Book Review – Beartown

ice hockey

hockey player

The novel Beartown by Fredrik Backman was a most pleasant surprise for me. I picked it out because I had read a couple of his less recent novels, with lighter subject matter. Fredrick Backman does not stick to one formula in his writing; he is consistent in developing his characters for a deeper understanding of his story line.
Beartown features a small lakeside town that has been losing businesses and population, and feels its best hope for the future is its excellent hockey team. Which of course gives rise to a culture where talented hockey players, especially the best players among them, are neither held to the rules of the rest of society, nor able to function so well there if they do not succeed in making a career of this sport.
As we are led through the psyches and backstories of the various characters, we gain an understanding from several viewpoints, of the type of culture that can turn talented athletes into dangerous narcissists, a culture that will support that person and destroy victims mercilessly. Facts cease to have any importance in the face of expediency. While the bulk of the town turns viciously on the victim in this saga— support does have a way of coming from some very unexpected sources. Not because anyone is acting out of character, but because individual people are far more complex than we often give them credit for.
Aside from the fact that he resides in Stockholm, Sweden with his family, I know nothing of the professional background of Fredrick Backman. What is evident throughout the pages of this novel, however, is his clear understanding of the psychology involved as well as the repercussions that extend throughout the town.
Despite the far-ranging and permanent impacts, healing also emerges from more than one unexpected source. Again, because people are complex creatures. The reservoir of our character will be both exposed and intensified in the wake of tragedy. We all decide for ourselves whether this will be a good thing.
Meantime, I highly recommend this book—or any book by Fredrick Backman.

Enabling is Not Always a Bad Thing

Crutches as walking aids

Walking aids

I once knew someone who thought any type of enabling was such an evil, that he would openly criticize people for using walking aids: Canes, crutches, walkers…True, these can be regarded as enabling, but only because they enable people to get around without injury. You know, without breaking every bone in their face because they left the cane behind even though they knew their balance was poor. So on that note, I will tackle the topic, to the degree that I can in 500 words or less.
My own first introduction to the term enabling regarded to covering for the alcoholic behavior of a loved one—spouses calling in sick for their hungover spouses, parents covering for their children’s drinking and/or drug use. In this context, the term involved taking on responsibilities that truly belong to someone else. Here’s the thing, though. I am a firm believer that enabling is not always a bad thing. As in walking aids—I know. But there are other situations.
Suppose your grown child has started down a treacherous life path, and suppose this grown child has children who will wind up in foster care if you don’t step up to the plate. Are you going to suggest that you are enabling your child’s unfortunate choices? Of course you are. But, far more importantly, you are providing a secure home for your grandchildren. That, to me, is a far higher value.
Not all grandparents are in a position to raise yet another generation of children, and I want to make very clear that it is a choice, not an obligation. But there are far more important factors in that decision than whether you might be encouraging naughty behavior on the part of that child’s irresponsible parent.
There are plenty of times values come into conflict: Your child was injured as a result of taking a stupid risk. Will you refuse to get them to the medical care they need? From that viewpoint, medical people enable on a daily basis; to refuse to do so would be a violation of their hippocratic oath. Suppose a child has simply put off till the last minute studying for a critical exam? Will you refuse to tutor them, or is it more important that you provide them the assistance they need, to ensure their best education? People devote entire careers to providing food, clothing and other services to those who are in need—and some of that need stems from bad choices. Surely goodness no one reading this will suggest that we have an obligation to turn our backs on needy people. A higher value would be to meet them where they are.
So, let us just give some thought to what is most important. If enabling is the only problem, maybe it is a good time to stop. But whenever anything else is in play, let’s consider the whole picture. Let’s try to not get totally hung up on that one aspect.

Building a Support System

best friends

Me with my husband, who is also my best friend

I have found that people with a good support system tend to resolve their problems more quickly. Which of course makes perfect sense, because—well, it is important to be able to “run things up the flagpole” with someone you trust, to be free to spout off a certain amount and to obtain their sage opinions, all with the security of knowing that having a problem will not cost you this person as an ally. But what to do if these wonderful people do not inhabit your world?
A lot of people rely on family and extended family members for support, and this is about as good or bad as your own individual family system. Others create their own family-type systems, their own communities. And it is not some instantaneous process; it requires time and attention.
The word “frenemy” comes to mind. The biggest drawback to a “frenemy,” as I see it, is the lack of dependability. But there are times that these very same people can be an asset: Maybe one of these people is a lot of fun to go hiking with, or you like the same music, or you like doing yoga together. But you have little to nothing in common when it comes time to share your feelings. So long as you are aware of the limitations, these people can fill a role in your life as well as you filling a role in theirs.
Then there are those you would treasure as your closest friends. You don’t know who they are when you first meet them; this builds over time. What you do need to know is, what qualities are you looking for? What would be a deal breaker? As you build trust with this person, gradually at first, are you being respected? Does this person treat you and others with courtesy and kindness? Are they thoughtful? Dependable?
Here’s the rub: If you are feeling alone in the world, you will need to stand on your own for just a little longer, long enough to nourish each friendship. And you will need to do your share too. Is this someone you would want to call on you when they are in the hospital, when they have argued with their siblings, when they are going through a breakup?
Friends are so precious. They have your back, and you have theirs. And it will break your heart when they move away or worse—when they die. If you have both chosen well and been fortunate, you will not regret having let these people into your world. Your world will be a richer place for their having stopped by, and you will feel the better person for having nurtured the treasure of their friendship.

The Therapeutic Value of Pets

Gerardie with dog

For the love of a dog

Even in my early years, I used to love reading the newspaper’s advice columns, not so much for the answers as for the questions. Every time a teenager was featured complaining about life, my mother would say “That child needs a pet.” She was a big proponent of the idea that if children could get outside of themselves by caring for an animal (or a number of them), they would be more compassionate people, that pet ownership was therapeutic. I of course tended to not listen to my mother, but I did take advantage of her tendency to allow various animals to reside in and around our home. I am told a cat even crawled into my bed one night to deliver kittens—though I have no memory of the event.
One of my very favorite stories involves a family friend who did research at The Ohio State University, involving dogs who he insisted be treated well. His boss wanted him to have the dogs de-barked and our friend adamantly refused. The office was located directly above a residential unit for disturbed children. One day, while the dog was barking above the unit, a child who had not spoken for six months said “Can I play with the doggie?” I love that story— this child hadn’t even seen the dog!
Animal lovers are getting more of these critters placed than ever before, despite the facts that living space is becoming more limited for many. And professionals are realizing their therapeutic value. Therapy dogs are not just German Shepherds for blind people any more; many are used to help with panic attacks, or to alert owners to impending seizures, to let diabetics know when their blood sugar has taken a dangerous dive…the benefits are extensive, as are the types of dogs utilized.
Then there is just plain ordinary pet ownership. You love your pet; your pet “gets” you. We can all benefit from that comfort.
(About the picture I selected: That is my young friend Gerard, who has recently started training dogs and appears to have quite a gift for it. Don’t you just love the look in that dog’s eyes? I know I do.)

Trust

hands touching“You need to learn to trust.” “I have difficulty trusting.” “Why should I trust you?” You have likely heard, or said, every one of these things at some time or another.
Trust is an important element in all types of relationships, business as well as personal, and to some extent it does need to be earned. It is seldom so simple as trusting or not trusting.
Suppose I have a plumbing problem in my house, and I am new in town. I’ll look for a licensed plumber, and I may even check a few references to ensure they don’t have a string of horrid reviews. But to a certain extent I am basing the professional relationship on trust. These people do have a license they can produce, though likely few of us actually ask to see it. We assume they know what they are doing, we pay their fee, and we work on the assumption that if any problems arise, they can be called back to remedy them.
It gets more complicated in interpersonal relationships. Many people justifiably feel burned when they have trusted someone with their darkest secrets and then been betrayed. Often these same people are afraid to trust anyone for a while. Over time, they may learn to open up a bit at a time, learning through early disclosures who they will feel comfortable with if they decide to take that trusting relationship to another level.
There are several types and levels of trust: some people may be trusted with money but not secrets; others may be trusted to always tell you the truth but not to have your best interests at heart. It is not a simple matter of trusting or not, but more a matter of deciding when and whether to take it to a higher level.
As a therapist, it is important for me to be aware that clients may not always feel comfortable opening up at first; some trust right away while others take longer. Even in a position where we are required to maintain professional ethics including confidentiality, we still need to be mindful of the client’s need for comfort, and to respect their own timetable regarding trust.

Taking a Break

Emmet 2017 02 in treeNot too long ago, I became very ill, for a very short time. My fever lingered, though, and I took the opportunity to stay at home, away from anyone I could expose to whatever had hit me. I was lucky; I didn’t have an employer threatening loss of my job and I was not heavily committed to activities in the outside world. But it also felt to me like I should not be out among people while it was likely I was still contagious.
Prior to the advent of antibiotics, it was not at all unusual to see Quarantine signs on homes where one or more family members had a serious illness, and that sign would remain till the danger of contagion had passed. Quarantine in homes is clearly no longer the norm; we have depended on antibiotics to stop diseases in their tracks.
Illness is definitely not the preferred method for getting people to take a break. However, in a country with such a strong work ethic, we do need to fit breaks into our schedules. Maybe we can recall things we did as children: climb that tree, go see the neighbor’s new kitten, chat with the people closest to us about nothing in particular, enjoy a cup of hot chocolate, go sit in a quiet corner with that book we have been wanting to read…
We are actually more efficient, more productive, more creative when we allow ourselves enough breaks. So let’s indulge ourselves, without apology. Let’s not wait for an illness or injury to be the reason we are sidelined.
Maybe, just maybe taking a break will make us kinder. Maybe we will even smile a bit more. Maybe we can even laugh like that adorable little boy in the tree.
Maybe enough people taking a break will even make the world a happier place.

“I Wish That Was My Biggest Problem”/Perspective

Carefree and Worry Free

Carefree and Worry Free

Here is how my mother used to annoy me to no end: I would start to complain about something and she would say “I wish that was my biggest problem.” Of course at the time I hated it. But now I see she was trying to help me put things in perspective.
A few years ago, when a friend of mine was seriously ill, we started making lists of what we wished was our biggest problem. And we had some fun with it. Here are a few of my personal favorites, in no particular order.
– If I stand under that tree, will a coconut fall on my head?
– Would I rather buy the Lexus or the BMW?
– Chocolate ice cream or vanilla?
– Would I rather go to the opera, or the ballet? Or maybe a comedy club.
– The speed limit is too low.
– Which book to read first.
– Should I go hiking in the woods on the weekend, or during the week?
– Which outfit should I wear to yoga class?
– My spouse/significant other is so supportive, I need to be careful not to gloat.
– How best to spend a month’s vacation.
– I have such wonderful friends, how do I make time for all of them?
– What to request for my birthday, since I already have what I want.
– Researching the best gifted classes for my child.
– Finding the best restaurant for a night of fine dining with friends.
– That candy is too pretty to eat.
Okay, you get the idea. We all need a bit of levity in our lives. And some perspective. Not that there aren’t problems that are overwhelming; there are plenty. But it’s nice to put the smaller ones in perspective. And as for the bigger problems—that is for a different blog.

Religion or Its Lack

question mark  Religion is at the center of many people’s lives. So is its lack. It is my job to respect either one.
A potential client once quizzed me about my religious beliefs, and I responded simply that my beliefs are irrelevant here. If you choose to share yours with me, I will respect them. But I have no interest in converting you or aligning my professional guidance with whatever religious views I might entertain.
This includes atheism. If you walk in my office an atheist, you will certainly walk out the same way. Again, my interest in changing your views, even the tiniest whit, is nonexistent.
Though there are a number of Christian counselors who are sought out by those who prefer a Biblical approach, and though I respect that, I do not feel it is my role to influence a client’s faith.
That said, I have some basic views on religion. Mostly on its purpose(s). I see those purposes as twofold:
1) Comfort: Does your belief system bring you comfort? It should, or it is not doing its job. Different people find comfort in different beliefs. Which is fine.
2) Moral compass: Does your belief system give you a sense of right versus wrong, especially in complicated situations? Can you turn to that system for guidance? No, this does not mean the answers are simple; they are often complex and messy. But is this belief system helpful in sorting things out?
3) Community: If you are facing a difficult situation—serious illness or death of a loved one, financial reversal, betrayal… Do you have a good support system among those who worship (or refuse to worship, this is equally valid) with you? Recently a friend of mine was in the late stages of a terminal illness and needed to have his sleeping quarters moved downstairs. Six angels from their religious community took care of that the next day. That is evidence of an excellent support system, a great community to be a part of.
Notice that I do not mention what faith this group espouses: You will find similar experiences among Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Protestants, Catholics, Humanists…the list is endless; the spirit of helpfulness and community is what matters.
My hope is that you will (or already do) choose your beliefs wisely. We all have a tough road to travel at times, and our belief system will inform how we deal with that. There are so many honorable ways to go about life, and each of us has the right to feel comfortable choosing our own.

Community

community of kids

community of kids

A sense of community can protect us, buffer us against hardships. This is not just geographical community; it can be family, friends—anyone you value. Sometimes it is a group we belong to, via accident or choice.
During World War II, the strong sense of community in Denmark saved most Jewish people from being deported to concentration camps. Why? Because their neighbors felt these people were Danish first, and they spread the word as quickly as possible when they heard the Nazis were preparing to do a roundup.
Today in Denmark, a sense of community is being utilized to prevent bullying in schools. I wish I could recall the article I read and give credit, but here is what I do recall: Every Friday, the children in each classroom gather with their teacher and pick a topic that concerns one or more of them. They then discuss ways to deal with this issue. And students are assigned to take their turn providing a pastry (home cooked or purchased) that the entire classroom can munch on while they chat. This strikes me as absolute genius. The students all feel a stake in resolving the problem. No one is excluded, and every person’s opinion matters.
I cannot recall if this involves children of all ages or only certain grades, but I was so impressed. Maybe we in this country would do well to devote less class time to standardized testing and more time to community building activities such as this. It not only builds community; it also helps these students develop problem-solving skills that will help them later in life.
One frequent target of bullying attacks, in-person or online, is often the “new kid.” It is entirely too easy to isolate this person as “not one of us” and avoid feeling compunction for our actions. Yet many people do the opposite, going out of their way to meet and get to know that new person, to help them integrate into the already-existing community. Maybe that would be a good example for more of us to follow.
Maybe we should start by getting to know our neighbors. Some of us may do better starting with online communities. Or simply being responsive to others who reach out to us.
That connection is essential, and how each person goes about it isn’t the most important thing. Going about it is.

A Nation in Need of Comfort

1028641_rainbow_in_the_backyardThere have been so many tragedies this past month or so, that it feels we are a nation in mourning. And in shock. Police officers being murdered on two different occasions, the tragic attack in Nice, France that left so many dead… When I drive down the street and see American flags, some are at half-staff and some at full height. It has occurred to me that with so many tragedies, it is difficult to keep up with knowing at what height the flag should be displayed. It is up to the President of the United States to determine when and for how long flags are lowered, and keeping abreast of those proclamations—well, it requires a lot of attention.
If you are a law enforcement officer anywhere in this country, or if you know or love an officer, I am very sorry for your loss. Though law enforcement is not my specialty, it is clear that the loss of any officer in such a brutal way, is a loss to the entire law enforcement community. No one should have to fear being ambushed on or off the job.
We are a nation in shock. In mourning. In anger. In confusion. In trauma. A lot of us may not know what to think. But none of it is good.
And a lot of us feel powerless. What is one person to do against the possibility of a next assailant? I am sure a lot of people are puzzling over this. And I do have an answer. No, it does not involve prevention, though I would love to have an answer for that. And anything that could prevent a disaster would be publicized far more widely than this blog ever will.
We are in serious need of comfort. Let us, please, go out of our way to be kind to one another. It won’t fix things, but it can make them more bearable. And you never know, maybe the person on the receiving end of your smile or kind words is in more dire need of your kindness than you will ever know. Maybe they will feel inclined to follow your example, to be a little kinder themselves. Maybe we can start with a smile, a comforting word, a sincere compliment, holding a door open, letting someone ahead of us in traffic…
This just feels to me like something that can’t hurt, and just may help some people find some joy in the midst of all this sorrow. So let’s get started.