communication

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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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Why We Should Tell Others What We Think About Them

I was reminded this morning that it is a really good idea to tell others what we think about them when what we think is positive. There’s a woman at CrossFit who started coming to the 5 a.m. class a while ago. I’ll call her Ali because, well, that’s her name. 

I’ve watched Ali work out with both fascination and admiration. Ali is often the last person to finish the WOD. I’ve been very impressed by how precise and patient she is as she executes the various parts of a work out.  Ali’s focus seems to be on maintaining good form instead of rushing to finish quickly or to complete more reps during an AMRAP.

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Embracing the Suck aka Winning the WOD

Recently, we had a super tough WOD: 50 MED BALL squat cleans, 100 air squats, 50 push ups, 100 mountain climbers, 25 med Ball squat cleans, 25 air squats, 25 push-ups, 25 mountain climbers, followed by two minutes of lunges. (Yikes!)

Ali finished a few minutes after I did.  As I stretched, I watched in admiration as she tackled each rep slowly and correctly. She was tired–it was seriously tough–yet, she didn’t try to speed things along as she grew increasingly fatigued. From my perspective, Ali just embraced the suck and kept moving.

woman doing deadlift

After the workout I told Ali that I admire her approach to the WODS. She thanked me and then we both headed home.

A little while later, Ali messaged me and thanked me for telling her that I admired her. She said she was down about finishing last. (Last doesn’t matter at CrossFit, but I get it.) She said my words helped her feel less discouraged. I was so glad I’d told her how I viewed her.

Shortly after, my friend Michael complimented me on Facebook. He said I was disciplined and committed to self-improvement. I was both floored and flattered. The compliment meant a lot coming from Michael who is almost super human when it comes to those traits! His compliment made my whole day.

It’s amazing how good it feels when someone shares something positive she or he thinks about you. It feels especially good when you had no idea that the person has such an impression of you.   Ali had no idea that she’s been a role model for me the last few weeks. I had no idea Michael thinks of me as disciplined and committed to self-improvement.

We Should Tell People What We Think About Them

There’s a lot to be said for saying the positive things we think about others directly to them.  How often, though, do we actually do that? It’s not rocket science to pay a compliment to another person. We should stop being stingy and offer genuine compliments to others more often.

Here’s the thing. We are the stories we tell ourselves. Sometimes those stories are incomplete, inaccurate, or overly negative. Fortunately, words are powerful. When others say positive things about us, directly to us, their words can offset the effects of the blind spots in our views of ourselves.

Kind, affirming words might make someone feel good for a few hours. They also might change someone’s ideas about himself or herself drastically.  You just never know what people need to hear or when and why they need to hear it.

Words are free. It doesn’t cost us anything to use them to tell people positive things we think about them. I think I’m going to make a point to do that more often. Will you join me in this effort? Do you have a story about a time when someone else’s words have made an impact on your day or your life in ways you remember fondly?

Please share your story in the comments and don’t forget to subscribe or follow!

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

Why We Should Talk about Controversial Issues

A lot of people avoid talking about controversial issues due to fear or discomfort. As an academic, I have a hard time wrapping my head around being afraid to talk to someone because we might disagree on a matter. You see, discussing issues that are seen as controversial is a large part of how I make my living. I get paid to read, write, think, and talk about issues related to race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion. To me, talking about such issues is a normal, natural, and important thing to do. I enjoy it.

So I am baffled when, in my “non-academic world,” someone shuts down at the mere mention of a controversial topic. “Don’t they know how fun such discussions can be?” I wonder. The answer, of course, is no, they don’t know that. My training has taught me that such discussions are not only safe but exciting. However, others’ experiences–real or imagined–have taught them that talking about controversial issues may lead to kerfuffles among friends and bad vibes all around. I’ve heard the following as explanations for avoiding certain topics in conversations: “there is no point; h/she is not going to change his/her mind”; “I don’t want to say anything that will offend someone”; “s/he is just going to get mad and I don’t want to ruin our relationship.”

I want people to know that some of the most interesting conversations happen around issues that are considered controversial. Think about it. The issues are not controversial because they are boring; they are controversial because they are important. Important issues are those in which there is something at stake. Controversial issues are those about which people have different takes on what is at stake and for whom. The controversy stems from a disagreement over whose interests matter the most.

To make matters more complicated, somewhere along the line, we have been convinced that someone has to change his or her mind in order for a discussion of a controversial topic to be worth having. Nothing could be further from the truth. Contrary to popular belief, people can talk about issues without anyone having to be right or wrong. This isn’t to say that everyone’s opinion has equal merit; it is to say that it costs us nothing to listen carefully and thoughtfully to another’s point of view.

That is, people can hear and be heard in discussions with one another without having to name “winners” and “losers.” Unfortunately, most people have not learned how to take part strategically in conversations–note I did not say debates–about controversial issues. This needs to change because conversations about controversial issues have great potential for bridging the divides that threaten the well-being of our society at all levels. Where to begin?

Seek to understand before seeking to be understood

Productive, exciting, and intellectually challenging conversations happen when those involved really want to know what others think and why. That is, the best conversations happen when our wish to understand others’ points of view is stronger than our desire to express our own. As Stephen Covey stressed in his well-known best seller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, effective dialogue and win/win outcomes are possible when people come together seeking to understand before seeking to be understood. To put it another way, good things happen when we are willing to listen to what others have to say as opposed to preparing to shoot them down at the first opportunity. It’s that simple.

So what can we do?

Avoiding controversial topics in our conversations with others doesn’t make the topics any less controversial nor does it resolve related issues. Avoidance reinforces and adds to the ways in which we are divided. So, rather than avoiding conversations about controversial issues, we need to create and take advantage of opportunities to have them. Never miss opportunities to find out what you don’t know you don’t know and/or to better understand what doesn’t make sense to you. Take advantage of opportunities to connect with people across lines of difference.

Meanwhile, tell me, how do you feel when faced with the opportunity for such conversations? Do you avoid them? Do you jump right in? What advice do you have to offer? Please share and don’t forget to subscribe to Letters from the Coffee Shop!

Thank you for reading. I appreciate you.