Coming Home

I went to bed last Saturday night with every intention of making it to church the next morning.

As many of you know, I’ve been looking for a spiritual community for most of my life. Brought up Catholic, but now functionally Buddhist, I always longed to feel comfortable in the place so many friends and loved ones have gone to in times of need or everyday spiritual sustenance.

Recently, I made a couple of major life changes that made the search for a church all the more pressing. I won’t go into them here (except to note them) because a) that’s not what this blog is about and 2) that’s the kind of thing I prefer to etch into a diary instead.

Now the church I was trying out is in downtown Boston and I live in the suburbs, about 20 minutes away by train. That means I had to get up extra early to make it to the 9:30am service. As I’m a morning person, this usually doesn’t present much difficulty other than the usual obsessing over the right bow tie and/or cologne.

But this morning was different. I woke up late, and managed to just miss the train. That’s when things got interesting.

My usual response when things like this happen is exasperation, frustration, and anger with myself. In fact, it should have been doubled as it was a snowy morning, and the train is usually late, so I figured it would be even more late. Yet lo and behold, the train was on time — on a snowy morning, no less.

I should have been pretty upset, but I wasn’t. Instead, I was filled with a cool calm, and just found myself saying to myself, “no biggie, I’ll just double back home and catch the next train. Instead of the 9:30 Mass, I’ll catch the 11:30. It’s bound to be better anyway, as the priest will have a chance to revise his homily.”

Then, as I traveled home, I realized something else. I realized that the church I was heading to — the one I’d been to visit twice, on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, recommended to me by a friend on Twitter — also felt, in a very weird and tentative way, like a home. I didn’t want to make too much of this at the time, but I made note of it.

A home. To appreciate the strangeness of that association you have to understand that Churches have mostly been a courthouse for me: places where judgment takes place.

As soon as I walk into a church, I can hear myself being judged in ways only Catholics can judge one another.

I’ll give you a small sample. I hear these things in my mind now, but many of them were actually said to me. Sometimes they were said far more kindly than I say them to myself. Sometimes a lot less.

“Why are you here? This is a church. We belong here. You don’t.”

“You see, we have some problems with people like you. And yes, when we say ‘we’ we mean the whole Catholic Church.”

“For one thing, you’re liberal. Liberals don’t go to church; liberals don’t even believe in God.”

“Another thing is you don’t vote Republican like we do, and sometimes as the priest tells us to. You think being gay is fine. You think priests should marry and that women should be priests. But worst of all, you don’t oppose abortion. That alone disqualifies you from being a Catholic.”

“Why? Because here we believe what we’re told to believe, not what we think or reason for ourselves. All of us believe the exact same thing in the exact same way, which is what gives our faith strength and power.”

“Your problem is you can’t listen to authority. We can, and yes, we think blind obedience to the right people on the right matters is a good thing. We know how to do that. You don’t.”

“We never, ever question our faith. We accept it. You’re so busy asking questions you don’t even have time to pray, which we do all the time. You should try it sometime, but not here. Go home and pray. This place is for Catholics only, and you are most definitely NOT a Catholic.”

“What are you even doing here in the first place? You don’t believe in God or Jesus. Your parents do, but not you. You’re too liberal and so-called ‘educated.’ We hear you also meditate, do yoga, and read Nietzsche. We know you’re not Catholic, and you may not even be Christian.”

“You don’t belong here. This is our church, not yours. Go away.”

I can’t remember a time in my life when I thought of a church as a home of any kind. As a kid I got dragged to church; the only times I went voluntarily after that were during times of intense personal crisis.

I said to myself in the car that while God may never have given me what I wanted (such as a clear sign on what to do about something very important), God did give me what I needed. That is to say, if it is true that what God calls us most to do is to be who we really are, then it’s clear God, the Tao, or the Universe has been nudging me more or less forcefully in that direction my whole life.

If I’d been paying closer attention, I’d have been creeped out by the fact that I was talking about God as a person rather than an experience and not having a major conniption about it.

About an hour later, I was on my the way to the train again. This time I gave myself extra time.

On that trip, I realized two more things. One is that I was going to church to find myself in some way. I know that sounds odd. Yet in some strange way, some part of me was already inside that building. It was simply calling out to me and I was simply answering.

Needless to say, if it had been calling me by name I’d be getting an MRI rather than the urge to write about it.

That led me to the second thing. For the first time, something was calling me to church, rather than pushing me to go from the outside or inside. Put another way, I was going to church because I wanted to, not because I had to or needed to.

There’s no way to know if this is just a passing thing or something more significant along a larger journey. But it felt important enough to share, so there you go.

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Twitter Bullies

Well, it finally happened. I met my very first cyber-bully.

Many of us remember bullies from grade or high school. Growing up, we all get more or less solid training expressing frustration with others. Parents are our first model in metabolizing anger, and then come teachers and peers.

What most of us learn, in our earliest years, is how to tell someone that they did something that bothered or hurt us and why.

Along the way, we notice an interesting group of people. These are the people who get furious with you when you tell them they did something wrong. While nobody likes to be told they bothered someone, this group of people responds with particular outrage: how dare you tell me I bothered or hurt you. You wimp! Now you’re really going to get it from me.

And then you get the abuse. Insults, threats, intrusions, unwanted contact…anything, it seems, in the attempt to intimidate you, get you to back off, or show you they are far more powerful and important than you.

So what happened? You just told them they did something wrong or that you didn’t like. Why didn’t they just say sorry, or even “no, don’t think what I did was wrong, and here’s why.”

What happened is you humiliated them, usually but not always in front of a crowd (often a gang) whose regard means as much to them as your parent’s, family’s, or significant other’s love regard means to you.

Here’s a common but by no means exclusive possibility. You didn’t know this (now that you do, you’ll probably be more careful), but when you took them to task for doing something they probably know is wrong, unwise, or ill-advised, you took them back to a horrible place. This is a place they may have long forgotten (or just long to forget) where they were the ones on the receiving end of criticism, yelling, teasing, exposure, shame, intrusion, threats, or even physical violence.

Truth is, many bullies live in deep, close, and intimate knowledge of what it means to feel inadequate, worthless, and powerless. When you cross them, it becomes your turn to find out exactly what it is (or was) like to be them.

For a number of reasons I tried to explain elsewhere, communication here has to be inductive rather than discursive. That is to say, it usually works better in these situations to help someone feel something rather than (just) telling them how they made you feel.

So now you’re going to get attacked, verbally or physically, but always emotionally. You’re going to get picked on, taunted, bullied, harassed, or even assaulted.

The luckier folks with this background learn to put those painful feelings to words, music, or art. The unluckier ones are left with using whatever means at their disposal (usually fists or words) to let you know just how much it hurt them to be told they hurt you.

If you have the presence of mind to say, “whoa, I just told you I take issue with something you’re doing and now you’re calling me an X, Y, and Z,” they’ll invariably say “no, you started it.” In a certain sense they’re right, in that you inadvertently exposed a strong vulnerability. But when you step back and compare what you did with what you got in return, you’re left scratching your head.

Many of us know the eggshell feeling we have around certain bosses, partners, and workmates. We can easily feel controlled by their volatility, but my sense has always been they’re not out to control us so much as stabilize a very vulnerable and precarious self-regard.

Put another way: if the thermostat in your car is broken, and the heat or air conditioning kicks on hard at the worst possible times, you’re going to have strong feelings about a passenger touching the controls, opening a window, or even complaining about the temperature.

Self-esteem is a little bit like the ambient air: when it’s doing its job, we don’t notice it, but once there’s a sudden change in temperature, pressure, odor, or oxygen level, we feel it. And we’ll go to great lengths to correct the situation, regardless of how little or differently the situation seems to be affecting others.

These days on twitter, the cyber-bullies I see the most are the ones who’ve developed a strong sense of loyalty to a politician or even another tweeter. When you say something critical of the beloved leader, you threaten the glue that holds the group together.

You don’t usually hear, “hey, you got your facts wrong, and here are the right ones,” or “what you said is inaccurate, unfair, or untrue.” What you get instead is “oh yeah? Well this is what you do that makes you an even worse person!” or just the far more economical “you’re an asshole!”

You don’t typically get engagement on the issues, because that’s not where these folks live. They don’t inhabit a world of issues to be discussed, so much as personalities to be protected: at all costs, against all enemies, foreign and especially domestic.

They may or may not use military or totalitarian language approvingly to describe their paramount virtue: loyalty to a beloved leader experienced as extraordinarily vulnerable to criticism.

My sense is that the leader is question is often far more tolerant (or even welcoming) of criticism that the loyal devotee. I also suspect that loyalty here doesn’t mean fidelity (as in to principles) so much as a promise: never, ever to hurt the beloved, and to gang up as quickly and fiercely as possible on those perceived to be a threat to the cohesion or self-esteem of the group.

Why, you ask. Why is this discussion for you about the NDAA, health care, abortion, or the best ways to get out the vote, and why is it for them about what an awful, rotten person you are? In more general terms, why is this conversation, for you, about what’s being said whereas for them it’s all about you?

Well, truth is, we don’t always know. And that’s something important to say in the context of this article, so let me emphasize it. We can and often do speculate about what goes on in someone’s head, but they’re the ultimate authority with regard to what happened to them, what they feel, or how they think.

Be open to the possibility (if you’re lucky and the winds are right) that someone may inform you that you’ve got your facts or narrative all wrong. Let them surprise you and display some non-bullying behaviors. They may, for example, tell you precisely where and how your understanding is in error, without insults or invective.

You should also be prepared for it to get ugly. For some, the Rubicon has been crossed the moment (they think) you’ve called them a thug or bully, and there’s just no going back from there. Not that you’ve got them all wrong and here is how, no: you insulted them, grievously, and now you’re going to pay.

In general, I think, people who are not (afraid they are) bullies tend to respond with confusion or bewilderment and then clarification when accused of bullying. I also think people who have been accused of this before are more likely to retaliate instead.

Like me, you may have also seen people getting threatened in addition to insulted. It’s important to note that, to my estimation, no political party or other group has (yet) cornered the market on bullying behavior.

My advice if and when you find these folks is much the same as if you bumped into them outside of twitter: leave them alone. This doesn’t mean letting them intimidate you or stop you from speaking out as best you can on things that matter to you. It means give them as wide a berth as possible when they float into your timeline.

If you follow someone who RTs the bully a lot, consider muting or even unfollowing them. If you unfollow, be prepared for some anger if this is perceived as a hostile attack rather than wish for relief. Expect retaliation if the individual in question identifies as part of the bully’s gang.

When a Twitter bully does something you disagree with, consider carefully how directly you want to say so and why. If they engage you, be clear about your twitter rules (mine include no verbal abuse) and politely decline (no matter what you want to say back!) their invitation to make the exchange about persons rather than issues.

Realize that even though you always could have chosen better words, there’s probably little chance you could have escaped their wrath for calling them on some misbehavior.

If you decide to engage them, be prepared for all labels, descriptions and accounts (regardless of their intentions) to become names, and for all names to be hurtful; that’s just their world. They typically blame their anger on others, and you may even be held fully responsible for their choice of words and tactics.

Needless to say, I don’t recommend this.

My best advice is to wish them well, as this is not only the right thing to do but often has the side benefit of disarming them (if you’re extremely lucky, a bully will be touched enough by your kindness to convert their contempt for you to respect on the spot). Most bullies aren’t used to being treated with genuine respect, to say nothing of kindness; by the time they realize you’re not engaging them in the typical way, you already have a great chance to head for the exit.

If they follow you and chase you, consider a firm request to go away or unfollow. Or you can block them.

I’ve rarely seen bullies persist after that, but it’s always possible. If so, consider reaching out to friends who’ve dealt with these exact or similar people before, or have a look at many of the wonderful online resources now available on bullying and cyber-bullying.

Oh, and good luck. Despite the bullying and other inconveniences, Twitter remains an intriguing world for the social explorer. 🙂

Follow You, Follow Me

One of the first things you learn about Twitter is how to negotiate the delicate issue of “followership.”

For those who don’t know, Twitter is a form of social media where individuals create accounts and post 140-character messages to the world. Individuals have the option of following people whose messages they want appearing in their “feed,” which gives the “followee” the ability to send Direct Messages, or DMs, to the follower. DMs are confidential posts that (we are told) are private between the individuals in question.

If the followee decides to “follow back,” then this enables both parties to send confidential messages to one another in addition to posting public conversations. In addition, every user has a profile, on which the number of people you follow and who follow you are posted.

One thing that I learned very quickly on Twitter is the kind of social status attached to the follower number. The more followers, ostensibly, the more people want to read what you have to say, and thus the more “popular” (I think Twitter exerts a strong regressive undertow back to high and grade school, but that a post for another time).

The other thing I discovered very quickly was the number of different views (I hesitate to call them “philosophies”) of followership people have. Some expect you to follow them back if they follow you first – and will tell you so. Or they may just unfollow you if you don’t follow back. Others just follow and don’t seem particularly bothered if you follow back.

Different expectations come into play here as well. Depending on the individual, some are less inclined to demand reciprocal followership if the person of interest is famous and/or has a lot of followers. But here I’ve heard the thinking go two ways: one is that they follow so many people they can’t be expected to follow everyone who expresses an interest in their stream; the other is that given how many people they follow what’s the harm in adding just one more (i.e., me)?

Then there is the “unfollow,” where you stop following someone after a longer or shorter period of time. Once again, depending on the person and twitter relationship, unfollows varyingly raise concern, hurt deeply, are met with indifference, never come to the followee’s attention at all, or are even met with relief.

Here’s where it gets most interesting for me: how people react to being unfollowed.

Most people I unfollow either unfollow back or keep on following silently, which is far more often than not, for me, the best situation. Once in a blue moon I (or twitter) may have unfollowed someone by accident; if that’s experienced as deliberate (and reacted to in silence) that certainly has the potential to be a problem.

Far and away the best outcome to an unfollow began with the person I unfollowed simply replying back asking why. Keep in mind all this is on the public timeline, which means anyone can see this conversation.

I replied by giving my reasons for unfollowing (see below), at which point she replied with her perspective, in an unusually frank and non-defensive manner. It was both what she said and how she said it that convinced me I had misunderstood her earlier behavior. So I followed back and am quite glad I did, as our conversations have become all the richer since.

Most of all, I’m glad she replied as quickly and maturely as she did, otherwise none of this would have happened and I would have missed out on a fine twitter pal.

For me, one of the least pleasant parts of twitter are those folks who, in their response to being unfollowed, remove any doubt in your mind that this was a good idea. Interestingly, each and every one I’ve had thus far comes from the ranks of a particular political group.

One person I unfollowed replied back (in public, because you can no longer DM one another) expressing outrage that I had done so. She demanded that I remedy the situation at once or face her further wrath.

Needless to say, I was insufficiently charmed to do as she asked.

My favorite, though, is the person who tweeted me back just moments after I’d unfollowed, expressing his pleasure that I had fallen for his “trap.” Huh?

He had been deliberately agitating people of my political persuasion, he told me, with provocative attacks on a figure of some prominence. My unfollowing, he said, was proof of my “utter uselessness” to the movement of which he was (of course) a very, very important leader.

After suppressing my initial reaction to this news, I informed him that I was unwilling to engage in an exchange of insults with him, and wished him the very best in his endeavors (we’re ostensibly members of the same political party). He wished me well in return, which was nice, and I haven’t heard from him since.

Anyway, all this (and more) has forced me to think about why I follow the people I do and why I unfollow those I do. To be clear, these are my reasons; they may or may not be yours, and that’s fine. Hopefully they’ll at least give you something to react to and form your own ideas about, in which case I’d love to hear what you think!

I’ve crystallized them into the following (no pun intended) form, based on what I take to be the three key decisions Twitters have to make on a daily basis – whether or not to follow, keep following, or unfollow:

Bad Reasons to Follow Someone on Twitter
Their avi is very attractive.

Because they followed you.

Because other people you follow (or like) do.

To get them to follow you back.

You want others to know you care about a particular person or cause.

You think this might help increase your follower count.

They’re famous.

Someone else told you to (and you didn’t first read some of their tweets to see if you would have followed them absent the recommendation).

You want to get someone’s attention.

Good Reasons to Follow Someone on Twitter
You like what they have to say and want to hear more.

They provide important information that’s useful to you.

They’re important to you.

You both follow some people of mutual interest already.

They’re so different from you in so many key ways you’re certain to learn a lot about yourself and each other in the process.

Bad Reasons to Avoid Following Someone on Twitter
You don’t find their avi attractive.

They’re not a member of a group with which you strongly identify as a member (e.g., political party, nationality, religion, race, gender, sexuality, social class).

Their tweets force you to think or feel things it is not unhealthy for you to think or feel.

Good Reasons to Avoid Following Someone on Twitter
A representative sample of their tweets does not interest you in the least.

You can easily imagine scrolling past or ignoring their tweets if you did follow them.

You can easily imagine getting very anxious, depressed, or enraged if you read their tweets on a regular basis.

They repeatedly engage in twitter behavior that’s distasteful or repugnant to you.

Bad Reasons to Keep Following Someone on Twitter
They’re part of an important social circle you want to be a part of.

You want to unfollow them, but are afraid of upsetting them if you do.

You want to unfollow them, but are afraid of what others will say or think if you do.

Good Reasons to Keep Following Someone on Twitter
The thought of unfollowing them just never occurs to you.

They keep providing the information, perspective, relief, or good cheer you’ve come to expect from Twitter.

They engage you in good conversation.

They make you laugh, smile, or feel good about yourself.

They make you think or feel things agreeable to you.

They provoke you in ways that feel comfortable and respectful of you as a listener or conversation partner.

Bad Reasons to Unfollow Someone on Twitter
They didn’t follow you back.

Their tweets start making you think or feel things it is not unhealthy for you to think or feel.

You discover they’re a member of a group about which you have very strong negative feelings.

You’re angry at them and want to send them a message.

Good Reasons to Unfollow Someone on Twitter
They begin to engage in twitter behavior that’s distasteful or repugnant to you.

They post the same message over and over.

They use Twitter primarily to proselytize a religious, scientific, medical or other point of view.

They seem unwilling or unable to criticize positions rather than persons.

You’ve been filtering out their tweets for some time in the effort to avoid unfollowing them.

You discover they’ve lied about themselves or done something that undermines your trust in them.

Their tweets constantly make you unhappy or bring you down in a way you did not expect and/or do not like.

You try to engage them in conversation, feeling confident there’s a reasonable expectation that they do so, and they don’t reciprocate.

Their tweets, having captured your interest once, no longer do so.

So that’s my short list. As with anything I post, expect emendations and alterations. 🙂

Attention

Life is full of inconvenient truths. Galileo. Darwin. Climate change. The parts of our personal, national, and cultural history we barely admit to ourselves, would much rather forget, and never, ever talk about.

In every case, the core argument is the same: “thus-and-such couldn’t possibly be the case because what’s being proposed is simply an outrage.”

Now this is not to delegitimize outrage as a whole but simply to caution against using it as an epistemological device (are you listening, Tea Party?). To put the matter somewhat differently, things can’t be propelled into a state of inexistence by the intensity of the offense we take to them. If they could, they’d disappear each and every time someone got furious at them.

It follows from this that arguing against magical thinking of this sort isn’t the same as saying that something offensive should exist and/or that this is a good thing. No.

It’s simply, in the case of climate change, acknowledging the mountains of scientific evidence that point to the earth currently undergoing a major fluctuation in temperature that is not the result of a natural process and threatens the existence of humans. Of course the oil companies are up in arms about this, and of course they’re working round the clock to call it a “myth.”

In a similar way, neurologists, pediatricians, educators, and parents have been putting their heads together for a long time around something rather important. This is something that continues to gain definition, and something I argue is worth taking seriously instead of dismissing as based on a myth or exaggeration.

This is ADHD. What is it and why is it so controversial? In order to answer that question, we have to look at what the diagnosis is based on (what the aforementioned article disparages, diminishes, and dismisses): attention.

At least this way, if and when someone is still inclined to reject the notion of an attention span, they’ll at least have a better idea of what it is they’re rejecting.

What is Attention?
Science is full of analogies. Light is like a particle; no, it’s like a wave; all right, it’s like a wavicle. Same with attention: science is always looking for newer and better ways of describing a set of phenomena which have drawn a particular kind of interest. When your primary concern is helping a particular kind of child navigate through school and life, you ask certain questions that lead you to look at certain things with greater precision.

While the analogy isn’t perfect (no analogy really is), one of the best ways I’ve found to describe attention is as a beam of light. To use a light effectively, there are a few things you have to know or learn how to do in short order. They are: turning it on, keeping it on, holding it still, switching it from one thing to another (and back), and turning it off.

Initiate
Attention first of all has to be initiated. That means getting started with a task: taking the first step, sitting down at your computer, getting behind the wheel. This is easy enough for most of us most of the time. However, all of us know what it’s like to be so overwhelmed by a task that we don’t know where to begin.

Imagine looking at a messy room, messy house, or driveway full of snow. It can be dispiriting enough to postpone any action taken to make it better, and the more we postpone, the bigger the task becomes in our mind. The garage. The tax return. Ugh.

Now imagine that life itself felt like a messy room. Imagine everything feels like a chore, but not so much because you’re depressed (although you may also be), but because you have such a hard time identifying a time and place to begin.

Imagine also that, as for most of us, once you get started things flow smoothly. Once someone sits you down in front of the computer your novel or dissertation pours out; it’s just getting to your desk that’s the problem. Imagine that your taxes or billing do themselves once someone forces you to do them.

In many cases, you may even forget how burdensome the task seemed once you’re on a roll. What’s up with that? Why is it that all you seem to need in life is a nudge, a more or less gentle push to get going? Why is it that, in order to focus your attention on something, someone or something has to direct it for you?

You start to wonder, at whatever age, what makes you so different from everybody else.

Sustain
Once you’ve turned the attentional light on, your next job is to keep it on. For most of us, attention is like a flashlight with a full battery: once on, stays on. Recharge every so often, but no real effort is required to keep it going once it’s going.

Now imagine that instead of a solid-state battery you have a manual one. You know, the kind with a crank you have to turn by hand to charge a battery. Imagine further that your battery only holds charge for a few seconds, which forces you to crank and crank and crank just to be able to see where you’re going on a dark night.

All of us know how hard it is to keep focusing on a boring lecture, passage, or person. Now imagine the whole world felt like a boring lecture. No, you’re not sleepy, but everything seems to require so much mental effort.

Let’s say starting tasks isn’t hard, it’s just slogging through them that kills you. At any time of the day there’s any ton of things you’d rather be doing. Problem is, once you’re doing them, you want to be doing anything else.

You have a hard time explaining an odd paradox to yourself, to say nothing of everyone else: while just about every task feels odious enough to avoid at all costs, you’re not at a state of mental rest. Quite the opposite, you feel deeply restless inside.

And despite society’s reasoned judgment that you must be lazy, you know you have mental energy. How else would you, in many cases, have such a rich fantasy life?

What you don’t understand is why life gave you a crank-operated cell where everyone else seems to have a battery. Your task, growing up, is to find some explanation for this that doesn’t cost you your self-esteem.

Inhibit
As if things couldn’t get more complicated, you sometimes come into places where they tell you to turn that (at times bleeping) attentional light off. Don’t look! Or at least don’t be obvious about it.

Worse, there are times and places where you’ve not only managed to start a task, and are off and running with it, when along comes someone telling you to stop. Pencils down. Our time is up. Sorry, but I forgot to mention that I’m married.

Ouch. That’s when we find ourselves hitting the brakes, and surprise, surprise: not all of us have the same brand and kind of brakes. Some of us can bite our tongue better than others, not blurt out the answer or secret to the magic trick, keep from telling the semantically or socially inappropriate anecdote, or get dressed and shimmy down the fire escape faster than others.

People call you “impulsive,” and wonder why you can’t be like everyone else. You may or may not be fidgety. Depending on how old you are when people start noticing this, and depending on how much neuropsychology they know, you might start wondering what’s wrong with you, as well.

Shift
Let’s say you can do everything else with your light – turning it on, turning it up, turning it off – but moving it back and forth really kills you. Over here, no, over here – why are two people trying to have separate and simultaneous conversations with you in each ear?

For most of us, dichotic listening tasks are something we only encounter at parties or in laboratories. But imagine life being a series of relentless, contradictory, and incommensurable demands for an attention of yours that’s in constantly short supply.

Imagine you’re at the amusement park and you have to hit the clown’s nose with a water pistol in order to blow up your balloon. Now imagine you have to blow up three balloons: yours and your two neighbors’ and that time is running out. Ugh! You missed! You dropped the ball!

Imagine life being like that. Imagine that since you were a kid, you’ve hated transitions. One classroom to another, one car trip after another. You’re fine once you get used to it, but you’ve come to loathe the words “change of plans!”

Since you can remember, you’ve loved nothing more than sitting in a quiet, dimly lit room with a book, a phone, or your thoughts, but never the company of more than one. Imagine loving people but hating gatherings because being around more than one person at a time just drives you nuts.

Imagine being furiously jealous of and despising the person who can’t stop switching their gaze from you, the TV set, and the other people at the bar.

Imagine having to explain this to people over and over throughout your life. Imagine the toll it takes on you if this fact is brought to your attention by a teacher or parent in a less than compassionate way, at an early age.

Stay
Ok, now imagine you have the opposite kind of shifting difficulty. Instead of being unable to peel your light off one thing and attend to another, you can’t hold your light on one thing for more than a few seconds.

When you can’t, or have trouble doing so, here’s what you hear: “look at me, please,” “where is your mind right now,” “pay attention,” or “am I really that boring a date?”

All you know is that your mind is a grasshopper jumping around, and that it takes every effort on your part to keep your eyes or mind on one thing. You may or may not have figured out, or been told, that it helps to sit in the front row or take dates to the quietest, least visually stimulating places possible. You may or may not have found your way to nicotine, which really helps you focus, or to meditation.

You’ve known all you life you have a restless mind, but you wonder what could ever be done about it.

So here’s your handy-dandy acronym for the attentional functions: Initiate, Sustain, Inhibit, Shift, Stay = ISISS (n.b.: many folks leave off the last S for savings). Think light beam or spotlight and you’re off to the races. 🙂

Why is ADHD controversial?
Criticism of the diagnosis comes in many flavors. There are concerns about pathologizing ordinary differences between people, thus stigmatizing them, and an overreliance on medical solutions to everyday problems. There are also understandable concerns about the influence of the pharmaceutical industry in generating the science that medicine is based on.

There are also concerns about unfairly demonizing the video game industry. Today you may also encounter the belief that the diagnosis is entirely the result of poor teaching or classroom management, which suggests that its symptoms should disappear outside of the school environment.

ADHD can show up as impulsivity and/or one or more of the forms of inattention I described above. There are medicines one can take, as well as therapies that involves training the mind through meditation, mindfulness, or brainwave biofeedback.

So what’s the big deal?
The most common thing people face with attentional conditions is being labeled “lazy,” or “inattentive” as if it were a moral failure instead of a clinical condition. Of course the earlier this happens in someone’s life the greater the chance it will work its way into the self-esteem and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here’s a typical scenario: you’re told you’re of average to above-average intelligence, but that you don’t “apply yourself” in school. Nobody knows why they have to tell you or push you to do everything, or why everything overwhelms you. You don’t know why mental tasks that seem so easy for everyone else – reading a book all the way through, paying attention in class or in a conversation, revising an essay, checking your work – are all so much harder for you.

You don’t know why you can’t sit still, focus (unless you have a cigarette), keep from interrupting or blurting out the answers. All you know is that you act first and think later, and that this has cost you dearly throughout your life.

You may or may not get mad, at others, society, and/or yourself, and channel that rage in more or less appropriate ways. You could turn it outward and become an political leader or educator. You could also turn it inward and think less of yourself or your abilities.

Now because your society is still learning about all this, you’re at especially high risk for making the awful and incorrect assumption that your attentional challenges have anything to do with your overall intelligence. You may or may not act in accordance with what you’re being encouraged to believe about yourself, often by the people closest to you.

The easiest thing for your culture and you to do is assume your failure to meet cultural expectations with regard to output, efficiency, or focus can be remedied through exhortation and blame. The harder thing is to peel the pejoratives away, look at what’s happening, and suggest a solution.

A change of classrooms, some timely teaching tips administered in a non-threatening way, a more structured work or learning environment, medication, meditation, or a really cool new app for your phone all could be part of the solution and an end to your suffering.

But only if you believe that what’s happening to you is real, not a moral failing, and not just an inconvenient truth for someone else.

The Difference Between Explaining & Apologizing

(N.B. What follows is inspired by an article, regrettably no longer available online, that’s inspired many to write about these and related topics: McWilliams, N., Lependorf, S. (1990). Narcissistic Pathology of Everyday Life: The Denial of Remorse & Gratitude. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 26:430-451)

Here’s the situation: someone says or does something that annoys, bothers, hurts, or offends you, after which they “apologize.” But then an interesting thing happens. You don’t feel any better. In fact, you may even feel worse.

You may notice your self-esteem decreasing as a result of the entire affair. You may tell yourself you’re being petulant, childish, spiteful, or “too sensitive.” You could be right, of course (sometimes we just are), in which case it’s useful to lift the value judgments off the condition in question, and tend to it the way you’d tend to a cut, scrape, or any other medical condition.

But you could also be wrong. These are not mutually exclusive propositions, by the way; both could be going on at the same time. That is to say, your feeling of discomfort may actually be trying to tell you something other than “you need repair.”

One tip off in this direction is if you find yourself angrier towards the “apologizer” as a result of their “apology.” If you’re not at fault, then what gives?

Let’s look at what an apology is and isn’t, from the standpoint of the British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Mrs Klein theorized that when people hurt one another, inadvertently or otherwise, there exists a real (not “imagined” or “imaginary”) injury. She further theorized that what healthy people do when they hurt someone is make reparations: some attempt to make the situation right.

Suppose I say something that really gets under your skin, in the heat of an argument and/or casually, out of utter ignorance. Let’s say you tell me, or it becomes unmistakably clear from your expression that I’ve said something hurtful.

Situation A: I tell you that I misspoke, that what I really meant to say was X and that no offense was meant. I say “I apologize if there was any misunderstanding that may have caused pain in any way.” Then I say that if you’re still upset, it’s because you’re taking what I said the wrong way. Come on, I say, buck up and “get over it.” I may or may not imply that this is what grownups like myself do all the time.

Situation B: I ask you what I said or did that hurt you. You tell me. Regardless of whether I understand the connection between my words or actions and your pain, I say, “I’m sorry.” I look you in the eye, if you’ll let me. If not, that’s ok too, and I can go on to say I want to make it up to you, because you matter to me. Then I follow through.

Ok, now compare how you feel between Situations A & B. Unless you’re extraordinarily suspicious in and of human relations in general, Situation B tends to feel better. Why? Well, for a number of reasons.

First, you’re taken seriously as a person and an equal in the interaction. In A, I have what I call the epistemic advantage, and I’m not willing (or able) to share that with you. Epistemic advantage is the authority to interpret experience, but most especially the experience of others. If I have epistemic advantage over you (which means you give it to me, however unconsciously), then what I say about you and your feelings has far more weight than anything you can come up with.

If I don’t, then that means each of us are equally authorized to interpret the world of experience, but that you remain the authority of what’s going on inside you. If we grew up with parents or in an environment where we, our thoughts, words, and feelings were taken seriously, then this is second nature. If not, then we automatically entrust others with the epistemic advantage.

Now if you’re the kind of person who’s accustomed to giving the epistemic advantage to others, then you’re still likely to think this is all your fault (hence the drop in self-regard). That is, you’ll think – and deeply believe – that what’s really going on is that you’re a bad person for harboring injustices, not letting bygones be bygones, or being, you know, “sensitive.”

Not that there’s anything wrong in any way with the “apologizer” or her/his “apology.” No, you see, because once that person achieves the epistemic high ground they’re in a position to interpret experience more authoritatively than you. And yes, that goes for your own experience most of all.

Put another way, it’s not what you’re feeling that counts (because, of course “you don’t”), it’s what they’re feeling that really matters. And if they say you shouldn’t be feeling upset anymore, then they must be right, and you must be wrong for feeling upset.

Secondly, your injury is taken seriously. It’s not belittled, disparaged, or dismissed as imaginary or childish. To take an extreme example, imagine writhing with chest pain in an ER. Under those circumstances, it helps a lot to have a doctor who thinks there’s something the matter with which she can help.

Injuries that aren’t acknowledged can’t be healed but only covered up, in which case they fester – emotional injuries perhaps more so than physical ones. This is why some “apologies” leave us angrier than before: because they’re implicit rejections of the validity of our experience. In legalese, they most often come in the form of subjunctive, or “if” statements: “if anyone was offended, if any harm was caused.”

As if that were ever in question.

Thirdly, some real effort is made at reparation, or healing. It can be a cupcake, a note, or sometimes even a smile. And the relationship heals, which means, among other things, you may feel closer to or trust the person who hurt you more. Those on the other end who grew up in an environment where they and/or their words were taken less than fully seriously will tell you just acknowledging you f**ed up goes a long, long way.

Now if B is so much better, why doesn’t everyone do it? Put another way, why do some folks go with B instead of A? We have to shift away from Melanie Klein here and towards someone named Heinz Kohut for the answer, which is because they can.

That is to say, some folks – because of the way they were raised or some innate gift – have enough of a certain psychological commodity in their own bank to be able to use it to repay the people they hurt. This commodity is most commonly known as respect. And being grownups, they know that hurting people is as avoidable as breathing air, so they have some practice in the art of dishing out respect and making amends.

If you’re short on respect, then you’re holding on to whatever quantities you have and are very reluctant to share it with others. You may need to put other people down in order to feel good about yourself. You may need to “command” respect, which is often shorthand for taking it away from others (in as socially appropriate a way as possible, of course). Some folks also need to excel for this reason (as opposed to, say, a pure and total love affair with what they’re doing, which is infectious).

When someone is low on respect, they’re having enough of a hard time giving it to themselves to even consider giving away or even lending any. They’re just not convinced that they’ll get anything in return for their investment, so they hog things like the upper hand, the last word (“bottom line” is a common catchphrase here) or the epistemic advantage whenever they can.

This is the kind of person who can never be wrong, ask for help (or directions), or acknowledge that they hurt someone because this damages their image of themselves as perfect. They protect this image the way someone in the throes of an addiction protects their supply of their preferred substance: fiercely.

So when you get upset over something they do, you hurt them. How? Well, by hurting their image as someone incapable of harming others. The more (publicly) you hurt, the harder it is for that person to maintain the illusion of perfection. Thus you must be dealt with, by being ignored, marginalized, or disparaged.

This is why, when you’re hurt, it becomes all about them. As a moral point, it shouldn’t be. But as an emotional reality, it just is, and we can often make matters a lot worse for ourselves by demanding people be (or pretending that they are) healthier or better put together than they actually are (in the moment).

This is also, I think, is the central dynamic behind the Vatican’s slow response to the sexual abuse crisis. In psychological terms, it’s the inability to apologize because too much energy is being directed towards maintaining an image. In Christian terms, it’s an inability to acknowledge the sin of the Church so that grace can come in and do the unbelievably hard work of healing (I don’t suspect converted Catholics invest this power in a Holy Spirit for nothing).

When we can’t apologize, we explain instead. We explain what we really meant, how grownups behave, or what’s “really going on” for the benefit of all concerned.

When we’re strong enough to do so, we apologize, which means acknowledging our imperfections and the reality of conflict and pain, and taking responsibility for fixing that which we broke. We let explanation come later, if at all.

Notice that you can apologize effectively (as measured by the strength and health of a relationship) even if you feel you’re done nothing wrong. All that matters, in this case, is that someone else did and that you may very well be in a position to do something about it. In those rare cases when you’re not, then as painful as that fact may be, you can still live with it without disparaging another or their experience.

Oh, and to make things more complicated, guess where the word apology comes from. The Greek ἀπολογην (apologēn) means, of all things, to explain. Go figure. 🙂

Don Draper and Lev Vygotsky

You know the situation: you and your interlocutor are just not on the same page. They’re your partner, spouse, student, the person behind the counter, or the person on the phone. Why won’t they listen, behave, or just “get it?”

That’s when it seems (because it’s true) that you’re over here, and they’re (sometimes way the hell) over there.

Of course you could just shrug your shoulders and say “it is what it is,” and walk away. But for whatever reason, that’s not you, or not what you’re about in the moment.

There and then, you’re doing your darnedest to get them to see things your way, to think or behave differently, and come on over to where you are.

What do you do?

Don Draper found himself in that very spot, during the opening episode of the fourth season of Mad Men. He had an idea for a womens’ bathing suit manufacturer which the client simply couldn’t accept on moral grounds. Don sensed the hypocrisy of this, and was outraged by it.

Fans of the series know Don is no stranger to pretense. In fact, one could even go so far as to suggest he is the product of many (e.g., married family man & philanderer, Don & Dick). Nevertheless, the old principle holds: easier to identify the stain on your opponent’s eye than on your own.

As we all know, Don stood firm. His was the moral high ground of the creative artist, whose integrity he was sworn to defend. Across from him, the equally self-righteous (if only more sanctimonious) philistines. He threw them out of his temple, putting on quite a good show for us all, and arguably advancing his own fortunes within the company considerably, but…

At what price?

Time will tell if it was all worth it, in terms of better clients, position within the company, or reputation within the industry. But in the moment, Don and his clients both lost, and not just an opportunity. They lost their footing, their relationship, and worst of all, their perspective.

Now that we know what Don had to do in order to entertain (and edify) us, let’s ask: what could he have done differently in real life?

The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky had an answer. He theorized that (presuming, of course you want to take people anywhere at all) individuals can only go so far without a special kind of assistance. This assistance, I think, is part and parcel of what most of us would good consider teaching, good negotiating, good therapy, and perhaps even good relating in general.

It’s a simple concept: first, find out where your partner is – not where you want them to be, but where they actually are. Then, get as close to them as you possibly can without stepping on their toes. Now you’re in the “zone,” in Vygotskian terms.

The next step involves walking your partner thoughtfully, gently, and most of all respectfully, to the edge: the edge of what they can do, think, feel, experience.

Have they ever seen the world from the standpoint of a particular age, race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, or set of experiences? No? Well, now’s your chance to fill them in. If you want to be maximally effective here, don’t just tell them, show them (see the section on two ways of communicating).

Most of all, walk. If the change you’re looking for is important, let it happen at its own pace. Not yours, not theirs, but that of a third party just as important: that of your relationship.

Of course, you could stand across the riverbank and just exhort your partner to swim, knowing they can’t or don’t want to. Then if they swim, you’ll have the satisfaction of having overcome their resistance. If they don’t, you can still feel secure in the fact that your identity is safe on the other side of the river.

That’s what Don did – momentarily exaggerate the difference between himself and his clients, all in the service of momentarily supporting a flagging sense of self-worth (remember his boss said he “failed” earlier in front of his peers).

Nothing wrong with that, of course, except that it leaves you alone, all alone, with nothing but your ideals for company. Which brings me to Anna Draper’s sage advice to Don in “The Mountain King” episode (Season Two):

The only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone.

Vygotsky’s genius, for me, is to show how relationship is possible when one of you wants to dance and the other doesn’t (yet) (know how). Time will tell if Don knows his Vygotsky as well as he knows his consumer.

My Adopted Grandma

In 1980, I was a surly, awkward, pimply-faced teen who was about to embark on the journey of a lifetime: high school.

That was the year I met the lady who quite probably had the biggest impact on my life of anyone I’ve known outside of relatives. She was my Latin teacher, by that time already in her sixth decade of life. I remember her classroom, decorated with dioramas of Ancient Greece and Rome, full of books, and crawling with posters and pictures of her travels all over the world.

I’d taken Latin the year before, but this year was new, in that I actually had the choice whether or not to continue. I remember the conversation at the dinner table as if it were yesterday:

“Why Latin? Isn’t that a dead language? Who speaks it anymore? What’s its use? Couldn’t you better use the time studying French, or at least typing?” (truth in advertising: I’m still a two-finger typist to this very day.)

I don’t remember what I said in response other than to give voice to a vague feeling that this made sense; that Latin was a gateway onto other languages, that a lot of our words came from Latin, and that it was the language of the Church both my parents were increasingly struggling to get me to attend.

They weren’t buying. Then it hit me. This part I remember. “Mom, Dad, all the smart people take Latin – especially the ones that get into good colleges.” “Really?” “Uh-huh. I’ve even heard it said that colleges really like to see two or more years of Latin on your transcript.”

That, apparently, sealed the deal, and I never had to justify Latin to my parents ever again. To a ton of other people both within and outside my school, yes, and that conversation continues to this day.

We began by learning basic vocabulary, which I found boring yet oddly amusing. Who knew that “exit” was a Latin word? Quickly my teenage brain found its way to ways to say “girlfriend,” “kiss,” and “furtively” in Latin.

By then my teacher and I had become good pals. She told me all about The War (World War II), voting for Adlai Stevenson, and how you just kept your mouth shut during McCarthy. She described Ancient Greece and Rome as these paradises for learning and the arts which she and I knew couldn’t be totally true, but enjoyed describing nevertheless.

In short, I was hooked. But not on classics or even history, per se. On something else far more sinister, subversive, addictive, and powerful: learning itself.

In my old Latin teacher, I found my first and possibly best example of someone who regarded education as an end in itself rather than simply a means to some other end. Here’s how it happened:

“Why are you taking Latin?”

“To get into a good college.”

“Very funny. You could have taken French.”

Do you know how incredibly awkward it is to box an adolescent male into wanting to say “because you’re the smartest, coolest person I’ve ever met and I just love you” to his elderly teacher? I opted for a more measured response.

“Well French doesn’t have the same admissions cachet that Latin does.”

“True. But why do you want to go to college?” Nobody had ever asked me that before. It was like asking why you love your father and mother.

“I, well, because, I…” I had no answer. None.

“Probably never thought much about that, huh?”

“No.”

She smiled. “Listen, think about it some more, and let me know what you find out, OK? Promise?”

“Promise.”

It only took me about a day to figure out the answer.

“I know why I’m here.”

“Why?”

“You have to promise me you won’t say a word of this to anyone else.” Believe it or not, I had two responses prepared, and I was scanning her for clues as to which one would be more appropriate. I went with the safer one. “I’m here because you’re the only person I know who’s doing something she loves to do for a living.”

She beamed. I ditched the “I love you, please adopt me as your grandson and teach me everything you know” speech, and saved it for later. Twenty-five years later, as a matter of fact.

From that conversation, I went on to discover Catullus (wow!), take both Latin AP courses, graduate high school, college, and graduate school, keeping in touch with her through lunches at her house, letters, and phone calls. I dedicated my dissertation to her. She came to my wedding, and rang in the new millenium with me and my family.

When I moved away to embark on a career, she and I were both heartbroken but resolved to keep in touch. Shortly thereafter, she took ill and had to be hospitalized. Alzheimer’s quickly set in, robbing her of her most precious gift to me.

I’ll never forget the last conversation we had, about five years ago. She had just confessed to me that she’d forgotten all her Latin. I held her hand and told her that’s OK, that’s what dictionaries are for. She smiled back and brushed away a tear.

That’s when I told her about the two speeches I had prepared that day, and she smiled again. “Likewise,” she said, and then both of us got pretty weepy. We chatted some more, and then we said our good-byes as usual.

Soon thereafter, I became a Dad for the first time and called to share the news with her, only to find she’d taken physically ill and had been transferred to another facility. I called there and found she couldn’t speak. Some months later, I visited and she didn’t recognize me at all.

She passed away a few weeks ago, and her funeral was yesterday. Mothers’ Day will always be a time for me to remember a lady who had no biological children of her own, but plenty of intellectual ones.

Ave atque vale, dulcissima maestra. Rest in peace, grandma. Tell Athena I said hey 🙂