caring

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The Color Purple

This may not be the most profound thing anyone has ever written, but it is on my mind.
Be on the lookout for purple–in other people, in the things they do, and in the world around you. It’s there.

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Why Being Not Okay, is Okay

It is okay not to be okay. This I have learned from two friends and my significant other who have lost children to terrible diseases in the recent past. I don’t know that anyone can truly “get” the enormity of the grief that comes with losing a child unless one has actually lost a child. However, I believe my friends and partner when they talk about how heavy that grief is at times. It sounds unbearable and yet it must be borne.

People say the most insensitive things to parents who’ve lost children. More often than you’d imagine, people (and I’m willing to bet I’ve been one of them) say things that they intend to be comforting, but which feel like daggers to the heart of a grieving parent. For example, someone told one of my friends that, although it is a terrible thing to lose a child, it would have been worse if she’d lost her husband because then her other daughters wouldn’t have a dad. Evidently, the loss of sister didn’t rank as high on the scale of bad things that happen in that person’s eyes. Attempting to rank the significance of another’s loss is always a bad idea.

Time Does Not Heal All Wounds

My friends have taught me that time does not heal all wounds. In fact, when it comes to losing a child, the opposite may be true. That is, for many parents who’ve lost a child, grief actually intensifies over time. One friend shared that she’d expected her pain to be less acute once the first anniversary of the death of her daughter had passed. That was not the case. On the contrary, as the numbness that set in immediately after her daughter died wore off, the pain became more acute.

If that didn’t already suck enough, others sometimes assume that time has done its healing thing. They may expect the grieving parent to be ready to “move on.” It’s almost like there’s an unwritten statute of limitations about how long a grieving parent can take to settle into a new normal. Whether we like to admit it or not, many people secretly hope that the new normal will relieve others from having to tippy-toe around the discomfort of navigating another’s grief. Such hope, unspoken or not, conscious or not, risks making a grieving parent hide his or her grief, in the interest of others’ comfort. So begins an existence that may feel inauthentic to the person living it.

Sometimes asking how someone is doing is more about the asker than the askee. Maybe we ask because we want the other person to say “I’m okay.” After all, “I’m okay” signals that we don’t have to navigate an encounter with a grieving person. I’m not saying we don’t want our friends to be okay. Of course we do. Let’s be honest though. A friendship, or any relationship for that matter, is much easier when those pesky emotions like grief don’t get in the way of what is easy and comfortable.

My significant other just lost his son. I am seeing what that grief looks like up close. I want it to go away, but I know it is here to stay.

My goal is to resist any self-serving urge to try and move him into a “better” space where grief isn’t as visible and life is more fun. I know that a grieving person might not even be able to imagine such a space, let alone go there when invited. It’s important that I learn to be okay with his not-okayness.

This is new terrain for me. It’s hard to resist repeating the scripts that are supposed to make others feel better. They may work in some instances, but they have no impact on the pain of a grieving parent. When it comes to a parent’s grief over the loss of a child, nothing can or will fix what isn’t okay. Not now and not ever. That sucks.

I suspect there is a love language in which to communicate with grieving parents. I’m trying to learn what that language is and how to speak it. I know I’m going to fail often in my attempts. I’m going to try anyway. When you love someone, that’s just what you do.

Why We Should Talk to Strangers

As children, most of us were cautioned against talking to strangers. As adults, we need to unlearn that lesson. There is a lot to be gained from talking to people we don’t know. A few years ago, I had a life altering, 2.5 hour conversation with a stranger.  I’ve written about it elsewhere, but I want to share it here as well. 

A walk in a park

I was on a research trip and had stopped in Birmingham, Alabama to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights InstituteAcross the street from the Institute is Kelly Ingram Park. The park was once the site of some of the worst acts of civil rights violence and is now a site of memory. Its history is retold through sculptures and other art installations throughout.

It was July and so I decided to stroll through the park first thing in the morning before it got too hot. I was studying a sculpture depicting vicious, snarling dogs when I heard a voice behind me say, “nothing has changed you know.” I turned around to see who’d spoken and there was Willy.

A talk with a stranger

Willy was an African American man, probably in his sixties. We introduced ourselves and I learned that he had grown up in the area and was homeless. I asked him to elaborate on what he’d said about nothing having changed and he was happy to do so. We sat down on a bench and Willy told me stories about living in the segregated South and in the South as it is today. His stories revealed a life of pain and possibility, of humiliation and happy times, of terror and tenacity. Before I knew it, 2.5 hours had passed.

When Willy finished speaking, we sat silently for a time. Finally,  I asked Willy, “if you could have it any way you wanted, what would your life be like? What kind of life do you dream about?” His response was so quick and vehement that it scared me at first. He jumped to his feet and shook his fist in the air while shouting, “I would dominate. I would control everything. Men, women, children! I would be the one telling people what to do and when to do it and I would make them obey me! I would own everything and I would control all the money! I would be in control!”

When he finished, Willy glanced nervously in my direction. He returned to the bench and sat down. Shaking his head he said, “I’m sorry. I just said all of that because of everything I’ve been through.” He lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, and exhaled slowly. “But that’s how I feel, you know?”

Willy stared off into space for a few minutes before speaking again. This time, his voice was soft.  “You know all that stuff I said? That’s not really what I want.” He glanced sideways at me. “Do you want to know what I really want?” he asked. I nodded and he continued. “What I really want is to have people to love and to have people who love me.” Then, Willy turned his whole body so he was facing me. He looked straight into my eyes, and asked, “but isn’t that what we all want?”

Isn’t that what we all want?

In Willy’s rhetorical question was a powerful assertion of sameness about people–all people. He knew that love is buried among the differences that so many use as licenses to hate and exclude. He also knew that everyone, no matter how  much or how little he or she has, can both give and receive love. It costs nothing to do either. We are all equally rich in this regard. Why, then, is it so easy to be stingy with our love? What’s the payoff? I don’t know.

What I learned from Willy

Here’s the thing. What Willy knew and believed with all his heart, despite all he’d been through, was that everyone wants to have someone to love and to have someone who loves them back. We stand in the way of that happening in so many ways. For example, many of us are quick to judge ourselves on the basis of our intentions and others on the basis of their actions–I am SO guilty of this. And have you noticed how often conditions are attached to others’ “lovability” and  “value” in homes, in communities, and in society more broadly? How much of the crap that we create and navigate in our day-to-day lives would just fall away if we kept Willy’s very simple observation in mind? I wonder.

There’s merit in talking to strangers

I did not enter that park expecting to have a conversation with a stranger, let alone a life-altering one. But maybe I should have entered that park looking for an opportunity to have one. If Willy hadn’t spoken to me, a stranger, that day, I’d have missed out on an amazing encounter. I probably would have just walked by him with little more than a nod and a “good morning.”

It’s easy to walk by people like Willy. He didn’t look the way we generally expect wise people to look. Most of the time, therefore, he’s invisible. That’s tragic. There’s no telling what we miss out on when we don’t “see” and talk to people like Willy–strangers. Imagine what we might learn about ourselves and others simply by looking for opportunities to talk to people we don’t know. 

What do you think? Have you had encounters with strangers that have been meaningful in some way? How did they happen? Why were they valuable? And do you agree that there is merit in going out of our way to make them happen again? Share your thoughts below and please subscribe or follow my  blog.

As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.

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Don’t Pursue Happiness; Follow These Steps to Get Happy!

There is no point in pursuing happiness. That is, there’s no point in doing stuff that you think will one day lead to being happy. I can almost hear you thinking,  “wow, this one’s going to be a downer. No thanks!” Before you stop reading, stay with me for a minute or two. You’ll be, um, happy you did.

I am a huge fan of Shawn Achor, positivity psychologist and author of The Happiness Advantage. His Ted Talk is among the most watched of all time too. Here is a link to it.

Shawn Achor’s Ted Talk

In both his book and Ted Talk, Achor draws on research in his field (who knew, by the way, that studying happiness was a thing?) to teach us that there are things we can do daily to increase our levels of happiness. Increasing our happiness, in turn, improves our relationships with others, our productivity at work, and so on. In other words, happiness isn’t a thing one acquires after achieving certain goals or reaching certain milestones. e.g. “I’ll be happy once I make enough to buy a house” or “I’ll be happy once I get that promotion.” Nope. Achor says we’ve got it wrong. It’s the other way around. We don’t become happy once we are successful. We become successful when we are happy.

So, how do we create happiness?

According to Achor, there are five concrete, simple steps that we can do to increase our levels of happiness. When we do these steps, we increase the likelihood that we’ll achieve our goals, which we once thought would make us happy. Instead, being happy helps us achieve our goals. We had it backwards! Those five things are so easy to do that it almost seems too simple, but the research is tried and true.

The Five Steps to Happiness

For 21 days, which is roughly the amount of time it takes to form a habit, doing the following things each day produces the effects Achor discusses.

  1. Identify three things for which you’re grateful. Again, write these down or tell them to someone.
  2. Exercise–just move. You don’t have to become an ironman triathlete.
  3. Meditate for a couple of minutes. You don’t have to be Deepak Chopra. Just get still and let your mind be. Prayer is fine too.
  4. Perform a random or conscious act of kindness or send a positive email or text to a colleague or friend.
  5. Journal about something positive that happened during the day.

Partner Up to Create Happiness!

In the past, my significant other and I have “worked the steps” for periods of time. Not only has the time we spend talking been good bonding time,  but we both agreed that following the steps changed our outlooks on life quickly and in very noticeable ways. Both of us, in other words, felt happier.
Each evening we checked in with each other by going through the five steps. We didn’t write anything down unless we weren’t together and were texting. We just talked. We listed our “gratefuls,” as we called them, talked about something positive that happened that day, and accounted for the other things. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves noticing things to be grateful for throughout the day. Sometimes, I was grateful for little things, like the barista making my specialty coffee just right, or  having a good ride on my horse. Lots of times our “gratefuls” were about each other. What is more affirming than having someone tell you why he or she is grateful for you?
 

Join the Facebook 21 Day Don’t Worry. Be Happy Challenge!

I’ve started a Facebook 21 Day Don’t Worry. Be Happy Challenge group. Anyone is welcome to join, so please visit my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/lettersfromthecoffeeshop and join the event: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1932943440349972/?ref=bookmarks
It’s going to be a fun, no pressure, positive, 21 days. I hope you’ll check it out and join us!
Everyone is welcome. Let’s start a happiness revolution.
As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.
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“I Can Only Imagine”

“I Just Can’t Imagine”

When bad things happen to other people, we often say “I just can’t imagine….” Usually, we say this to acknowledge that something bad has happened and to express sympathy or regret. However, the phrase “I just can’t imagine” does neither of those things. In fact, saying “I just can’t imagine” is a bit of a cop-out. Our language needs to align more closely with our intentions. So, instead of saying “I just can’t imagine,” we should say “I can only imagine.”

Whatever our intentions, words speak for themselves. “I just can’t imagine” is code for “I don’t want to imagine what you’re going through.” “I just can’t imagine” is neither kind nor comforting. It allows us to create distance between ourselves and another person’s pain or misfortune. When we claim that we “can’t imagine” what someone else is going through, we protect ourselves. Protecting ourselves does nothing to help a person who is suffering.

Worse, when we say “I just can’t imagine” this or that we are lying. We can imagine anything we want to imagine. We imagine ourselves in others’ shoes every time we read a book or watch tv or a movie. Sometimes we worry about experiences we haven’t had and do not want to have. When we worry, we imagine what it would be like to have those experiences. Anytime we think about what has happened or what is happening to someone, we imagine it.

The truth is, we “can’t not imagine” what has happened to another person when we hear about it. We can, however, choose to stop thinking about it. Choosing not to think too much about what has happened to someone does not mean that we can’t think about it. It definitely does not mean that we shouldn’t think about it.

Historically Speaking

In my courses on African American literature and culture, I teach students about the history of lynching in the United States. This is a topic around which there exists much cultural amnesia to this day. Among other things, I insist that we try to imagine how white Americans were able to rationalize the terrorism they inflicted on blacks for over sixty years.
For example, why did it make sense to a middle-class white woman to leave church on Sunday, drive to a setting where she, along with her family and members of the community, watched the torture and murder of a black person? Why did it make sense to those present to pose for photographs with what was left of the victim? How could they have enjoyed a picnic after doing what they did and seeing what they saw?
“I just can’t imagine” is not an acceptable response to those questions for many reasons. For instance, the people who performed and saw those atrocities were no different from many of us. That ought to scare us a little. What didn’t they know they didn’t know? What difference would it have made if they had known what they didn’t know? What difference can we make in the world today knowing what we know now? Are we willing to use what we know to make a difference? If so, what kind of difference and how will we go about making it? Saying “I just can’t imagine” does not take us where we need to go in our efforts both to understand others’ experiences and to act as empathic human beings.

“I Can Only Imagine”–a Better Alternative

Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a 14-year-old boy. Gauge, the son of my former horse shoer, Brad Malone, and his wife Shanna, was killed in an accidental shooting incident. He died in his father’s arms. I have imagined what Brad and Shanna have been feeling and experiencing. I’ve imagined what they must have felt in the minutes and hours and days after they heard the gunshot and found their son. I have imagined what parents do with the dreams and visions they had for their child’s life once he is gone.

I am not a parent. I do not claim to know what it feels like to be a parent and to have that bond that apparently feels like no other. I do not claim to know what it feels like to be a parent who has lost a child, suddenly, or otherwise.

That doesn’t mean that I can’t imagine such things. What it means is that I can only imagine how such loss feels for parents. If I truly care about the people who have suffered such losses, then I will imagine what they have gone through, what they are going through, and what they may go through in the future.

It doesn’t matter if how I imagine someone’s experience isn’t entirely, or even at all, correct. What matters is that, even though I can only imagine, I imagine anyway. What matters is that I don’t cop-out by saying, “I just can’t imagine.”

Here’s the Thing

So, we need to stop saying “I just can’t imagine” for two reasons. First, sometimes people say it because they don’t want to imagine what someone else is going through. If you really don’t care, then drop the act. Second, and I like to think this is the more common scenario, most people say ” I just can’t imagine” when what they really mean is “I can only imagine what you’re going through.”

To admit that we can “only imagine” another’s experience is to say two important things. First, it says “I care enough to try to understand what you’re experiencing.” Second, it says “I acknowledge the likelihood of a gap between what I imagine and your actual experience.” The latter is important because it lessens our risk of imposing our own narrative on someone else’s experience.

If we really care about people as most of us say we do, then we must be willing to imagine what they have gone through or what they are going through. That’s what we call empathy. My friend Michael Cameron defines empathy as “the quality of being able to feel what others feel.” He claims that it affords us “the greatest insight into who [others] are, allowing [us] to find ways to make the greatest impact in their life.” The mission statement of The Empathy Museum (yes, it’s a thing) speaks to the transformative power of empathy: “empathy can not only transform our personal relationships, but also help tackle global challenges such as prejudice, conflict and inequality.”

When we imagine what someone else is going through we nurture the development of empathy, which is one of the most valuable human traits. We also nurture one another as human beings and honor one another as fellow travelers on this wonky journey we call life. I can only imagine where we’d be without one another.

Thank you for reading. I appreciate you.