Wednesday, February 27, 2019

How Not to Say the Wrong Thing

It works in all kinds of crises -- medical, legal, even existential. It's the 'Ring Theory' of kvetching. The first rule is: comfort in, dump out.

by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman

When Susan had breast cancer, we heard a lot of lame remarks, but our favorite came from one of Susan's colleagues. She wanted, she needed, to visit Susan after the surgery, but Susan didn't feel like having visitors, and she said so. Her colleague's response? "This isn't just about you."

"It's not?" Susan wondered. "My breast cancer is not about me? It's about you?"

The same theme came up again when our friend Katie had a brain aneurysm. She was in intensive care for a long time and finally got out and into a step-down unit. She was no longer covered with tubes and lines and monitors, but she was still in rough shape. A friend came and saw her and then stepped into the hall with Katie's husband, Pat. "I wasn't prepared for this," she told him. "I don't know if I can handle it."

This woman loves Katie, and she said what she did because the sight of Katie in this condition moved her so deeply. But it was the wrong thing to say. And it was wrong in the same way Susan's colleague's remark was wrong.

Susan has since developed a simple technique to help people avoid this mistake. It works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential. She calls it the Ring Theory.

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie's aneurysm, that's Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie's aneurysm, that was Katie's husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan's patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.

Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, "Life is unfair" and "Why me?" That's the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you're going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn't, don't say it. Don't, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don't need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, "I'm sorry" or "This must really be hard for you" or "Can I bring you a pot roast?" Don't say, "You should hear what happened to me" or "Here's what I would do if I were you." And don't say, "This is really bringing me down."

If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that's fine. It's a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Comfort IN, dump OUT.

There was nothing wrong with Katie's friend saying she was not prepared for how horrible Katie looked, or even that she didn't think she could handle it. The mistake was that she said those things to Pat. She dumped IN.

Complaining to someone in a smaller ring than yours doesn't do either of you any good. On the other hand, being supportive to her principal caregiver may be the best thing you can do for the patient.

Most of us know this. Almost nobody would complain to the patient about how rotten she looks. Almost no one would say that looking at her makes them think of the fragility of life and their own closeness to death. In other words, we know enough not to dump into the center ring. Ring Theory merely expands that intuition and makes it more concrete: Don't just avoid dumping into the center ring, avoid dumping into any ring smaller than your own.

Remember, you can say whatever you want if you just wait until you're talking to someone in a larger ring than yours.

And don't worry. You'll get your turn in the center ring. You can count on that.

Susan Silk is a clinical psychologist. Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of "The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators."

(originally published April 7, 2013 in LA Times)

Sunday, February 03, 2019

From Coma to Podium

January 30, 2019 was the annual #BellLetsTalk day in Canada, raising over $7.2 million this year alone for mental health initiatives, as social media users worked toward ending the stigma surrounding mental health. The initiative encourages us to share our stories for the sake of understanding one another, getting the help we need, giving the help someone else needs, and removing the stigma attached to those suffering.

My own story includes the loss of my first husband to suicide, so this is personal. My friend, motivational speaker, radio personality, and Olympic Skier, “Jungle Jim" Hunter, shared part of his personal story and I thought it worthy to post here, to expand the conversation across North America.

Jim writes, “I often think how different my life could have been if I had not healed from the severe concussion that changed the direction of my life on June 21, 1963. I was ten years of age and smashed my head accidentally on two steel bars and a cement floor. I lay in a coma for almost three months. Dr. Greene found a solution and after following the protocol, I woke up. I didn't know anyone. I didn't know my name. I could no longer write with my right hand because it would shake. For 15 months I stayed in a dark, silent, room, and gradually learned to walk, talk, read, and write with my left hand, and read a book by Dorothea Brande called, Wake Up and Live.

“I would still get dizzy and fall over, but when I was finally ready to go back to school, they thought I could. I lasted one week when the school authorities said I could no longer go because I was 'mentally retarded'.

So, even though Jim's situation was caused by a physical injury, there was still stigma, and those who were quick to judge, unwilling to take the time to understand or investing in the resources to help.

“I was different. I was slow of speech, but one day my mother found me reading the books I loved the most, my Bible and Encyclopedias. She asked if I understood what I was reading. I nodded yes.

“So you understand you just can't keep up. I had no memory so had to journal everything, which I do to this day. I was odd. A new start in Calgary in a new school board maybe would be different but alas I was told, 'We don't have room for your kind here in this school.'

“I chose ski racing because the time on the course spoke for me when I didn't need to speak. I decided in my first race I would enter twice. Once as Mark Hunter (my real name) and the second time as Jim Hunter."

"Mark" fell 4 gates from the finish, and "Jim" started dead last in position #169 and finished in the same position. He then tells what came next. "The Skimeisters chose ten girls and 11 boys to go on to the next camp. The other boys were the fastest ten. The coach chose me as the 11th, they said, because 'If a kid has the desire to enter twice, we have to give him a chance for his effort.' For me, it decided who would be a ski racer and who would be a hockey player."

Jim shared the above photo, where he is already celebrating at the final gate before the finish in the 1976 Dual Slalom finals. “I heard people saying at the start that a Downhill Racer (like me) would never be a great slalom skier.” Jim explains, “In the photo, I’m celebrating because I had just beat one of the best slalom skiers in the world, Piero Gros.”

Jim concludes, “Victory is only ours if we secure victory over mental health.”

I agree with Jim. Let’s use the support and momentum of #BellLetsTalk to secure this victory! Share  your story, ask for help instead of suffering in silence or trying to conquer it alone. We were made for community, and no one has to struggle alone. Ask for help, share your struggles and successes, what helps and what is unhelpful, donate to organizations working effectively toward effective supports for mental health.

Not only do we need to remove the stigma around mental health issues, we also need to move beyond partial recovery with temporary, drug-induced “management” and instead let's fund effective research, develop targeted pharmaceuticals, and organize a multi-disciplinary approach to treatment of the whole person, body, mind, emotions and spirit.

Healing is our goal! Join in!

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Capture Your 365

For thirty days, I have been capturing one photo to post on Instagram with the #CY365 hashtag. Why? To cultivate the routine of taking at least one photo each day, document my year, increase my observatory skill, and/or retain the memory of something beautiful or important (and those two are not mutually exclusive). It's an entertaining hobby and far from routine. It keeps the synapses firing in my aging brain. I hope you enjoy some of what I share, but that is not my measure of success.

The only measure for me is this: did I take a photo today?

There are several apps and websites which help promote the photo-a-day concept. I use this one for photo prompts. Some people can do it on their own, I personally like to have a prompt, though I am not locked into that. If the prompt doesn't resonate, or if I find something more interesting, I simply hashtag it as #offprompt. I chose Instagram as my depository, but others have posted on Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere.

You'll find me on Instagram as @north59lite. I tell you in case you're interested, since you are here, voluntarily reading this blog. I have no marketing agenda, I'm selling nothing, I've no desire to build a larger platform of followers. I can't keep track of the ones I have. The odd nicknames mean I usually have to click a person's profile to figure out who they are in real life. And then there are those of you whom I've never met...

*  *  *

Henry once asked me why I share things on social media. I didn't have an answer then, so I ordered two books I thought might help me answer the question for myself. "Why We Write" and "Why We Write About Ourselves" gave me some interesting reading by other authors, but also offered as many different reasons to write as there were chapters in each book.

Steve Bell, writing in "Pilgrim Year: Ephiphany," finally hit on something close to my own motive. He said:

"We all have interior landscapes that deeply long to be expressed." 

Steve tells how he was once moved to tears reading about the late-life longing expressed by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. "As he neared his own death," Steve says, "the great writer was desperately trying to complete The Brothers Karamazov." Dostoyevsky reportedly said that if he could just finish the work, "he would die a happy man, having expressed himself completely."

That quote exploded like fireworks in my heart. It was my own sort of Epiphany. The longing to express oneself completely drives some artists mad. If we tie it to approval of what we have expressed, we get driven there a bit sooner. I determined long ago that I would offer my expressions to the world, be it poetry, prose, photographs, or music. I have been sharing via this blog since 2005, having published over 1,200 posts. That's an average of eight expressions each month for 13 years. Not prolific, but regular.

As someone else has said, "Just because it happened doesn't mean it's interesting," so I try to be interesting, not just self-indulgent. The key to being boring is telling everything to everyone. So, one photo a day for 365 days might is a somewhat interesting record to me of this year. We shall see if I can consistently persist in this. I'm quite aware that I like to try things and abandon them if I get bored. So far, so good. Thirty days in, I'm game to keep going.

Come along if you like!

Friday, January 25, 2019

My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose

Today is Robbie Burns Day. One of my most favorite songs is a choral setting of Robert Burns' poem: "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose." I have created a video with the song, featuring a photo-diary of  my love, marriage and life with Henry. It parallels the poem in many ways. I am so grateful for this love and for our life together.

Please enjoy the music and share our joy.

Poem by Robert Burns
Music composed and arranged by Bill Douglas

Sung by The Ars Nova Singers
Conducted by Thomas Morgan
From Songs of Earth & Sky/Hearts O'Space Records 11083-2

Photo credits:
Laura-Anne Smid, Engagement
Jill Hopkins, Wedding
Andrew Harback Photography, Wedding and Anniversary
"Which Santa?" by Meester Mustard
Balance of photos from personal collection

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Three Gates (plus one)

The Three Gates
by Beth Day, 1835

If you are tempted to reveal
A tale to you someone has told
About another, make it pass,
Before you speak, three gates of gold;
These narrow gates. First, “Is it true?”
Then, “Is it needful?” In your mind
Give truthful answer. And the next
Is last and narrowest, “Is it kind?”
And if to reach your lips at last
It passes through these gateways three,
Then you may tell the tale, nor fear
What the result of speech may be.

This is one of the simplest guides to guarding our tongue. How hurtful careless words can be, from both sides. We speak a careless word and wound someone, or hear a word that cuts us deep. Many times offense was not the intent but was the result. And, as the poem addresses, you're telling someone else's story. Gossip, which someone has defined as, "Anything of a personal, intimate, or sensational nature, shared about another person without their express consent."

At times I've thought if I could just keep my mouth shut, I wouldn't misspeak. However, silence is not always the answer. Sometimes the hurt comes out of silence which can be perceived as neglect, a lack of care, apathy, or intentional disregard. So I don't necessarily agree in every circumstance with Thumper's mom who taught him: "If you can't say somethin' nice, don't say nothin' at all."

But "nice" (kind) is one of "The Three Gates." If we decide to speak, we must first measure it. Thinking, in advance, rather than just running off at the mouth whatever pops into our head.

A colleague introduced me to these "golden gates":

Is it true? 
Is it necessary? 
Is it kind? 

There are numerous attributions online as to who originated these gates, the earliest of which seems to be Socrates. Even the poem above has been mis-attributed to others. However, no matter the source, the gates and the accompanying poem are wise guides to follow.

My wise colleague suggested we add one more. A fourth measure, also, a time-worn guide, which has helped me hold my tongue appropriately in several key places.

Is it timely?

Is this the right time and place to address this issue? Are these the people who need to hear what I'm wanting to express?

"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver." (Proverbs 25:11) 

I didn't understand that proverb for many years, I believe it simply means an appropriate word in the right setting is beautiful. It fits the situation, considers context and audience. and is crafted and delivered in a way which benefits the hearer. So, if it is true, and necessary, and kind, then plan when to speak this word, to the ones who are best to receive it.

There was a young clerk who reported to me in an engineering firm where I supervised administrative staff. One workday we were having lunch at a nearby restaurant. He began to complain to me about his soup being cold. When the server came to check on us, she asked, "How is everything?"

I expected him to send the soup back with a request to warm it, but he looked up at her with innocent eyes and said, "Fine!"

Everything was fine? I was shocked. After the server left, my shock increased as my clerk began complaining again about the soup. I put my hand up in a "stop" motion and spoke a "timely" word. "If you are not going to tell the person who can actually solve your problem, then I don't want to hear your complaint."

It might have been true that his soup was cold, but in grousing about it to me, he wasn't being kind to the server. Telling me wasn't necessary, because I couldn't do anything about it, and while venting might have given him some sense of relief or self-righteous vindication, it was unkind me as the listener.

It's clear this gate-keeping analysis doesn't often happen before many words are spoken. Especially in our current climate of social media comments and debates. Everyone feels entitled to be heard, and considers their opinion as valid as the next. It takes maturity and discernment to understand that there are others who know a great deal more than we do about many things. And the ignorant won't benefit if you insist on correcting them.

Anyone who rebukes a mocker will get an insult in return.
    Anyone who corrects the wicked will get hurt.
So don’t bother correcting mockers;
    they will only hate you.
But correct the wise,
    and they will love you. (Proverbs 9:7-8)

Do not speak in the hearing of a fool,

For he will despise the wisdom of your words.
(Proverbs 23:9)

My young clerk took my rebuke to heart. It was a new concept that he had not yet encountered in his young life: to speak to the right person who can solve your issue, rather than talking about it ad nauseum to everyone else.

"I realize even as I am writing that my memory is making much of very little," (to borrow a quote from Marilynne Robinson). "Making much of very little" could be the theme for almost every blog post ever written, including this one. I do consider these four gates when I'm writing paid articles and blog posts, and I've learned to take it seriously when I'm commenting on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

One careless remark, one errant tweet, these can destroy a life.

Before we speak, we think. And before we find ourselves in that situation, we train our minds in preparation. A longstanding guideline comes from the apostle Paul as he writes to the church in Philippi. His instruction at the conclusion of his letter was this:
And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and just, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:8)
In another translation, it reads:
Finally, believers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy of respect, whatever is right and confirmed by God’s word, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think continually on these things [center your mind on them, and implant them in your heart].  (AMP)
If we follow this guideline, our minds will be primed in advance for guarding what exits our mouth. But let me close with one final encouragement, given to us in Paul's letter to the Ephesians:
Do not let unwholesome words ever come out of your mouth, but only such speech as is good for building up others, according to the need and the occasion, so that it will be a blessing to those who hear [you speak]. (Ephesians 4:29)
Can I recommend you read the context of this verse by reading the closing paragraph of chapter 4 by clicking here. Speak truth, it says in v. 25; what is necessary, helpful and timely in v. 29, and above all, be kind, v. 32. The rest of the passage describes what is unhelpful.

So, remember the four gates:

Is it true?
Is it necessary?
Is it kind?
Is it timely?

And "may the God of peace be with you."


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

At the Pool

I would call it Women Waiting, a watercolor by an unknown artist. Like a freeze frame in my brain, the image returns: seven women in bathing suits, bodies of odd shapes and sizes, stand ankle deep where pool meets wading area.

Poofy shower caps loosely cover hair, pops of color, a Q-tip bouquet. Their swimwear a collision of patterns: one striped suit, two polkadot, black solid, blue flowered, fuchsia print, faded green. Each wears a waist-belt PFD.

Ella stands tall, others gather round in a loose circle, facing the sunlight. It streams through vaulted windows, warms the large indoor space, deepens creases on aged faces.

They chat, some just listen, look steadily in the same direction. To the deep end.

Their class will start on time.

Photo: Raphaƫl Biscaldi on Unsplash

Monday, January 14, 2019

Sword Handling

It's a small church in the centre of a very sleepy small town with a scattered group of faithful parishioners. The platform is, thankfully, barely half-a-step higher than the congregation and the sound system has so many patches it takes an hour to set everything up when our group of five leads the music. This particular day, the pastor/bass player tossed a microphone down the centre aisle of the multipurpose room lined with six rows of six chairs on each side. That was the second microphone found faulty today. Not that we really need the microphones-- for anything other than to hear each other in the monitors --it's not a big room. The sound system is only necessary for the guitars and keyboard, though an un-plugged session would work fine, and is their usual practice.

We come out from the mega church in the city for their encouragement, as it can feel very isolating to be a small group.We want to help them see they are part of a bigger whole of believers in this area. Our community outreach pastor also helps them out with resources they couldn't otherwise obtain. Yet, I gain even more encouragement every time I go. They are a sincere, hardworking, friendly group that carry on a conversation with the pastor during prayer request time, because they care for one another: "Please pray about (the grieving daughter) who's lost her mamma" and "the surgery (one of them) is facing," and "we were so excited to have 33 kids show up for the Sunday school Christmas party! But now we need more people to help out."

After the pastor introduces each of us (the four visiting musicians), and discusses our particular relatives that someone in the congregation might know, he proceeds to introduce each of the attendees by name to us, along with the role they fill in the body of Christ at that particular locale. It's not their normal practice, but Pastor Kevin is very relational and he knows we'll be back. He shepherds us all in helping everyone see we are not there just to sing but to build relationship.

The band leader had asked me to introduce the song "Awake My Soul" (by Chris Tomlin):
Breathe on me breath of God
I come alive when you breathe on me

Awake my soul

God, resurrect these bones

From death to life, through you alone

Awake my soul
Did you know if you Google "Scripture about breath" you'll get 22 million results? (Your results may vary). I pick "28 Bible verses about Breath Of God"-- most of which are about the Holy Spirit. Three of the passages sound really good, but when I read the context, they are words spoken from the mouths of suffering Job's friends. And we know how unhelpful they were. Even though a blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut, I don't want to use that judgmental crew's words out of context. It's folly to cram something forcefully into an inaccurate introduction on the true nature of God or our relationship to his life-giving breath.

Then the order of events change, and instead of an introduction, I'm now asked to make it a segue-way into the next song, "Be Thou My Vision." So the search continues for appropriate scripture and my final remarks go something like this:

"When we can't breathe, nothing else matters. Where there is breath there is life. And God's breath gives life. 1. We read in the creation account how God breathes life into Adam after he forms him from the dust (Genesis 2:7).  2. The song lyrics for "Awake My Soul" were taken, in part, from the passage where the prophet Ezekiel is instructed to speak to a valley of "dry bones" that God would breathe life into them so they would know he was the Lord (Exekiel 37:1-14). 3. Paul wrote Timothy that all scripture is inspired (breathed in) by God it is a living, profitable word (2 Timothy 3:16-17). So as we move into the next song, let it be our prayer: for God not only to give us breath and life, but also a clear vision of his Lordship and of how we are to live out the vision he has for us.

On the way home, Henry and I discuss all this, including the importance of recognizing the context of scriptural texts. We both know from our experience and training that not "every promise in the Book is mine" (with apologies to Pearl Spencer Smith). Some promises were made to a particular person or people at a specific time in a specific place. Segmenting scripture like an orange for the purpose of proof-texting, is giving scripture a self-serving meaning the writer did not intend. More folly.

This morning as Henry was reading out of Job, he paused and said to me, "Not everything written in the Bible is there for us to emulate," he says, "but it's all written for our instruction."  We continued our discussion from yesterday, and I looked up the source of that idea:
All Scripture is God-breathed 
and is useful for 

teaching, rebuking, correcting 

and training in righteousness, 

so that the servant of God 

may be thoroughly equipped 

for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:16-17
All of scripture is for our benefit, but we have to read and understand what it actually says, not what we want it to say.
For the word of God is alive and powerful. 
It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword

cutting between soul and spirit, 

between joint and marrow. 

It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.

It is a living documentation of history, of God's interaction with people, and much more. It is also accurate to say God inspired the writers of the scripture to record what they wrote. While much of it reports on ungodly conduct and serves as a warning, much is also a guide for life and his plan for holy and fruitful living. The bottom line is, the Bible is a book about God, not about us. We must learn how to handle it properly, just like we would learn to handle a sharp sword.

What does it say, who wrote it and when, to whom was it written, where were they, what are the historical, cultural, and political influences of the time? These are observable facts you can state with certainty in most cases. Then you move on to interpretation. While observation leads to an accurate understanding of what the Word of God says, interpretation goes a step further and helps you understand what it means. Finally, you will learn to apply what you've learned. Just like when you were in school, if you learn concepts but don't practice them, you quickly forget what you learned.

If you'd be interested in becoming more effective in Bible study ("sword handling"), find a local study group. If you're in Calgary, join me at First Alliance Church for Tuesday Learning and Connection (TLC) to learn with others in a small group setting. Click here for details. If you are elsewhere, consider a study with Bible Study Fellowship or Precepts.  There may be others but these are reputable ones that are available nationally in USA, Canada, and abroad.

Let's continue growing in our knowledge and effectiveness together!

Finally, if you just don't know whether you believe the Bible, or the historical Jesus, or even in the existence of God, consider checking it all out at a local Alpha course. Alpha is an opportunity to explore life, faith and God in a friendly, open and informal environment. No cost, no pressure, and it usually comes with a free meal. Can't beat that! In Calgary, click here. Elsewhere? Click here and choose "Try Alpha" to locate a course in your area.

Photo 1: YouVersion
Photo 2: YouVersion
Photo 3: Dan Kiefer on Unsplash, Text Design by Joyce Rempel on WordSwag