Friday, May 30, 2008

The Absence Of Touch

A simple experiment was once conducted to try and understand the effect that touch has on the mood and experience of an individual. The exercise consisted of nothing more than a librarian checking out books for users of the library, and an individual stationed outside of the library to interview the clients as they exited the building. The librarian was instructed to (with her own hand) lightly brush the hand of some of the people as she was returning their library card to them. The slight touch was to appear to be inadvertent, and barely perceptible at all. And for others she was instructed to make no physical contact whatsoever. Then as the people exited the library they were stopped outside and asked to discuss their library experience. No mention was made of them being touched, or not touched, by the librarian. And they made no mention of it either. As expected, those who were touched were probably not even aware that any touching had taken place.

But the remarkable thing is that there was such an enormous difference between how the two groups of people viewed the library experience. Those who were not touched invariably described the experience as OK, not great. Kind of cold and institutional really. Quiet, kind of intimidating. Just a library. But those who were touched described it as a warm and friendly place. A good experience. A comfortable place to be. They felt good about it. Unbelievably, these kinds of comments were consistent across the board with the touched and the untouched.

So what’s the point of all this? Well, the point is that we, as individuals, need touch in our lives. Not only do we seek it out, much like a thirsty man seeks water, but we de-hydrate emotionally without it. Touch plays an enormous part in how we see and experience the world around us. It helps frame our perspective, our point of view, our sense of well-being, and even our self-esteem. Understanding this, I became a licensed massage therapist way back in the early 80’s. I practiced periodically over the years, but ultimately gave up the practice because of unwelcome circumstances related to touching strangers in intimate settings. Nothing too salacious, more a matter of wanting to reserve those kinds of affections for the one I love. But being in, and part of, the profession enabled me to see, even more clearly, how desperately lonely, and needy, people become because of the absence of touch in their lives. Pimps and prostitutes understand this dynamic very well, and exploit it to their own benefit. Many business people do as well, touching clients as a means of making them feel connected in order to gain a business advantage over them. Kind of a dishonest use of touch, but nevertheless, effective. The fact is, people can have sex with themselves, but the touch of another human being is a necessity that few people can live without. And if they do, they are usually not functioning at their most optimum level. We live in a culture (The U.S.) that constantly promotes sex, but has never been considered to be a touching culture. We are more concerned with protecting ourselves than with being physically magnanimous. In fact, in our society we tend to grow up learning to protect our own space rather than learning to share it. And it carries over to our physical habits and behaviors.

I recently had a brief conversation with someone I care very much about. She was mentioning how a couple we both know are always touching each other, holding hands, wrapped around each other, little touches and rubs etc., but always some kind of physical involvement. She was mentioning it because she perceived it as kind of odd, or uncomfortable, behavior. I can’t remember her exact words, and I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but that was the overall tone of the conversation. She also stated that she and her husband rarely touch each other, and as I look back I recall very few times I can ever remember seeing that kind of affection between them. It made me kind of sad. I like to see the couple she mentioned touching each other. It shows me a communication, a passion and a trust that I find healthy and inspiring. I believe the with-holding of touch is actually a with-holding of trust, and a need to not give up any of one’s own power to another. I think trust enables one to share power. And both the giver and the recipient benefit greatly from the exchange.

I know this from having lived for many years with The Absence of Touch.

Monday, May 26, 2008

When We Begin To Love Them

A man recently moved to town from a small town down the road. He filled his car up with gas at the service station, and while paying for his purchase, explained that he was new in town. He asked the station owner how things were here. The proprietor didn’t respond to his inquiry, but instead asked him why he moved here from the community down the road. The man said he didn’t like the people there. The owner then asked where he’d lived before that, and the man indicated he’d moved there from another town further south of that one. The station owner then asked why he’d left that town. The man replied that he didn’t like the people there either. Following his own response, he again asked the proprietor how things were in this town. The businessman handed him his change and said “I don’t think you’ll like it here either.”

Ever notice how people tend to like you when they feel liked by you?

Ever make judgments about people based solely on their appearance, their profession, political persuasion, their age, income, apparent social standing or religion? On where they live? Or on any of a myriad of other individual characteristics? Of course you have. If not, you’re, most likely, the only one who hasn’t. Ever judged whole groups of people with the same criteria? I know I have. But it’s certainly not something I’m proud of, or wish to practice as a means of self-protection. There are much better survival skills to cultivate than those in which indulgence would create only division, isolation and alienation. Some people choose isolation, quite often, over inclusion, and I am, on some level, a member of that group. But separation by choice is a conscious act, whereas alienation because of ones judgment of another, or of a group, is essentially fear based, and has no place in the development of a healthy individual or community. It is a sinister and self-destructive by-product of an insecure and inadequate relationship with ones self.

Not liking someone based on a particular behavior, or personality, is quite a different animal. We must all make determinations about what kind of social behavior we would tolerate, or participate in with any individual or group. Even what kind of people we prefer to be around. And that should always be our prerogative. But to judge a person, or social group, based solely on a particular behavior, to the exclusion of everything else that individual, or group, consists of, would be unfortunate. And I might even add that the judgment, and rejection of, them would, sadly, be ones own loss.

What if our own families judged us? And if they did, what if they judged us only on the basis of our weaknesses? Or our mistakes?

How it improves people for us when we begin to love them.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Elephant In The Room

Both the Asian and African Elephants hold prominent positions on The Wildlife Endangered Species List, due largely to the fact that their population has been reduced by up to 50% over just the last three generations. That’s an enormous and disproportionate loss of these noble and magnificent creatures. It is far beyond the normal attrition rate that one would expect of any population of animals, let alone such a dominant and powerful creature as the elephant. The African male weighs up to 6 tons (12,000 lbs.), and the Asian up to about 5 tons, or 10,000 lbs. Both stand about 10 feet high at the shoulders, and the Asian elephant can measure out to about 20 feet in length. No matter how you look at it, that’s a lot of elephant.

But I want to say that the elephant population is not really endangered. It has not really been reduced by 50%. That’s just a myth. True, we can’t find half the herd, but that’s because they’ve split up and taken up residence in the living rooms of private homes all across the world, and the U.S. in particular. There seems to be an elephant now in almost every room. We each have our own. And we seem to covet their presence in our lives.

The term “Elephant In The Room” generally refers to some family problem or controversial issue that’s obviously present, but which everyone ignores or avoids mentioning, usually because it’s politically or socially incorrect, or embarrassing. Or because it would just open up another ‘can of worms’. Oh by the way, worms have become a prominent member on the Endangered Species List as well, but they’re not actually missing either. Just packed away in all those cans nobody ever really wants to open.

I was recently discussing a personal matter with someone I love. This person was describing a particular aspect of a relationship that holds great importance and prominence in their life, a relationship that should rise above fear, disingenuousness, discomfort, dishonesty and silence. But it doesn’t. And it doesn’t because of one party’s reluctance to discuss an issue that has ultimately become ‘an elephant in the room’. There was no elephant in the room before there was an issue, but whenever an issue arises in one’s life that needs to be addressed forthrightly, and honestly, and it is not, it quickly becomes the elephant in the room. That elephant will take up residence there until the matter is dealt with. Having a six-ton reminder in full view, at all times, is not an easy matter to ignore. But people do it, and they have become practiced and proficient at it. It breaks down trust, and it affects every other aspect of a relationship. Take my word for it, when there’s an elephant in the living room it doesn’t go away just because you’ve moved the conversation to another part of the house. You’re still going to hear it, smell it, and have to walk by it on a pretty regular basis until you get the damn thing out of your living room.

Here’s a novel thought. Why don’t we get all of the elephants out of our houses, and out of our lives, once and for all. If the elephant is gone then we can stop pretending that it isn’t there because, hey, it actually won’t be.
Let’s get them back off the Endangered Species List. Let them return to the herd, where they belong, so they can all be counted.

Doesn’t that sound like a better way to live?
Oh yeah, and let’s open up all those cans of worms
and let them go as well.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Starting Over

One of the most remarkable aspects of life is that it gives us so many opportunities to start over. In a myriad of situations and circumstances we are given the privilege of leaving the past lie where we left it. Some of us never avail ourselves of those opportunities, and continue on down the same old tired road we’ve been walking for going on forever. But some recognize the openings we are given and take full advantage of their generosity. Whether it be an unkind word we spoke to someone yesterday, a dishonest interaction, a fight with a friend or family member, or even a promise we let ourselves down over, there is always an opportunity to begin again. Sometimes it takes an apology, sometimes some serious self-examination, sometimes a behavioral U-Turn, but there is redemption in front of us every day, extending a hand in our direction like an old friend reaching out to help us across a perilous, but familiar ravine.

It takes only an observation of the natural world to be aware of, and encouraged by, this extraordinary phenomena. I do much of my writing in the morning, at my desk at an upstairs window that looks out over the treetops, across a beautiful oak-studded valley. It is impossible to take in this view, as the new day awakens, and not be affected by the wisdom of its voice. Light born out of the darkness, new out of the old, warm out of the cold. It sings of new beginnings, of new attitudes, of graceful, and grateful, approaches to all that lies ahead today. For me to not hear this voice would be like a condemned man not hearing the Warden announcing that his sentence has been commuted.

There are primitive cultures that regard the morning as the beginning of life. We have a tired and worn cliché in our own culture that say’s “Today is first day of the rest of your life.” We’ve seen it on bumper stickers, greeting cards and posters. We’ve beat it to death with overuse, never really understanding its full meaning, coming to view it’s sentiment simply as cute, but trite. It’s become ignored along with every other profound thought that found itself stuck on someone’s car, or refrigerator. But it is what nature teaches us, and it is the liberation that enables us to move on from the shortcomings and failings of the day before. It is the opportunity for a new beginning, and ought to be considered as such.

The sunrise offers hope, and another chance to get it right today, or at least to get it better. In the evening the sunset brings a time for reflection on the day gone by. These are the most glorious, and most profound, moments we are given.

What if each of us embraced them like a lover?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Remarkable Partners

I had the ancient privilege, and the misfortune, of attending Catholic school from the 1st through the 9th grade. They taught good penmanship, but they also conditioned us with some pretty convoluted religious ideas, and force-fed us an irrational, and unquestioning subjugation to their own ‘spiritual’ authority. It never did sit well with me, and, consequently, I was in trouble with those same authorities for most of the nine years I spent under their influence. Many years later, wanting our first son to have some religious training, but not Catholic, my wife and I enrolled him in a K thru 6th Protestant school. Like his father before him, he was not particularly compatible with that kind of structure either. You’d think I might have figured that out before the fact. I eventually did, when one day, having felt offended by the Senior Pastor of the church, my son hauled off and punched him in the stomach. I’ve got to applaud him for taking the direct approach in communicating his displeasure. Had I done the same thing early on in my education I might have saved myself the grief of all those succeeding years.

Even as a young boy, back at Sacred Heart grammar school it became quite apparent to me that the primary goal of the institution was simply to scare the hell out of all of us. Doctrine and theology conspired together towards that end, as did the priests and nuns. But it was the air raid drills more than anything else that conditioned us to believe that our days were numbered on this earth, and we goddamned better be good.

It went like this. Once a week, when we least expected it, the principle would sound an alarm, which meant that the Russians were on their way to drop an atomic bomb on our school. And they were probably already overhead. One student had been pre-assigned to quickly get up and close the blinds. Another to cut the lights. Didn’t want the pilot to be able to zero in on our particular classroom, serious threat that my classmates were to the Russians and all. The rest of us cowered under our desks, covered our heads with our arms for protection, and said a silent Act of Contrition so that if we died we’d be ushered directly into heaven. No stopping in Purgatory, no having to defend ourselves at the Gate. The prayer would get us in with full cart blanch. And without having to stand in line for confession.

I’m not making this up.
I’m not nearly that imaginative.

Anyway, this conditioning pretty much had me believing there was really nothing to live for, or to work towards. If the devil didn’t get me, the Russians would. Consequently I didn’t plan much for the future. Took it day by day. Found my way slowly, through the dark and muddled landscape of adolescence, and on into the 60’s, the Maze of Aquarius. Made my way without a compass or a guide.

Then Viet Nam became that Russian bomber, in the sense that it was now looming off in the distance, the near distance, like that very same atomic threat, targeting (through the draft) the demographic most vulnerable to that insidious hand of fate. What better way to cull the herd of all the independent souls, free thinkers, long hairs, rebels, and kids that didn’t want to, or couldn’t afford to, attend the country club colleges and governmental institutions of ‘higher learning’. Send them off to the jungles of Viet Nam to try and shoot down that Communist plane that was intending to drop that atomic bomb on that little Catholic classroom back in Covina, Calif.
Those that the jungle didn’t kill we could lock up in mental hospitals, VA hospitals and prisons. Or send them out to live under bridges. At least they’d be out of the way, and we could get on with the business of cultivating a population of followers, mass consumers of corporate theology, and satiated appreciators of all that business, and the government, gives us.

Religion keeps us focused on the end times, and the after-life.
Keeps us worshiping Jesus, looking for his impending return to save us from an ever-increasing climate of violence, confusion, social upheaval and unbelief. The government makes us afraid of our own neighbors, afraid of expressing a dissenting perspective, afraid of being cut off from the trough, afraid of the weather, afraid of imminent shortages of every kind. Gas, food, water, glaciers, medication, coca cola. Religion and government have proven to be remarkable partners in this doctrine of fear. As I look around the country today I’d say it’s been a pretty successful game plan.

Just like back at Sacred Heart School.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Left Of Center

I’d always known that I was left handed. I write with my right hand. I throw a ball with my right hand. I swing a bat right handed. I eat, and brush my teeth with my right hand. I comb my hair with my right hand. I peel potatoes, hammer a nail, saw a board and play guitar with my right hand. Everything I do, I do right handed. And yes, I drive on the right side of the road. I kick with my right foot. But I used to surf with my right (wrong) foot forward. Surfers call that ‘goofy-footed’. Other than my basic intuition, the goofy- foot thing is how I know I’m really left handed. Oh, and the left side of my body is stronger and more fully developed than the right. Always has been.

Many years ago I decided I needed to return to my roots, my true nature, my natural left handedness. To get back into alignment with my original blueprint. I’d decided that my parents took a left handed child and, for convenience sake, turned him against his better nature. Since, as we’re inclined to do, I’d been blaming them for everything else, I might as well assign them blame for this too. After all, it’s well deserved. I reasoned with myself, quite convincingly, that if I had been allowed to be left handed, rather than converted to a righty, like some kind of religious conversion, I might have gotten through life with just minimal conflict. And with that in mind I began the process of becoming left handed.

I woke up one morning and began to write with my left hand. I started shaving with my left hand. I brushed my teeth with my left hand. I combed my hair with my left hand. I ate left handed, I peeled potatoes, hammered nails, sawed boards, and tried to play guitar with my left hand. I kicked the tires on my car with my left foot.
Everything I did, I did left handed, or left-sided as it were. I was not so successful with the guitar. And I did not drive on the left side of the road. But everything else began to feel natural. I was experiencing a new equilibrium, almost a ‘rebirthing’ of sorts.

I remember writing my mom a letter. Just a casual ‘life-update’ kind of letter. Because by now it was becoming natural, it never occurred to me to mention that I’d written it with my left hand. And obviously, my writing was now considerably different than it had been. The formation of the letters was different, and the slant was different. Evidently it scared her pretty badly. She called, worried, afraid that I’d had a stroke, or started taking some kind of dangerous medication. She called my friends to see if I was alright. She was being a mother. That’s what mothers tend to do. She knew I had good penmanship, and could not reconcile my current writing with the letters she’d received from me in the past. As I look back on the circumstances I can see that it would have given her cause for some significant concern. At the time I was oblivious to that reality. I explained to my mom that I was just trying to develop my ambidexterity.

I kept on with the left handedness for awhile, but then, as so often seemed to happen, reality rode back in on a big horse and scooped me up unexpectedly in mid stride.
I held on tightly.

With my right hand.

Friday, May 2, 2008

We've All Known Eric

In 1972 I helped to found, and subsequently became the director of, a street-front drop-in-center across from a High School in the San Francisco Bay Area. I began speaking at Service Clubs (Lions, Kiwanis, Moose Lodge, VFW etc.), and churches around the area to solicit funds to help meet monthly operational expenses.
I had the freedom to define and design programs I felt to be necessary to the needs of teen-agers. The work had a general spiritual focus, but there were many programs more specifically related to things such as substance abuse and homelessness. I ultimately had a staff of up to ten people, some paid, some volunteer. We opened a large 5 bedroom, two-story house around the corner as a transitional home for young men seeking to escape the streets. Men in need of life skills, job skills and stability. It was known simply as The House. I staffed and supervised the endeavor. Re-integration into society, for many, required going back to the basics of living. You’ve got to get up in the morning. You’ve got to make your bed. You’ve got to eat. In order to eat you’ve got to go shopping. You’ve got to cook. You’ve got to clean. You’ve got to learn how to communicate with other people. You’ve got to learn to be sensitive to the needs of others. You’ve got to learn to look out for, and stand up for yourself.

Most of those coming into The House were living from day to day. From hand to mouth. Most were barely living at all. We covered their living expenses while nursing them back to health. Then as they began coming back to life we’d assist them in making a plan, finding work, or getting back in school while working part time. Some didn’t survive the challenge, or the opportunity. Some could just not adjust to group living. For some, they carried too much guilt and shame, they felt too worthless to be recipients of the kindness of others. Some just needed to make it on their own. Some left for those reasons, and for reasons I will never know. And I can only speculate about how life turned out for them. For those who stayed, a good percentage found positive direction and a new start. Many reclaimed self-esteem, and many found it for the first time.
The House proved to be pivotal in a lot of lives. I have very fond memories of individual self discovery and transformation. I think it’s fair to say it saved some disenfranchised young men from an eventual and predictably tragic conclusion.

But unfortunately, that was not the case with a young man named Eric. Eric was about 20 years old, and a really likeable guy. Very genuine. Very kind. I spent a lot of time with him, listening to him speak of his dreams, his estranged family, the challenges he was facing in his life. He was really not too terribly different from a lot of young men at that age. But I had an immediate fondness for him. He was soft spoken, considerate, very loving, and very lost. His family was in ruins. He was alienated, alone, broken and scared. Eric was someone I could identify with personally, not necessarily in circumstance, but in feelings. Obviously I’d found something productive to do with my life, but my deeper feelings of alienation and aloneness lingered, like his. His were, at the time, not just subjugated adversaries, like mine, but all encompassing antagonists performing daily on the fragile stage that was his life. Eric was searching desperately for solutions. We had many marathon discussions about being alone in the world, inside, deep inside. How to deal with it. How to handle it. How to turn it to an advantage. We explored possibilities for the future, drawing on Eric’s natural talents to point him in some meaningful direction. He was a very bright young man, and a very talented artist. School was a possibility for him if he could get stabilized, but he was having a very difficult time adjusting to an environment that required increasing responsibility and accountability.

Eric got into an argument with his roommate and just couldn’t deal with it. He called me and left a message that he found a dive hotel room for the night. Said he needed to be alone, and that he’d try and hook up with me again sometime in the morning.
Knowing of Eric’s habit of relying on drugs to dull his pain, I tried to find him, but couldn’t. In fact, I never saw him again. The hotel manager found his body, lifeless, and alone, needle still in his arm. More pain killer massaging his heart than he was ever equipped to handle.
It hit me like a sledge hammer to my chest.
It’s been about thirty five years, and I’m still sad for Eric. For many years I carried his death on my shoulders, feeling that I had failed him. His death felt, in many ways, like my own. Like he took me with him when he went. As I've grown older, and more conscious of the human condition, the fragile nature of life and death, the feelings, circumstances and dynamics that are often beyond our control, I’ve been able to let go of any complicity in his passing. I did my best for him. I did what I could. I do know, in retrospect, that there was as good a chance that his life might have blossomed, as there was that he would have lost it at such an early age.

I rest today on that sensibility.
I have to.

I think we’ve all known Eric.