Beware the Pedestals!

Almost any day you’d care to look, the news offers opportunity to reflect on humankind and the meanings of life. Just as the heat of a national election is cooling down, and the approach of the “fiscal cliff” is looming, we hear breaking news of the fall from grace of another hero.

Like other news flurries, the scandal and resignation of David Petraeus will eventually sort itself out and fade into the background of our collective awareness.  In saying that, I’m not minimizing the importance of his extramarital affair to him, his family and inner circle, and possibly even to national security. What occur to me are our general tendencies to make our heroes one dimensional rather than remembering that they are complex humans, as we all are.

Perhaps we want some icons to look up to.  Perhaps we are comforted in confronting the chaos of the world and our resulting feelings of fear and helplessness when we put someone up on a pedestal. We may enjoy being put on a pedestal ourselves and receiving the attention and adulation that comes with being considered a hero to someone…anyone. But I want to caution you about doing either one.

After all, there are many examples of this “pedestal practice” and what comes of it. Lance Armstrong comes to mind. As does Sandusky and the whole Penn State debacle that once uncovered, revealed the dangers of the worship and adulation of a university football coach and the program he built. Many men who lived on pedestals in “Happy Valley” will topple before that scandal finishes playing out. Several years ago a well respected scholar and college professor was arrested for soliciting sexual contact with a female minor, and an entire community and church was rocked to the core. A highly regarded female pastor confesses that she has been having an extramarital affair with a parishioner, and the families and church are devastated in the wake of it.

On a smaller scale, married partners sometimes have this “Pedestal Practice” going on. If you marry someone and you regard them as more successful, smarter, more desirable, more powerful, wealthier or more competent than you, you may place them on the pedestal and never claim your own abilities and power in the relationship.

Taking the passive or submissive stance then results in an imbalance of power. The woman or man who is up on the pedestal isn’t seen as fully human, and true emotional intimacy is not possible as a result.  Not a true partnership. And usually, sooner or later something will occur that results in toppling the pedestal by an affair or deception of some other kind, and divorce.

Our first reaction to such news is, “That’s impossible!” Surely some terrible mistake has occurred!  He/she wouldn’t or couldn’t do such a thing!  Scummy, evil, bad people do this! Notice that the implication is that we are all one or the other: good people or bad people. Of course the truth is that we are neither. Each of us has our strengths, even great and wonderful qualities. And each of us has our “shadows,” unconscious beliefs and feelings that when they remain unacknowledged or unexplored, have the tendency to rear up and we act them out.

It seems to me that when we put someone else on a pedestal, whether that person is a sports hero, a national figure, a revered leader or someone you personally know, they will plunge off that pedestal by revealing themselves (albeit unintentionally) to be flawed.  Or in our resentment or disappointment at seeing them to be only human after all, we knock them off their pedestals with a resounding whack.

And if you are living up on a pedestal, watch out!


Seeking Help

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment
that something is more important than fear.”
~Ambrose Redmoon, writer~

This morning I arranged for a computer technician to come to my home office to resolve some problems that I was having with my elderly desktop and my laptop which for some unknown reason, was not communicating with my wireless printer.  The usually reliable desktop had taken a sudden notion to freeze up and turn off without warning.  Not at all like itself.

I hoped that it was happening because of a program that I installed and then uninstalled and would be readily fixed.  But my fear was that it had something more dire wrong and was going to have to be replaced.  Never a convenient thing.

The young man, who arrived toting an impressively heavy looking briefcase/toolkit, set quietly to work.  By the time I had filled my coffee cup and returned to the office, he already had the laptop on speaking terms with the printer.  Something about an ISP address?  He showed me where to find the place and how to input the information in case I get a new printer some day.

It was kind of him, but trust me, when that day comes, I’ll be calling him to come back and fix it again.  Despite being a computer user for over 10 years, I am still largely lost and bewildered in Techno Land.  I’ll bet he wasn’t an English major.

The desktop presented more of a challenge and for awhile it looked as if the mother board was shot and I would have to buy a new computer.  (I love that they named that part the “mother board” because it is so essential to the life of the computer.  Uncharacteristically poetic, don’t you think?  Yes, I was an English major!).  But after 45 minutes of doing one mysterious thing after the other, he brought it back from the brink and after several reboots; it seemed to be running well.

He couldn’t really say why.  He did say, “Well that’s interesting, isn’t it?”  He was looking entirely too cheerful to have meant that in terms of the curse, “May you live in interesting times!”  He did tell me about the 30 day guarantee on labor, and said that I should call them back if the computer returned to its evil ways.  So I thanked and paid him and he was on his way.

I got to thinking about how cheerful I was to have paid the $67 for his work.  My problems were easily and quickly resolved without any undue time and frustration spent on my part.  This represents a change over the years.  Having been reared in a family that was big on self reliance and had more ingenuity than money, the message that I internalized was “Do it yourself!”  Sometimes this approach may be beneficial, and sometimes leads to stress and strain.

When making a suggestion to clients about getting help with a problem, I often encounter their resistance.  Seems that a lot of people believe that they should be able to do it all alone.  Whether it’s hiring someone to help them de-clutter and organize living space that is driving them crazy, or getting help with an alcohol abuse problem, often the answer is “no,” or “not yet.”  They wouldn’t think less of anyone else seeking help, but it’s not for them.

It makes sense to me.  When we offer help to someone else, or solve our own problems, we feel powerful or at least competent.  But when we admit that we need help and that we can’t do it alone, we are immediately in touch with our all-too-human vulnerability.

Living with vulnerability is a tall order.  I call it the “raw egg feeling.”  Being aware of our frailty and the ambiguity that comes with it presents a big temptation to run to whatever distraction we can find.  We don’t know for certain what will happen.  Just admitting that we are out of control of some aspect of life is tough to do.

And yet, we must pass through this threshold if we are to recover from what is plaguing us.  We must be willing to stay in “Not Knowing” until we can see the light.  And more frequently than not, it is someone else who turns the light on for us.  Despite our doubts most people are willing and in fact happy to help us.  Whether they are paid professionals or a friend or neighbor or acquaintance, when we are willing to receive their help or wisdom, we usually discover that they are fellow travelers who have faced their own vulnerabilities in order to learn something that we need to know.

After investing in your own growth or change with time, effort or money, you will once again find yourself on firmer ground.  Living creatively or building your health is an ongoing process that seems to take us from times of strength and confidence and then onto a new phase requiring us to face vulnerability again.  The gains that you make along the way equip you to pass on your wisdom and help to those who come across your path and need you.

It is no doubt true that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but I would add that being willing to receive is also essential to the process of living.


The Value of Failure

“We must be willing to fail and to appreciate the truth
that often Life is not a problem to be solved,
but a mystery to be lived.”
~M. Scott Peck~


He had come to a difficult and painful decision after meeting with the accountant who delivered the bad news.  His hard work and determination had not paid off and the business was clearly in the red.  The bank was not willing to make another loan and any further debt needed to keep the business afloat for the next 6 months would put the family home in jeopardy.  He would have a sale to liquidate as much of the stock in the store as he could and then close the doors at the end of the month.  He would try to unload anything left on EBay.

His wife would be relieved.  She had been expressing her objections for months to keeping the store open.  Their finances were strained and she was tired of the long hours he put in that meant his absence from her and the children.  They had been arguing more than usual and the tension was really uncomfortable.  For years the store had barely showed a profit; just enough to invest in some upgrades but not enough for them to invest in savings.  Her income kept the family afloat but not with much to spare.

He felt like a failure and that was the worst part. It didn’t help that other businesses were struggling and closing in a tough economy.  It didn’t matter that he had his wife’s support when he left his high-paying corporate job that he heartily disliked.  He knew that his dad thought he was nuts for leaving that job and buying the store.  And his brother who made the family proud by being a doctor with a high income, definitely represented success. When they finally did regroup, paying off the debt they owed, he and his wife would be essentially starting over again.  And he clearly blamed himself for it.

Although your circumstances may be very different, most likely you can identify with how this man feels.  Failure is a bitter pill to swallow whether it is a school project or class that you failed, a marriage that ended, a job that you got fired or laid off from, or a book transcript that was refused by the fifth publisher you sent it to.

Feeling the shame of failing and the fear of other people’s disapproval definitely can be overwhelming.  It will take some working through these emotions to get to the treasure that is buried under all that pain.  And as odd as it sounds, there IS treasure under there.  Here are some things you may want to consider and do:

  • Begin by accepting full responsibility for your choices and the outcome.  This is not the same as self-blame.  It means being willing to own it all and by doing so see the conscious and unconscious motivations that prompted you to “sign up” for the experience in the first place.
  • Allow time for introspection and reflection instead of busying yourself with a new project, new partner, addictive or distracting processes.  For instance if you are divorcing, don’t start looking for your next love interest.  If you do you can count on repeating the same pattern all over again.  This is tempting because it seems to make you feel better, but that kind of feeling better is a temporary fix that will lead you to more misery down the road.
  • Find help in the form of a good therapist as an objective sounding board.  He or she will help you see things that your mother or best friend won’t.
  • Use a journal and ask yourself a couple of important questions:  What lessons am I supposed to learn from this experience?  What do I need to do?  How do I need to change in order to move forward?
  • Practice living independent of the good opinion of others.  Failure is a great time to make this big developmental leap.  Most of us are conditioned to be pleasing to others, to get everyone else’s approval.  Living independent of approval from others is not the same as a typical “I don’t care what anyone thinks!” which is merely a defense.  It means tolerating the discomfort when others don’t understand or approve, or in fact disappear from your life even though they may have made supportive sounds in the beginning.  As you learn this lesson, you will be freed to listen more deeply and carefully to your own values and intuition and to make decisions that truly are in your best interest.
  • Practice not taking everyone else’s opinions and behavior personally.  You have no control over what other people think and say.  And the truth is that everyone is uncomfortable with failure!  Even when they are not consciously aware of it, your friends and family members will be reacting to their own fears and doubts that are about them and not you.
  • Make a recovery plan and allow yourself time for healing.  Work on forgiving yourself and anyone else involved in the situation.  Again, seek help with this.  Most people have a poor idea of what forgiveness really is!  Put most basically, forgiveness is a process of letting go of pain, anger and resentment which is essential for your physical, psychological and spiritual health.  It takes effort over time to accomplish, and is essential for you to be free to move ahead with your life.
  • Tend to your physical needs and put your personal care at the top of your list.  Get adequate sleep, eat good, nutritional food and curtail drinking alcohol.  Pay attention and avoid toxic situations whether they involve substance abuse or high drama or negative people.  Get some exercise and drink plenty of water every day.  If you meditate, take some time for it several times a week.  If you don’t this would be a dandy time to begin.

Failure is a great teacher.  Even though most of us dread it, the truth is that we learn much more from failure than we ever do from success.  The other day I was thinking that we really would prefer that the lessons in life come in a way we would like.  A box from Macy’s, wrapped beautifully in paper and ribbons would be nice.  But they seem instead to come covered in horse manure or stinky fish entrails.  It is our job to endure the unpleasant stink of the failure and to persevere in digging for the treasure that will take us to the next stage of life.

Letting Go of Certainty

“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.”
~Erich Fromm~


Michelangelo believed that the sculptures that he carved already existed in the stone.  The statue was waiting in the stone, and it was the sculptor’s job to release it from the excess stone that surrounded it.  That has always struck me as a startling and counterintuitive approach to creating something.  I wonder if it applies to creating a life, something we are all engaged in?

Adult life is a long series of ages and stages of development in which we have experiences that teach us about ourselves and the world, and in which we gain skills in living and relating. We don’t have to be aware of this process any more than children do as they move through the stages of development in childhood.  We are all moving through them whether we know it or not.

However, I would suggest that like most experiences, awareness or consciousness makes all the difference in the quality of our lives, in part because we can access the meaning and become engaged creatively in living a life we desire.  We are not doomed to just float along, waiting (and worrying) to see where we end up. Our future is not determined by fate or our family history, or even our own history for that matter.

Every new stage, whether it involves leaving home for the first time, getting married, having a child, establishing a career, the empty nest, retirement from a career, widowhood or divorce involve losses and gains.  What serves as the center of a life will seemingly vanish, sometimes slowly or overnight.

This is quite unsettling because often what serves as the center is also often where we find our meaning and purpose, as well as those pragmatic things such as our schedule and tasks of daily life.

For instance when taking care of a family is the center of your life, those relationships are of top concern to you. Learning to love and discipline children, supporting and helping older family members is a big focus of energy and attention.  Never mind the expenditure of time, money and effort in providing meals and running a household.

Or for those who are retiring from a career that has been a mainstay, the loss of doing the work sometimes means a loss of purpose.  And suddenly having no place they have to be leaves them at loose ends. Missing co-workers who were an important social connection is a loss for some.  And like those who lose jobs they were counting on, having a loss of regular income is a worry.

Whether we have consciously chosen the change or not, here it is.  And creating a new phase of life requires us to let go of the certainties of the one we are leaving.  Our responses to letting go vary from grief to depression to dread at staring into what seems like an abyss before us.  The unknown may seem dark and foreboding just because we have no insight yet to light the way.  And being in this place of unknowing is hard to tolerate. And yet being willing to stand in the dark while you get your bearings is the key to moving ahead.  A strange irony.

Can you, like Michelangelo, trust that your intuition will guide you in uncovering the masterpiece within you?  Can you take the bold risk of putting chisel to the stone of your life and clear away the old and extraneous?  Can you challenge yourself to let go of what you used to feel certain of and clear the way to creating a new phase of your life?


Coping with Disappointment

“Every adversity, every failure and every heartache
carries with it the seed of an equivalent
or greater benefit.”
~Napoleon Hill”


Yesterday I got a not-so-gentle reminder that my agenda doesn’t necessarily apply to other people.  Even for people that I love and care about.  Even though I know this and believe it on an intellectual basis, sometimes I confess that I find it hard to live with.

For instance, I truly value the importance of individuals figuring out what is most important to them.  And I believe that each and every one of us has a lifetime to learn the lessons that we need and to apply them in a way that benefits us, and hopefully others as well.  I believe that these pathways, if you will, are unique to each of us.

Obviously those values and priorities sometimes put us in conflict with each other. 

We were talking about vacation plans, and having made an invitation, was looking forward to a reunion and hanging out together.  Catching up and enjoying each other’s company is my idea of a vacation.  Their preference for sight-seeing and attending events is fun, but a distant second on my list of preferences.

How can a conflict over a visit feel so disappointing?  As I read this it seems that something sounding so superficial should not be painful.  But it was.  I clearly had been expecting one outcome and was very sad to learn that it was not going to work out that way.    I didn’t really have a choice in the matter.  It was someone else’s decision, and they have every right to make it.  So what can I do about it?

Deal with my own thoughts and feelings and behavior; the part for which I am fully responsible.  And my thoughts and feelings were all over the map:  disappointed, sad, hurt (over imagining what their choice meant) and then angry.  My impulse is usually  to “take someone else’s inventory,” as saying goes.  And then (even worse) contact them to see if they are aware of the impact of their behavior.  I called myself back from that.  Bad idea.

After accepting that these were my thoughts and feelings, I remembered the words of an old friend, who once wisely told me that I needed to learn to take the No’s as well as the Yes’s.  It was advice I didn’t much like hearing at the time, but it had the ring of truth and it still does.

I also needed to accept that my preferences were not going to be met this time. And that I really needed to lower my expectations of other people’s behavior.  Their choices about the vacation are going to meet their own needs and values.  I don’t understand them or like them in this case, because they conflict with my own.

So there it is:  one way to deal with disappointment is to lower my expectations of other people.  My “Higher Self,” the part of me that holds my values and cares about the greater good, knows this is right.  And hopefully someday my “Lower Self,” the corresponding emotional aspect that wants what it wants, will adjust and maybe even catch up.

Life in the Movies

One of the pleasures of being home over a three day weekend is the luxury of time.  Last weekend I took some of that luxury to attend a gem of a movie, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”  Directed by John Madden (who also directed “Shakespeare In Love”) it was well played by a notable cast of actors including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy.   My daughter has suggested that I am besotted with Judi Dench, and honestly, I won’t deny that.  But I’m guessing that even if you are not, you will enjoy “Marigold Hotel.”

My friend and I were discussing the film at length afterword over dinner.  The clerk who sold me the ticket guessed which movie we were there to see, no doubt because we fit into the demographic of the majority of the buyers.  We wondered if you have to be “of a certain age” to appreciate this movie?  I don’t know.  Certainly the starring cast was, for the most part.  But it seems to me that the themes were about life:  taking risks, life change, loss, friendship, resilience, coping with disappointment and facing the sometimes difficult truth about yourself.

The story is about 7 British people of retirement age, who for financial and other reasons answered an ad for The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel in Jaipur, India.  It was touted as a beautiful, ancient palatial residence for “the elderly and beautiful.”  Strangers to each other, they make the long, arduous journey to Jaipur, only to discover that the pictures of the hotel were photo shopped and the promised luxury was a figment of the young owner’s (Dev Patel) imagination.

The setting of India becomes almost another character with its beautiful, blinding color and what appears to be an overwhelm of the senses.  It is the backdrop yet a vivid catalyst for the rather staid characters, presenting an unexpected challenge for their accustomed lifestyles, preferences, prejudices and dreams.

Especially interesting to me was how the different characters coped with their surprise and disappointments at what they found in Jaipur.  All of them, with the exception of the judge who had been born and raised there, must have been overwhelmed.  The unhappy wife who with her husband had lost their life savings which they invested in their daughter’s start-up business, hated India and refused to leave the hotel.  Her husband, making the best of it, ventured out and returned daily to report the beauty and novelty of the teeming city.  Evelyn, who was shocked to discover that her late husband had squandered their money and left her with nothing, ventured forth and found her first ever job.

The judge, who had grown up in the city, was returning to find the gay lover of his youth.  He had spent his life regretting that he had done nothing while his lover and family, in service to his wealthy family, were sent away in disgrace.  Having imagined that this had ruined his lover’s life, he had returned to find him if possible, and to make amends for his silence.

Like the characters in this story, the plans we make sometimes turn out to have a very different outcome than we planned.  Ironically there are gifts that only come with disappointment and failure.  The risks we take may not be as grand as choosing to retire in India.  Like Madge and Norman, we may still long for relationship and romance.  Or like the unhappily married couple, we may be adjusting to living with diminishing circumstances.  We may even live imprisoned by old regrets.  Certainly we all have shortcomings of our characters that we may face (or not).  The great news is that we can discover and develop our resilience and learn new skills at any age.


What Am I Supposed to Learn from This?

“Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come
when life seems most challenging.”
~Joseph Campbell~

Being a fan of Positive Psychology, and by nature generally an optimist, there are times when hanging onto that frame of reference is a challenge.  Maybe you can relate.  No matter who you are or what your living circumstances may be, there are times when life is hard. 

Stressful events occur to everyone, and no one is exempt from emotional stresses that are caused by limiting beliefs that bring on our misery until we overcome them.  Although we plan for happy events and work on changing and rearranging and pursuing happiness, we still must deal with fears, loss, grief, disappointment and the anger that goes with it.

Since this is unavoidable, what on earth can you do about it?  It seems to me that there are a couple of alternatives.

One is to identify with what is wrong, get into feeling self-pity, seeing and presenting yourself as a Victim.  This may seem perfectly reasonable.  After all, a person whose house has been ripped away in a tornado suffers a loss and trauma that he could not have caused or avoided.  Or a person walking home from work who gets mugged did nothing to ask for it.

There is and should be a period of grief, complete with shock and the full range of emotions that go with it:  fear, hurt, anger and sadness to name a few.  It’s hard to function normally during that time and we need a lot of support and help to get through it.

The problem occurs when we don’t bounce back from it.  This can happen when the trauma has been repeated and severe, as in abusive relationships and on the battlefield.  It also happens when we have learned messages from our family that life is a trial and that we should expect that bad things are waiting around every corner.  Professional treatment is going to make all the difference.  Find a qualified therapist and don’t waste any time getting the help that you need.

The second alternative response to going through a hard time is two-fold.  Take full responsibility for what is going on in your life.  This is NOT the same thing as blaming yourself!  What I mean by accepting full responsibility is to recognize that this is the life you have been given and the life that you have helped create.  You are not a victim of fate.  Being human, you have a wide range of strengths and weaknesses which you can either face or utilize or not.

Without getting caught up in an intellectual debate, believe that every person, every experience that comes into your life is here to teach you something that you need to know in order to be a fully developed human being.  I have adopted Gary Zukav’s (Seat of the Soul) model that the purpose of all life experiences is to develop emotionally and spiritually.  And that here in “Earth School.” as he calls it, our job is to make use of everything that we do and that happens to us.

If you are stuck in a self-defeating pattern of behaviors or emotions, and if you dig a little, you will likely discover that seeing yourself as a Victim is at the bottom of it.  No wonder we get stuck!  A Victim Mentality, in energetic terms, is the lowest possible vibration level that there is! 

A key to escape this trap and to move into a framework that is much more energizing and productive is to ask yourself this question:  “What am I supposed to learn from this?”  Take time to explore what comes up.  This does take courage because as we accept responsibility we will look at what part we might be playing in what is going on.  Staying in Victimhood allows us to blame someone or something else. 

And as we ask that question and listen for the answers, we will begin to see what action we can take that will lead to lasting change and arm us with new skills and strength and resilience to face the next life challenge that comes our way.