in your brain?

Kayla:    I feel a physical ache. I think about being abused. I think horrible thoughts.

Counselor: I’m writing down, “Wave of sadness and defeat, and physical ache, and thoughts of being damaged, bad, and abused.” Those are all signs that you should follow this safety plan.

Kayla:    Also, being home alone at night.

In this initial exchange the counselor empowers Kayla to reject the plan if she wants to. Offering to let Kayla reject the plan probably makes it more likely for her to take ownership of the plan. If Kayla ends up rejecting the plan, that information becomes part of the overall assessment and guides treatment decision-making.

Kayla immediately engages in the process. Specifically, her trauma-based thoughts of being damaged and bad could be fruitful therapeutic grist for cognitive processing therapy or EMDR, both of which address trauma and focus on beliefs about the self. However, when using the SPI, it’s best to stay focused on the SPI, and save the deeper therapeutic content for later. The counselor could (and should) have said, “For now, we’re working on this plan. But later on, if you want, we can start working on your feelings of being damaged and bad.”

Personal Coping Strategies

Counselor: What can you do in the moment to cope with suicidal thoughts and feelings?

Kayla:    Look. I could cut myself to feel better, but nobody wants me to do that.

Counselor: I’m sure it’s true that people don’t want you cutting. I also think it’s true that people would rather have you cut yourself than kill yourself. If cutting keeps you alive, we should put it in the plan, at least for now.

Kayla: I think it should be there then.

Counselor: Okay. So, cutting goes on here as a method for calming or soothing yourself. Have I got that right?

Kayla:    Yeah. It calms me down when I’m upset.

Counselor: What else could calm you down or distract you from suicidal thoughts?

Kayla:    I could listen to music or call a friend.

Counselor: Great. I’m writing those ideas into the plan right now.

Brainstorming coping responses is similar to other processes discussed in chapter 5 (problem-solving and alternatives to suicide). One key principle is to accept all responses before evaluating them later. In the preceding interaction, the counselor accepts that cutting might be a viable (even if not preferred) short-term coping strategy, and then continues to nudge Kayla to generate additional coping ideas. Although cutting isn’t addressed in this case example, after developing the safety plan, therapeutic conversations about cutting and alternatives to cutting, should become a part of ongoing counseling (see Kress et al., 2008; Stargell et al., 2017). 

Social Contacts and Settings

Counselor: I’m wondering about those times when you’re alone. Who could you be with to stay safe? Even if it’s only for you to distract yourself?

Kayla:    I have a friend named Monroe. He’s crazy. He’s always happy. Sometimes he annoys me, but he’s a good distraction.

Counselor: Monroe sounds like a great distraction. He’s in the plan. Are you able to see him in person, or would you do Facetime or a Zoom call.

Kayla: He lives in the apartment building and we could meet up outside.

Counselor: That sounds great. Who else?

Kayla: I can always call my parents, but when I do, I feel like failure. I’m an adult.

Counselor: If you’re feeling suicidal, would your parents want you to call?

Kayla: Yeah.

Counselor: Okay then. Let’s put your parents down. We can talk more later about how calling them might make you feel. 

The counselor does a good job of getting Kayla to be specific about how she could connect with Monroe. Overall, Kayla doesn’t have an extensive social support network. Expanding that network will likely become an important goal for counseling.

People Whom I Can Ask Help

Counselor: This question is similar to the last one, but a little different. Instead of people who are distracting, now I’m wondering who you can turn to if you’re in crisis?

Kayla:    Monroe wouldn’t be the right person for that.

Counselor: Not Monroe. But who would be right for that?

Kayla:    My parents, I guess. And my aunt, Sarah. She’s always been there for me. I could call her if I need to. And my grandma.

Counselor: Good. That’s four. Your mom, your dad, your aunt Sarah, and your grandma. Are they around here, or would you call or text them?

Kayla:    My parents and aunt live close by, but we’d probably just Facetime because they’re older I don’t want them to get COVID. My grandma lives in Minnesota.

While generating lists, it’s useful to draw clients into being even more specific than illustrated in this exchange. For example, as Kayla identifies people to call, getting specific about texting or calling, where the person might be, and what to do if there’s no answer, is good practice. Role playing a call or text can be useful, because rehearsing behaviors make them more likely to occur.

Mental Health Professionals or Agencies to Contact

Counselor: How about professionals or agencies that you can call if you’re in a crisis?

Kayla:    I don’t have anyone.

Counselor: Wait. You need to put me here. I should be on the list. I can be available for short calls Sunday through Thursday evenings up until 9pm.

Kayla:    Okay.

Counselor: And there’s 9-1-1, right? You can always call 9-1-1. In an emergency, that’s what you do. There’s also a new suicide hotline number, 9-8-8. I’m going to write that number down too. You don’t have to call any number, but it’s good to have them just in case you do want to call for professional help during a crisis. The other thing to remember about calling hotlines is that you may get someone you don’t like or don’t connect with. If that happens, keep trying, but also, jot down a few notes so you can tell me about it. 

 In the preceding exchange, the counselor offers to be a limited option. Whether you provide a personal contact number is up to you. Whatever you do, spell it out in your informed consent and have boundaries around the times when communications with you are acceptable. Because calling hotlines may or may not feel helpful, empowering Kayla to critique her hotline experience and then report it to the counselor might increase her willingness to call.

How Can I Make My Environment Safe?

Counselor: This last question has to do with how you can make your environment safe. We’ve talked about various things, like how you can cope and who you can call. Now we need to talk about whether there’s anything dangerous in your home, anything that could be used to kill yourself if you were suddenly suicidal.

Kayla: Yeah. Well I bought a hand-gun last year. That’s how I would do it.

Counselor: Right. Thanks for telling me about the gun. Can I just tell you what I’m thinking right now?

Kayla:    Sure.

Counselor: With guns and suicide, there are two good options. One is for you to give it to someone for now, until you’re feeling better. The other is for you to safely store the gun or get a trigger lock. I’m just being totally honest with you about this. The reason we should get your gun locked up or given to your parents or someone else, is because most of the time, people are intensely suicidal for only 5 or 10 or maybe 30 minutes. During that intense time, people can do things they later regret. Most people who make a suicide attempt don’t make another attempt. It’s usually a one-time thing. My main goal is for you to be safe.

Kayla:    But I’m not planning to use the gun or anything.

Counselor: Right. That’s great. But let’s say your Aunt Sarah was suicidal and she had a gun, would you be willing to keep it for her if it made her safer?

Kayla: Of course I would.

Counselor: So, whether it’s you or your Aunt Sarah, we want to make sure suicide doesn’t happen because of one terrible moment. 

The preceding is an example of psychoeducation around suicidality and safety planning. If you have a good rapport and connection with your client, the psychoeducation is likely to be well-received. If your rapport and connection is less good, then you’ll either need to work on the relationship, or take a more directive and authoritative role to promote your client’s safety. 

Counselor: All right. I’ve written down your ideas for the safety plan. Now, I’m going to scan it and send it to you through our secure portal. As we’ve already discussed, we’re going to make a bigger plan for your counseling. But in the meantime, we need to keep you safe so we can do the counseling. Right now, you’ve got this safety plan you can use, and we can revise it if we need to.  Okay?

Kayla:    Okay.

Counselor: Kayla, thank you very much for working with me on this safety plan. I think we made a good plan together.

Kayla:    Me too. I guess I won’t throw it in the trash.

Counselor: You’re pretty funny.

Please excuse any typos or bad grammar. The preceding is a pre-published (and pre-copyedited) version from my computer. To check out and possibly purchase the whole darn book, you can go here: https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=78174

Why We Need to Empower the Oppressed and Maximize the Marginalized: Contextual Factors and Suicidal Ideation

In this blog I often focus on factors that contribute to suicidal thinking and suicidal actions. One theme I repeatedly emphasize (and Rita and I hammer away at in our suicide book), is that suicidal thoughts are often natural and normal human responses to difficult or distressing life circumstances. When painful and disturbing things happen outside of the self, it’s not unusual (and not abnormal) for individuals to feel the pain and then notice suicidal thoughts popping into their minds.

Another theme we repeat is the post-modern, constructive method of linguistically moving personal distress outside of the self. Moving personal distress outside of the self is useful because it allows mental health and school professionals to join with clients and students to strategize on how to cope with or reduce the painful distress contributing to suicidal thoughts and impulses.

Ongoing events, including, but not limited to, the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, abduction and murder of indigenous women in Montana, hateful targeting of Asian people around the U.S., and this week’s murders of Asian women in Georgia, are all stark reminders of how events external to the self can reverberate and cause immense feelings of helplessness and hopelessness within people vulnerable to systemic oppression. Even in cases where specific individuals have not been directly or explicitly threatened, if they identify with victims (which is a perfectly normal human phenomenon), they can experience deep emotional and psychological distress. Although many factors can add to the distress people feel around racism, cultural oppression, and an unsafe dominant culture, in particular, feeling helpless to enact change and hopeless that positive change will ever occur, adds substantially to what we’ve intellectually labeled in our book as “Contextual distress.” Addressing contextual distress requires, at minimum, that oppressed people are empowered to contribute to positive change and hopeful that positive changes can and will occur.

In the film, Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams (the therapist) repeatedly tells Matt Damon (the client) that the abuse he experienced is not his fault. Although I’m not a big fan of the therapeutic methods that Robin Williams employs in the film, the message is salient, powerful, and important: “It’s not your fault!”

“It’s not your fault” is also salient for Asian, Black, Indigenous, and other oppressed minority populations. The “fault” is within the dominant U.S. culture. Nevertheless, minority populations may feel internal distress and desperation . . . and sometimes they’ll feel so helpless and hopeless that they also naturally experience thoughts related to suicide. Again, the core messages we need to offer as egalitarian allies include: “How can we empower you?” and “How can we help our whole society feel more hopeful about creating a new dominant culture that includes honoring, equity, and safety for all minority groups?”  

Because it’s relavant to this topic, and how often society and individuals blame people for being oppressed, below, I’m including a short excerpt from our suicide book. This excerpt comes from Chapter 10, where we explore larger contextual factors that can and do contribute to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. I know my approach here is intellectual and clinical, but I also hope to convey the need to address the palpable fear and oppression that’s happening in far too many places within American society.

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    The purpose of depathologizing suicide and externalizing suicide-related problems is not to relieve individuals of personal responsibility. Instead, depathologizing and externalizing are social constructionist tools to alleviate shame; these tools also allow clients to gain enough psychological distance from their problems or symptoms to view them as workable. When depathologizing and externalizing work well, clients feel uplifted and inspired to participate even harder the battle against the internal and external stressors contributing to their suicidal state.

In this chapter, it seems odd that we would need to mention that contextual factors driving suicide can originate outside of the self. However, society tends to blame individuals for their oppressive living conditions or stressful life circumstances. Surely, the narrative goes . . . people living in poverty or drinking lead-laced water in Flint, Michigan, must be lazy, criminal, or somehow defective, otherwise they would lifted themselves up by their bootstraps and profited from the American dream. Of course, this narrative is false. In fact, as we think about the depth and breadth of contextual factors that contribute to suicide, we recall the words of Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.” As we look at the 7th dimension, this message is flipped, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in ourselves, but in our stars” (or systemic socioeconomic disparity, racial inequality, and oppression).  (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2021, p. 236)

For information on the book, Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning: A Strengths-Based Approach, go to: https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=78174

What’s Happening in Happiness Class?

We start every happiness class with music.

As many of you know, the class generated a pretty cool song playlist. Typically, I select a song from the playlist, download it into my powerpoint, and start the music at 12:55pm. I say typically in that optimistic—see the glass half-full—sort of way, because, in reality, sometimes I struggle to get the music video to play, other times I start it a bit late (and begin to hear my Zooming students query, “What’s happening? Where’s the music?”), and still other times I go rogue and pick an off-list song that I happen to think fits the topic perfectly.

Last week, before we explored spirituality and forgiveness, I couldn’t resist playing “Heart of the Matter” by Don Henley . . . and now I can’t stop the tune and lyrics in my head . . . “Forgiveness, forgiveness, even if, even if, you don’t love me anymore.” For your immediate listening pleasure, here’s the Henley music link:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rxni_Icyjj8&list=RDRxni_Icyjj8&start_radio=1&t=213

Usually I consider it best practice to keep my camera and microphone off during the opening music. You can imagine why. Holding on to the small shreds of respect that I’ve not yet squandered seems like good judgment, because if I let go, things might look like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0Nju66rif4&feature=youtu.be

After the opening music I burst into the Zoom scene with energetic and pithy commentary designed to get everyone focused in on our topic of the day. Then, after a few orienting announcements, I send students into Zoom break-out rooms where they ask and answer the questions: “What do you remember from our last class” and “What about our last class seemed important to you and your life?”

My sense—based on our immediate debriefing after the break-out rooms—is that some students are finding joy in their five-minute one-on-one Q & A time. However, recently I heard from a few students that they particularly dislike the Zoom break-out experience. This leads me to a conundrum (why are there so many conundrums?). Should I continue with the opening class break-out rooms, or should I find another pedagogical strategy? Please enlighten me on whether you think I should continue with the break-out rooms or find a suitable alternative.

Following the break-out rooms and debriefing, I (sometimes accompanied by Rita), launch into lecture content. We talked about spirituality for three class meetings, and have also hit gratitude, kindness, cognitive methods for dealing with pesky negative thoughts, and much more. In order to not completely bore anyone, I shift in and out of the powerpoint slides, inserting side commentaries, forcing students to imagine their part of research studies, and facilitating experiential activities. My favorite two activities (so far) were having students engage in an on-camera Gestalt two-chair with themselves (the visuals were hilarious) . . . and having everyone shout out the word “fail” over and over again for 60 seconds. The “fail” activity is based on research on deconstructing particular words so they lose their power over us, and begin just sounding like funny sounds. The best part of that activity was having students report back that when they yelled “fail” repeatedly into their computers, their roommates thought they were having serious existential meltdowns.

Class usually closes with a large group discussion, during which I’m humbled by the depth and breadth of student commentary. On occasion, I’ve pushed quieter students to comment, and in every case, they’ve delivered. I’d share some examples, but the student comments are theirs to share. Let me just say, on their behalf, it’s good to listen to students.

Class ends with a flurry of good-byes, as well as expressions of gratitude and affection.

Although I’m not completely certain students are feeling the joy, I can say with confidence that I am. I’m loving the experience and deeply appreciating how often my students are making the Zoom version of happiness class . . . magical.   

How To Moodle

Grading a Quiz

Although automated quiz grading is awesome, two of your 25 quiz items need manual grading.

Click on item 24 of Student 1, to initiate manual grading.

Scroll everywhere without finding any place to manually enter grade.

Scroll again.

Find link to “manual override”

Click on manual override.

Enter grade.

Look for “save” button.

Notice that the Moodle screen doesn’t quite fit your laptop screen.

Begin muttering.

Plug laptop into larger external screen.

Move visual to larger screen.

Click on “save changes.”

Feel satisfaction from effective Moodle problem-solving.

Notice that nothing happens.

Swear.

Try clicking on next item that needs manual override.

Notice that nothing happens.

Swear again.

Click on item heading (in hopes of accessing ALL ungraded items)

Notice that instead of taking you into the item, Moodle takes you back to the whole list of student quiz scores.

Scroll sideways to re-locate items to grade.

Notice that item 24 for Student 1 IS NOW GRADED!

Smile to yourself at your Moodle success.

Follow identical process to grade item 24 for Student 2.

Notice the process no longer works.

Move to F-word in profanity cache.

Search “How to override an individual quiz item” in Google.

Almost find the right answer.

Try using the almost right answer.

Fail.

Continue with F-bombs, now in close combination with Moodle.

Write email to University IT help, trying not to type F-Moodle as Subject Line.

Wait.

Get tired of waiting.

Try grading again.

Notice that Moodle no longer recognizes you as having grading privileges.

Give yourself grading privileges.

Begin grading again.

Begin wishing you had used crayons to administer and grade quiz.

Step away from Moodle.

Begin an email invoicing Moodle or IT or the Universe for your lost time.

Delete email.

Consider describing your problems with Moodle in your next email to students, because you need to apologize to them for the delay in quiz-grading.

Delete paragraph of email to students where you described all your Moodle problems.

Send email.

Realize that Moodle timed out while you were composing your email, and consequently your email did not send.

Realize (again, because this has happened before) that Moodle has no automatic back-up for emails and consequently you have to re-write what was likely the most eloquent email you’ve ever written.

Recall that you had previously sworn to yourself to never again write a long email in Moodle.

Exercise risk management by stepping away from the computer.

Consider resigning from the University because of continued problems with Moodle, Qualtrics, Box, and repeated difficulties recalling your passwords.

Recognize, through a finely honed capacity for self-awareness and self-reflection, that you need to take a nap before engaging in any rash decision-making.

Take a nap.

Awake refreshed and optimistic.

Consider logging into Moodle.

Procrastinate, hoping Moodle will upgrade itself by the time you’ve finished writing a snarky blog about Moodle.

Post blog.

Goodbye 2020 . . . You’re Nothing but History Now

Happy New Year!

As a method for putting 2020 behind me and focusing on a hopeful 2021, I engaged in some forward thinking (rather unusual for me) and wrote an op-ed piece for the Missoulian newspaper to be published TODAY! Below, I’ve pasted the beginning of the article, along with a link to the whole darn thing in the Missoulian. If you feel so moved, please share and like this. . . and I hope you experience the return of happiness in 2021.

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The Return of Happiness: Your 2021 Guide

Usually a great source of snarky humor, the Urban Dictionary lists its top definition for 2020 as, “The worst year ever.” Sadly, even the Urban Dictionary couldn’t find creative inspiration from the horrors of 2020. Goodbye, 2020; you will not be missed.

. . . for the rest of the article, click below:

Your Weekend Homework: The Return to Happiness

As we approach the end of 2020, many of us are looking forward–like never before in the history of time–to turning that calendar to a new page and a new year. Readers of the Washington Post were recently surveyed and wrote, 2020 has been exhausting, relentless, and heartbreaking. Let’s put 2020 behind us and never look back (other than to remind ourselves of mistakes we shouldn’t make again).

In honor of turning the calendar to 2021, I’m working on an Op-Ed piece titled “The Return to Happiness.” The point of the piece is to acknowledge how good it is to move on, but also discuss the nature of New Year’s resolutions and how to make resolutions that have a reasonable chance of being accomplished. In the end, I’ll be making a pitch for everyone to sign up for my University of Montana course “The Art & Science of Happiness.” Well, not everyone, but anyone who wants to have a cool online “university” experience that provides an opportunity to test out the best, evidence-based, approaches to happiness on planet earth.

The course starts in January, and, for the first time ever, will be offered to “community” participants as a non-credit experience. This means EVERYONE can sign up. The catch is that it costs $150. But if you do the math, that’s only $10/week or about $3.50 an hour to discuss, learn, experiment with, and establish new happiness habits for 2021.

Here’s a description of the course:

Over the past 20 years, research on happiness has flourished. Due to the natural interest that most Americans have for happiness, research findings (and unfounded rumors) have been distributed worldwide. Every day, happiness is promoted via online blogs, newspaper and magazine articles, Twitter posts, Instagram videos, TikTok, and through many other media and social media venues. Ironically, instead of increases in national happiness, most epidemiological research indicates that all across the U.S., children, adolescents, adults, and seniors are experiencing less happiness, more depression, and higher suicide rates. To help sort out scientific reality from unsubstantiated rumors, in this course, we will describe, discuss, and experience the art and science of happiness. We will define happiness, read a popular happiness book, examine scientific research studies, try out research experiments in class, engage in extended happiness lab assignments, and use published instruments to measure our own happiness and well-being. Overall, we will focus on how happiness and well-being are manifest in the physical, cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, spiritual/cultural, behavioral, and contextual dimensions of our lives.

Other things to know: If you take the course as a community, non-credit, participant, you won’t take the quizzes, or get graded, and assignments will be optional. However, you will be asked to participate in small group lab sessions designed to give you (and others) a chance to talk and listen to each other as you experience and experiment with specific happiness assignments.

If you’re interested, you can register at this link: https://www.campusce.net/umextended/course/course.aspx?C=627&pc=13&mc=&sc

If you know friends who could use a happiness boost for 2021, share this post with them. And if you’ve got questions, you know where to find me.

Have a fantastic weekend.

Dear Karen: I have a professional and personal responsibility to speak out against Unacceptable behaviors

Last week I received a comment on this blog. Getting a comment is always very exciting, partly because I don’t get all that many and partly because the comments are usually positive and affirming. In this case the comment was neither positive nor affirming.

Although getting critical comments isn’t nearly as fun and ego-boosting as affirming comments, receiving criticism is important to self-examination and growth. The person who commented last Thursday was upset about my “politics.” As many of you know, I’ve occasionally written about Mr. Trump and lamented his behavior. Sometimes, I’ve felt nervous posting critiques of Mr. Trump, worrying that I may have been behaving in ways that were less that professional and worrying that perhaps I shouldn’t openly express my negative opinions about his behavior. However, in the end, I’ve often ended up deciding that my critiques of Mr. Trump aren’t really about politics anyway.

Digesting Thursday’s comment has helped me clarify my position on political commentary. Here’s a version of what I wrote back to my blog commenter.

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Dear Karen,

Thanks for your message.

Many years ago when I interviewed Natalie Rogers, I recall her telling me something very compelling about her father, Carl Rogers. She said, in her family, all feelings were accepted, but not all behaviors.

Although some of my judgments about Mr. Trump have political components, most of my judgments about him focus on his personality and behavior. Politics aside, I wouldn’t care if he was a democrat, an independent, a republican, a corporate mogul, a teacher, a coach, or a rock star. I find his behavior to be an unacceptable example for children. From my perspective it’s clear that Mr. Trump is much more focused on using and abusing power than he is on empowering others. To return to Carl Rogers: Rogers believed the best use of power was to empower others. My perception of Mr. Trump is that he’s invested in accumulating power, and not on empowering others.

I could make a list of video evidence of Mr. Trump mocking disabled people, calling women “fat pigs,” disrespecting war veterans (including John McCain, whom I’ve never written a negative judgmental word about, despite his politics), paying off prostitutes, saying positive and supportive things about dictators and racists, and his continuous flow of lies. If Mr. Trump was my neighbor or a colleague at my University, it would be wrong for me to let his behavior pass without making it clear that I find his behaviors to be a potentially destructive and negative influence on children in the neighborhood or the culture at the University. Not only do I have a responsibility to be non-judgmentally accepting in therapeutic contexts, I also have a responsibility to speak up and speak out against racism and the promotion of violence. I believe there’s ample evidence that Mr. Trump has promoted racism and incited violence. My rejection of those behaviors isn’t particularly political; I simply believe that it’s morally wrong to promote racism and foment violence.

I can see we have different views of Mr. Trump. You may not see the evidence that I see, or you may find his behaviors less offensive and less dangerous. Although it’s challenging for me to understand your perspective, I know you’re not alone, and I know you must have reasons for believing the ways you believe. I can accept that.

But to articulate my perspective further, here’s a therapy example. If I was working with a client who exhibited no empathy or said things to others that were likely to incite violence, as a psychotherapist, I would work toward a greater understanding of the client’s emotions. In addition, I would consider it my professional responsibility to question those behaviors . . . for both the good of the client and the good of people in the client’s world.

Again, thanks for your message. It’s important to hear other perspectives and to have a chance to question myself and my own motives. I appreciate you providing me with that opportunity.

Happy Sunday,

John SF

In This Sacred Hour . . .

Yesterday, for Halloween, I dressed up as agitation. I wasn’t alone. Everywhere I went, everyone I saw, and around every corner, I encountered agitation. Maybe it was herd mentality. But no one developed immunity.

This too shall pass, and it did. Last night I took a deep breath and exhaled, slowly. And then like all the best Yogis, I lingered on the outbreath. My costume, all the layers of agitation, melted away onto the floor, into the carpet, down through the flooring, seeping back to the earth where agitation can rest.

Today is my favorite day; a day to throw myself into the gift of an extra, socially constructed, sacred hour. In stark contrast to all my previous years on the planet, today I plan to stay here—in this sacred hour—all day.

Having fallen back, no matter how long in coming, this particular hour arrives with surprise. What shall I do in this dark hour before dawn? Shall I spend it now, or wait and spend it with Rita on a walk up the river. Which hour of this 24 will be my sacred, extravagant, unexpected hour?

Every year, I’ve rushed into this gift. Anticipating its disappearance even before it appears, I’ve tried squeezing enough productivity into one arbitrary hour to compensate for my perpetual time management problems. But this is a new year, a new day, and a new hour, and, after shedding my agitation costume, I now see peace. It’s a bumpy peace, much like the washboard road to East Rosebud Lake. We may get rattled, but we shall arrive.

What I’d never discerned before is that the sacred hour is an illusion. Like many things, the sacred hour was created out of nothing but time for someone’s convenience and instead of recognizing its nothingness, I’ve tried to grab it, wrestle it to the ground, and suck out its imaginary nutrients. Year after year, I’ve mulled its significance and then experienced angst over how to spend it. As I do with Mary Oliver’s query, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do. With your one wild and precious life?” I’ve demurred. The question is too big. Everything will eventually vanish, and if I choose one thing I’ll be left with only one companion: my own judgmental vengeance.

Peaceful, deep breathing is almost always about the outbreath. Fancy meditators and Yoga practitioners coach us to pace our breathing, and then to extend the outbreath into the place of no-breath. Oddly, the place of no-breath is the place of life and peace, if only for snippets at a time. While being still, without breathing, for a second or three or six before the in-breath comes again, the body’s physiology slows down, nearly halting in parasympathetic bliss. In the sacred space of the outbreath, peace happens in the body, and when peace happens in the body it can—with practice—transfer little seedlings of peace to the mind. The common admonishment, “Remember to breathe” is less profound than its uncommon sister: “Remember to not breathe.” Remember to let yourself extend your peace for a bit longer than usual today. Remember to be with peace tomorrow. Especially, remember to mingle with peace on Tuesday. You know why.

Today’s brief illumination is that there’s nothing special and nothing especially sacred about this extra hour. But also, like all hours, there’s everything special and sacred about this extra hour. It’s just another hour that, along with its pesky minutes and seconds, was simply created for the convenience of counting.  

I’ll probably forget all this by Tuesday, but for today, I see every hour is a collaborative creation. Every hour we get to return to the beginning, resetting our intentions, and refocusing on the mystery of what is and what might be.  

Tuesday, Wednesday, and beyond will bring as many sacred hours as we can count. How shall we spend those hours? For me, I hope we can collectively linger with our outbreaths on Tuesday as we begin, together and again, to build peace, reclaim justice, embrace empathy, and restore democracy . . . one bumpy and sacred hour at a time.

My Birthday Wish (and Request)

Yesterday, in anticipation of my 63rd trip around the sun, I started feeling a slow creep of melancholia. At my age, because all movements are slower than frozen molasses, I now have the luxury of spotting doom early on, as its ambling my way. Last night’s gloominess was mostly about aging, but amplified by my nightly dose of watching the evening news. As usual, the news inevitably featured Donald J. Trump being Donald J. Trump, and saying things that can’t—without the aid of a delusional disorder—be framed as anything other than mean, nasty, and dangerous. After yet again witnessing Mr. Trump’s malevolence, I turned to Rita and murmured, “I think he might be evil.”

As soon as the word evil escaped my mouth, I immediately thought of Carl Rogers. Rogers was an amazing American psychologist who, from the 1930s to the 1960s, developed a profoundly empathic way of working with people. Rogers was raised in a rigid fundamental conservative Christian family. He wasn’t allowed to dance or play cards. During college, at age 20 (the year was 1922), Rogers took a sharp ideological left turn while on a slow boat to China. He stepped away from his fundamentalist roots, and began embracing a broad and encompassing belief in the goodness of all people. Rogers stepped so far away from judgmentalism, and believed so deeply and persistently in the innate goodness of all humans, that many philosophers and psychologists in the 1950s and 1960s (like Rollo May and Martin Buber), viewed Rogers as dangerously naïve.

After realizing back in the 20th century that I would never be “Like Mike” (Michael Jordan), I started fancying myself as being like Carl Rogers instead. The match seemed perfect. Just like Rogers, I believe in everyone’s positive potential. Also like Rogers, I don’t really believe in evil. However, after four years of listening to someone with immense power mock the disabled, disparage the military, demean women, remorselessly lock migrant children in cages, stoke hate, division, and conspiracies, and threaten to blow up our democratic process . . . I’ve begun reconsidering my naïve Rogerian perspective on evil. Last night’s news snippet included Mr. Trump’s continued attack on the Michigan governor. As far as I can tell, the only times Mr. Trump manages to use his words to show empathy is when he’s reading—rather haltingly—off of a teleprompter.

Rogers might blanch at my judgment of Trump, but I think not. He wrote a book “On Personal Power” and his bottom line was that you should give it away. And when I interviewed his daughter, Natalie Rogers, in 2006, she made it clear that her dad was in favor of accepting and prizing all human feelings, but that he could be quite firm when people (and his children) behaved in unacceptable ways. I’m pretty sure that Carl Rogers, one of the most profoundly influential psychologists of all time, would be horrified by Mr. Trump’s behavior, and he would use his power to bring back civility, decency, and empathy.

A couple years ago I had the honor of meeting Joe Biden, face-to-face. He greeted me with flourish and enthusiasm. He oozed empathy, compassion, kindness, and a commitment to service. He spoke and acted without a whiff of arrogance. I’m convinced that he’s the sort of person who will use his power for good.

Here’s my birthday wish (and request). Instead of sending me all the lavish gifts you had planned to send me, just go out and spread the word that decency, empathy, respect, kindness, and love are making a HUGE comeback. And if you know someone whom you think isn’t voting, consider this: reach out with respect and kindness and ask them to vote for Joe Biden. That would be amazing . . . a little frosting on my birthday wish.

Thanks for reading this and for helping make my birthday wish come true.