Saturday, April 26, 2014

Words Matter

Words are potent weapons for all causes, good or bad. Manly Hall

Some twenty years ago I worked in an emergency shelter. I was a second-year psychology student and I wanted practical experience alongside my academic studies. The learning was intense and, as it turned out, had very little to do with diagnoses and treatment.

One night, early on in my career, I was handing out meal tickets. The shelter provided free meals for the residents and then divvied up the extra food into dinners for the hopeful who queued up at the door. The third person in the line was a man I hadn’t seen for over a month. I was happy to see him… life is dicey on the streets and regulars who don’t show up at expected times are missed with pessimistic gloom. With delight I exclaimed: “Tom! I haven’t seen you in a ‘coon’s age.”  I  barely finished the sentence. Behind him was a woman of colour who took immediate offence. She shouted with strident ferocity (she was also high on crack): "‘Coon? ‘Coon? Who are you calling a ‘coon? I’m a ‘coon; you are a racist!”

My mouth and stomach dropped while heat soared, colouring my face crimson. I stammered an apology but truly, I didn’t know what I was apologizing for. My mother had used that saying all the time when I was a kid, it was an ingrained memory of innocent gibberish.

The woman's accusations grew in volume and, being higher than the shelter rules allowed, was soon escorted out but the shame remained. Even when she returned later that night she pointed and whispered of my misdeeds to any available ears . I was branded with a capital R with no recourse or redemption allowed.

In talking it over with one of the senior staff I protested my innocence. He heard me but only responded that ignorance is no excuse. He was right. It was a painful lesson but a thorough one, indeed.

There were other examples from the past: a mother of a learning disabled child educating me on how hurtful was the word “dummie”, and a friend, her sister a lesbian, illuminating the disrespectful use of “gay” to mean lame. I was not trying to be mean when I used these words, just following the path of my childhood where words gathered steam and garnered an intensity that soon lost their significance except to those they hurt.

I was reminded of these incidents duing a meal with some acquaintances. A lively debate, if not fractious one, evolved. On the one side were those who said that people were too sensitive: that words were taken too seriously and that it is the intent that should be prioritized, not the word itself. And then there was my side that repeated the lessons of my past and said, ignorance is no excuse. Yes, apologies should be accepted if the intent was innocent but changes must then be made—the use of the word in the offending context eliminated from future dialogue. 

Unfortunately, there was no resolution. Portrayed to be a politically correct ninny I soon lost interest in arguing against an increasingly irritated (and irrational) opponent; conversation drifted off into that never-never land of sitcoms and bad fashion.
But I wonder about people like these naysayers. Is it because their children are all heterosexual with few challenges in life? I wonder if they were black, a recent immigrant or had health problems—different in any way from the prevailing culture in which they partook—if their thoughts would run different? I am not so sure.  Maybe it’s a general disconnect or a prioritization of action over speech. Or perhaps they decided long ago to deny the power of words, to stop them from hurting. Then again, maybe it is just plain denial: what I don't know cannot harm me or anyone else.

All I know is that words are important to me and I while I will make mistakes (and amends), I will do my best to treat them with respect.

If you like this blog, please like my FaceBook page to get notices on your timeline when a new article is posted.  

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Breathe... Or the Computer Wins

I was listening to CBC the other day… On the Coast, I think, when the  guest casually mentioned that people tend to hold their breath when waiting for their computer to respond. It was a genuine eye opener for me—I’ve never noticed it before but, yes, I do it all the time. Whether I am waiting for an expected email, a Google search to complete or FB to load, I hold my breath. And it’s not only the cessation of respiration that marks this passage but my shoulders tense and eyes become fixed: a zombie nerd awaiting its master’s voice.

A quick Google search finds that holding your breath (and this does not include certain yoga or free diving techniques) results in decreased blood oxygen, carbon dioxide build-up, higher pH levels, and muscle tension, leading to headaches, body fatigue, muscle soreness, and anxious feelings.

After hearing this I did my best to be more conscious of my computer breathing but even now, while waiting for inspiration to fill in the next word, I find I am not breathing as I would if I was reading a book, walking, or even writing with actual pen and paper. The computer, it seems, holds a special place in my pulmonary circuitry.

This holding of breath stems from impatience and, strangely enough, an antipathy towards authority. The impatience is easy to explain: I have an old computer with a temperamental need to tease me with downloading delays. While waiting for any kind of e-activity to commence or conclude I am overcome with an almost intolerant anticipation: I become the predator awaiting an elusive prey; my hackles arise and I cease all motion. 

The authority issue is more complex. You see, I hate being told what to do and when to do it. I am more or less reconciled to this aspect of who I am. I have even found ways to appease this part of myself when given instruction or tasks to complete. This ranges from (at worst) a sarcastic response to (at best) an acquiescent smile hiding a rapid fire inner dialogue advising me to let it go, it’s just a job. With supervisors I respect, I let them know of this personality quirk and we work through it together. With those I don’t, well, let’s just say my tongue can be well chewed by day’s end and my eyes strained from lack of rolling.

With computers, however, I enter into a power struggle. It is like an arm wrestle which I can only win if I bear it out, dig in my heels and keep very still. Unfortunately, what this means is that while waiting for this electronic authority do as I wish (and not what it wants or, in real terms, is capable of) I hold my breath. I know I am at the mercy of everything from aging computer parts to cookies, spyware and server issues but something inside forbids me to surrender. I want to bend this piece of hardware, manipulate its inner software and sever its connections before I ever say, take your time.

I am practicing though. As the old adage goes: living well is the best revenge. I will learn to breathe; I will consciously relax my shoulders and urge my lips into a smile knowing full well that if all things go as expected, this overblown silicone chip will be in the recycling depot long before I.


On a different note… a moment of celebration: the press release I wrote about on April 5 in Bullying Matters, is getting noticed. After a myriad of follow up phone calls (with a few more to go) I have five media outlets (including, fingers crossed, CBC's Early Edition), agreeing to print or talk about its contents. The Aldergrove Star even featured it on page one... in full. Yay!

If you like this blog, please like my FaceBook page to get notices on your timeline when a new article is posted.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Dignity, Security and Hope

The Canadian Mental Health Commission (MCH) released its findings last week from a five-year research project called Housing First (HF). The study, as reported by the Globe and Mail, found, among other things, that “[f]or every $1 spent providing housing and support for a homeless person with severe mental illness, $2.17 in savings are reaped because they spend less time in hospital, in prison and in shelters.” And, as stated by Louise Bradley, the president and CEO of the MCH, by the second year of living in safe, affordable housing, the study participants, chronically homeless with multiple barriers including mental illness, physical disabilities and substance abuse issues, were asking for help in finding jobs. “A house,” she says, “is so much more than a roof over one’s head. It represents dignity, security and, above all, hope.”

I encourage you to read the full report but what I find interesting is how the larger picture can, and in my experience usually does, reflect our inner life. If I was to grossly summarize the MCH report I would say that safe housing is a pre-requisite for successfully getting on with task of living. If I was to do the same with the work I do, BodyMind Therapy, I would say: feeling safe in who we are and trusting how we feel allows us to live with a sense of abundance. Safe shelter, whether it is composed of concrete and wood or skin and bones, allows us to not just survive, but thrive.

In her book, Trauma and the Body, Pat Ogden (2006) says much the same: you cannot play, care for others, explore, be social, or even adequately regulate your energy needs, without adequate safety. It is what we all need regardless of where we live, how much money we have or who we love.

As for me, creating a sense of inner safety and trust is not only the basis of my work with others but the foundation for my own growth—something I work on each day. Every morning, for example, I talk with the different aspects of myself who are in need of reassurance, validation or just acknowledgement. This may be an angry part or one that feels not good enough or even undeserving. As a result, these parts of self feel heard and are less likely to act out when I least expect or desire it. Knowledge and acceptance of all of who I am is not only the first step in creating an inner sanctuary but an important one in creating a safer external environment. 

Other benefits include:

  • A stronger foundation from which to make change
  • More compassion for self and others
  • Expanded creativity
  • A deeper respect for all life

But it’s a practice. And much like having a secure roof over one's head, it's one that can provide "dignity, security and, above all, hope."

For more information check out my website.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Bullying Matters … Even Eight Decades Later

Last week I went out to Anam Cara Farm and Learning Centre to talk to my friend, Carla Webb, about the Heart Centered Leadership Academy (HCLA). The HCLA is an eight month program that empowers girls to celebrate who they are while enhancing their inherent leadership skills.  As the class nears graduation each young woman is putting the final touches on her Passion and Purpose Project, a gift that gives back to the community. I went out to the farm to interview each of the participants in preparation for writing a press release. My hope is that in its distribution to about twenty-five local news outlets, we can garner publicity for this most excellent program.

But that is not the story I want to tell today. A few days after my trip to the farm I visited my father. Although quite active and healthy at 87, he has also quite adept at knowing when and where to conserve energy.  One of these areas is reading. Although he still reads a lot, his ability to comprehend complexities in the written word seems to have declined or at least transformed into a neglected skill. He’s become, in other words, a great headline reader. I know this and accept that discussions of newspaper articles, for example, will never be quite the same.

But what we know and what we want can be separated by vast distances, especially when what we want is a child-like need for approval.

During the visit I told my father about the press release I was writing. I was feeling quite proud but I wanted more; I wanted him to be proud of it, too. The fiction I write is not exactly his cup of tea so I was hoping he could, perhaps, relate to this piece. After all, he knows Carla, has visited her farm and enjoyed her horses. I wanted him to see me if not as a successful writer, as perhaps an up and coming one. More than that, I just wanted his approval. In other words, a lot was tied up into that one page of writing.

So, I showed him the release.

He peered down at it, read it in what seemed like record time and then, looking back at me with solemn sincerity, said: Very good. I bit my lip and took a breath. Yes, yes, I said, impatiently shaking off the compliment, but what did you get out of it? His face crumpled ever so slightly. A look of wishing to be anywhere else came over him: She runs a good program, he said. My voice pitched high and the words started tumbling out in fast motion: But what do you think about the stories I wrote in there, the quotes, the reasons for running such a program? It was if I had just told him a sad story, one of which he had no control… I don’t know, he finally said, I don’t know.

The little girl inside me rebelled and stamped her feet. She fought savagely against my much wiser adult self and won, hands down. Fine, I said, fine. I grabbed back the paper, mumbled some self pitying inanities with that most intellectual conclusion whatever, crossed my arms and sat back to watch the news.

Thank goodness for distractions. Thank god for time outs.

Between new stories I breathed in some slow but sure reminders of reality. I assured myself of who I am, where I was and what I was doing. I updated my fickle mind with concrete facts and opened my heart to compassion. We ate some dinner. I took a breath and tried again. Please, Dad, I said, please read this once more … as slow as you need. I am in no hurry. But I really want you to understand what I have written. It’s important to me.  

He heard me. It took some time and it wasn’t easy for him, but he did it. He stopped after each paragraph and we discussed what he read. He got it. He really got it.

And then he told me a story. You see the program I wrote about not only empowers girls in their leadership but supports them in developing skills to work through issues such as group pressure, boundaries and bullying. 

He began his tale: I was bullied, too.

As a ten-year-old farm boy, Dad walked the proverbial mile to school in rural Sweden. He went to a one room schoolhouse for grades 4-6. He was poor, didn’t have a bicycle, had a myriad of chores at home and was, what he considered, slow. He didn’t share what actually happened but said he eventually learned to avoid the bullies. Although he told his parents, they did nothing. He was alone.

This conversation was by no means easy. His responses were mostly composed of one or two words. It stretched out between other thoughts that night and continued on our walk the next morning. I didn’t learn much more than what I wrote above but what deepened for me was how devastating and life changing is bullying.  My father, still that little boy in some ways, learned his lessons. Today it takes all his will to ask for help and he painstakingly avoids conflict.

But stories need to be told and change does happen.

The next morning, after our walk, he did something he rarely does: he asked for help in some household chores.

If you like this blog, please like my FaceBook page to get notices on your timeline when a new article is posted.