Friday, January 24, 2014

Word of the day: Lapse


 noun \ˈlaps\
: an occurrence in which you fail to think or act in the usual or proper way for a brief time and make a mistake
: an occurrence in which someone behaves badly for usually a short period of time

Years ago one of my daughters neglected to do something she should have, and ended up in a bit of a mess. As she wailed about her situation she finished with the moan, "...and now you'll never trust me!"

The good part, of course, was that she clearly wanted to be trustworthy. The funky part was the blanket statement. Never?

"Oh, my," I said, as gently as I could, "There are many things I can trust you with. I trust you to choose good friends, I trust you to be basically truthful, I trust you to brush your teeth at night, and I trust that you want to do the right thing here. The fact that you didn't do this one thing doesn't mean you're a total failure, or that you're completely untrustworthy. It means that in this one area you had a lapse of judgment, and in this one area we need to do some work."

Blanket statements can be smothering, yet we all make them at times. After I snarl at a child, I throw on the blanket statement that I'm a bad mother. The truth is that I'm not a bad mother; probably all that happened was that I had a good-mommy lapse. After forgetting something important on my to-do list, I may throw on the blanket statement that I'm an idiot. And yet I'm not an idiot, I've had a memory lapse.

Remembering to draw a distinction between an incident about which I feel bad and a perpetual state of being is huge. If I label myself as a failure, a fool, stupid, irresponsible, a bad parent, or lazy, I attribute a permanence to a behavior that isn't actually justified. What's more, once a label is in place, confirmation bias takes over. Confirmation bias is that "I think A, therefore I start to notice A all the time" thing that happens to all of us. The problem is that when we start seeing A, we tend to stop seeing B. If we label ourselves as, say, a failure, then we become more aware of every event which confirms our opinion, and we overlook information that would disprove (or at least balance) it.

Similarly, if I decide that someone is a jerk, chances are that he or she could change for the better and I wouldn't even notice. I'd be too busy noticing every negative thing that person does.

There are people whose pattern of behavior is so pervasive that it's almost impossible to avoid concluding that the person is, in fact, a jerk. But the odds of getting that person to stop acting like a jerk go way up when we notice his or her occasional non-jerky behavior, comment upon it, and thus reinforce the good.

If we want to be better parents, or to at least have a shot at becoming better human beings, it's worthwhile to learn to pay attention to when we berate ourselves. If you wouldn't let someone else talk to you the way you talk to yourself, STOP. Feel bad for a while, but remember that most of the time, in most situations, you aren't the bonehead you've just accused yourself of being.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Perspectives on human experience

Every now and again things happen in life that are a bit unsettling. I don't mean bad-news stuff, but events that take me outside my normal worldview and cause me to re-realize that my perspective is limited. I had two of these happen over the weekend, back to back.

The first was meeting a man who had just donated $10 million to a cause. He was a normal, unassuming human being. This is, of course, far more disorienting than if he'd had horns and were crassly capitalistic; it's harder to demonize the 1% when you realize they are human.

I met this man in passing, at an event which I attended courtesy of a family I've known for years. More precisely, I've known the mom for years, but had never met the dad. We were invited because Little Guy is friends with their younger son, who is some years older but belongs to the same scout troop. The dad, I should add, was tagged as Romney's top pick for a key position if Romney had won the last election. So there I was, sitting next to the dad -- who was also humane and gracious -- and then he had to go say hello to this other man, and when he came back he mentioned the news about the $10 million. Later the donor stopped by to chat for a while.

The chances that I will ever own $10 million, even cumulatively in my lifetime, are probably non-existent. Consequently, I felt no envy: I can't conceptualize dollar amounts that big. Similarly, because I was face to face with a real human being, what struck me wasn't "Hey, can you share some of that?" but the humanity of this man. He had, and he gave. It is going to take me a while to wrap my head around that.

*         *        *         *

It's that season; for the next several weeks, Dancer will head to auditions for summer programs following her regular classes and rehearsals. On Saturday she began ballet at 10:30 a.m., and headed home at 7:30 p.m.

Yesterday she auditioned for a small program run by an iconic Balanchine ballerina. Because it was at a studio Dancer hasn't been to often, she asked me to come along. As we stood in line to check in I noticed the ballerina, who is now nearly 70, sitting quietly at the table, absorbed in looking at some papers. I'd read her autobiography several years ago, and my brain scrambled to take the facts that I knew about her and integrate them with the human being in front of me. The disconnect was huge. Sometimes, I think, the two don't mesh much at all; in order to have any real sense of the person-ness of a person, we have to temporarily discard the facts we know about him or her.

After the audition began I chatted with a woman whose daughters have gone to this particular summer program for years. Our kids were ballet classmates for a long time. The woman is one of the most generous human beings on the face of the earth. She is also one of the most toxic people I know. It's a complicated and challenging mix, and in certain ways I like her as much as (in other ways) I am wary of her. Talking with her is exhausting, since I have to weigh everything she says, gauging how much is true, how much is manipulative, how much she is digging for information and also, thankfully, how much is genuine interest in what I have to say.

Some people move in worlds where toxicity is the social standard. I don't. On the other hand, if I don't talk to people like this woman, how will she ever know that not everyone thinks like her? And how will I remember that not everyone thinks like me?

It's very easy for any of us to think the spectrum of human experience lies mostly within our own. But it's just not true.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A new year, considered.

To tell the truth, I didn't much like 2013. It wasn't as bad as 2011, true. But the series of back-to-back crises and overlapping crises (many of which, frankly, I didn't write about online) was emotionally erosive. I told Andrew recently that if I could just have six weeks without a new crisis, I could probably regain my equilibrium. That's not going to happen. The six weeks part, I mean. The equilibrium I'll have to figure out, regardless.

Sometime last fall I realized that one of my bedrock assumptions of my life is that if I'm sensible and hard-working and enduring and a creative problem-solver, eventually things will get better. That positive outlook has helped me through many things. However, I'm aware that I probably wouldn't hold this view of life if I were a medieval serf, a slave in 18th century Alabama, a present-day resident of rural Vietnam, or a single mother in the South Bronx. After all, not all circumstances are escapable without significant outside intervention. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we can't create our own futures or pummel the world into being what we want it to be. Sometimes we simply have to be the best people we can be, regardless of the circumstances.

I guess that could be a bit depressing, yet I find it strangely comforting. For when you hunker down and confront the assumption that things will all work out well in the end, you end up asking different questions. For example:

How would I live my life differently if I knew my circumstances would never improve?

What changes would I make?

How would I keep my stamina up, my soul healthy, and my attitude positive?

What kind of person could I become, that I could be proud of?

*         *          *          *

In my head, in my self-talk, when I run into "I can't deal with this!", one rebuttal I often use is, "Yes, but people do. There are people who deal with this problem and survive. It's not impossible, it's just that I don't know how to do it yet."

Some people live with far less income than I have. Some face far more suffering. There are people who are battered by war and death and illness and unexpected catastrophes, who live their whole lives between rocks and hard places. None of that negates whatever hardship I'm going through, yet remembering that I am not exceptional in having to face difficulty helps to keep me from slipping into the mineshaft of self pity.

It is a mercy, I think, that we don't know what the year ahead holds. If we could see the challenges that await us, we might gasp, "I can't do that!" and give up before we learn that yes, in fact, we can.

*         *          *          *

In December we had three performances of Honk!, eight of Nutcracker, a visit from Eldest, two visits from my mom (one from my dad). We were off of our school schedule, off our diet, off our social routine, basically off balance. My dental problems continued. Eldest went through a high-stress period. In the midst of over-excited and then coming-down-from-the-high kids, I was working far too many hours and was utterly spent, exhausted, with no more to give.

What happened was that others gave to me. Generously. Unexpectedly.

You never know what's coming at you, or to you. In a way it doesn't matter, as long as you're open to it all, grateful for the good, and patient with the bad. A new year's simply a gift. May you use yours well.