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Monday, July 18, 2011

From the Heart of A Sierra Summer

Somehow I can’t seem to force myself back to the personality disorders, so I’m giving up—at least for now. I’m sure this all has something to do with my imminent retirement from a job that I’ve had, in one iteration or another, for the past thirty years or so. Hmmmm…if I do a better job of counting, it’s more like thirty-five, or even (gasp) thirty-seven. Oh, there were a few years when I worked in the private sector, and not for the government, but my professional focus has always been on some aspect of Psychology.

So who will I be next? I suppose I’ll always be a psychologist. But, does it count if I’m not using those skills to earn a living? Hell, do I count once I’m retired? There’s a niggling little voice telling me that I have to do something, to keep on giving back to the community. And then there’s another voice that just comes up with a heart-rending sigh and says I’ve done enough. That it’s time to focus on myself for a change. I suppose I’ll keep on having that inner dialogue until I come up with some answers. That’s how Psyche works. She keeps on sending us material until we can decide on a course of action we can live with.

I did a lot of group facilitation back in the nineteen-eighties (when it was more popular than it is today). One activity was to describe yourself without saying a thing about your family or your career. Go ahead. Try it. It’s harder than it seems it should be. What you end up with is a list of attributes. And, if you were really squeakily honest, there are some traits on that list that make you cringe. Oh, you missed your shadow side? Well, go back and try again. After all, this list is only for you. You can shred it later on. The point isn’t to annihilate your shadow, but to draw at least part of it out towards the light of day. It actually looks better there than it does stuffed in a closet.

I suppose this is relevant because we all have a shadow side. The parts that are a bit less, shall we say, socially acceptable. We all get angry and we all say things we shouldn’t and apologize later on—or not. Most of us gossip and all of us have done things we wish no one would ever find out about. Thank god for the sanctity of our thoughts!

Crikey, as one of my story characters would say in his impeccable British accent. I just read over what I wrote and started to laugh sitting here at my keyboard. Guess I’ll never not be a psychologist. It seems to be imbued right past the marrow of my bones. I see it in how I look at myself and in how I interpret what others bring to me. And it’s embossed all over my world view and part and parcel of my combination of liberal and conservative politics.

So, thanks Psyche. Didn’t have to wait long for that answer to pop up out of the ether. I’m certain other professions view the world through their own particular set of tinted glasses. I worked closely with M.D.s for years at a residency training program. They have a definite set of perceptual filters that morph over time.

Bear with me as I generalize. Most newly minted M.D.s have hopes and dreams about helping to improve people’s lives. Over the years of residency and subsequent practice, too many non-compliant patients, coupled with droves of the drug-seeking, are enough to sour any doctor’s idealism. Yet some remain buoyant and optimistic.  What is it about them that sets them apart from their fellow practitioners who drift into less patient-intensive specialties as a shield against their unhappiness?

You guessed right. It’s basic personality structure. Some of us have more resilience than others and an almost magical ability to look at something that’s gone wrong and not label it a personal failure. Some of that comes from genetics and some from family. It’s a fortunate child whose family matches up well with his/her needs. And recognizes that they’re special just like they are. (Shades of Sesame Street!) None of that, “Why can’t you be more like your sibling? Or, Timmy next door?”

Once upon a time someone said that in order to get any good ideas, you had to get a lot of ideas. Well, to keep coming up with possibilities in the face of ones that didn’t work out requires ego strength. Which is a fancy way of saying that someone believes in themselves. That the self and the ego are not at odds with one another.  That we’ve seen our shadow side and can coexist with it.

I think that’s about enough. But, I’m humbled and gratified that the next several blog posts are already taking shape in my head from this one.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Random Thoughts, Part II

Since writing last week’s entry, my wonderful mother found her way to the other side of the veil. I am sad and grateful all at the same time; and humbled by the presence of something beyond us all. For me it is a goddess presence; for others it’s the godhead. I’m not sure it matters much what you call it. Simply the knowledge that there’s more out there than is immediately accessible through one’s five senses is both comforting and a bit unnerving.  

One of the many things I’ve been thinking about since the mortuary called to tell me they had my mother is the close-to-hundred years that spanned her life and how much things have changed in that time. Born in 1916, the baby in a family of seven children, mother grew up in a small town in Indiana where there were more horse-drawn carriages than cars. The iceman brought blocks of ice to her home; thus the old term “icebox”. Those of you who are old enough might remember the space in a cold box where you put the ice. When it melted, it was replaced by another chunk. During the summer months, people used sawdust to insulate the ice and help it to last longer.

Mother grew up in a huge old house with hidden staircases, a library with floor to ceiling bookshelves on every wall and rats in the cellar (with resident cats to control them). I remember both bats and birds in the fourth floor attic, although my Uncle Bill, an MD who moved into the family home when he returned from the European theater after World War II, worked far harder to control the pest population than my grandparents ever did.

Commercial radio came into being around the time mother was four. She lived through part of World War I, all of World War II, the Korean War, and all the more modern conflagrations as well. People used manual typewriters when she went to college and went to the library to do research. She saw the dawn of commercial air transportation, television and the computer age—and marveled at each of them. Modern medicine came into being during her lifetime as well with the advent of antibiotics and greatly improved surgical techniques, not to mention the proliferation of our pharmacopeia.

By comparison, they had computers when I was in college, but they were the old Univacs that took up entire floors in university buildings. Data had to be transcribed onto cards and fed into them. Personal computers didn’t really emerge as consumer items until I was in my early to mid thirties. Mother never liked computers. She tried to learn to use them, but there was something about the impersonal nature of the electronics that gave her the creeps. After a time, I stopped trying to sell her on the wonders of email and instant-gratification pictures, not to mention the ability to check her stock portfolio online.

Seventh born of seven children, mother moved from her home to a college dorm and from there to live with one of her sisters until she married my father at the age of twenty-eight. Not surprisingly, she never liked being alone. In fact, it made her extremely uncomfortable. She and I talked about that. I, naturally, suggested she spend some time in therapy to try to come to terms with whatever was going on. She, however, looked at psychotherapy as one step up from witchcraft. Somehow it was different if the “therapy” came from me. More palatable. So, I kept doing what I was doing and we simply sidestepped calling it anything other than our biweekly telephone conversation.

Appearances were very important to Mom. How you looked, being able to set a nice table and addressing others with the proper level of deference were all critical. Everybody was “Mr.” and “Mrs.” when I was growing up. Much of that societal structure has broken down in the last fifty years. And, I’m not sure we haven’t lost something precious. If nothing is worthy of our respect, we cease to respect ourselves as well. And, when I look at some of today’s youth, dressed in ripped clothing that clearly needed a visit to the washing machine last week, I wonder where their parents are. And, I am ever-so-grateful for both of mine. For their old-school insistence on doing the right thing, even if it inconvenienced me. For the values they inculcated into me. I never have to stop to figure out the right thing to do. That path is usually crystal clear. It’s just setting foot on it that takes a level of moral fortitude. So, thanks Mom—and Dad, too—wherever you are. Thanks a million times over.