Quiet Is as Quiet Does

The title for this newsletter was inspired by that famous line from Forrest Gump, “Stupid is as Stupid does.”  I think that says it all, but I’ll go on.

I started writing this newsletter sitting quietly in the morning cool ocean breezes of our time-share on Hilton Head overlooking the ocean.  I was gazing at the surf and thinking about a dog that I saw the day before just sitting there in the surf.  I wondered if he experienced, with his God-given senses, what I experienced walking in that same surf or gazing into the distant sea. I suspect so.

I must say I do like just sitting around.  When we are on a beach vacation I do more of that than walking and biking on the beach, which I also enjoy.  I must have a basic “sitting gene” which allows me to sit for hours.

Now many of you know that my profession involves hours of daily sitting and listening, conversing, observing, and reflecting on how to relate. Having said all this, I had an arthritic foot problem requiring day surgery last week. When I return to the office this coming week I’ll be sitting like I always do, but with my foot elevated doing what seems to come naturally to me.

One of my other “quiet” pastimes since I’ve had my foot elevated is to sit and read all sorts of “must read someday” articles and magazines.  They seem to cling to me over time since, I must confess, I don’t have the “get rid of it” gene.  Amazingly, I’m not bored and have thoroughly enjoyed my reading, solitude and sitting time.  I’m not really any different now in this regard than when I was a child who would periodically get some winter sickness and have to stay home from school.   Then I just read my Grolier’s Book of Knowledge, which introduced me to a world way beyond the Chicago neighborhood I grew up in.  The quiet sitting, lying around gene was present very early and probably was one important ingredient for my professional choice.   Have you ever wondered about continuities in your own life?  This knowing centers me.

As my Mommy always said when learning something surprisingly new, “Who knew!”  I wasn’t looking forward to having a bum foot that would have to be elevated for days after my operation, but it gave me opportunities to just sit around, read eclectically in a manner I rarely have time for, and experience the full caring of family and friends.  Opportunities to learn something new that we can appreciate about ourselves and those we love can be rare indeed.  So while I’ll soon sadly end my sitting around for days on end I do look forward to activating my  “busy beaver” gene.  It’s strange how opposites combine.

I sit finishing the writing of this newsletter back in Illinois on my living room couch, overlooking our neighborhood park and the river that runs through it. Instead of observing the dog in the surf I observe the people walking, biking down our street or simply looking at the tree leaves in the breeze. Sitting, gazing, and observing the passing scene or my own internal experience is spiritual for me.

Realities and Illusions

This past month I’ve come across five quotes with similar themes.  I’d like to share them with you and ask you to seriously think about what they might mean to you.

It is faith which moves mountains because it gives the illusion that mountains move… Illusion is perhaps the only reality in life.

The truth deserves a bodyguard of lies.

Those are my principles and if you don’t like them…well, I have others.

Much of what we deal with in counseling has to do with discriminating between reality and illusion, and our wishes about what could be or should be.  This is particularly true when working with couples because the relationship is influenced by what’s in the recesses of each person’s private thoughts, their fantasies, and what their personal history has taught them to believe about themselves.

We (and our relationships) are often limited by who we believe ourselves to be.  Sometimes we simply prefer our own descriptions of personal reality. But those beliefs can be walls barring future growth.

I believe God created us to seek more deeply and to go beyond our walls, self-deceptions and illusions of what seems to be.  The quotes above have a certain cynical wisdom to them in that they suggest we prefer not to know the truth.

That thought is captured best in my fourth quote from Jack Nicholson’s character, Col. Nathan Jessep, in A Few Good Men. In his famous courtroom speech he said “You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls.”

Of course, Jessep was right.  Those walls may be our own illusions, which protect us as surely as Jessep self-righteously thought he was doing.  These quotes speak a limited truth, though.

Walls, illusions, and self-deceptions confine us as well as protect us.  History seems to show that walls or defenses can go up, sometimes for very, very good reasons. But, in safer times we must tear them down, in order to grow freedom within and between others.  Bringing down walls requires courage and strength of heart.  Realities can and do change.  We can protect ourselves not only with self-perpetuating lies, illusions, and endless adaptations of principle, but also with our truth and with our dreams.

A last quote:

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

Were you wondering who we were quoting?   The first quote is from Benito Mussolini.  The second, from Winston Churchill.  The third, from that cynical observer of the human condition, Groucho Marx.  And lastly, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Financial Intimacy

During the recent Christmas break I took the week off and couldn’t get myself to write a December blog because I slowing down.  The Sandy Hook massacre merited reference, but I felt stunned into silence. Kathleen Parker, a syndicated columnist, spoke my heart and mind in the column “Silence only Appropriate Response”

We spent the week doing what many people do at this time of year – getting together with family and friends and going to movies. We’re blessed to have our sons and their families here in Chicago and Naperville so we had our Chanukah and two birthdays in the space of a month.

At home I silently also worked on my cartoon collection gleaned from the newspapers.  That collection of cartoons on individual and couples counseling, patients, male-female relationships, men and our foibles, marriage, food and weight, stress, anger and spirituality took hours of my time given that I had 3 years worth of cartoons to catalogue.  It’s my thing, an outgrowth of something I’ve been doing since I was a kid.  I do appreciate the humor of absurdity and caricature which for me has its own spiritual perspective on life. The silence of doing this is good for my heart.

When I wasn’t in silent tenseness about the depressing news or enjoying family and friends over the holidays, I was my “busy beaver” self, paying attention to our year-end finances.  The same attention I pay to cartoons I pay to our finances (although luckily our financial picture is not as absurd as the cartoons that I collect).  This all leads to discussions with Raye about where we’ve been and where we are going in our finances and life goals.  Do you pay attention to where you’ve been and where you are going financially in some regularized manner and, if coupled, with your partner?  If not, perhaps you should consider how to increase financial security and intimacy with your partner.  Yes, “financial intimacy.”  Raye and I find it draws us closer, even when we have some tough discussions about what we want for ourselves in the coming years.

We manage a lot in our lives as you surely do.  We manage our finances, our home, our health, our relationships and psyches, our storage of “stuff “and information, and our time. We strive to simplify our lives and pay attention to what is important.  It pays to take time to find the humor in our private human comedy. God gave us this gift to do so, so open it up regularly in 2013.

In the spirit of lightness in this human world of self-importance and tragedy here are two quotes that stood out for me during my recent time away from practice. One is from that famous philosopher “Anon” which I’m currently keeping on my desk to deflate my ego:

It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.

The other is from the comedian, Lilly Tomlin, who said:

I try to be cynical, but it’s hard to keep up.

It Was My Pleasure

How often have you thanked someone only to hear the popular “Not a problem.”  I assume that means it didn’t cause any problems to accommodate my request.  It’s a phrase that has come into common usage, especially in restaurants, but I’ve never gotten used to it.

Occasionally, we have someone who accommodates our specific request with “It was my pleasure,” meaning “it gives me pleasure to give good service to you.”  This sense of service is now so uncommon that we take secret delight in hearing the phrase.  Pleasure in giving good service in any relationship is an added value and always welcomed. Don’t you feel better when you receive and give pleasure?

Lately, I’ve been providing some needed services to my wife, Raye, who had hip joint replacement surgery on September 25th.  I spent a night in her hospital room making sure her needs were attended to, looked into rehab facilities one afternoon, made sure one resident physician did his job after an urgent call from her, and generally made sure I was “available.”  I can’t say it was pleasurable, but I did feel I did what was needed to make her stays more comfortable.  I was there for her and she really appreciated it. That was my pleasure.

When Raye came home from rehab two weeks after surgery, she still needed much attending to and I was able to take time from practicing to provide some needed home services and coordinated a list of people who offered to help.  There were some fun and warm moments between us when I was providing certain services, like gently messaging her thigh when it was in pain or when she needed lotion applied to her legs and cute toes after showering.  When she thanked me I responded with “It was my pleasure.”  She got it.

I also made meals, washed and ironed some of her clothes, kept the house tidy so she wouldn’t trip with her walker or cane over the “stuff” I can leave about, coordinated calls offering to help out and I can’t tell you the number of times I hauled her portable wheel chair out of the trunk to take her where she needed to go.  Going out of your way for someone, is always appreciated.  Going out of your way for someone you love and loves you adds good memories to a life together.

Have you been there, will you be there, for your partner when they actually need you?  Do you want to be there? Will it cause tension or will you feel good about providing needed help, even when it’s an inconvenience.  Will there be pleasure in giving service.

Real problems should bring couples closer together, not further apart.  I hear a lot of concerns about this in my office.  “Not being there” feels like a betrayal whether the “missing” spouse is male or female.  Bitterness about feeling abandoned in their legitimate needs is a leading reason couples seek counseling.  Don’t let each other down –again!

Raye is now rapidly becoming more independent and welcomes her recovery as I do.  More of my time is my own again.  But something obviously special happened during this time together.  The pleasures experienced give us courage to face our aging.   That’s no small accomplishment!

The Cowrie Shell

A few months ago I was “de-cluttering” a room in preparation for new flooring.  Taking down some boxes from a closet shelf I opened them up, as I hadn’t the faintest idea what was in them.  One of the boxes contained “stuff” from my childhood: a grammar school book cover, a paint by numbers drawing, and other odds and ends.  But what stood out for me was the large cowrie shell. It immediately brought back memories of my mother showing me how to hold it to my ear so that I could hear the wind on an ocean beach!  I recall my delight of hearing the wind and imagining far away oceans from my Chicago city apartment. And I think of my mother’s imagination and creativity, being woven into me through such frequent experiences.  Today, after years of traveling to many beaches around the world, I can’t hear or see what I heard then with the same wonder, but I’ve kept my cowrie shell in a box of memories.  Why?

My cowrie shell contains more than the wind on a far away beach.  It is a connection I have to my mother and the ability she had to take little everyday things and imagine their possibilities. Having little money never limited my mother’s imagination, nor mine.  The cowrie shell was an “evocative object.”  Sherry Turkle edited a book called “Evocative Objects: Things we Think With in which she says evocative objects are those “emotional and intellectual companions that anchor memory, sustain relationships, and provoke new ideas”. Until I read her book I had no idea that my cowrie shell had, in a sense, been written about. I only knew that it was important enough to me to “hold on to.”

We hold on to the things we have some attachment to, some dependency on, or that recall relationships.  We keep them because we simply feel good having them around, even if only in a box where we can discover a part of ourselves again when we least expect it.  As I sit writing this essay today, I see my cowrie shell next to my iphone and smile at the ironic connection between them. Wonder and imagination creates our futures.  Guess I’m keeping my cowrie shell for the rest of my life.

What “things” do you keep somewhere that are treasures to you and no one else? Maybe others would think of it as junk that should be thrown out. I hope you have something that anchors you to someone you loved, to some place or experience you treasured, or perhaps to your history or ancestry as a person.  You may want to write about your special “evocative object” as I’m now doing and re-experience the relationship you have with it and how that becomes you.

Relationships In A Democracy

Recently we all celebrated the 4th of July in our own ways with family and friends.  Some of us spent time outside in our yards or at public festivals such as Naperville’s Ribfest while some opted to stay out of the sizzling heat and celebrate indoors!  Each year we celebrate Independence Day and hopefully reflect on what it takes to maintain our freedoms and show respect to those who protect them.

A few years ago I realized that marriage, a partnership between men and women as equals, comes out of the very democratic culture we celebrate on Independence Day.  After all, American democracy is about equality.  It’s about relationships and our obligations to others who are equal to us.   In America I have the right to free speech, even with my wife, but I also have the obligation to listen to her, to even actually consider what she is saying.  And she has the same rights and obligations. That’s the American Way.

So many couples I see are failing to speak to each other in ways that the other has the potential to hear.  If only they were willing to open up their ears to listen to their partner as an equal.  As a counselor in the true sense of that word, to give counsel, I’m obligated to seek to understand the stuck structure of a relationship and the repetitive, hurtful ways couples relate to one another.  But from there, we find another more useful structure to help partners feel again like equals pursuing happiness with each other.

With the above in mind, I would like to offer an adaptation of an essential section of the Declaration of Independence for American couples:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  That to secure these rights amongst couples, marriage was instituted for couples, deriving their just powers from the consent of those who chose one another; that whenever any form of partnership becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of either partner to alter or abolish it and to institute a renewed partnership, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.  Prudence, indeed, will dictate that partnerships long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.

Our American sense of relationships between equals, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, extends into the intimacy of our lives with each other.  When that happens the fireworks are awesome.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

In my 20’s I read a book, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee. It was about workers and farmers whose lives were forever changed by the Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. I’ve never forgotten that title and when dad, Barney Isenberg, died I regarded him as a “famous” man.

Barney Isenberg would not have wanted anyone to make too much of a fuss about him, even in death. He needed no memorials nor did he leave material possessions to remember him by. He often referred to himself as just an “average Joe” who left no big footprints in the sands of time. He required little for himself and lived a simple life. He never even had a credit card. Somehow, though, this simple guy had a huge positive impact on our lives. He asked little for himself and rarely complained. Others enjoyed his simplicity, loving kindness, humility, lack of a deceiving nature, and quiet sense of humor and smile. His core was a goodness that never asked of people what they wouldn’t give willingly themselves.

Shortly before my Dad died, Raye and I took a workshop called “Everyday Holiness” dealing with those character traits that make for simple holiness. I realized that much of what I was seeking in soul growth had already been in my life, in this “average Joe” who liked a cigar and worked in a factory. My father couldn’t have guessed that he was holy. He had no way of teaching me with words because words eluded him. He just lived his life as best he could, was a kind, gentle man and I, late in life, found holiness in him just as there was in my grandpa before him. If my father could read these words he would say I was talking crazy again, but I know he would love me for my love of him. He had a lot of gratitude for what people gave him. That, my friends, is holiness.

What Shall I Call Thee?

At the site of the historic Pre-Emption House in Naperville, there’s a plaque stating it was the center of “gay community life.” Surprised that back in 19th Century Naperville had an active gay community? Actually, this was long before “gay” was a term used for homosexuality. For Naperville’s pioneering families, being gay simply meant having fun. Words have a way of changing meaning over time, don’t they?

And, have you noticed that some words have meanings that are personal to you? With words we label people and things, for better and for worse. Perhaps you have said “And what do you mean by THAT” or I didn’t mean THAT.” A therapist spends much of the day moving beyond hurtful blaming labels to discover a client’s true meaning. Words have such power.

During my counseling career meanings of words have changed. There was a time when we hardly ever helped couples with their sexual life. That was back when a man could blame his wife for not being aroused by his manly charms. Women were labeled “frigid” and sought counseling for their “frigidity.” Men might be cold, but would never seek counseling for their failures in the romance department. Men rarely “need” help with anything because “needing” is a humiliating concept for a man. Women “need,” but men “want.” The fact of the matter is, both men and women feel deeply but don’t understand each other’s language.

Another psychological term now out of favor is “neurotic”, which got misused in arguments by saying to a spouse: “You’re completely neurotic.” Later “neurotic” became “dysfunctional.” At least it was an improvement on being “neurotic.” Whereas dysfunctional people can be counseled to be functional through short-term “skill development,” neurotics needed longer-term “treatment.”

Now I’ve noticed the term “dysfunctional” has lost its appeal in the eternal blame game. Dysfunctional behavior and communication has given way to “controlling behavior” and being “emotionally abusive.” Being told you’re controlling is common place, but calling someone “emotionally abusive” hits between the eyes and is equivalent to an act of war. I’m sure “controlling” and “emotionally abusive” will give way to other terms which will speak to the same struggles we have with each other.

When people just complained about their spouse “nagging” home life was simpler. George Carlin, that great comedian of the English language, would have had a field day with the names we call each other.

Our words form our personal realities. Certainly our partners will argue about the reality of the labels we put on them. That’s what gets discussed in counseling sessions. Our goal in counseling is to minimize the blame game to get at heart of what people really need and want from within themselves and each other. We simply seek for our clients to have a “gay life” again.

Work Problems Can Be Serious Business

Do you like your work? Working is so much a part of who we are. Whether we ‘re paid or work as homemakers, when our work is fulfilling we’re happy, feel a sense of purpose and may even spread the joy around. But then there are the work conflicts and worries that occur and permeate our lives. They affect not only self-esteem and family life, but also the ability to think clearly and envision the future. It was Freud who defined mental health as the ability to love and work successfully. Both are the pillars of well-being and life purpose.

In conversations with clients about work issues, we often hear that the lack of effective power or issues of respect infect their thinking. In today’s economy many can’t afford to rock their financial boats. We all want to feel valued, empowered to do a good job and that our job is a good fit. Without these conditions stress, anxiety, depression, feelings of inadequacy, irritability, and anger are the result. Even those who say they leave their problems at work really don’t. Freud was right.

Of course, some of us are just too sensitive and create our own work problems. We misunderstand and misjudge people, blaming them when we’re unhappy. Some of our clients find their workplace problems may stem from past relationships or family patterns. It’s sad when we keep repeating our ”people problems” and they get in the way of success. Sometimes you have to look at the larger picture, not just the isolated work situation.

We help our clients hear themselves, to hear their own voice, and sort through their emotions and realities around specific workplace issues. So often troubles at work are locked into a silence that backs up inside and then infects others. Often counseling is the first time our client has heard him or herself speak about what is troubling. So much gets stuck in our heads or misdirected in anger towards others. Hearing ourselves and engaging in a real conversation about our problems is healing of the heart and allows our brain to do the job t was designed to do, to think through our problems.

I also like to feel fulfilled in my work counseling others. People wonder, ask how can I sit in my chair, hours on end, talking with people about their troubles? I’ve been doing this for 48 years now and I still like my job! I’ll give a fuller answer in my next Reflections blog. but I can say now that I came into this business to heal others and find ways through the emotional and relationship entanglements that keep people from their hopes. Helping clients hear themselves and change is what I think I was meant to do. I like my work. Do you?

On Shoveling Snow

We were having such a mild winter this year until I shoveled snow again this past week. While shoveling I actually enjoyed thinking back to the massive snowfall we had back in ’08. It’s a vivid memory because I wrote something about it. Perhaps you can relate to this excerpt…

I’ve just finished shoveling my driveway from another snowfall. And it took some two and half hours, second time this week. This winter has seen the most snow fall in 25 years—a real old fashioned Chicago winter, the one I remember from when I was a kid. We’re getting near the record dumps we had in the late 1970’s when we had to shovel snow off the roof. But, of course, nothing comes close to the famous 1967 snowfall when traffic was stopped in Chicago and we skied down streets with only the top of cars visible. Back then we had two feet and then some, which stopped Chicago for a week. I was a grad student then, in an apartment building and I didn’t even own a shovel and I’m not sure I even knew what a snow-blower was.

Now I have a snow blower and it works just fine. I’ve owned that snow blower for almost 30 years, replaced an engine and though bent and beat-up it works just fine—just like me. So the question is “With all this snow why haven’t I used it this winter yet?” In fact, today I made a choice not to even use it on the bottom of our driveway, which was thick with the icy stuff left by the city snowplows. It took me some 200 shovel-fulls to get that baby cleaned off. Two hundred times of lifting and heaving the snow over my shoulder. The snow on the edge of the driveway had grown to some four, even five feet at some points. I like growing my snow pile while getting exercise and “marveling” that at 66 I can still get the job done! Some guys would be found sprawled dead at the bottom of the driveway with what I did today. But I love the macho pride of doing it and then bragging to my wife the next day that I feel neither joints nor muscles aching. Of course, I top the work off by drinking a few shots of Slivovitz (plum brandy) during the course of shoveling. Oh, and I smoke a cigar while doing it. I have my old ratty jacket I wear, and if really cold, my Russian fur hat. I look like a peasant from Russia where my people came from a hundred years ago. I love it. Tradition!

But there is another reason I do it without my snow blower, if I can. Note I say, “if I can.” I’m not stupid, though I think I can hear a few snickers out there. Were the snow heavy, dense and wet I probably would start her up. I’ve done it before and that’s a different me. But I welcome the opportunity; I take pleasure in the quietness of doing it slowly over time. It’s not that I don’t have anything better to do, this is the “better” that I do when I have the time to do it. It’s an indulgence, like the Slivovitz and cigar that go with it. I enjoy myself.

And it is quiet when I am shoveling since I start early in the morning as the sun is coming up. Yes, I do. It really is quite beautiful at that time and where I live, at the top of a hill sloping downward, across a wooded lot, bordering on a park with the river running alongside it and forking around an island in the middle. The geese are getting up and starting to fly. Being outside where I live is special and a treat for me.

I “meditate” in the beginning of my shoveling as I get into the rhythm of it and, of course, I have my pattern of going this way and that way. I really love my wife, but this is one job around the house that I’ve never heard her tell me a better way to do it other then the way I do it. I do it my way, as Sinatra would sing. And sometimes, I do hear tunes in my head, think about conflicts I have, and clients I’m seeing. In solitude I’m with quite a number of people. Usually, by the time I’m getting tired I’ve solved a few situations needing resolving. Shoveling is a spiritual thing for me. It’s every bit as spiritual as many esoteric things I’ve done in my life. I think God understands this. Good work can often bring us closer to God because we’re having a real relationship with what we are doing and that quality of connectedness is what we are all seeking. Shoveling snow does that for me. And I get that driveway real clean.

Sheldon Isenberg
February 4, 2008 (adapted January 17,2012)