Bad Language

CASS COUNTY COURTROOM - LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Earlier this year, my coach David observed that I tend to default to describing things as “good” or “bad” rather than using more accurate – and less judgmental – words. He scolded me about it, in the way that only someone whose job is to not let you get away with your bullshit can. “Why use value judgements when describing your feelings about something? I try to stay away from those. They’re lazy and unhelpful.”

He was right (of course he was right). Describing something as good or bad is often simpler than thinking about, or explaining, our actual feelings. “Good” and “bad” are such accepted descriptors, despite the fact that they are rarely the most appropriate choice, that we barely notice using them. “Good” and “bad” conceal more complex, honest adjectives, and their overuse neutralizes their actual meaning. Think about all the times you have used the word “good” because it seemed like the politest, most expedient way of expressing, “everything is fine; no further inquiry necessary.” In this way, “good” is like a shield, deflecting more questions. “Bad” can be similarly discouraging of real examination. Is something or someone actually bad, or would it be more accurate to say it was disappointing, upsetting, or tiresome?

David’s larger point about using words like “good” and “bad” to describe things is that they are value judgements, and value judgments aren’t helpful when thinking about your own feelings or behavior (or someone else’s). Value judgments don’t encourage gentleness and patience with ourselves and with others. I had been using “good” and “bad” so generically that at first I balked at this point. But the more I thought about it, the more I agreed. Language matters, and “good” and “bad” subtly signal expectations and judgments that we may not even recognize. Barry Evans, author of The Myth of the Experienced Meditator, wrote about this in relation to meditation:

Meditation is a haven away from the ubiquitous world of self-improvement. It’s not just that there’s no such thing as ‘bad’ meditation, but there’s no such thing as ‘good’ meditation either. It is what it is.

Without realizing it, I’d been slotting many of my opinions and emotions into the two giant buckets of “good” and “bad.” Since having this tendency pointed out, I’ve tried to be more precise and descriptive when I speak and write. Not just with “good” and “bad,” either, but with any that word that feels like a generic placeholder for a more expressive, more accurate, and more meaningful one. By shifting away from using words that are value judgments, the nuance and the complexity of a feeling can come out. Something can be both annoying and worthwhile, frustrating and fulfilling, or exciting and unsettling. It’s difficult not to default to the words I’m so used to; it requires actual concentration on my part. I am still only successful some of the time. But I’ve noticed that it helps me think about my feelings in a less judgmental way, and to be gentler on myself and with others.

Image: Cass County Courthouse (1937; Library of Congress)

It’s Not About You…and other lessons from a crisis hotline

lichtenstein_diptych

For the last year, I’ve volunteered answering phones one night a week at a crisis hotline. I started doing this to make helping others part of my life. My day-to-day work is full of emails, conference calls, and writing things that no one will read, and I often feel like I’m not making a tangible impact. Although my motivation was to help others, I’ve found something unexpected: mostly the hotline has helped me. Here are six important lessons I’ve learned since becoming a volunteer:

1. I got it good

I started volunteering not long after a big break up, and while I didn’t mean to help people worse off than me in order to feel good about my own life, that’s what happened. Most of the people that call are dealing with a mental illness and/or a serious emotional issue, and have few (if any) people in their lives to support them. After spending a few hours listening to other people’s problems, I leave the hotline feeling so lucky about all the good things in my life, especially my many supportive friends and family members, not to mention good brain chemistry. Walking out of the hotline’s office to head home, I am almost glowing with gratitude.

2. How to take better care of myself

Answering calls can be draining, so it’s important for us volunteers to keep our own spirits up. “Self-care” was a big topic during the volunteer training. I learned my best self-care lesson from the attitude that I take with callers. Recently, I was feeling upset during one of my shifts at the hotline. I had worked myself into a panic about my relationship, worried that my boyfriend didn’t care about me.  I took a bathroom break to cry a bit in one of the stalls. I asked myself, “What would I tell a caller?” I had been treating my own feelings dismissively (“I’m just overreacting; everything is fine”), but if someone else were expressing the same things, I would have validated their feelings, telling them that’s its ok to be upset, and talking them through why they are feeling that way.  It’s hard to invite your own help, but I have gotten better at it by becoming more practiced helping others.

3. The term “help-rejecting”

This happens a lot on the hotline: someone calls, upset about some problem, and shoots down all of my suggestions, however reasonable. They are help-rejecting, and when someone is help-rejecting, they don’t want my advice. So I try to stop giving it. It doesn’t mean that I’m not actually helping. Sometimes all they really want is to vent to someone who will listen and not criticize. Even with friends, I have found it very helpful to be able to name this behavior. I sometimes get frustrated when I feel like I’m trying to help, only to be met with (usually weak!) reasons that my great suggestions aren’t going to work. Once I can say (to myself), “oh, she’s being help-rejecting,” I can let go of my need to help by trying to solve the problem and just listen.

4. The importance of white space

After I got comfortable taking calls, I was shocked that my favorite part of each shift was the time in-between calls. During this time, I am free to do what I want (limited of course by the need to stay close to the phone). I don’t have to do anything. After all, I’m already volunteering, ready for the next call. I can allow myself to do exactly what I feel like at that moment. When I first started, I made lists of things I wanted to get done, only to find that I rarely got to most of them. I stopped making lists and started just asking myself “what do I most want to do now?” Sometimes, it’s to read the news, catch up on emails, read a book, shop online, or doodle. I’m trying to bring this attitude into the rest of my life and leave more unscheduled time, white space, to do exactly want I feel like that moment. As Brene Brown describes, “Cultivate and appreciate the white space for what it is, not for what I can squeeze out of it.”

5. Sometimes you need to hang up

I have a hard time saying no, and an especially hard time being rude. Our calls generally have a minute time limit: if the caller isn’t having a crisis, I try to politely end the call after about 10 minutes. Most of our regular callers are very understanding of this limit, but occasionally I get someone who argues back or just keeps talking over my attempts to end the call. Eventually, I just hang up (with a “Thank you for calling, I need to hang up now!”). Sometimes, I need to disengage. It feels rude and uncomfortable, but it’s ok.

6. It’s not about you

Here’s how it goes at the hotline: people call and I talk to them – or rather, mostly I listen. Sometimes, by the end of the call, I feel like I’ve helped them, but often I don’t. Neither of these outcomes is really about me. I just meet the caller wherever they are.  This is generally true in life. Your partner is upset? Your boss is whispering to a colleague? Your friend didn’t return your call? It’s so easy to react to all of these personally. What did I do? What are they saying about me? The answer: probably nothing. Nine times out of ten, it’s not about you. At all. Your partner is upset about work, your boss is whispering because it’s a sensitive topic about a client, and your friend got busy because her mom needed her help.

When these feelings come up, sometimes I still get upset and wonder what I did wrong. Then, I remember what I’ve learned at the hotline, and I try to list likely explanations that have nothing to do with me, and go back to feeling grateful about my life.

Images: Roy Lichtenstein: “Ohhh…Alright” (1964) and “M-Maybe” (1965)

I’m Pretty Sure Meditation Is Helping

George Bellows

I casually meant to start a meditation practice for about five years. Mostly, I thought about how my practice would be structured. I concluded that meditating before bed, while possibly beneficial for my intermittent sleeping problems, was not realistic for various logistical reasons. Meditating first thing in the morning, right when I woke up and my husband was still asleep, made the most sense. I made a mental agreement with myself to set my alarm 15 minutes earlier to build in time to sit. Each night I would look at my clock and think of some excuse for why I couldn’t do it just then. This went on for another six months or a year.

My dad named one our cats Pema after Pema Chodron, the buddhist nun and author. Pema the cat is a Maine coon; she looks like a little lioness with her puffy coat and splendid curving whiskers. She won’t sit in laps, but she loves being petted and brushed and all other forms of attention. Calm, loving, and fearless, she lives up to her human namesake. She recently chased a raccoon out out of my parents house after it snuck in through the cat flap, and then ran onto the porch to make sure it wasn’t still lurking in the vicinity. My dad calls her his hero and role model.

In my teens, my dad loaned me his copy of Pema Chodron’s, “When Things Fall Apart” during a particularly anxious and difficult period. He told me it was great. He encouraged me to read even a single page. I did read it, and I kept reading it, because it was magnificent and it helped me feel like my feelings were OK, and also that I could manage them.

On my 26th birthday, a big box arrived at work. Inside was a yellow meditation pillow, cheerfully dotted with blue and white, plump and firm and ready to be sat on. It was from, guess who, my dad. I had bought him a meditation pillow, a solid green one, a few years before. He’d gotten very practiced at meditating every morning, sometimes sitting for 30 or 40 minutes at a stretch. I liked the idea of owning a meditation pillow; it made me feel virtuous just having it around. Maybe people would be impressed with me. But I didn’t use it. I hoped my cat might adopt it as a perch. Instead it lived on a bench in the living room, propped up on its with a bunch of other ordinary pillows.

Eventually my dad bought me a copy of another one of Pema Chodron’s books, “The Places That Scare You.” Like “When Things Fall Apart,” it tackled the mental anguish, insecurity, anxiety, and pain that challenge all of us with love and also absolute clarity. You can let difficult times and experiences harden you and make you afraid, the nun counseled, or you can use painful feelings to deepen your own sense of compassion and courage. It is the best kind of sobering, certain advice that you need when you are circling the drain. I read it most of the way through and left it on my bedside table for a while, in case I wanted to reference it. Over the years, I loaned it to friends during breakups and re-read it during times or pain and uncertainty. Like many reckoning, confronting truths, the writing makes perfect sense as you read it. Then you put the book down and you’re stuck with your bad feeling again and you can’t quite remember what it was you thought you learned while reading it.

What finally got me meditating wasn’t strength of character, or will power, or maturity. It was personal crisis. My dad, the same one who bought me the books and the meditation pillow and who named the cat Pema and who calmed me down whenever I was upset, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of bladder cancer. There are plenty of books that say they can help you through that kind of thing, but I didn’t want them.

It’s OK if you don’t read the Pema books cover-to-cover, my dad said. Pick them up again whenever you need them. It doesn’t matter what page or chapter. You’ll find something useful.

One night after my dad’s diagnosis I looked at my alarm clock and decided I had the motivation to set it back by the 15 minutes that I had up until then only had the courage to think about. This small act that felt so significant took about five seconds to complete. The next morning I got up, pulled my practically new meditation pillow from the bench where it lived, and dropped it in front of my living room window. During the one or two times I had tried to meditate in the past, I’d lit a candle to focus on. This time, I just looked straight out my window at the southern magnolia tree planted in the sidewalk outside. The leaves moved in a similar way to a candle’s flame, to and fro, gently swaying. I sat for 10 minutes, using a meditation app I’d downloaded on my iPhone. When I got up, I felt better. I mentally corrected myself from the feeling of “better” by remembering something I’d read in one of my Tricycle newsletters:

Meditation is a haven away from the ubiquitous world of self-improvement. It’s not just that there’s no such thing as ‘bad’ meditation, but there’s no such thing as ‘good’ meditation either. It is what it is. (Barry Evans, “The Myth of the Experienced Meditator”).

I got up the next day and the next day and the next day and kept doing it.

My dad had four rounds of chemo, each spaced three weeks apart, through the spring of 2013. He weathered them as well as we could have hoped. He was tired, and sometimes very heavy with the intense awareness of his mortality, knowing he was sick yet not feeling like a sick person. But mostly, he was alright. I joked that he was the valedictorian of cancer. In mid summer he was scheduled for surgery to have his whole bladder removed, and a new one refashioned from three feet of small intestine (I called this his DIY bladder). Three days before his surgery, my mom organized a mass meditation for any friends and family who wanted to participate as a cosmic, prayerful exercise. My husband got up early with me that day so that we could coordinate the timing of our meditation with my family, who were in a different timezone. He used the meditation pillow because he can’t sit cross-legged comfortably, and I took a couch pillow. We sat together we sat for ten minutes.

When my dad got out of surgery, he was very weak. He had to stay in the hospital for five days while nurses constantly took his vital signs, emptied the many tubes and bags coming out of him, and cheerfully made him do all sorts of things he did not want to do. He had an ornery French-Canadian roommate named Jean who complained constantly about the quality of the hospital’s care but refused to be discharged. It was July. Outside, New York cooked like an oven, but inside the hospital my dad could not get warm.

He and I didn’t talk about meditation in the first few weeks of his recovery. I thought about bringing it up, but I didn’t have the energy. Sitting on a pillow felt like an insurmountable effort for me, let alone him. After about a month, though, once I was back home and he was more mobile, I mentioned it. No, he hadn’t been meditating, he told me. Yes, he had been thinking about it. He would do it. Maybe he would start today.

Image: George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo (1924)

Namesake: On Being Small (Or, How to Name a Blog)

Wisława Szymborska, Kraków, 1980, photo: Wojciech Plewiński / Forum
Wisława Szymborska, Kraków, 1980, photo: Wojciech Plewiński / Forum

We struggled to pick a name for this site. We wanted to give a sense of the topics areas we’ll be addressing without being too literal, too self-helpy, or too limiting since this site focuses on career and work, but also greater life choices. We brainstormed, researched, and tested out ideas (the runner up was “The Sounding Line,” after a nautical tool for measuring depths). We thought about literary references (James and the Giant Peach), biological themes (equilibrium, symbiosis), and object analogies (Newton’s Cradle). (read more…)