Kindness in the Wake of Tragedy

Mr. Rogers’ Wisdom

In the wake of the Boston Marathon tragedy, we witnessed many acts of kindness, both caught on camera and brought to our attention by news media:  People who ran 2 miles past the finish line to give blood at the hospital.  First responders and ordinary citizens who ran toward the scene to offer aid and comfort to victims.  People using their own clothing to provide makeshift bandages for victims.  Flowers and teddy bears piling up in memory, often left by total strangers.  Google providing a service to aid in finding loved ones.   And of course huge candlelight vigils.  Whose heart isn’t wounded at the thought of all those people cheering at the finish line and suddenly dead or maimed?  I’ve probably just made you weep again over this disaster; I know I just did that to myself.

But there is a positive side.  Really.  In the the aftermath of both this tragedy and the recent tragedy at Newtown, I was presented with images of Fred Rogers from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, with his quote “Look for the helpers.”  I would like to carry it a step further.  When there is a tragedy of this scope, everyone is watching, and many of us become aware of actions of people in the vicinity–most of them positive.  There is also far more that we are unaware of.  People hugging bedraggled-looking strangers, offering kind words of support, looking at others instead of through them as a reminder that they truly matter, that we are together in this…

It’s your turn, and mine, to be a Helper.  Many of those around you are feeling a little extra vulnerable in the wake of this horror.  Give them a smile.  A sincere compliment.  Signal them that it’s okay to cut in front of you in traffic.  You won’t end up on the news for it.  But you will feel better for it.  And so will they.

How’s Your Ego?

self-image, self-esteem, strength of ego, healthy ego, narcissism

“Look at me!”

No, I am not talking about the Freudian concept of id, ego, and superego.  This is about your confidence level, your self-image.  It’s about self-confidence versus narcissism.

Narcissistic behavior is on the rise in this country, which I detest; at the same time, I welcome healthy and strong egos.

When children are young, narcissism is developmental.  They cannot comprehend another person’s viewpoint.  Toddlers are paying attention to who is watching them; teens often spend excessive time preening.  This is healthy narcissism, and not a reason for concern.  It does not reflect the primary characteristics of the more toxic narcissism among adults:  arrogance, feeling of entitlement, and lack of empathy.

The most egregious of these, to me, is lack of empathy, which may be reflected in numerous ways.  Some people prattle on about their luxury vacations, their investments, the children’s private schools…while knowing full well that you don’t have enough in your refrigerator to get through the week.  They never ask how you are or if they can be of help, because they simply don’t care.  Others are savvy enough to go through the motions, like asking how you are surviving as a caregiver for your mother’s Alzheimer’s.  They don’t really listen to your answer, but at least they have the social skills to fake it.

If you are choosing this type of person as a friend or significant other, carefully consider what life with that person will be like when life doesn’t give them what they want.  These people seldom improve.  This will be the person who bellows for days about a head cold, then is too busy to tend to your pneumonia.  Or it will be the person who, when you have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, goes around telling everyone how difficult that has made his or her life.  Never mind about what it does to you!

I love to ask two questions:  1) Am I dealing with a narcissist? 2) Am I becoming one?  Of course, if you bother to ask Question 2, the answer is probably No.  Narcissists are amazingly low on self-awareness, and question 2 is unlikely to cross their arrogant little minds.

Honoring Your Stories

Gossip and stories

Sharing stories

My wise friend, the late Musetta Giles, had a business card saying “If we can’t hear each other’s stories, nothing can save us.” Someone I barely knew once asked me “What is your story?” then went on to say “Everyone has a story, and that is what makes them who they are. That’s why I like hearing people’s stories.”
Today I hear these stories as part of my job. Hopefully my clients benefit as much from the telling as I do from the hearing.
Though the counseling profession involves a certain amount of diagnostic work, it is critical to see each client as an individual, not a diagnosis. Hence, the stories.
What have I learned from this so far?
The further back the story, the deeper the pain. Research has shown that the most severe trauma reactions are the result of abuse, neglect or other trauma before the age of 2 or 3. That is when a child is deciding whether the world is a safe place. My internship involved working with adopted children who had attachment issues. This is when it became clear to me that it is actually more important at what age a person experienced trauma, than the extent or seriousness of the trauma.
Though stories may follow patterns, all are different, unique. People don’t fit well in pre-ordained categories. Thank goodness. The variety and richness of these stories is also the beauty.
Telling your story (or hearing someone else’s) can help make sense of a chaotic past. Memories may take on a totally different meaning based on their context, i.e. the story. Listeners learn not only about the person, but their family, friends, and larger culture. For both teller and listener, it’s a history lesson in miniature.

Givers and Takers

elderly man helping woman on walker

Givers and Takers

There are givers in the world and there are takers. People who give freely without expectations, and people whose first question is always “What’s in it for me?” Most of us aren’t totally at either end of the spectrum, but the analogy can simplify one’s word view. After a few too many personal experiences with takers, I came up with my own little fantasy: If only (how many sentences start with “if only?”)–if only the givers would hold out for other givers in their relationships, the takers would have no one left. They would have to put up with other takers, or change their ways a bit.

If you are a taker, cut that out.

If you are a giver, please pay attention: Do you ever find yourself totally exhausted by the demands of some perfectly capable adult who demands more of you than any child ever did? Do you feel powerless to do anything about it because–well, if you don’t take care of the _______ (fill in the blank) it won’t get done? You do have choices; they just aren’t always the most pleasant ones. You can sit back and let less get accomplished. Okay, you won’t leave a baby screaming in hunger. But those dishes can sit for another half hour without anyone calling the health department.

This can feel impossible, but it is a choice. I dealt with a person who wouldn’t take care of some child-related issues I felt were important. These were not things that would get him charged with neglect, but they did contribute to the children’s feeling of well-being. I angrily and resentfully stepped up to the plate. And I complained to a mental health counselor who said “You are choosing to not let those children suffer.” I do feel it was the right choice. And regarding it as a choice distinctly improved my disposition.

I am still a giver. Because I choose to be. But I now have a better recognition of my limits. My life is primarily filled with other givers these days. I don’t have the time or the inclination to pander to people who don’t contribute their fair share–whether it be effort, time, or resources. And if every giver followed the same path, those pathological takers among us would have such a shortage of victims. At least that’s my theory.

Childhood Memories

Childhood Memories
When I think of my own childhood, many things come to mind: the tree branches I used to see outside my window on summer mornings, making baskets from cockleburs, bedtime stories from my father, the fireplace that was in my parents’ bedroom. There was a staircase that curved at the bottom, a huge kitchen, and cats. Always cats.

We had a tree house that was only a platform, and one day it collapsed under my sister and her best friend. The house was heated with a coal furnace, meaning the winter nights got awfully cold. I got sick on a couple of vacations, and on one our car was broken into. Police came to our house one night after my next older brother was harassed and run off the road by a motorcyclist.

As you can see, some of these memories are good, some not so much…and of course many fall Childhood memories and traumasomewhere in between. But there are plenty of memories.

Most of us have the good fortune to be in relatively good possession of our own history. If attempts at recalling your own childhood come up empty, it is possible you were traumatized in such a way that your own mind blanked it out. Repressed it. Because it was too much to handle at the time it occurred. Your body, however, does not forget.

I am not suggesting that every time you forget a detail from your childhood, there is a problem. The red flag would be if, for example, you can’t recall a single thing from your second and third grade years. Nada. Not where you lived, who your best friend was, nothing. Unless someone fills you in. But not from your own memory. That’s a clue that something scary may have occurred during that time.

If you start having strange dreams, or unusual reactions to otherwise innocuous occurrences, like for example you jump every time you hear a horn honk anywhere, or you flinch every time someone runs in your direction, or any of a host of other unexplainable reactions…do not discount it. Work toward accepting that whatever happened to you, happened. And realize that if this gets in the way of your day-to-day life it could be time to seek help.

None of this is your fault; it’s just reality.

Here is the good news: Once you begin to recall and deal with the uglier parts of your past, energy will be freed up and you can be in better control of your present life.