Friday, December 26, 2008

Altering Fate

I often think that we are like the carp swimming 
contentedly in that pond. 
We live out our lives in our own pond, confident that our 
Universe consists of only the familiar and the visible. 
We smugly refuse to admit that parallel universes or dimensions 
can exist next to ours, 
just beyond our grasp. 

If our scientists invent concepts like forces, 
it is only because they cannot visualize 
the invisible vibrations that fill the empty space around us. 
Some scientists sneer at the mention of higher dimensions 
because they cannot be conveniently measured in the laboratory.

- Michio Kaku

Newton's idea of temporal absolutism, and our limited perceptual capacity, commit human beings to the notion of both unidirectional time and its strict linearity. Yet, quantum mechanics reveals a much more complex and relativistic view of time and space.  Klaus Riegel's work emphasizes the concept of time as dialectical, interrelated and says that events in our lives:

...lead to the formation of conflicts and resolutions... 
temporal markings, produced by the synchronization 
of these sequences and represent transitions in the 
sequences of qualitative changes...

thus, elucidating the relative nature of the events, the sequential measure used, and meaning and awareness within a person's sense of time and space. In other words, our development into full human beings is not necessarily measured or appraisable vis-à-vis the traditional ordinal or interval temporal increments.

Quantum physics, and more specifically string theory, are gradually refining and delineating our understanding of time continuity and discontinuity. And these new understandings, being explored by brilliant, iconoclastic quantum physicists like Michio Kaku, give rise to so many potentials beyond our current comprehension; including a restructuring of  our place in the Universe, time and events in which we play a role, and even the outer edges of transcendental possibilities such as time travel, parallel universes, and multiple dimensions.  

The most phenomenally mysterious, consequential forces in our Universe, I believe, are precisely those that cannot be measured within a flask or under a microscope or with a psychometric tool. There is simply no way to measure time, space, fractal dimensions and meaning, or even love within the four walls of science.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Architecture of Hope

I believe in rain, in odd miracles, 
and in the intelligence that allows terns and swallows 
to find their way across the earth.
-Paul Hawken

The essence of hope is something to which I've held for most of life. Hopefulness, as an emotional state of being and as a paradigm through which I view the world, is one of my core values. I hope, I believe, and I have faith most times, even when the forces of doubt and despair feel Herculean. At least, I try to hope- and for good cause.

There are empirical data mounting that explore hope as a core personality trait; as one of the most significant foundational underpinnings upon which a person's character is built. Peterson et al (2008) found that individuals who scored high on a tool measuring core hopefulness were more resilient. Resiliency is a pivotal attribute in helping humans to endure suffering.  That is, hope and resiliency interact; the effects of this interaction are profoundly important to psychological endurance and tolerance.

These are potently essential psychological resources to possess.

Hopefulness may be a more visceral character trait. And while it may bolster resiliency, I suspect, and some research supports this suspicion, that resiliency truly burgeons from endogenous and exogenous factors. In other words, the family system, the community, and the larger sociopolitical environment in which a person exists in the world can foster and facilitate or quash and extirpate resiliency.

Interestingly, research in animals (rats specifically) suggests that those faced with traumatic experiences, under the right circumstances, are more resilient- as a biological function- than those not exposed to such stimuli.  In comparing three groups, including a control, the group of rats exposed to trauma fared better than those not exposed to trauma. They were more hardy, and had a higher level of resiliency and functioning. The caveat: Those rats repeatedly exposed to the traumatic stimulus did not fare better. Seemingly the chronically unresolved rats- those who were "hopeless" for any relief- suffered the most out of all the groups.

I know rats are not humans, and there are significant ethical and comparability issues in such research. But even anecdotally, there appears to be strong support for the hypothesis that exposure to adversity- under the right circumstances- can help foster resiliency in such a way that we, as humans, can transcend; it's an opporunity to become believers in the rain; and in odd miracles; and in the notion that all things find their way home, to the heart.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

From the Stocking to Yann

From the stockings in Arizona....

To Yann in Cambodia 

Our family engages in many altruistic traditions throughout the year, including during the holidays.  We always buy a gift for a girl who is the same age as Chey should be that particular year. We volunteer and serve food to the hungry. My favorite, mostly because of the assigned anonymity, is the Kindness Project (tm), where I will often feel the most gratitude for having known my daughter in my own quiet way.

I began thinking about the holiday tradition of stockings. My children made their own stockings back in 1996, shortly after Joshua's birth. It was a special year for our family as we made room for our new baby.  

So I decided that this year I wanted to do something meaningful with our stockings. After all, a person could spend $50 or more on gadgets and gizmos that wander into the netherworld of lost children's toys  within moments after their emergence. I thought: Why not do something in my children's names that would be an enduring gift for someone else.

Enter Kiva.  Kiva is a fantastic organization of mostly volunteers who provide micro-loans to small business owners in many poverty-stricken nations.  It is a paradigm based on empowerment and enrichment not disempowerment and enslavement. 

So with my children's stocking fund, we were able to help Yann Voeun, 22, a young mother in Cambodia with two children to purchase cows for their breeding business; and Romel Paulo, a father of three, in the Phillipines who needed $325.00 so he could plant his next crop of rice and corn; and Edith Agho, mother of five, who requested a loan of $1200.00 to help her start her second-hand clothing business in Africa.

The children's "stockings" helped eight people they will never meet or know achieve their dreams and become more independent and self-reliant.

So, this holiday when they reach into their stockings, they won't find chocolate covered gold coins, or wind up toy cars, or dice games. Not even coal.  This year, they'll open an envelope and meet someone whose lives they were able to touch across the oceans, beyond language, and traversing culture. I think it may well be the best gift of all this year, and a new tradition I hope they will continue with their own children.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Extinction of Tolerance

If you see a spark, you will find it in the ashes.
-Elie Wiesel

A friend of mine called me today to ask my advice. She's enduring the ending of a long relationship, feeling destitute, lonely, and broken.  She asked, "Should I go on some meds to make me feel better?"

"Feel better?" I said. "Why should you feel better? Something really important is happening here in your life. It's a major change and what you're likely to feel is grief."

She blurted, "I don't want to feel grief. I don't want to be sad!"

Well, of course we don't want to feel sad. But...really...isn't there an appropriate time for sadness?  Have we, as a culture- as a people, lost our tolerance for feeling? Is there some cosmic treaty guaranteeing that neither you nor I nor our neighbor nor best friend will get through life absent suffering? 

Still, so many people seem to want a drive-thru cure, 30-second gorilla glue, for a broken heart- for normal feelings like sadness or grief or despair.  Many have not had much practice in sorrow, loss, hunger, desire, or want. Affluence attenuates tolerance. Low emotional tolerance increases the risk of depression and other negative psychological outcomes.

And, what do we miss by our evasions, as Jaspers asks? What happens when we obviate emotional risk?  There is a sublime, and I would argue necessary, beauty and aptitude waiting to be discovered in the dark emotions.  Suffering offers opportunities for change, transformation, and transcendence. 

Is it painful? Of course. But since there is no way to eradicate all suffering from the world, perhaps, the most genuinely humane thing we can do for ourselves and for each other is to feel our suffering and that of others. And in so doing, search for the spark, the light, within the ashes.

It just might be the spark that saves another.  

In the end, the best I can offer my friend is to feel with her- to confront the suffering by her side, and to fearlessly accompany her on her journey into the dark emotions.  In the words of de Montaigne, "the man who fears suffering is already suffering what he fears."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Tis the Satirical Season?

My 12- year- old launched a full-blown-food-protest this morning (after too long between grocery trips), threatening a revolt if we ate veggie burgers one more night. So I got into my baby blue Prius and drove to the grocery store, hurried and harried to return back to a final draft of a paper on deadline.

As I walked toward the entrance of Safeway, I passed a woman standing at her car with her hand on the hood. She was leaning over as if she was in pain. I glanced at first, and continued past her, taking a minute for circumspect to strike me. Then the pause. 

I turned around and thoughfully approached her. "Are you okay?" I asked? She replied, "I'm just having one of those days. I can't seem to get to my truck."  She was parked in the disabled spot.  

"May I help you?" I asked.  "Sure," she said smiling at me with apparent gratitude, and maybe some surprise.

She moved with painful deliberation as I gently took her arm and helped her into the truck.  A few seconds later, a young employee of Safeway approached to see if he could help.  He put her groceries into the back of the truck as I continued to help her into the vehicle.

She drove away grateful for the assistance.

I headed back toward the door of Safeway, about 40 feet from where this woman was struggling and walked past the holiday season staple: Salvation Army bell ringers. There were four of them posted at this single spot, one furiously text messaging, another talking on her cell phone; about five others posted another 20 feet away. 

Again I hurriedly walked past them, and then I suddenly stopped. I walked back outside and looked at them. They were watching the woman as she drove away. They had seen her struggle to get to her vehicle as she had to walk past them to get to her truck. And I was both stunned and entertained at the irony: They were there collecting money so that they could help others in need.  

Yet, right there, within their very view, was a person in need, someone they could have helped in this moment- not in some intangible way, but in a very authentic-in-the-moment-way. I felt like I was in a bad piece of satire: Saturday Night Live's caustic condemnation of human behavior comes to small town Arizona. 

Where have we gone wrong that we don't pay attention to one another any longer?  Why do some humans ignore their moral duty to help?  What compels some to take the initiative to help even while others do not, or even while others will inflict direct harm? *(Milgram's experiments, while unethical, taught us a great deal about human behavior and helping/harming...)

It's easy to drop a dollar in the hungry metal bucket. It's easy to send a check in the mail to some obscure group that helps people who you will never know or meet or see. And they are, indeed, worthy and necessary causes to which others should give. But, there are so many more important things than fiscal responsibility to one another. There is a responsibility of compassion; kindness; mindfulness of suffering; advocacy for social justice; and our pause in recognition for their worthiness of our time. Those are the things that money cannot buy. Those are the things you will not find in any red bucket.  And apparently, those are the things that are the most difficult to offer to another, if for no other reason than we mindlessly are unable to see the need as it arises. Those are also the most imposing tests of our own humanity.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Four Quartets: An excerpt

I said to my soul
Be still
And wait without hope
For it would be hope for the wrong thing;
Wait without love
For it would be love of the wrong thing;

There is yet faith,
but the faith
and love
and hope
are all in waiting

Thus, wait without thought
For you are not ready for thought
And in the darkness there shall be light,
And in the stillness, dancing…
Pointing to the agony of birth and death.

T.S. Eliot

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Death Education on the Horizon

One of my former interns and death studies students, Krista

I've been teaching a class on traumatic death and loss at Arizona State University for several years. When I first proposed the new course, the only death-related course on campus was one that had a gerontological focus. I actually took that course to experience it. The deaths of children weren't discussed. Even in a death course, this epidemiological microcosm remained the last taboo.

There were concerns that my course would not be well attended; that it would repel rather than attract students.  Yet, during the first offering of this class, we met and exceeded the cap of 30 students. Then, another ten enrolled. The first course of its kind would bring 47 students to the new death studies course.

Years later and registration remains the same. This Spring, I will meet between 45-50 students wanting - yearning - to learn.  We could have easily enrolled 60 or more students based on the demand, but the classroom will not accommodate that number.  In fact, I have a waiting list in my office now.

I have never experienced such enthusiasm for a topic as I  have for this course.  It's an academic course, indeed. We explore Worden and Rando and Kastenbaum and Kubler-Ross. We discuss evidence based practice relative to psychosocial care.  The course includes cultural competency, ritualization in the historical context, and both epidemiological trends and etiology.  Yet, the most meaningful part of the course includes some self-awareness exercises.  Very few students come to this course without having experience some profound loss. They come to share, to discover, to confront, and to heal. They often develop an increased understanding of their own experiences of loss that leads them to something profound. And these profundities invariably help these students become better counselors, social workers, nurses, doctors, or just human beings.  Death studies is more than a course about death. It's a course about life.

And many express to me, at the end of the semester, their gratitude, noting that the simple act of confronting death has, indeed, helped them to really live again.

And so it is. And so it is.


The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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