Adversity

Something bad is going to happen to you. It’s a matter of time. Quite possibly, over the course of a lifetime, many bad somethings will happen to you. As I see it, you are faced with a few choices. First and foremost, you need to give yourself time to heal and grieve whatever loss has occurred. This is true even if it doesn’t seem like your “bad thing” is a loss in the traditional sense of the word. In the process of healing or grieving we will be faced with a choice. That choice will make all the difference in how we move forward.

We might choose to feel as if we somehow have been singled out. People choosing this path tend to believe that most people do not encounter similar challenges. It’s something like the notion of the dysfunctional family. It is certainly true that families aren’t supposed to have alcoholic parents, domestic violence, abuse, neglect, mental illness, poverty, or hunger. It’s also true that most families do have at least some part of the whole that is dysfunctional. The truth is that the fully functional family may not exist! While the specifics of your experience may be different that most people, the fact that your experience is adverse is not at all unique. We haven’t all been chased by angry giraffes, but almost all of us has experienced some level of trauma.

Another way to understand these adversities is that while the specifics of the event will likely differ from person to person, the adversity therein is common to most if not all of humanity. In fact, although I have met people who claimed to have lived a charmed life the truth is that all of them were in denial about their lives or lying to me. I believe we all encounter significant adverse experiences. I also believe they serve a purpose. Human beings grow, and ultimately evolve as individuals and as a species, by virtue of working through these challenges. Now, only a masochist would welcome lousy experiences. I am not suggesting we should jump up and down in celebration of an adverse experience. I am suggesting we shouldn’t feel singled out because something bad happens.

If we come to see these experiences as a normal part of a normal life, we will go a long way to moving from feeling like a victim (and everything that goes with it) toward feeling like a competent human being who is in charge of their life. That shift alone will make handling adversity much easier. We are not more competent when we wring our hands and ask,”why me?” In fact, questions like “why me” keep us backward focused at the time when we most need to be looking ahead! So, instead of asking “why me,” ask “what’s next?”

Chronic Pain and Spiritual Life

It’s estimated that just over twenty percent of Americans suffer from chronic pain. I find that to be a frightening number, and I am among them. There is no shortage of theories about why people suffer from chronic pain, and the theories transcend physical ressons. In truth, above the age of fifty most people have pretty rough looking spines on MRI exam, but a chunk of those people don’t have pain while others are in nearly constant pain – and nobody knows what determines which group a person falls into.

Medical interventions for chronic pain are primitive and ineffective. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) often seems so preoccupied with finding some drug they can actually effectively interdict that they don’t really care what the impact of their restrictions are on the patients who legitimately need and don’t abuse pain medications. Consider that, having had some success making Opioids harder to get for both legitimate users and illegal abusers, the DEA is now interested in other, non-narcotic pain medications that addicts misuse for their sedating qualities. This means that patients who don’t abuse these medications (which were formerly viewed as “safe” and more effective alternatives to Opioids) have to jump through hoops to get and fill prescriptions. This is not because these medicines are controlled substances, but rather because they might be one day.

If it’s not a medication issue, it is the issue of so-called pain clinics staffed by interventional anesthesiologists. Generally speaking, patients have to go to these clinics to get narcotic pain medication prescriptions written, but the clinics make their real money by doing “procedures” such as epidural steroid injections. These injections used to be administered in a physiatrist’s office on an exam table for little more than the cost of the medication. Now they are administered at your pain clinic’s “operating room,” with x-ray guidance and multiple staff members in the room, as well as a “pre-op” check in area and a post-procedure “recovery” area. As you might imagine, the move from the exam table to the operating room means these are now relatively high ticket outpatient procedures. Unfortunately, to be effective a patient most often needs two or three injections and the injections are temporarily effective treatments rather than cures. Pain clinics are profitable to the extent that they convince patients to get on the procedure treadmill. Some studies have found that simply putting the needle into the affected area provides the same relief even if medication isn’t injected. Of course, insurance companies won’t pay for an injection that isn’t an injection, so patients are often injected needlessly.

There are other dehumanizing elements to pain clinic culture. While it’s understandable that a certain amount of controlling behavior on the part of clinic staff is necessary since some of the medications prescribed are controlled substances, most patients are made to feel like addicts even if they don’t abuse medications. For example, even medications in the same class as aspirin and ibuprofen are prescribed precisely thirty, or ninety, days from the last refill. Since most patients are on multiple medications, this means that the patient has to make multiple trips to the pharmacy each month to refill medications that have no abuse potential at all. If the patient is on a narcotic pain medication, they sign a pain medication contract annually, which is fine, but then at each appointment they are given a form to fill out asking if they are aware they signed a pain contract. We are in pain, not stupid or memory impaired. If these procedures are questioned, there is no opportunity for discussion but plenty of opportunity for suspicion that the patient is trying to get away with something.

There is no question that pain has a profound psychological component. Nearly all pain doctors will tell you that is true, yet most pain clinics do not have any psychological component to their treatment team. Why not? Could it be that the income per square foot of office space for a support group is minuscule compared with the income for an “operating room?” The other, likely unintentional, consequence of not having therapists on staff is that there isn’t a place to process the impact of the controlling environment on the patient, nor is there anyone on staff who is likely to recognize that it could be a problem and raise the issue at staff meetings.

When we have discussions in this country about our healthcare system and the out of control expenses therein, we need to talk about places like pain clinics. They aren’t the only place in American medicine charging exorbitant fees for (at best) temporary relief. Nor are they the only soul crushing places in the medical community that lack psychological or spiritual support systems. The pain treatment industry generates in excess of three hundred billion dollars for itself each year, and these procedure mills are a big part of the problem. Presently there isn’t an alternative, but with that kind of money rolling in there isn’t much incentive to develop one, is there?

When THAT Guy Shows Up

I suspect we all have had that friend – a good guy at heart but completely lacking in social graces. If you invite him over, the odds are that something will be spilled and something else broken before he leaves. He tends to speak just a little too loudly, act just a bit too impulsively, and not stop to consider how what he is about to say will impact the people who will hear it. If you can get him alone and calm him down, you see a completely different person. The problem is that it’s hard to get him calm and alone, so most often you seem to have a raging jerk on your hands. Your other friends and family may have asked you why you put up with this guy, and a part of your knows it’s a reasonable question. Sooner or later, you are going to have to make a decision about whether or not having him around is worth the cost to your other relationships.

As a child, I found talk of manners and decorum to be about as uninteresting a subject as there was. Who really cared what Miss Manners said? I confess that I do find the obsession certain segments of our society has with completely arbitrary customs and practices, such as which fork is properly picked up first at formal dinners, profoundly boring and inconsequential. Beyond that sort of nonsense, however, I do believe that how we behave and how we treat one another matters. With the advent of reality television, which should really be called contrived television, the display of poor behavior has been elevated and rewarded to the point where participating in these festivals of boorish behavior is celebrated and imitated, to our great detriment across this nation and across the globe.

The truth is that how we treat one another matters, and matters profoundly. When we damage one another, we all suffer. Deriding you diminishes all of us. Human beings are not commodities to be disposed of like so much used Kleenex, regardless of the opinion of corporate America. Whenever we succeed in making another person less that we are, we open the door to all manner of mistreatment. This is the root of racism, of classism, of virtually every -ism we know. The best way to stop this behavior is to call it out. If we see or hear this behavior on television or other media, the best way to stop it is to turn it off. If you have “that friend” described above, the best way to respond is to tell them that while you would love to invite them to your next gathering, they will need to behave in a way that respects the dignity of all present – and respects your property.

These changes may seem slow and less than dramatic. The truth is that most effective change isn’t quick and won’t win an Academy Award for anyone involved. Precisely because change takes time and there is so much to do, we really need to start now. We also need to start in the arenas we can impact. For most of us that will mean starting locally, in our own homes and neighborhoods. If you see a person treating another in a disrespectful way, say something. If you see someone throwing trash around, literally or metaphorically, say something. Treat everyone else the way you would want to be treated, which may be better than they treat you, and remember that your dignity is enhanced by these practices. They aren’t inconsequential. They define our time!

Random Thoughts

200722112346-01-pet-chicken-sales-coronavirus-trnd-large-169If the things that most of us wouldn’t think of eating – rattlesnake, scorpion, rodents, all manner of creepy crawly things, endangered species, insects covered in chocolate, and so on – are all said to “taste like chicken,” maybe it’s time to take another look at whether or not we should be eating chicken. If we just flip the equation, we will see that chicken tastes like cockroach, and mouse, and ants, and rats. Why do we continue to eat it?

Staying Present

It has been rightly said that the only moment we have is the present moment. The past is gone and cannot be changed. The future has not yet arrived and so is beyond our reach. It seems so obvious, so simple, yet how much time do we spend fixating on the past or dreaming of the future? How often does “if only I had…” cause us to completely miss new opportunity when it arises? Certainly there are things to be learned from past mistakes, but those learning opportunities aren’t a bottomless well. Most mistakes we make are relatively small and so offer a paucity of learning. Even our major mistakes only offer a few lessons. If we find ourselves ruminating about something months or even years after it has happened, we aren’t trying to learn, we are trying to avoid something.

I find it helpful when I am stuck to remember that the “why?” question is most often not very helpful. Most often we cannot know with any degree of certainty why things happen. When we allow ourselves to get stuck there, it may well be that we are actually trying to avoid moving forward. Why something happened or why someone did something is much less important that what we will do next given what has happened. What is the lesson in our experience? What is it trying to teach us? How can we avoid whatever mistakes we made in the future? We need to ask these questions not to berate or otherwise punish ourselves, but to learn. Once we have learned, it is time to move on.

The truth is that, no matter what a perfectionist might tell you, mistakes are a normal part of life. I believe that every experience, positive or negative, arises to teach us something. Our goal shouldn’t be perfection, it should be learning and growth. There are very few activities in which a mistake means we don’t get to try again, and most of those can be avoided. Mistakes are much less critical outside the arenas of sky diving and bungee jumping! Learn, and then move on. Don’t let life pass you by as you seek a perfection that doesn’t exist!

Wallowing in Feelings?

I was listening to a podcast today in which a group of four spiritual leaders in a particular tradition were discussing a scandal that hit their tradition a couple of years ago. Who they are and what there tradition is are really unimportant because I believe there is a larger trend at work in this discussion. They are in their thirties to early forties, two males and two females, and ethnically diverse. Except for the fact that they are all spiritual leaders in the same tradition, they area pretty decent cross section of that age group in America. What I heard astounded me.

As they discussed how they were faring since the scandal hit two years ago, to a person they said they had spent the time getting in touch with their feelings about the scandal and processing them. Clearly, they are still engaged in that process. It’s important to note that none of them were victims of any misconduct, though they did all witness their tradition crumble around them. What remains of that tradition is anyone’s guess, and what the future might be is not yet apparent.

Now, to be sure, when something like this happens there is a grieving process that needs to take place. Many of us have worked through that grieving process as institutions sacred and secular we had come to depend on crumbled around us. With covid, there will be more and more institutions crumbling. It is certainly true that no one can tell any of us how long grieving should take. Generally speaking, though, if you are still trying to sort your feelings out two years after a loss, it’s probably time to find a therapist.

As I reflected on this it occurred to me that this talk of staying in our feelings is very popular in certain circles. We have almost set up a cultural requirement in touchy-feely circles that processing feelings is a full time career. Instead of working through things, we just park the car and sit in the midst of them. I suspect that many more Americans, if they are going to go off course in the feelings world, repress their feelings and don’t process them at all. What I want to say is that both approaches avoid the issue at hand. Whether I am repressing my feelings or making a career out of them, what I am really doing is avoiding them.

In some circles, this is known as “spiritual bypassing.” Spiritual bypassing happens when I assume what seems to be a very spiritual posture but in reality that posture is a way of avoiding my issue. Processing our feelings can become spiritual bypassing if we are still processing them two years later. Presumably, long before two years are up, we will have identified what are feelings might be and determined what action they are calling us to take next. It’s certainly true that as we move into action there may be times we need to do more processing, but we need to remember that processing is a way station on the journey, not our destination!

What if bad isn’t bad?

First, a disclaimer: The ideas in this post are under development and not finalized in any way, shape or form. I reserve the right to denounce the entire contents at any time in the future.

What if bad isn’t bad? Asked another way, what if the things that happen that we identify as bad are in fact neither good nor bad, but rather represent challenges and opportunities for growth? What if stuff happens, and our job isn’t to feel sorry for ourselves or wonder why a “bad” thing could happen to someone as marvelous as I, but rather to work through whatever it is? What if that process of “working through” is nothing more than the challenge of a human life and the vehicle for growth?

I am thinking here of the old question that gets asked and reformulated about every thirty seconds – why do bad things happen to good people? Religious people ask why God doesn’t stop these things from happening. Eastern religions tend to explain away the bad things by attributing them to karma, which means we deserve them and so have nobody to blame but ourselves. It’s a tidy package, but one that I find ultimately unsatisfying and incomplete. Is there anything about life that is tidy? The other problem with karma as a theory is that it can’t be disproven. We can’t go back into the past and see whether or not we did anything that would require that we die in a house fire in this life. It is sometimes said that a theory has to be falsifiable, which means that just because you can’t prove something is false doesn’t mean it is true.

Suppose the biblical writers were correct when they suggested that the challenges of life are opportunities for growth? Considering that almost everybody encounters some tragedy in their life and that for all our attempts to eliminate tragedy it keeps on happening, perhaps those attempts are an exercise in missing the point. Since “bad” things happen to everyone, we might be well served by doing away with the “why” questions and moving on to the “what am I supposed to learn from this” question.

Since “bad” things happen to everyone, we might be well served by doing away with the “why” question and moving on to the “what am I supposed to learn from this” question.

Craig Bergland

When I think back to my days working in mental health, I recall a huge number of people who were stuck on the “why me?” question. Maybe the answer is, “because everybody.” What if all the time we spend going over and over the wrongs that were done to us needs to be countered with the truth that really ugly stuff happens to everybody, and so a better focus would be “what is this shitty experience meant to teach me?” In this way every tragedy could be redeemed and the energy we expend trying to decode the impossible could be turned toward moving forward. That’s not to say that the lousy things that happen aren’t painful. They are indeed painful, but we magnify that pain when we assume that we have been singled out and are alone in our misery.

This ends the pity party and removes any excuse to wallow in what may well be an essential part of life as if we are a victim. It also frees me from being defined by misfortune because misfortune leads to opportunity. I will never see that opportunity if I can’t move beyond the victim role, and this gives me the vehicle to do precisely that. We will still need to take time to understand our history, but our history no longer defines us because we all share similar histories. What tremendous freedom!

Moving Beyond Fear

Fear isn’t a bad thing. In fact, when it pops up appropriately it serves an important function – it keeps us safe. When you are crossing the street and hear the sound of a bus bearing down on you, fear arises and helps kick your body into action to avoid becoming road kill. That’s good fear. When you are driving down the street and notice a flooded intersection, good fear tells you to turn around rather than try to drive through. False bravado encourages you to forge ahead into the intersection and the sink hole hidden under the water. Even if we could banish fear from our lives, it would be unwise. Many of us, however, experience fear that isn’t helpful. One of those is fear of the unknown.

We live in a time unlike any other in our lifetime, unless we happen to be over one hundred years old. Our lifestyles have been suspended by a world-wide pandemic. It seems like nothing about our lives is the same as it was just six months ago. We don’t know what life will be like once the corona virus is under control, but there is at least a chance that there will be a new normal. We have seen that Americans are poorly equipped to respond to this kind of a crisis. Our obsession with what we incorrectly assume is independence – it’s really selfishness – leads us to make awful choices because we don’t seem to realize we live in a society and selfishness is maladaptive. To cite but one example, people in other parts of the world have worn face masks for years. In those cultures they understand that not wearing a mask is rude and inconsiderate. In America some of us believe being rude and inconsiderate is something to wear like a badge of honor.

So many of our maladaptive behaviors emerge from fear. In uncertain times, fear lurks around every corner. It can help, when we feel fear arising, to ask ourselves about that fear. Is it present to alert us to danger, or is it the result of uncertainty? If it’s uncertainty that is the issue, can we recall other times when uncertainty arose and everything worked out well? Can we see that only rarely does uncertainty lead to problems that can’t be resolved? Even more importantly, can we see that quite often what lies beyond uncertainty is an opportunity for growth? The truth is that uncertainty and growth can help us to move beyond fear into opportunity. We may need that ability now more than ever.

Why “Working on Myself” Isn’t Enough

Meditation in all of its various forms is great. I am a practitioner myself and can attest it has brought wonderful change to my life. Mindfulness meditation has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, and I would recent stay at home orders in some communities have afforded a wonderful opportunity to start or build a practice. After all, you can only reorganize your closets so many times!

It’s great to “work on ourselves,” particularly since so many of us are over committed, work too many hours for too little pay and spend much of the time that is left shuttling kids and grandkids to various activities, sporting events, classes, and meetings with friends. Then there are our various classes, personal meetings and involvements. Whether we enjoy these things or not, sooner or later our bodies and minds need a break. This is where self care comes in and practices like meditation can be an immense benefit. We should take advantage of opportunities for personal growth. The truth is, however, that working on myself is not enough.

It’s wonderful to get massages, take Pilates, go to meditation, and work on ourselves, but if we never connect those practices to the outside world all they are is an education in narcissism. Americans love to look inward, but it can easily become an exercise in avoidance. Several years ago a clergyman I knew said, “all that matters is my meditation.” At that point, I knew we had lost him. In those six words he summed up the profoundly selfish life quite succinctly. The reason we do inner work is to make us better functioning members of a society. If we never engage that society, all our work is little more than an exercise in masturbation.

It’s wonderful to get massages, take Pilates, go to meditation, and work on ourselves, but if we never connect those practices to the outside world all they are is an education in narcissism.

Craig Bergland

If we are engaging in spiritual and wellness practices in their appropriate framework, the needs in our environment will become apparent. In fact, our practices will help us see those needs. Practice causes our compassion to grow, but compassion that doesn’t lead us to action is quite shallow, indeed. I fear that many Americans use Eastern spiritual practices as an reason to avoid life. That’s a corruption of the practice. Our time looking inward should always lead us to look outward!

This is not a political post

This is not a political post, though it does involve people in politics. Think of it this way – if I wrote about the personal choices of a football player, that post wouldn’t be about football. I wouldn’t be saying that I like the team the person plays for more than another team. The same is true when I write about politicians. Writing about the choices and attitudes of a politician does not constitute a judgment on their political party. Now that we have established what should be a self evident point, we can continue.

Across party lines, we are facing corruption and cowardice in government like at no point in American history. A would-be dictator occupies the White House surrounded by yes men and women on a scale that would make Nixon blush. Politicians of all stripes are loathe to stand up against the nonsense that passes for leadership in Washington, making them complicit in the largest threat to democracy America has seen. The great unwashed have elected one of their own. Should we be surprised the whole thing stinks?

Remember when character mattered? Remember when John Kennedy wanted to sleep with every woman in sight but had the decency to know that it was wrong, and so had them slipped in the back door of the White House while Jackie slept and the press looked the other way? Remember when Nixon was regularly too drunk to function and so others ran the country? Remember Teapot Dome during the Harding administration, the corrective for which the current administration has undone?

Okay, maybe it has only been the appearance of character that has mattered. Still, qualifications did matter. The old adage that any boy could grow up to be President of the United States simply wasn’t true. Candidates for President and even Congress were expected to have a certain pedigree that suggested the educational and experiential foundations to effectively serve. We have a man who has made his living deceiving the public now in the highest office in the land, a massively unqualified con man who has very little idea of what he is doing – and was elected on that basis!

Not surprisingly, we now hear that there is nothing more important that pretending everything is normal during the worst mismanagement of a pandemic imaginable. We are told that if only we create the appearance of normalcy, everything will be fine. It doesn’t matter if grandma and grandpa die to create a lie; it doesn’t matter how many workers – most often in poorly paying jobs – risk their lives to open restaurants, bars, and beaches; it doesn’t matter how many teachers and students will get sick and die to reopen schools. This is true not because it will change anything, it will only change the appearance of our circumstances. It will seem like everything is normal if we can just slip the bodies out the back door in the middle of the night and send them to the mortuary without anyone noticing.

Does that make any sense to you?

Good Lord, I hope not. I hope there is enough decency and intelligence left in this county to know that, whether we like it or not, what happens to one of us impacts all of us. We have failed at education and are reaping the rewards of that folly. We have failed at morality and in exchange made money our God. Our politicians worship that God, and we are reaping the rewards of that folly as well. We have taken a deep dive into selfishness from which we may never emerge as a nation.

These days it seems like everyone with a cause wants us to believe that their cause is the only one that matters. Nonsense. There are many, many causes that matter, so many that if they all are the only one that matters we will never make any progress. The way out of this morass is for each of us to find a cause that matters to us and dedicate ourselves to it in the way that best uses our unique sets of skills and abilities. This will take both time and persistence. There are no magic bullets, there are no overnight fixes, but that makes it even more imperative that we start today. Rest assured we will encounter criticism in a country with no shortage of do-nothing armchair quarterbacks. Everyone has an opinion, but that doesn’t mean we need to take their opinion to heart. Don’t read your reviews, solve the problem.