A Truly Connected Life

Today I am holed up in my office at BTS Graduate School of Counseling doing some prep work for my weekend course called Beyond Talk Therapy. Look at all this lovely craziness I have going on on my office floor...

Several weeks ago while I was prepping for the course, I was looking for a good video I could show to give a good synopsis of interpersonal neurobiology. There are so many great videos Dan Siegel has put out into the world and I, of course, being the never-full sponge that I am, quickly got sucked in a time warp where I watched a few, then suddenly I looked at the clock and it was several hours later. But man, was I a lot smarter! I found one that was just the right length. 27 minutes... (which, by the way, is just about the exact length of time most adults can listen to something before they start zoning out and dreaming about what they want to eat for dinner. But that's neurobiology for you.)

I decided I wanted to share this 27-minute video with YOU all, which speaks toward a lot of topics we talk about on my podcast, like, "Who am I?" and "How do people change?" and "What might an integrated life look like?" These kinds of things. I figured some of you may actually watch this video and gain some lovely, enriching insights from it.

One thing I will say is that, if you decide to not watch the video, at least watch a few minutes starting at minute 10:00. It reminds me of one of the most important aspects of being and becoming truly human.

[Disclaimer: If you are taking my class this weekend, don't watch the video. It's a spoiler!]

May I present to you Dr. Daniel Siegel.

Live a life guided by Grace & Love? Huh??

What a crazy idea. Right?

In my Christian upbringing, I remember hearing the words "grace" and "love" applied to God and those who identified as Christians, but the majority of what I saw lived out was shame and blame and guilt-tripping. If you were looking down on others it meant you were higher up by default. Just like God...right? Except the Bible makes it very clear that's not how God rolls. Like, at all.

This one part of a letter in the Bible called Philippians says:

Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by coming together wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges, he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
— the Apostle Paul

Belonging... tender and compassionate hearts... take interest... equality... humble...

Something I find interesting about these words is that I think we can practice all of these things and have really terrible motives. I think Paul is saying in this letter that, for this to work, these "forces" that lead to unity have to come from our deepest place - that place that is in fellowship with the Spirit of the Divine. This is the only place from which authentic grace and Love can come. I think Paul is saying (at least in part) that the unity that comes from Love comes from God and we always have access to it, but we would often rather believe that we don't.

I would bet the farm this means that looking down on others isn't very unifying. In this letter Paul clearly paints a word picture of something that ACTUALLY happened (and I can only say this using human terms, so forgive me): Christ moved toward us. The only way Christ could have stayed in his state of Divine privilege and not made this cosmic, epic, game-changing move toward humans (who desperately needed unity, love and peace) would have been to break off from His very nature, to break off from HIMSELF. Which I think is actually impossible.

I wish this were impossible for us humans, too.

I wish it were impossible for me to not move toward other human beings, no matter what. I wish it were as impossible for me to live my life detached from the disenfranchised as it is for me to live without oxygen.

I'm not calling myself (or you) a cold-hearted person; I'm saying that I happen to have a lot of privilege that I didn't do anything to gain, that I was born into. And privilege by its very nature is not disruptive. It's comfortable.

Comfort doesn't get our attention. Disruption gets our attention. 

I want to be disrupted into living a life guided by Grace (no-matter-whatness) and Love (I'm-with-you). I want to live a life that embodies I'm-with-you-no-matter-whatness.

So, how about you? What terrifies you about this possibility? How might we defy any of the constructs of privilege and comfort that we get to enjoy in our lives to find more unity? To find a life guided by Grace and Love?

And what would happen if we did?

A Franciscan Benediction

I know I haven't blogged in...well, seven months. ((Hangs head)) I have good reasons for it, which I look forward to telling you all about soon enough. But in the meantime I wanted to share this benediction with you. It blessed me today, and I thought it may meet some of you where you are, too.

Franciscan Benediction

May God bless us with discomfort
at uneasy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
so that we may live from deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger
at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God's creations
so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless us with tears
to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war
so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and
to turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with just enough foolishness
to believe that we can make a difference in the world,
so that we can do what others claim cannot be done:
to bring justice and kindness to all our children and all our neighbors who are poor.

Amen.

The Cry of the Refugee

This weekend I am attending the annual Global Community of Practice for trauma healing professionals around the globe. This year the theme is best practices for helping refugees. I'm sure I'll be posting more later but for now I thought it best to post a poem that is an actual voice of an actual refugee—a woman who skillfully speaks for all those who travel the world, displaced.

Before I post that, however, I invite you consider something: have you ever been on a trip and you've been away longer than you'd like and you find yourself thinking, "I cannot wait to get home. I miss my bed and my pillow, and I miss my favorite chair." We've all been there most likely. Now imagine feeling that longing and knowing you'll never return home.

This is only part of the cry of refugees.

 + + +

no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well

 

your neighbors running faster than you

breath bloody in their throats

the boy you went to school with

who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory

is holding a gun bigger than his body

you only leave home

when home won’t let you stay.

 

no one leaves home unless home chases you

fire under feet

hot blood in your belly

it’s not something you ever thought of doing

until the blade burnt threats into

your neck

and even then you carried the anthem under

your breath

only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets

sobbing as each mouthful of paper

made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

 

you have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

no one burns their palms

under trains

beneath carriages

no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck

feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled

means something more than journey.

no one crawls under fences

no one wants to be beaten

pitied

 

no one chooses refugee camps

or strip searches where your

body is left aching

or prison,

because prison is safer

than a city of fire

and one prison guard

in the night

is better than a truckload

of men who look like your father

no one could take it

no one could stomach it

no one skin would be tough enough

 

the

go home blacks

refugees

dirty immigrants

asylum seekers

sucking our country dry

niggers with their hands out

they smell strange

savage

messed up their country and now they want

to mess ours up

how do the words

the dirty looks

roll off your backs

maybe because the blow is softer

than a limb torn off

 

or the words are more tender

than fourteen men between

your legs

or the insults are easier

to swallow

than rubble

than bone

than your child body

in pieces.

i want to go home,

but home is the mouth of a shark

home is the barrel of the gun

and no one would leave home

unless home chased you to the shore

unless home told you

to quicken your legs

leave your clothes behind

crawl through the desert

wade through the oceans

drown

save

be hunger

beg

forget pride

your survival is more important

 

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear

saying-

leave,

run away from me now

i dont know what i’ve become

but i know that anywhere

is safer than here

 

"Home" by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali

Moving Toward Whole Hearts

This weekend I attended a Wholeheartedness retreat with speaker, author, teacher, & therapist Chuck DeGroat. On Friday night we began our time together with Chuck asking us to consider “scarcity” and also “wholeness.” Yesterday we spent the day considering what wholeheartedness may look like, and asking the question that was ever on Jesus’s lips:

“What do you want?”

We spent time discussing barriers to wholeheartedness and knowing we are known (a concept I and so many in my field—like Brene Brown, Curt Thompson, etc.—have been thinking about a great deal the last few years). Chuck invited us so beautifully into deeper consideration of the necessity of practicing 5 C's that may lead us to greater wholeheartedness: curiosity (toward our hearts and the hearts of others), compassion, connection, contemplation, and communion.

Throughout the weekend, I kept remembering that, as a staff member at a graduate school, I gave a talk on something like this to our counseling students at our fall retreat last year. Following the talk I gave, all 55 of us practiced silence & solitude for the next hour, drawing our thoughts toward who we are innately, simply because we are God’s children, and drawing our thoughts away from the “performance game” (as Chuck called it yesterday) with which we busy ourselves, believing this is what makes us "beloved" and accepted. So...I thought it was appropriate to post this talk given the deeper consideration I was invited to give it this weekend. (On a side note: please forgive the strange formatting; I decided to post it exactly as I wrote and spoke it.)

If you feel moved by this concept and want to know more, please consider reading Chuck DeGroat's new book Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self. Also, as always, feel free to contact me by emailing me at lifeinthewhirlwind@gmail.com

I would also invite you to practice silence & solitude after reading this, even if just for 15-30 minutes. There are a thousand excuses to not practice this, but I would invite you to consider that those excuses are worth ignoring. This is a healing practice that offers time to practice a very different way of being, a way that I have found healing and wholeheartedness-giving in my life.

So come join me, if you will.


We are afflicted with the disease of doing.

How many of you, when you look back over the last week of your life, spent more time in silence and stillness than you did sound and motion? Our culture demands it. The lives we've entered into have begun to demand it. Our coursework demands it. In fact, we're so busy that we usually don't even slow down enough to notice that we're so busy.

Busyness feeds on itself. We speed up, get things done, feel our accomplishments sink into our identity, and get stuck in a cycle where what we do gets confused for what we are. So we start the next thing. Our speed feeds our inner world, however toxic it may be. Speed and accomplishment become how we are known...or so we tell ourselves. We then express anger toward anyone that gets in our way of speed and accomplishment. Think of road rage: yelling at slow drivers when there's no way to pass, because we automatically forget that if we don't get to where we're going exactly when we need to, someone will actually NOT die! We then sometimes find ourselves in a place where this cycle becomes so ritualistic and "normal" that we fail to realize the kind of toxic power we have given performance.

Let me ask you this...

When was the last time you took your time doing something?
When was the last time you strolled somewhere, looking up at the trees, birds, clouds, and sky instead of looking down at the sidewalk with your eyes and inside your head with your mind?
We often don't pay much attention to the things around us––how leaves and acorns crunch under our feet as we walk, how it feels in our noses to breathe in cool air, and how sunshine feels on our skin.

Our minds and our schedules are cluttered with more things to think and do than we have time to think and do them. And yet, how often do we consider what will actually happen if we don't think or do them? Have you ever thought about that? Ever think about what will ACTUALLY happen if you don't read every word of the reading for one of your classes?...

NOISE and MOTION are the gasoline of our culture.

ONE REASON FOR THIS MIGHT BE: FEAR
Fear of what?

Here are a couple of things we might fear...

HAVING TO SEE THINGS WE'D RATHER NOT.

Silence and stillness require us to pay attention to what lies UNDER the noise and motion of our lives.
I invite you to contemplate this: What might make it hard for you to see what's under the busy noise of your life?
I'd imagine some of the difficulty has to do with the scripts and stories about ourselves that start running through our heads--whatever those may be for each of us.

Maybe it's "I'm not enough."
or "Why didn't I get that opportunity?"
or perhaps "I'm obviously not as ________ as that person over there."
Or maybe it's even, "I am so exceptional...why doesn't anyone else see it?"

It's true that by their very nature, STILLNESS and SILENCE bring to the surface the things that we are usually far too uncomfortable to face, let alone accept. 

That brings us to another possible fear...

FEAR OF RELEASING.

What's it like for you to "pull out the chair from under your busy mind and busy life and watch them fall onto God," as one Christian writer, Richard Rohr, calls it? When we invite God into this conversation, this quickly reveals our own personal theology of surrender. It's pretty easy to talk about surrender and instruct our clients how important the practices of release, acceptance, and surrender can be. But we vote with our feet, don't we? Our actions--what we choose to practice ourselves--are the windows to our hearts. We can talk about surrender all day, but in what ways do we truly practice it?

I think we might value "understanding" (the actions of our minds) and "doing" (the actions of our bodies) as much as we do because    they     are     a     lot     easier     than     surrendering     our     wills     and     our     hearts to a process. And a heck of a lot easier than surrendering our loyalties. I have found, however, that the things we find "easier" to do tend to be a lot more costly over time.

What's another reason we may avoid silence & stillness?

Perhaps...

FEAR OF FEELING INADEQUATE. 

I remember this one morning I spent with one of my mentors while I was a student in this program. I remember sharing with her my struggles of feeling like I was "falling short." She said, "Falling short of what, exactly?"

[silence.]

She was quite good at using the skills of silence, I assure you. Then after waiting a while, she said one sentence that I'll never forget:

"Remember, Heather: when it comes to the Kingdom of God, appearances are very deceiving."

She had recently pointed out to me Acts 19, which is a GREAT chapter to read when you believe that NOTHING you're trying to see through is actually happening...
But here's something to consider:
Whenever we are spending most of our energy CLIMBING the ladders of this world (the "success" ladders, the "achievement" ladders, performance-based things like this), we end up missing JESUS, because He is always going DOWN the ladders of this world. When we spend our efforts trying to make a NAME for ourselves in a performance-oriented world, we miss out on the names He--our loving Father--gives us.

CHOSEN.
BELOVED.
PRECIOUS.
ANCHORED.

GOOD.

When we practice silence and stillness,

we are forced to stop DOING being, and commit ourselves to STILLNESS being. We begin to pay closer attention to what and who we are, not what we do.

Still sound scary?

Let me encourage you with this: as you choose to practice this (which we're about to do) and you get past the burning fears, I believe that --just like Jesus when HE practiced silence, stillness, and contemplation-- you will begin to find that you have nothing to prove or protect about yourself in His presence, and that it costs so much less than performing.

Colossians 3 says that your life is now hidden with Christ in God. You've got nothing you have to prove or protect.

Here's what Paul says there...

Colossians 3:1-4 (the Message translation):
If you're serious about living this new resurrected life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don't shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things that this world is concerned with. Look up. Be alert to the things going on around Christ -- this is where the real action is. See things from his perspective.
Your old life is dead now. Your new life --- which is your real life, even though it may be invisible to spectators! --- is with Christ in God. HE is your life. When Christ, your real life, shows up again on this earth, you'll show up, too -- the real you, the glorious you. In the meantime, however -- to get there -- you must be content with obscurity, like Christ was.
"Content with obscurity..."

Anybody feeling comfortable with that?

Who here is thinking, 
"I WANT TO BE OBSCURE!
I WANT ALL THE GREAT THINGS I DO TODAY TO BE HIDDEN FROM THE PEOPLE AROUND ME!
I WANT TO NEVER BE NOTICED EVER!
I DO NOT WANT ANYONE TO TELL ME I DID A GREAT JOB AT MY LIFE TODAY!"

That's what obscurity is: it's getting no attention for doing "the right thing."
And Colossians 3 asks us to be content with obscurity, like Christ was, knowing that your REAL life that you're being born into is invisible to spectators... He asks us to be OKAY with being invisible because Jesus appeared pretty invisible (maybe even irrelevant?) by the world's standards. But let me remind you: appearances are very deceiving.

You know what's obscure? Silence and stillness are obscure.

STOPPING -- stopping the sound and motion of our lives -- means the cessation of all the things in life that gets other people's attention. That gets YOUR attention. And yet in the STOPPING, in the STILLNESS and the SILENCE, this is a place where we are finally able to recognize more fully that we are hidden with Christ in God, that we don't have to spend any energy PROVING and PROTECTING ourselves --- BECAUSE HE SEES US --- AND HE ACCEPTS US. When we stop proving, protecting, and hiding we get the names and inheritance He gives us, which make us more precious than anything in existence.

This morning is about the practice of silent prayer, stillness, and contemplation. Being still in the presence of God, I think, can be like looking for your keys when they're already in your hand. We're so busy looking for God or His attention (maybe with our good deeds our striving AGAINST obscurity) that we don't realize: we already HAVE Him. OR...we're so busy looking for US (or who we think is US) that we miss the fact that who we are is already there...in our hand.

So go receive from God for the next hour. Fall into Him. Stop the motion and listen.

I heard that a visitor once asked Mother Teresa, "What do you do when you pray?"
She said, "I listen to God."
The visitor asked, "What does He say?"
Mother Teresa said, "He listens."

Psychological Hand Sanitizer

My husband and I have a habit of––whenever our kids eat food they’ve dropped on the floor––saying, “No Crohn’s disease for you!” In the last decade there have been plenty of studies out there which indicate that young humans who have too clean an environment don’t have very well-trained immune systems and get sick more often. Not eating enough dirt can even lead to autoimmune diseases. The body has nothing to fight, so it starts fighting itself. Also, over-cleanliness kills all the good organisms in our bodies that help keep us healthy. This theory is called the Hygiene Hypothesis.

This whole problem is itself a paradox, no? You douse your kids in hand sanitizer every half hour (or every 30 seconds if you’re on the subway in February) hoping they won’t get sick. It’s well-intentioned. But an immune system that has seen very little action gets bored and too much cleanness can end up actually making kids sick. Like, really sick. Life-long struggle sick. Secondly, an inexperienced immune system is unlikely to have any clue how to fight illness when it does come (and it will). This is a major backfire situation. What was meant for good turns out to be harmful.

For the last few years I have been wondering how this theory may have some psychosocial implications. I’ve been thinking, Maybe there is such a thing as the Mental Hygiene Hypothesis. When humans don’t face struggle and troubling situations because someone (maybe oneself) is trying to protect them, what happens? When trouble comes (and it will), these people have little to no tools in their emotional/mental tool belts. They reach for a memory of “this is what helped me last time I faced this situation” and they turn up empty-handed. They reach for “this is what my parents helped me integrate when I was young when this kind of struggle comes” and they’ve got diddly with a side of squat.

Here’s another analogy that relates to this: When a muscle in your body experiences no resistance, what happens to it? (I think you see where I’m going with this.) It atrophies! It's too weak to use until it is built up.

So here’s a question:
Even when we mean well, is protecting ourselves and others (especially kids) from struggle actually helpful, or is it depriving us and them of opportunities to learn the necessary skills and strengths that can only develop when there is resistance? Is our mental/emotional/spiritual immune system, as it were, left to fight only itself?

Just when I thought I had a grand, original idea that I could share with the world, I received an email from someone with an article attached to it. “I thought you’d enjoy this,” it said. The article was from The Atlantic and it was called, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy: Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods” written by Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb in 2011. (Click the title of the article if you'd like to read it.)

It was a long read, and every sentence was great. As I read it, I started gasping and groaning out-loud. This was my mental hygiene hypothesis!

“Many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment...with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.”

It excited me that someone who’s been practicing (psychotherapy and mothering) longer than I have was thinking near-identical thoughts. This was a truly wonderful article, one of those that you pass along to all your friends and colleagues.

Gottlieb introduced a helpful question I had not yet considered: When thinking about why parents protect their children from emotional pain, we have to ask the hard question of who are they most trying to protect––the child or themselves? For me personally, it is infinitely more painful for me to watch my child climb a massive twisty ladder at the playground than it is for her to climb it. The chance of me experiencing fear while watching her climb: 100%. The chance of her falling off: probably 10% or less.

So is there any solution for this mental hygiene problem? How do we help ourselves and others become resilient, healthy copers? How do we become people who conquer difficult situations instead of running away or avoiding them altogether?

Here are some of my thoughts. And these three points build on each other...

  1. We have to get our hands dirty.
    For instance, with the playground scenario I just listed above, how can I get psychologically “dirty” even when I imagine my kids will get fatally injured (and probably won’t)? I have a friend who says, “Your kids are going to do things that terrify you whether or not you watch, so you might as well close your eyes.” Too true. Instead of letting my anxiety stop my kids from learning how to be proficient climbers (and therefore much safer overall), I need to bite the bullet. The mind bullet, that is. I need to make myself okay with this, do some good self-talk (“She probably won’t fall…”), and then tell her she’s awesome when she gets to the top.
     
  2. We have to let our kids get their hands dirty.
    Doing work on point one makes point two easier. I am obviously not saying we should create scenarios that cause our children pain to "toughen them up." (That's called abuse.) Life naturally offers plenty of difficulty. We don't need to make opportunities for our kids to struggle, we just need to stop stopping them. Here’s an excerpt from Gottlieb’s article that helps us understand this point…
    "Consider a toddler who’s running in the park and trips on a rock, Paul Bohn says. Some parents swoop in immediately, pick up the toddler, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying. But, Bohn explains, this actually prevents her from feeling secure—not just on the playground, but in life. If you don’t let her experience that momentary confusion, give her the space to figure out what just happened (Oh, I tripped), and then briefly let her grapple with the frustration of having fallen and perhaps even try to pick herself up, she has no idea what discomfort feels like, and will have no framework for how to recover when she feels discomfort later in life. These toddlers become the college kids who text their parents with an SOS if the slightest thing goes wrong, instead of attempting to figure out how to deal with it themselves. If, on the other hand, the child trips on the rock, and the parents let her try to reorient for a second before going over to comfort her, the child learns: That was scary for a second, but I’m okay now. If something unpleasant happens, I can get through it. In many cases, Bohn says, the child recovers fine on her own—but parents never learn this, because they’re too busy protecting their kid when she doesn’t need protection.”
    `Nuff said. Still, easier said than done. But important!
     
  3. When we talk about difficult experiences with others, it helps us integrate our ability to overcome them.
    A really helpful book that has taught me about this point is The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson. This book is not just about children it’s about every human, since we are all––as the poet John O’Donohue once said––“ex-babies.” All of our minds have developed certain ways whether we like it or not. This book helps us understand methods for healthy development which leads to greater integration between our thoughts & feelings. That’s just a long way of saying, Talking about our thoughts and feelings when something bad happens to us makes us stronger, healthier people. Despite some people’s belief, a hurting child who is told, “Don’t cry, you’re fine!” or “Get used to it, this is what life feels like” does not, in fact, become stronger. This may be an uncomfortable lesson to learn if you yourself are not familiar with talking about your feelings, but I can tell you from experience it is a very worthwhile one.

Food for further thought: Think honestly about some of the ways you protect yourself and/or others from struggle. In what ways has struggle taught you about your substance/strength and made you the person that you are today? What is one way you can face struggle in a healthier way today?

The Best Four Dollars I Ever Spent (Twice)

On a cold rainy night my sophomore year of college, my roommate was out of town. I decided to be my best introvert-self so I headed to the video store in search of a good story. This particular video store had a bin near the front that was full of old discounted VHS movies they didn't see fit to rent out anymore. This was always my go-to spot, and I went digging.

There were some really terrible movies in that bin, like the kind of movies that are not quite bad enough to fulfill the so-bad-it's-good movie requirements, but bad enough that you wonder who in their right mind would fund its production. But that night the bargain bin had a treasure for me: Good Will Hunting, $4.00. I hadn't seen it before, and it was only a dollar more to buy this copy than to rent it. So I headed out with my new movie in hand.

I don't remember the exact details of what happened inside me after I pressed play, except that some thoughts like these that ran through my head: "Why aren't more people like this Sean Maguire character?" (played by Robin Williams), and "I bet doctoral degrees cost a fortune," and "How on earth did a couple of 20-something-year-olds write this??"

Though I remember those thoughts being fast and fleeting, I remember one thing very clearly: that was the night I decided I wanted to pursue being a counselor.

For lots of reasons too personal to mention here, it took me ten years to get my masters in Professional Counseling, but every job I've ever done since that moment has included some form of walking alongside people in a lot of pain. Arguably, the innate gifts needed to be a counselor lie within a person, but meaningful stories like Good Will Hunting can awaken such gifts in a person and open our eyes to new desires and aspirations. (In my mind, this is one of the purposes of story-telling.)

I remember this film revealing to me some of the differences between popular mental health/person care and quality mental health/person care. This was pretty big considering when the story was written, the mental health field was just beginning to shed its stigmas. The subtle commentary made by this film about the importance of the quality of care may have even helped the field of counseling become what it is today. Who knows.

I also remember this film busting a myth for me. It made me realize therapists don't have special powers, they are not superhuman. Quite the opposite in fact.

One essential quality of a "good" therapist or helper is a clear awareness of one's own strengths & limitations without being more focused on these things than he/she is on the person directly in front of them.

A "good" therapist isn't using the person he is helping to make him feel good about himself or good at his job. When I heard Curt Thompson (a deeply dear and wise helper) speak in Philadelphia last Spring, he invited us to ask ourselves this question: Do you ever unconsciously categorize a therapy session as a “good session" simply because it makes you feel like a good therapist? (Ouch. But also, thank you.) This is a lesson well-taught in Good Will Hunting. The main character, Will, cycles through several "shrinks" before meeting one who cares more about Will than he does about feeling like a good therapist.

Fast forward several years.

Last Monday (quite poignantly, a day before the one year anniversary of Robin Williams's death) I was running errands and came across my old friend, the video bargain bin. I went digging. And before I knew it I had a DVD in my hand and I was headed for the register with a smile that must have made it look like I just heard an inside joke.

Good Will Hunting, $4.00.

How does anyone get this lucky TWICE in a lifetime?!, I asked myself. That night my husband and I watched it, and I realized that I appreciate this film more every time I watch it. I also pondered just how ahead of its time it was. And how ahead of my time it was, and how surprisingly formative it's been in making me the therapist I am today.

I may not have realized this as a sophomore in college, but when I watched this film it may have been the first time I realized (before I even really realized) how much being a good listener and helper requires a total revamping of one's measuring stick for and definition of “success.”

Have you ever stopped to consider what may be happening in moments where there is what we may call deafening silence? At least in the Western world, we seem to be programmed to automatically believe that nothing is happening when there is no sound or motion. It makes people feel awkward and compels them to fill the silence, perhaps believing silence and stillness is a waste of time. I disagree with that, however.

What if, in the midst of silence, an internal something that is far bigger and more important than any external counterpart is occurring?

In the film, Will and Sean (his "shrink") have at least two sessions where literally no words are spoken. Does this have any value or is this a huge waste of time and money? I think we're inclined to say, "This is a waste. No progress is being made." This story, however, gives a very realistic example of the power of silence. These dead-silent sessions end up being crucial moments where the therapist earns Will's trust. The movie never comes out and says this explicitly, but I think when Will’s therapist shows him he can handle the silence, he also shows Will that he can handle a lot of other things that normally make people uncomfortable.

Sean, the therapist, chooses the person over an attempt to have something clear to “show” by the end of session. This builds a bridge between them that leads to actual change instead of just “results.”

Now, I know this is just a story, and one story at that. But it’s a really good story. And I can now say after many years of experience with people, it's actually pretty realistic. If you are a therapist, a social worker, a professor, a helper of any kind, please watch this movie again and again. You will see new things each time. It will open up new hidden things in you, I would bravely bet. And if nothing else, you will get a taste of what good listening looks like.


Food for further thought: If you are in a helping profession, what are some barriers for you as you seek to find balance between empirically-sound care for people and the kind of care that can’t necessarily be measured in an hour? Who helps keep you in balance?