Suck the Marrow Out of Life

You may remember this quote from Thoreau read by Robin Williams as the professor in “Dead Poet’s Society.” If there ever was a definition of “self-differentiation” or just vectoring your life, this would be it.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” (from “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau and popularized in “Dead Poet’s Society”)

Strikes me as fresh and real as I grade graduate essays and theses, look forward to seawall walking with my grandson later today, reflect on the revolutions in Egypt (Mubarak just resigned) and Thailand (just beginning their Facebook / Twitter inspired insurrection), that I had better get to doing with my life what I want to do with it.

Creating Space — Loneliness

“When we feel lonely we keep looking for a person or persons who can take our loneliness away. Our lonely hearts cry out, ‘Please hold me, touch me, speak to me, pay attention to me.’ But soon we discover that the person we expect to take our loneliness away cannot give us what we ask for. Often that person feels oppressed by our demands and runs away, leaving us in despair. As long as we approach another person from our loneliness, no mature human relationship can develop. Clinging to one another in loneliness is suffocating and eventually becomes destructive. For love to be possible we need the courage to create space between us and to trust that this space allows us to dance together.” (Henri Nouwen)

Different and Differentiated

Leaders are odd in lots of ways. They usually think about what you and I think about but they do so in different ways. They handle feelings peculiarly to most others too — somehow they seem less interrupted by them. They self-define more, that is, they seem to operate out of some kind of inner value system. And that is why they are leaders and we follow them.

Leadership is not so much about books read, the charisma of your presence, your vast and varied resume. Leadership is more about how you handle “the buzz,” that angst that operates between people that makes some people merge or fuse (e.g. gossip), or run or retreat.

Lots of us lead and we lead best when we observe what is going on between people rather than trying to be smarter, have the last word, support the growing consensus, etc. Focusing less on issues or presenting problems and more on observing the emotional process, helps leaders lead.

Murray Bowen (the originator of Family Systems Theory) and Edwin Friedman (author of “Failure of Nerve“) believe that the key to leadership success is emotional self-differentiation. So what the heck is that?

The following You Tube is a simple and delightful definition about this concept. It is called The Differentiated Leader — Key to the Kingdom. Enjoy.

Basic “To-Dos” of Marriage

I like this marriage list a lot. It summarizes many of the basic “to-dos” of marriage. It was written by Michelle Weiner-Davis of “Divorce Busting” fame. [See “10 Marriage New Year’s Resolutions for 2011” though this is good advice for anytime.]

1)  Make relationship goal-setting a priority- before weight loss or cutting back on drinking or smoking.

Since close to one out of every two first marriages end in divorce- and generally within 4 to 7 years- with extraordinarily detrimental effects to our health, we should switch our focus from personal to relationship improvement. The health benefits of marital fitness are monumental! [Note: the 1/2 first marriage divorce stat is not a Canadian reality. Canadian stats are about 38%.]

2. Have several date nights a month.

Don’t justify a lack of regular quality couples time for any reason, including the kids. The best thing you can do for your children is put your marriage first. You don’t have to spend a lot of money or do something extravagant. You just have to plan alone time that is uninterrupted.

3. Spend at least ten minutes every day checking in with each other.

Don’t let a day pass without finding out how your spouse is doing. It’s like putting blood in the blood bank. When the going gets tough, you will be able to draw on your savings! And when you ask how your partner is doing, truly listen to his or her response. Be present. Don’t multitask or it won’t count!

4. Tell your spouse three things you appreciate about him or her EVERY DAY.

Focus on what works in your relationship and what your spouse does well. What you focus on expands. And don’t just notice the positive things, tell your spouse about your gratitude!

5. Don’t go to sleep angry.

Although this is not always easy, especially when you think you’re right, declaring a moratorium before you start sawing zzzz’s will make for a fresh start in the morning. And by the way, you can still be somewhat angry and follow this advice anyway. It will begin to melt the ice.

6. Touch, flirt and have sex regularly.

Remember what your relationship was like in the beginning? If more couples pressed the reset button and pretended they just met, their marriage would continue to sizzle.

7. Brag about your spouse to others in his or her presence.

There’s a saying, “Let me see what I (you) say, so I know what I (you) think.” Speaking in glowing terms about your spouse in front of others feels like a public endorsement and that feels good.

8. Speak from the heart frequently.

Although one partner is usually more verbal than the other, regular discussions about personal/emotional issues makes people feel closer and more connected.

9. Learn how to fight fairly.

In all marriages, conflict in inevitable. However, how you fight can be the difference between lifelong relationship growth and divorce. Learn how to have constructive conversations about heated issues. Take a marriage seminar that focuses on fair fighting skills.

10. Don’t take yourselves too seriously. Don’t forget to laugh.

Remember how you used to laugh at each other’s jokes and life seemed to be more light-hearted? Don’t lose your sense of humor, even when it comes to problem-solving. Laughter is life’s and love’s best medicine.

11 Old Ideas for a New 2011

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. But I do make decisions (whatever the month) that lead me in an intentional life and principled walk. Here are some that I am working on currently. It helps me when I am overly introspective or worried.

1. Take a 10-30 minute walk every day. And while you walk, smile at people, the trees and your inner thoughts. Walking is the ultimate anti-depressant and if you are depressed, increase the walk to 60 minutes a day. (Not working out in the gym.)

2. Sit in silence for at least 10 minutes daily. Do more wondering than intercession, struggle and worry. It is okay to use music to help you. (I love the cello.)

3. Write a gratitude list weekly. (Use your computer “Notes” section if you wish.) Check to see if the gratitude vector is going up.

4. Waking up in the morning, complete the following statement, “My purpose is to __________ (fill in the blank) today.”

5. Live life with the 3 E’s – energy, excellence and empathy. By the way, excellence isn’t perfectionism. It is just doing an excellent thing.

6. Greet people with the 3 I’s – innocence, inclusion and importance.

7. Spend time with and learn the names of people over the age of 70 and under the age of 10.

8. Eat more foods that grow on trees and plants, and eat less food that is manufactured in buildings.

9. Smile and laugh more. If it helps, watch “Modern Family” or “The Office.” Good places to begin.

10. Say to yourself, “Life isn’t fair, but it’s still good.” Add your insights to 3 above.

11. When conflicting, help the other person “win,” or at least get their point across. Way more fun than winning yourself and probably more truthful too.

Why Do You Do the Things You Do?

That is what I ask myself when I screw up. (“Why the heck did I do that?”) And it is what I ask of you, my client friends, when you ruin your best chance to live an effective and gracious life. (“Tell me why you did that again?”) When I ask why you did something, I am probably thinking about a “trinity” of A’s.

A1 – My first “A” is “attention.” All of us need it, our souls would shrivel without it, and we are designed to give attention to others and absorb it for ourselves. Saying, “She just wants attention” is, of course, true. Take the dismissive tone away and you understand one of the great human motivators.

A2 is “affection”, that someone (hopefully, many “someones”) would want us, worry about our well being, look forward to our coming home for the evening, initiate a really great gladness, that kind of thing. It is why we marry and, when it is missing, the reason that many have their spirits broken and consequently break their relationships.

And A3 is “approval.” This is when someone catches you doing something right and commenting on it. It is the basis of self-esteem in children and surely adults as well. It is related to “thankfulness,” that spirited quality that finds the good in someone and notices it out loud. Shouting approval is good and whispering criticism is a good idea, too.

These 3 A’s are motivators for life and some of the reasons for being. It is why we do the things we do.

Imagine your life where you grew up being noticed and wanted and thanked. If you can imagine this, you can imagine health and wellbeing.

Imagine your life where you feel misplaced, where love has to be earned with good grades or perfection of another sort, and where your triumphs get lost in the busyness of stuff. If you can imagine this, you can imagine fatigue, depression, loneliness and giving up.

Incarnation in a Food Court

When life is interrupted by something unexpectedly wonderful, one worships. Songs are sung, hands are raised, normality stops even if just for 5 minutes.

Today my son sent me this well-watched YouTube (over 6 millions viewings – Carole and I were 4 of those!) — Incarnation in a Food Court.

It is one of the best reminders of incarnation I have seen. That Jesus was born in an ordinary place (food court), amongst all sorts of people (see the restaurant nationalities), doing everyday kind of things (shopping, eating, coping) and for a few minutes one worships.

John 1:14 (The Message) reads “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish.”

Moving into the neighbourhood. I like that.

Conflicted Couples: Interrupting Yourself

I am a big believer in apologies. This is what happens after the conflict. “I am sorry. Please forgive me. It’s my fault. Can we talk about it?” is the apology that seems to make most sense to me. But apologies don’t interrupt the conflict – they follow it. And by then a lot of damage may have been done.

Here are some interruptions that I use in my counselling practice (and that I have learned from John Gottman and others). See if they make sense to you.

#1 – Start the conflict softly. Bring up the conflict tactfully, caringly and working towards a positive solution. Do it sitting down. Playing a full orchestra of emotions and doing an all-out attack means that both partners are likely to feel like losers.

#2 – Sooth yourself before, during and following the conflict. Turn your soul temperature down. Imagine yourself with your hand on the rheostat and be in charge of your inner heat.

#3 – Build bridges – lots of them (maybe 3!). Accept the point of view or intended goodness of your partner. Say something like, “That’s a good point you make.” This builds a pretty good bridge. And smiling warmly helps, too. Try building 3 bridges in a row and see what happens!

#4 – Direct your energy vector “up” once every 3 minutes. Say something warm, welcoming and winsome often. Something funny too, and occasionally concede a point. Touch kindly.

#5 – Time-outs for 15 or 20 minutes help. And during the time-out write down something truthful and thoughtful about you (not a time to make a case against your partner or be defensive). And when you re-engage say, “Thanks for the time out. I would like to tell you about me.” Then read your notes.

There is a lot more. You might want to check out some of my articles on conflict and especially an article entitled “Communication Covenant for Couples in Conflict.”

Conflicted Couples: Go Be Angry if You Want

“Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry—but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the devil that kind of foothold in your life.” (Ephesians 4:26-27, The Message)

Do you know what? There is no need to mess with your partner. Bark, bitch and belittle if you think that works – but you don’t need to. In the flash of a trigger moment, in the blister of anger, it is a choice whether to go for a run or run over your partner.

I am confident that most anyone can interrupt their “fight or flight” reaction to what triggers them. Let me explain a bit. Anger is a second stage emotional response to the internal experience of hurt and fear. Anger doesn’t normally exist by itself – something has startled you or hurt you. Then you get mad and you stop thinking. Mix your rapidly accelerating anger with a flash memory of harm and you have a conflict concoction common to chronically conflicted couples. Here is the formula:

Hurt + Fear + History = Anger [→ Chronic Conflict]

The hurt or anticipated hurt is the trigger. Fear is the emotional lubricant, a kind of psychological WD-40. Add in a history of harm (in this or other intimate relationship) and the result is anger, explosive or malingering, vented or suppressed.

Note the bracket and arrow in the formula above – this is where it all changes. This emotional concoction is now pushing for a body response, a behaviour. This is usually thought of as fight or flight where the fear either accelerates the conflict or, possibly, accelerates the retreat. (We are not talking about the problems of a conflict-avoidant marriage in this blog.) If fighting is the everyday response to these troubling emotions, then it has become a pattern. It’s called revenge and it is fueled by anger. Sort of like the devil having a foothold in your life, and sort of like not interrupting yourself.

Next time some thoughts on interrupting yourself.

Conflicted Couples: “I’m a Dirty Fighter”

I am the dirty fighter in our marriage. Carole grew up with the idea that to go to bed angry was about as sinful as it gets, whereas I figured that going to sleep in the midst of shared madness was one way to solve it – pretend it never happened. Carole would then wake me up to talk it through and I would be more peeved than the hours before, but eventually she would lead me through it.

By the way, the problem we were gnarling about was never the problem. More often it had to do with who was going to control this relationship we were living. Like on the dance floor, Carole loves to lead and the problem with that is that I like to lead as well. We often lead in different directions, we usually have different rhythms and we both think we are right most of the time. And sometimes we are both right, and right at the same time.

I have learned from Carole over these 39 years. I am less of a dirty fighter now. And I have discovered that there are lots of reasons to “not let the sun go down on your wrath” (Ephesians 4:26) — here are some.

1. Fighting wrecks intimacy. Not much chance for closeness, no spooning, no whatever… and forget about love-making.

2. Un-conciliated conflict disturbs your dreaming and your resting. You wake up often more tired than when you closed your eyes. Rather than 8 hours of rest you get 8 hours of wrestlessness (I know how to spell restlessness).

3. You reduce your next day resiliency. Last night’s conflict becomes tomorrow’s frustration and bitterness. Watch your angst and how on-edge you are with others.

4. Nourishing your wrath takes huge withdrawals from your emotional bank account, that accumulation of goodness and freshness that you should be adding to your marital friendship.

5. You become habituated to thinking you are “right” while being aggressively resistant to your partner. It becomes your new norm. It’s called being “passive aggressive” in psych circles.

I seem to have lots of “high conflict couples” these days in my practice. Maybe you are one of them. So I am going to create a few blogs written for you. I hope that these “Comments from the Couch” give you occasion to think, laugh, maybe get confused and perhaps make some different decisions.

Thanks for reading.