Trapped with no way out.

Trapped with no way out.

By law, all buildings are required to have a way out, in case of an emergency. So do smart businesses, because the good-times will one day come to an end. But what about in relationships? In our jobs? Our living arrangements?

In my family we collect citizenships the way others collect Royal Doulton. That is because we have been refugees and do not trust any one country to honor their obligation to us. The regimes we serve might fall. Prosperity can turn on a dime. We know from experience that people who look different and have strange names are favorite scapegoats. So we keep a second passport updated.

It is a family lesson I have carried over into other aspects of my life also. Throughout my working life, I kept my resume updated. In the old days (before internet) I’d scan the job classifieds daily, just to keep my options open.

“But you can’t do the same in a marriage,” my friend protested. She argued it would be disloyal and disrespectful to her vows of in sickness/health, richer/poorer etc. She may be right. Though I do have to question why is it that women stay in abusive relationships. Can it be that they feel backed into a corner? They have no exit strategy? My mother ensured each of her daughters had a career before her marriage. She advised each of them to maintain a separate savings account after marriage, just in case. She was a feminist before it was fashionable.

Over the years I have known several friends who stopped calling once they entered a serious relationship. They got loved up. Suddenly they needed no one other their current partner. They were complete. A couple of years later, the phone calls would resume. They’d start with a hasty apology for not having kept in touch, then quickly proceed to their emotion pain at losing the latest love of their life. “He turned out to be a louse,” one might complain. “She was  a control freak,” another lamented. That little love cocoon they had created at the start of their relationship gradually felt like a cage, with no way out.

It may seem cynical to keep an exit strategy in relationships, but it is realistic. This too shall pass, declares the wisdom of the ancients. We this fact comforting when faced with the flu or a seat on the bus beside a sweaty fat man, but we don’t want to heed the full message of that wisdom when we are happy, rich and loved. We delude ourselves that we are the exception to nature’s law of what goes up must come down.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about resilience. I work with two communities at the opposite ends of resilience. I love my geriatrics who have survived world wars, revolutions and untold personal tragedies. They stoically summon the resilience to cope with their latest medical misfortune. At the other end are the homeless guys, many of whom once had dynamic, successful lives. Yet each man has had one fateful failing; for some it was drugs and alcohol, for others it was gambling and a for a few it was a criminal mistake. I wonder why they were unable to withstand that fateful failing, when the geriatrics have withstood many more?

Can the answer be, resilience? If so, what is the secret to cultivating this quality? I believe resilience is about planning for all eventualities. In other words, having an exit strategy.

Of course the ultimate exit is death itself. Seven years ago, when I was handed a virtual death sentence, I was advised not to dwell on it too much. My experience has been that accepting my mortality has brought about a heightened awareness of life. That in planning for death, I have tidied up my life. In working to delay the coming of death, I am eating better, breathing better, sleeping better. I no longer fear the vagaries of life. I do not see myself as its victim. Because I have an exit strategy.

Can One Be Too Optimistic?

February 11, 2013


Hayley Mills as the terminally optimistic Pollyanna.

Hayley Mills as the terminally optimistic Pollyanna.

Always look on the bright side of life,” sang Eric Idle in the film, The Life of Brian. It has since become an anthem for optimists who perhaps do not realize it was meant to be sardonic. Knowing those Monty Python guys, might they have meant for us to question if optimism isn’t as good for you as it’s cracked out to be?

Pessimists, the glass-half-empty people, are supposedly at higher risk of heart disease, depression, and a host of other ailments because their immune systems are not optimal. Or so goes the research. No doubt there is common sense behind this argument. Positive people bring about a self-fulfilling prophesy when they act according to their belief. And self-help books of the New Age movement have ran with optimism as the secret of a happy life. Think positive thoughts and only positive things will happen to you, they say.

But hang on a sec, doesn’t optimism also shut down critical thinking? A healthy dose of cynicism is our only defense against scammers and marketers. A mother may advice, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, say nothing.” Does that mean that if I know Mr. Adobe from Nigeria is a con-man, then I should just keep quiet and not warn my friends? If my landlord is bullying me, I should not complain to the authorities? So clearly, always looking on the bright side is sometimes the foolish option.

Historically, despots have sold a skewed optimism in order to control the masses. If I am denied the right to question my religion ( because I must have faith), to question my culture ( because I must have pride), and to question my government (because I must remain patriotic), then I will never become a fully-formed adult.  Personally, I prefer the New Yorker cartoon where a father advices his son: “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, be clever but devastating.”

Which brings me to Mr. George Carlin. He, like many intellectuals, employed negativity rather positively. Persons with high IQ love satire and lampooning. When such people rant it is cathartic and joyful. When listening to such people it is hard to miss the huge overlap between optimism and pessimism.

When I began patient support I imagined I would be in most demand from patients without families. It turns out it’s the opposite. When faced with cancer or any terminal condition, families seem to prefer a state of denial. Particularly in front of the afflicted relative. They somehow think that what the patient needs is to be reassured that everything will work out just fine and dandy. “This little diagnosis will one day become a distant memory.” I quote those words from what was said to me after my heart attack.

This is optimism which is negative for the patient. If you really want to be supportive, be honest, allow him to consider the worst. Go over all of the options. When a person is faced with a shortened lifespan, it would be more comforting for him  to know he has planned his departure well. That he has made peace with everyone, his finances and estate are in order, that his canny planning succeeded in making things easy for his loved ones as his illness progressed.

But time and again I witness families saying, “I don’t like to think about such things,” as if being blindly optimistic is a sign of supreme love.

A depression-prone pessimist might be more likely to take his own life, but a chronic optimistic is never far behind. Optimists are risk-takers. They are more likely to risk their lives on thrill sports such as free-fall parachuting or bungee-jumping.

Given that reality is made up of both positive and negative elements, it would be make sense that a balanced approach should be the most realistic. Might there a third, more sane, way then? Is it possible to live as neither an optimistic nor a pessimist?

I have noticed that my plans for the future enter my awareness neither as optimistic nor as pessimistic. It is only when desires tag themselves onto outcomes that the problem begins. If desires bounce up and down and say, yes, that outcome will fulfill us nicely, then the rosy glow of optimism will appear. If, however, the desires bemoan, no, that outcome won’t do us at all, then the the blue mood of pessimism will cloud over.  

Here’s the irony: Desires are entirely unnecessary to the planning of the right thing to do. Desires tagging themselves onto outcomes happens because of force of habit. And like any habit it can be reprogrammed.  For me the solution is to keep alert the faculty of inquiry at all times. In my opinion a critical indifference of the outcome is the healthiest and most reasonable option.

When Advice is Unadvisable

February 4, 2013


"Doctor, am I ready to end our therapy sessions?"

“Doctor, am I ready to end our therapy sessions?”

“What do you think I should?” asked a weeping old man as I held his hand beside his hospital bed. An ethical minefield for any sympathetic listener. I wanted tell him. I could so clearly see what the problem was and what he should do about it. Luckily I held my tongue. It is a cardinal rule of good listening: Never Tell Them What To Do.

And with good reason. There is no such thing as universal advice. What works for one man in one situation may be disastrous for another.  Just as no one medication cures all ailments.  What made it more delicate was we had built a rapport, he trusted me. If my advice were to go ass-up, he would surely feel betrayed.

But a part of me wondered if that was correct. Who’s to say he was genuinely after my guidance? Very rarely do people want to be told what to do or, heaven forbid, be told what to think. Don’t we prize only our own opinion? I my stroppy youth I used to envy John Boy Walton. His Pappy cured everything with a few choice words. In real life I never listened to anyone. I knew better (as all teenagers inherently do). Not that I regret any of those decisions. Hey, mistakes mould character (that may explain why mine is as convoluted as an Origami octopus).

Besides, people who want to be told what to do or to think are being best lazy. Or worse, they are pathologically weak. This is the real reason why soliciting advice is a dangerous sport. The adviser may have a hidden agenda. The advice may not be in your best interest. The elderly and sick are particularly vulnerable, so it makes sense that the hospital denies us the right to give advice.

When I dodged from giving out my opinion he used the old tried and true: “What would you do if you were in my situation?”

I wasn’t going to fall into that: it’d be easier to climb out of a tar-pit. Part of the skill of active listening is interjecting encouragement when the speaker is heading in the right direction. It is passive advice giving, but advice it is none the less. It is an art to make the speaker feel he is the one who made the right decision when in fact the listener guided him by asking the right questions. It is the mark of a good listener, and a great friend.

As I encouraged him to think through, it became apparent that he was not looking advice at all. He was like the vast majority of the human race, he was simply gathering diverse opinions. I have no doubt he will have asked the same question to as many people as would listen. He was hoping for a consensus. Or at the very least a wider perspective on his problem. People do this on the internet daily. They invite anonymous strangers from all over the world to pipe in on their problems. It is not advice seeking, it is conducting an opinion poll. And why not, when reality is layered and ambiguous, it helps to have as many different perspectives as possible.

But sometimes (about as often as a total eclipse) someone who earnestly desires guidance will seek out your advice. What an honor! And what a responsibility. The trick is to determine above and beyond the obvious asked question, what exactly does this man require from me. The right advice at the correct time and in the proper manner requires extraordinary subtlety of judgement. It demands expertise of the subject as well as knowledge of the person asking the advice. No easy challenge. That may be why the wise generally avoid giving advice.   

I once lived with a guru and at that time I imagined he would solve all of my problems, both big and small. But nothing doing. He gleefully refused. Instead he highlighted my strengths and then showed me how to improve upon them. Little did I understand then that a genuine guru never tells you what to do or what to believe. He demonstrated the ways and means through his own example. I think this is where parents go horribly wrong: Do as I say, not as I do. 

One of the gifts of growing old (yes, there are more than one) is when someone asks, “What’s your secret?” It means they have observed you and are saying they admire you. However, I seldom ‘blab my secret’. The answer has to comes from them and to help them with that requires active listening.

The times I have been successful in active listening is when my life journey has touched upon what that person already knew to be correct and beneficial for himself. My presence merely served to reinforce their innate wisdom (confirmation bias).

So my advice about giving advice? Do you really want to know.

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