Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Heart of Resolution


It might surprise you to hear that words don't mean a lot to me. And, at the same time, they mean everything. Let me explain.

In the new year, it is customary to reflect back on one's previous twelve months and consider areas of improvement. We all love fresh starts, don't we? But the thing about fresh starts is that, well, it is just that: the start. The start is the place from which you then move; I would be hard pressed to call a start without movement a start at all! This is where the importance of words comes into play. 

Starts are defined by words, but that is all that the words do. The next step is, of course, action. This is where most people get tripped up. Action requires more than just words, it also requires commitment. Commitment can be sticky in that it asks that we be willing to drive forward with our intention despite any obstacles in the way. And kids, let me tell you--there are always obstacles!

Quacks like Dr. Phil will have us believe that change is easy, but it ain't most of the time, though that message does sell books and TV shows. I heard that most of the couples he works with revert right back into the problems that brought them to the show! It is not a surprise to me that one interaction fails to result in lasting change, but I can understand why we all wish it were that easy. I don't have anything against Dr. Phil necessarily. Well, that's not true--I think he is a hack. And I think that he does a disservice to the mental health field by making it appear as if change is as easy as deciding to do something different (it is, and it isn't!). This creates shame in anyone who has a different experience with change, for example most of us! 

This reminds me of an exchange I once had with a prominent couples therapist who was presenting at a conference I was attending. After his presentation there was a "meet and greet" in the lobby with the presenters, and I approched him to ask this question:
"Would you ever ask a couple if the problem was not them, but instead the type of relationship they had chosen to be in? Could it be that sometimes couples try to fit themselves into the wrong box?"
To which he answered:
"I would never ask them that. I would just tell them that they need to grow up."
Wow. And this guy claims to know about relationships?

I may not have a PsyD or 20 years of working with couples under my belt, but I have enough experience to know for certain that most couples who come for therapy are in pain and are not lazy, and that they feel absolutely stuck in their current version of marriage without a clue of how to initiate change. The last thing they need me to tell them is to "grow up". Rather, I need to offer them compassion, support, and understanding for the challenge they are taking on--not just changing their relationship and their own behavior, but also changing how they think about relatinships and their own behavior. This is not easy, and it is not an effect of immaturity. Those couples rarely come into the therapy office. They go to divorce court or to jail.

Change is hard simply because the status quo wants to maintain itself, even when it is painful. Don't believe me? Just ask yourself how many times you have tried to change your eating habits or your exercise patterns. Change can be even harder in relationships. Every day I work with clients who know that criticism and defensiveness never work, and yet it can take up to three years for them to get out of the habit of doing this with each other. Change is often hard because we are making (sometimes unconsciously) something else more important than change. The good news? Change can also be easy in relationship, if both of you are on the same page regarding the change.

***

At its heart, resolution is about change. Most resolutions fail because they are missing two key ingredients that I mention above: commitment and relationship. One might even say that these two elements feed each other--relationship strengthens commitment and commitment encourages relationship. So why are they often left out of the planning?

I have a hunch that it is not because people are stupid or lazy, but instead that they are misled into thinking that we can do it all on our own, that we are better off being independent, and that to ask for help is a weakness. You know what I'm talking about--the whole notion of rugged individualism that supposedly "built" this country, when it is more likely the reason that it is currently crumbling. Individualism is a romantic notion, to be sure, but then we all know that romance is only the icing on the cake. Individualism is a sham in itself, because it can only exist in reference to community. An individual is defined as a person who is part of a community, so from this perspective true individualism cannot exist--it is always defined as an element of, or a reaction to, the community it is a part of!

The concept of individualism makes sense when you consider the origins of this country as an adverse reaction to collective thinking. The U.S. was built on rebellion: from mandates, laws, restrictive thinking, and lack of imagination. But just as I have written about how the hippie culture in the late 60's quickly became the new mainstream, I suspect the individual in the early U.S. found himself eventually absorbed into a new version of the collective--more subtle, perhaps, but a collective nonetheless. Without the collective, the new country could not have developed.

***
What does this have to do with resolution? I do hope to reward your patience, but if you have read me at all, you know that I like to meander my way to the point. Forgive me if I require you to smell the literary flowers along the way, but they are pretty, no?

I notice that many resolutions are founded on the principle of individualism--they are about individual change, how we can become better than we were before. I don't think that there is anything wrong with this, other than the fact that it, um,  rarely works. But I do wonder what the motivation for "becoming better" is. Better than what? When are we better enough? Who says that we are supposed to improve anyway? The concept of "better", like most concepts, can only be considered in reference to something that is "worse" (in the same way that individualism is in reference to community). This means that a value judgement has to be involved, and I confess to being wary of value judgements that are rooted in, say, social media, as many of them are these days. My wariness is due to the impermanence of pop culture values--to shoot for a "better" that is determined and reflected in these values is akin to chasing one's tail, and about as fruitful.

Rather, I suggest seeking change that brings us back to the fold, so to speak; I suggest change that is  a return to form instead of an "improvement". What is that form? I am so glad you asked! That form is community.

Resolutions rooted in community have a better chance of including commitment and relationship, because they are usually witnessed and supported. They are not just scribbled on a Post-It note buried on your desk or pasted on the mirror. They are declared and affirmed, and they are acted out amongst others. Community-based resolutions are a response rather than a reaction, and in my book responses create change, while reactions create distance, separation, and isolation. Community-based resolutions ignite change on a macro level, and it is my opinion that we would all benefit more from changing the culture than just changing ourselves. The rub is, of course, that cultural change does require individual change--only the target of intent is different: with cultural change the intent is to change the system so that everyone benefits, as opposed to just improving your individual experience.

Why is this preferred to what most of us do in the new year? Well, call me crazy, but most individual resolutions are just community resolutions light. When we seek to lose weight, as an example, are we not really wishing to feel more accepted in society? Are we not hoping, as we lose weight, to find ourselves more frequently invited into the human game of living and loving? Ask anyone who wants to lose weight, and they will probably tell you that they want to be healthier and more attractive so that they can live longer, have more relationships, and feel better about themselves in relation to the world. There is a stronger chance of achieving this if we do it with others. When we involve others in our quest for change, we are having a broad impact that can actually support the sustainability of the change!

With this in mind, let's get to the nitty-gritty. I want to offer you just a couple of proposed Community-Based Resolutions for 2019 (or any new year for that matter). Don't just take my word for it--check them out and try them on and see how they fit. See if they spark in your body when you read them, if you find yourself nodding your head in agreement, if they speak to a world you have imagined from time to time. Imagine if everybody embraced only these two resolutions, how different the world might be...

TONY'S FANTASTIC LIST OF  JUST TWO COMMUNITY-BASED RESOLUTIONS:

1. GET OFF THE PHONE. 
Oh god, am I really going to talk about this? Yes, I am. Even though practically nobody will listen to me.

There was a time about 15 years ago when I noticed that all the cash registers were becoming automated, in that they would calculate not only what the total was, but also what change was due based on what the customer gave to the checker. Convenient, right? Well, I did not think so. It seemed that checkers would give me my change, but not count it back--they would just hand me a lump of money and I would have to assume that they had counted it out right. This would infuriate me! I would ask them to count it back and be responded to with blank and paniced stares; they literally did not know how to count back change! Then it made sense--the automation of cash registers was not about convenience, but about accuracy in the face of a workforce who no longer had basic math skills.

Good gracious. Things were changing, and it made me uncomfortable. I rebelled against this change for a period of months, until I realized that the tide had turned and I was sadly left behind in my rebellion. I decided that this was no longer an area where it made sense for me to "give a fuck", and I accepted the change and moved on.

One might wonder why I don't do the same when it comes to our culture and smartphones.

Every moment that you spend looking at your phone is a moment that you are NOT in the world-at-large. What is so great about the world-at-large, you ask? Well, not so much these days, since everyone is avoiding everyone else, and also because not enough people are doing Resolution #2. But if more of us were to look up rather than down, there is a chance--a chance worth taking--that we would create connections. At the very least, we would acknowledge one another. If I can do this from time to time in the fuckhole that is Los Angeles, then you can do it wherever you are!

Why in the hell would we want to do this, you ask? The benefits of this cannot be overstated. Our society suffers greatly from isolationism and depression. Sometimes the slightest acknowledgement can make the difference between feeling alone and feeling a part of the world. You don't have to forge a whole relationship, just look at one another if you pass by, and say one of the following:
  • Hello.
  • Good morning.
  • How are you?
  • How goes it?
  • Hey!
  • How goes it?
  • Hey man!
  • What's up!
  • How you doin'?
  • Hi.
If you can't say any of those things, you can just nod. 

I try this when I can in Los Angeles, one of the toughest cities in the world to connect in, and I admit that I often lose my courage, especially when my gaze is met by a hostile look. There is really not that much risk for me, however, mostly because nearly everyone is plugged into earphones so they can't hear me anyway, and since most are not looking up, they don't even see me trying to engage. But when I don't lose my courage, every once in a while a suspicious face becomes open, just for a moment, perhaps grateful to be released from defending itself. This can be done even with a non-verbal acknowledgement of the other.

Have you ever passed anyone and wondered to yourself: "If only A were with C instead of B, I might be best friends with this person"? Well, I think about this all the time. We all really are just six degrees of separation away from another, and yet we act as though we are not connected at all.

I suspect that this has been going on for awile, not just since the introduction of the smartphone. Seventy years ago we would stake out our privacy by hiding behind a newspaper. By nature, we protect ourselves from those whom we do not know--it is our ancient reptilian brain that still bristles when confronted with strangers. Perhaps one of the reasons that Los Angeles is such a fuckhole at times is because it is populated with about 10 million people, many of whom are strangers to one another! That has the reptilian brain working overtime, for sure! But, we can override the system if we make the choice to do so. We simply have to settle on a good reason to do that.

For me, it comes down to my own experience in the world, and the desire to improve another's experience along the way, so...hero. But not really. My reason is self-serving, so how is that hero? Well, turns out that early hunters and gatherers were not community-based and selfless for the reasons we think. Turns out, they were community-based and selfless because if they weren't they would be totally fucked. Their lives depended on them having a good reputation in the community, because otherwise they would be thrown out of the community, and back then, you were pretty much dead as an individual. The reality, I suspect, lies somewhere between minding our own best interests and having concern for the community. This is because, and this point is important, you can't separate the two! However, damned if smartphones are not trying to do just that. We may not realize it now in the short run, but in the long run this will work against our own well-being. It already is--just look around for a second. It requires that you put your short-term pleasure aside to strengthen the long term health of the individual/community relationship.

Now I will admit to having and using a smartphone, and not intending to get rid of it. But I do my best to be in the world when I am out in it, mostly because I like what I see. I have always been a curious person, and when I take the train or bus or walk in the city I see things that I never noticed before--I wonder what is behind that fence or who lives in that dilapitated Craftsman house. Smartphones are not the problem, our use of them is, and if we used the technology to connect to one another more in the world and less online then it might be interesting to see what would happen. So if the world I am interested in is appealing to you, then there is only one suggestion I offer to you:

Get off the phone. 

Since absolutely nobody will do this one, I direct you to explore the second resolution.

2. CLEAN UP YOUR MESS.
It is hard to focus on just two resolutions to discuss, but I figure that these are the biggies. Besides, if you are looking for resolutions now as we approach the middle of the year, you haven't got time for an overambitious list. These two, if experimented with, will keep you busy for a while.


Number two is to clean up your mess. Why does this even need to be said? Who cares? Well, I do, obviously, but I suspect that you do too. I don't remember the specific time I learned to flush my own poo down the toilet, but I have a hunch that it was pretty early on, when I was, say, three years old. This means that I have been flushing my own toilets for over 50 years. It would make no sense for me to stop doing that now.

And yet that is just what is happening in the world--people are not flushing their own poo, literally and figuratively. How is that acceptable in any context other than a child under the age of three?

It seems that there was a time, not long ago, when the private became public. Some like to say that it happened when reality television came into being. Others blame it on the Kardashians, to which I say, why the hell not? I have to admit that I contributed to it back in the 80's when I first strapped on a Walkman to listen to music that nobody else could hear. The truth is that we all chose this, but no matter who or what is responsible, we are where we are, meaning that what was once private behavior is now done in public, and even celebrated in public.

Why is this a concern? Because when the private becomes public, shared spaces are no longer shared; they are broken up and claimed by any individual who chooses to stake a claim. Suddenly, walking in public feels, to me, like I am an intruder in other peoples lives and homes--a stranger walking by while others are taking a shit, so to speak. I feel shamed for some reason, as if I don't belong there, and yet I also can't help but wonder what world they are inhabiting--I crane my neck to see what is on their phone. It feels at times that I have stumbled upon people while they are on the toilet.

This cultural change discards the idea that we are in a shared world. And yet in a shared world we are, whether you want to admit it or not. This means that what I do affects you, and what you do affects me. This has always been the case, but I notice that the world today is a rebellion to this, which makes me wonder what is being satiated, natually. So here is the nutshell--are you ready?

The current isolation and separation from others is due to an economy that prospers on needs that arise from lack of community; and since lack of community is unnatural we turn to products and online connections to fill the void we feel. We are falsely led to believe that the solution to this "lack" is to perfect our bubble at the cost of others' well-being (my tribe vs. your tribe). This fosters separation and division, and strengthens the behaviors that shut us off from one another(but also protect us from one another). As a result we no longer see our messes as "our messes", they are other's messes and no longer our responsibility, since we no longer feel connected to community or the effect of our actions. Instead we see the outside community as something to master, claim, dominate, or use to our liking, and then discard.

It's time for a new story, y'all. Don't you feel it? If you do feel it, my suggestion is simple and something that you can implement immediately:

Clean up your mess. 

In my work with couples, I tell them that the most important element of successful relationships is RESPECT. Respect means that I am aware of you and your needs and even though they may be different than mine, I see them as just as important. Burning Man has this down, or at least it strives to have this down. They have a creed that states that everyone is allowed to have their own experience as long as it does not impose on anyone else's experience. In other words, be respectful! Can you imagine what our world would look like if that was the universal creed? All it takes is an awareness of your enviroment--leaving "no trace" as it were--cleaning up your mess, being respectful of others and the shared surroundings, being a community rather than competitors. Are you with me?

***
Change is not easy, but it is possible.

If you have resolutions this year, realize that it is up to you to see them through, but I suggest that you look at them and decide if they are about improving your life or about improving life--the latter includes the former, by the way. This current culture can be turned around, but it will take a million individual actions for that to happen. If you are happy with the way things are, then do nothing (and keep away from me, please). If you are not happy with how things are, then try my two suggestions and see what happens. I will be working on them myself, trust me. Perhaps we will meet in the new world we create.

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