Protesting Gratitude on the Eve of Thanksgiving


         With so many things to protest, would I really choose gratitude? I suppose the answer would have to be yes. Actually not only do I get cranky around the pressure to feel grateful on cue, I actually think it is bad for people. I’m talking here about forced gratitude, as in the call to singing joyful phrases while presenting cancer victims and survivors with pink ribbons—as just one example.

         This came up for me just yesterday when I was visiting a friend in another state who had offered me a ticket to a psycho-spiritual conference meant to inspire hope in oneself and in the world. She had just been ill and was better now and my coming with her was important. The first sign of being asked to scream thanks to the universe had me almost on my feet, fleeing the room. But feeling Ellen would be upset I stayed. Thank the heavens (organic gratitude, I would call this), she glanced at me and whispered in a knowing way, “I don’t think I can take much of this either.  Let’s escape for lunch and not come back”: relief for both of us.

         It brought up for me also a number of people I see in therapy who are chronically dissatisfied with who they are, with whether they have been married or married and divorced and remarried yet, with whether they are conforming to the “going with the flow” which seems to me to be more like following a herd mentality. The eagerness of a gratitude assumed to be mindful, can sometimes shame the people who are feeling estranged in some way. That estrangement may come either through economic or social inequality, or through depression or trauma that have not gone away despite odes telling them to change their focus and think only about the good things in their life.

         It’s not Thanksgiving yet, but of course. It is pumpkin time and even eggnog time in some stores. So let’s say it’s pre-Thanksgiving, usually marked by Halloween on its merry way to pre-Christmas/”holiday” cheerful giving, which is usually over abundance for some and silent isolation for others who do not have the funds. One certainly doesn’t hear much of a protest of all the gift giving from those who don’t talk out loud about not having the money to take part.

         Back to the part about mandatory gratitude perhaps not being good for one’s health and wellbeing and certainly not for one’s integrity. On the inside at times there are conflicts and wounds that need to be faced before gratitude can be real. On the outside there are plenty of social issues that are screaming for repair and attention as well. Economist and social activist Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in her book Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America (Picador, 2010) how relentless emphasis on making lemonade out of lemons so to speak can focus our energies away from external problems needing our attention.

         I find that gratitude can be something very rich and vital. It can be deeply moving to look at the life and health and growth and the discoveries we can get to experience. In particular I find it can feel touching to experience the appreciation for the people who know us, who understand us, and who love us despite our faults.

         I have mentioned before how crankiness can be a signal that something is off in our environment, and not always just that something is off inside us. The same may be true of gratitude. Yes, not having it or enough of it may mean we are greedy or motivated by incessant needs for power and celebrity—some of which become obsessions whose emptiness can never be filled. Sometimes, however, it may mean that something is wrong—something that needs to be understood and mended if possible.

         Some of us are deeply sensitive to the ills of the world and take them personally. For that my answer of sorts is that we come together because caring alone is often just too lonely. But also one of the answers I have come up with is to probe the reasons under the given reasons for the greater malaise and the adversarial atmosphere that plagues our time. It isn’t just understanding better but understanding how people in power use psychology as a force to manipulate us into hating each other, into distraction and into resignation. Being manipulated into thinking that gratitude at any cost and on demand is the answer to mental and social health may just be part of an effort to keep our minds detached from coming together to ask how we are kept stuck. It can become a predictable script that forges a make believe connectedness to a make believe community.

         By the way I am grateful for being able to force my way out of my own congestion to have some thoughts and feelings that seem to matter. I will be ever so much more grateful if I have some company along the way.

 One moment and one holiday at a time.

# Gratitude

# Forced Gratitude

# Thanksgiving

On Being Enough

         While on my exercise bike, I surfed onto the second half of the film “Crazy Rich Asians” which I had sort of avoided because I told myself it would be trite and silly. And then all of a sudden I found myself sobbing.

         The future mother-in-law tells her potential daughter-in-law, while taking the girl’s face in her hands, “You will never be enough”. However there is a turn of events, inner events really so that there is a shift that changes everything. And wow my tears kept flowing. Why was that? Where did that come from?

         It hit me hard that it was about the feeling of being enough, and it hit me that my sobbing had to be about me. I cried the hardest when the shift came, when the loving and appreciation came into existence. It was the crying of regret about my own experiences of feeling like I was not enough, and the yearning and sense of possibility of feeling differently in the present.

         I know I’m not alone here, in that there are so many people who sacrifice their truest selves to live up to expectations that make them strangers to themselves. It is the hardest when early experiences were filled with shaming and being made to doubt and compare, and then the outside world echoes those sounds of harshness.

         This can be especially hard for those who walk to a different drummer than the rest of people who seem, at least on the surface, to march strictly and without question to the political correctness police of the day. In the nightmare (and boon, I know) of social media, comparisons and experiences of being left out or behind the social spectacles and events that seem to matter can be sudden and cutting.

         The problem becomes a bit like bullying: just because a bully talks or hits louder or more forcefully and sounds smarter doesn’t mean he/she is right. But when bullying echoes the pains caused by earlier assaults of the mind or the body, self-doubt is more pronounced. And when the social scene echoes the not being known or understood or respected and validated of earlier days, the sense of not being enough seems absolute. It can be like hearing voices—messages confirming either that you are not good enough or that nobody will ever understand. All the while there is no room for real learning and growing, because the doors to real honesty and sharing have been closed. The atmosphere becomes too crowded with the noises from inside, noises that often say it is better to settle for relationships that are relationships in name only. They become “better than nothing”, because in one’s fantasy, they keep the prospect of being alone forever at bay. Doors are closed and nothing new can happen.

         None of this can be fixed by a mantra only, as far as I can see. The inner experience, and what it feels like, and where it comes from, or where it seems to come from, are like living cells that need to be owned and witnessed in the present even if they were not in the past. In addition it’s easier to feel we are not enough, as in not worthy of attention and dignity for our wounds, if they don’t qualify for obviously and trendy injustices that can seem to diminish and even humiliate the suffering that is not publically noticed at a given point in time.

A good number of the people I’ve seen in therapy are drowning in the sense of not being enough. People in their mid-thirties, for example, may not be attached to a love partner while their friends are married with children. Why aren’t they married or having an easy time finding people who in some ways might make good company or friends, as a start? I have found that so many people are looking for ways to fit in, in styles that don’t match who they really are. It becomes a series of lies in order to please or placate or seduce people they may not even like. There is, as suggested before, the tendency to feel inadequate for feeling lonely because it “must be me” is the common refrain.

         And we need to be careful here again. It is all too easy for therapies or mindfulness techniques to advertise easy ways to feel strong and authentic with steps that skip over a person’s layers of inner fears and hurt. Being known in the present is not a solution to pain from the past but it can be a consolation and the beginning of new possibilities of reclaiming the right to refute the external or internal voices of relentless negativity.

         Being enough doesn’t mean getting a free pass on growing up, and becoming accountable for coping with conflicts and with life challenges. It is just that if we don’t get to what stops us from feeling like we are enough, we will take to constant absorption in self-loathing, in fakeness or in blaming other people as the knee jerk reaction to hating our own experiences of vulnerability.

         Even though I didn’t mean this to be a political blog, the connections invariably come to me. And as such, my thoughts go to our current state of affairs and how we are so polarized. We are so divided, also because some of us hide the feeling of not being enough by demonizing other people.

As of now I can’t see anything more important than tackling this epidemic, so perhaps we could care enough to empathize, and to heal—each other, our world and ourselves.

#On being enough

#Social comparisons

#Crazy Rich Asians

Are Trump Supporters Too Vulnerable for the Truth?

Think about it for a second. Vulnerability can mean being in contact with a sense of helplessness. Hopefully, this can lead to memories of despair that once upon a time may have felt lethal and endless, but now hopefully don’t have to remain so.

People who love Trump seem very set on not only worshipping him but on defending him and identifying with him. If Jeffrey Epstein, the notorious billionaire who is alleged to have pandered in sex trafficking with under age girls committed suicide as he did, and has been linked to Trump at least in the past, the Trump supporters’ script is already written. Trump is an innocent guy whom liberals love to hate and accuse. There is a conspiracy about, that aims only to smear him.

Even people who allege Christian values of decency and morality seem to skip the rules when it comes to their leader. Well, you know, everyone does stuff and, look; he never said he was perfect. If his treatment of women has been demeaning and degrading and compromising and ugly, well look again; he is human and Christianity is all about pardon.

I think some of us need to remember how vulnerable it can be to seek the truth. Optimally we start out believing in the perfection of our leaders, our parents, and our moral commandments. What starts out as a supreme set of rules, gets to be questioned. Whereas when we are young we need to idealize leaders so as to have stability, hopefully we grow to become more independent and more able to rely on our own judgments and the supports of others who can help us without smothering us or owning our intellect and our souls.

Some of us get stuck in arrested development. And it is not always the obviously weak and needy among us. Sometimes it’s the bully or the grandiose one or the one who seems to be able to fire anyone—someone like Jeffrey Epstein for example. The bully has been bullied in the past, but here I want to talk to the rest of us, those who get enmeshed in personality worship.

The personality worship we are witnessing in the time of Trump for many makes the truth irrelevant. It makes evidence a figment of the imagination of the other side. It makes knowing about anything that might puncture our worship of our higher authority, tantamount to feeling like everything is crumbling. In other words it is too scary.

How can we be brave if we can’t face the truth? How can we be brave if we can’t stand to admit that we are scared to face the truth, at the very least? After all we depend on a structure, a set of values, some things and people on whom we can rely. When things become chaotic we shudder. And when we learn that the people we believed in have lied to us all along, we can feel truly downtrodden. In other words, we can feel not only betrayed but also like fools. And we can feel confused as to where to turn.

Of course we can go from one leader to another, from one religion to another, from one cult to another. And if we should decide to really want the truth, we need to be supported by people who won’t deride us for having been naïve and wrong.

This is a big question we should be asking more often. Do we want the evidence, even if it implicates those we love or those we have believed in. Do we want to listen to our children who tell us priests have abused them, or other religious or scholastic authorities or sports coaches? Do we want to look at each other and put down our figurative arms and say we want to know the truth about all the things—the racism, the corruption, the inequalities, and the fact that people in power love to see us fighting with each other? Do we want to face that each and every one of us is prejudiced to some degree and that we will to some degree have to interrupt our certainty to weather the storms of what it can feel like to doubt—not only others but ourselves?

It’s not an easy choice because hate infuses us with an awful lot of adrenaline. Discovering the truth, taking off our masks and giving up the scripts already written eons ago, can be pretty thrilling as well. Just saying. And, just hoping.

#Trump

#Vulnerability

#Truth

Embracing Vulnerability Changes Everything: Or Does It?

 

 

There is a movement of vulnerability in the land. And one towards authenticity as connected to vulnerability. Contacting our deepest parts can lead to courage in expressing what is real and can lead to greater intimacy because it risks the honesty to have deeper connections.

I have suggested elsewhere that vulnerability needs protection in order to be viable and safe enough, but here I’d like to focus on something else. Namely, if we become in touch with our own vulnerability, it would stand to reason (I know, an iffy word these days) that our self-empathy would extend to other people who experience psychological or physical vulnerability as well. We would, as Bryan Stevenson writes of brokenness (Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Spiegel & Grau, 2014), change once we become in touch with our own brokenness, which he sees as a human phenomenon common to all of us—kind of like vulnerability. Once we experience this shift, through the struggles of living through losses and pain, or through coming up against terrible circumstances) we would no longer want to break any other person.

Vulnerability seems directly connected. When we hit our bottom, addiction not being a necessary factor, we know what it’s like to suffer feelings and realities of helplessness, humiliation and hopelessness. We know life is not always fair and this increases our humility, thereby increasing our capacity to both empathize and identify with our fellow human beings.

That is my logic, and my experience as a therapist and a patient and a person. Humility and caring come with knowing our deepest sides. But is this in fact the case in our world of today? It doesn’t exactly seem that way; at least I don’t see the vulnerability craze if you will, translating into social and political stances of embracing the plight of the prejudiced against, the poor and the oppressed in general.

Does this mean that those in the wellness fields are content to wander off into reveries of self-satisfaction and tranquility without losing the balance achieved by greater well being on personal levels? And does this in turn mean that vulnerability, as it is playing out, is a private and insular matter that renders its participants more detached from the social and political mayhem which is not all that new but is so very intensified in these times?

I do not see many people entranced by wellness movements of various types extending the passion about wellness to the people in are midst who are suffering from racism, from white supremacy, from the absence of gun control, from prison brutality and from poverty. In fact I don’t read columns that connect the two arenas—wellness and social and political wellness: vulnerability and social and political vulnerability.

Vulnerability is about the deepest and most helpless parts of any of us. I do not see vulnerability concerns as anything but shallow and self-absorbed unless they lead us to give a damn, and to give one out loud about our physical climate, and the one out of five in our midst who are poor, for one.

Vulnerability leads to courage, to my mind, when it is protected and safe enough to lead to enough stability so as not to be completely manipulated into states of dis-regulation. However we need to watch out for the kind of manipulation that causes us to feel too self-congratulatory and self-righteous, while ignoring the suffering around us.

To do nothing about a society that is diseased is not necessarily brave at all. And I suspect that the people, who are ignoring social factors and human beings, have not gone deep enough to contact the fears and vulnerabilities inside each and every one of us.

I would like to add that this goes way beyond the tragic drama of mass shootings that so far has not been able galvanize real action. The violence in our daily lives, the kids who bully and who are bullied are the ones who are most vulnerable to mass violence appeals and movements; we can’t afford to ignore them either, on a daily basis.

#Vulnerability social problems

#Vulnerability

#Vulnerability protected

 

 

 

 

Some Notes on Vulnerability: To Democrats and Republicans

Actually I’m both a Democrat and a psychotherapist who was initially afraid to write this piece. I had wanted to talk about vulnerabilities faced by both Republicans and Democrats, as I looked around for those wiser than me on these subjects. I had started thinking that many of us are so out of touch with our own vulnerabilities that we wind up being manipulated by people who are savvy enough to provoke our vulnerability to attack, rejection and public shaming.

I had been angry with Democrats who seem to fall into the bullying of many in the Republican Party who in turn seem to know how to play on racist themes that are smoldering just beneath the surface. Why, I was asking myself, don’t Democrats learn to band together and gain the knowledge of the psychology that Trump and his cronies are using against us?

But wait, I told myself just this morning. Why was I waiting for experts in fields of psychology and mental health to figure this out when I deal with dynamics like these all the time in my work as a therapist? And then I said wait, again. Am I not acting just like the Democrats I am seeing as weak and oblivious to power dynamics that should be more apparent. And then I realized the answer was yes, that I was afraid to lose or offend potential readers who want to pretend that we are not afraid of being hated for our opinions or our questions on political levels as well as personal ones.

As one example of fear about interrupting political correctness, there was my own apprehension about criticizing the Presidency of Barack Obama, who to me seemed not to face directly dynamics of hatred and polarization with enough honesty. The panic of many Democrats in dealing with our own racism head on was not necessarily helped by President Obama when he told us after fits of violence or the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, “This is not who we are”. That did not really serve us well because in many ways this has been who we are, with lots of propaganda fed to all of us that there was an American dream to be had, and not so very hard to attain. This was a fairy tale promise and part of the anger of the Trump base has been the sense that other people have received undeserved handouts while they have lost ground.

We all have histories of vulnerability that are being lived out in the present. Most Trump supporters, it seems to me, would feel rebuffed by friends and families should they question his leadership or his behavior. Many of his supporters have tacitly or overtly agreed that to question any of his accusations or behaviors would risk to be rejected by the whole base as unpatriotic. They risk being humiliated by leadership and being called names publicly. Republican leaders as well, risk personal and political retaliation as well.

Trump is a person who “warns”: he speaks with a glare and a finger pointed, a finger and an expression that say, “You have to make me feel good. You have to agree with me that the only truth in the world is the one I say. You have to laugh off any of the questions raised against me, or anything that you yourselves might find questionable about me. You have to assume, with the rest of our group that there are plots against me in the press, in the Democratic Party, in the people who only criticize me because I love America and they hate America.”

As for Democrats, we tend to be scared to death of being seen as less than pure. We don’t realize, many of us that is, that the history of racism in America, belongs to all of us, those who have committed crimes against others of a different race and those who have turned our backs and lived comfortably in neighborhoods of one color only—that being white.

Let’s face it: Republicans are the slick ones and Democrats the naïve ones who often shoot themselves in the foot. Democrats have a vulnerability that is very easy to take advantage of, as long as we don’t know we have it. We hate being hated, and we hate being or even seeming hateful. When it happens that one of us mentions something that can be used as unpatriotic or anti-Semitic, we have to have a summit about it with apologies abounding. This is so even if the politicians who rabidly support Israel—as one example– are supporting the religious importance of the state of Israel to them, and not Jews per se, not in the least. And yet it becomes another victory for Republicans who can tell the rest of us we hate our country and are disloyal.

The truth is that love of country—real love—is like loving a child. This is a love that doesn’t stay unconditional and prolifically filled with anthems and flags. It is about dedication, and interrupting malfunctions, depressions, aggressions; it is about interrupting and addressing issues when things go wrong or need attention. To want to interrupt economic inequalities (also experienced intensely by many Republicans) is not unpatriotic.

If we could realize that egotism, panic, aggression and cruelty are part of the human condition we could stop playing (and being played) with the idea of inequality between us. We have more in common with each other than we are led to think. And as scary as that might feel, it’s a hell of a lot more scary to feel there is nothing left but the “us” and the “them”. It is adrenalin fueling to hate and it takes getting used to, to face the hate becoming less attractive and less addictive.

As a therapist, I feel a tad less afraid than at the beginning of this writing, because honesty about what’s really going on inside can often be freeing. I think if we could start focusing on our fears not only of disagreeing but also of agreeing with each other, we might just have a chance of interrupting the horrific hatred that has become so epidemic

#Vulnerability

#Vulnerability and politics

#Democrats and Republicans

#Racism