November 30:  Blogging Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

I think I can honestly say this after 4.5 years.

Candidate topics for this last post of the 30 day challenge included People, Relationships, Connection, Movies, and Ma Jiang.  Of course all of these make me better, but tonight Blogging wins.

Writing for a public forum makes me more cognizant of my potential audience, more discerning.  I have to choose my topics carefully, balance honesty and vulnerability with privacy.  It gives me a venue to practice various skills—writing, time management, storytelling, editing, and online interaction.  Since I have committed to visiting the blogs of all bloggers who like my posts, I have also discovered the writing and lives of others whom I’d likely never otherwise come across.  My horizon is widened.

Blogging allows me to put thoughts into the world and find others with similar thoughts.  It’s a diary of experience, a web-log that serves, if nothing else, as a timeline of my personal and professional evolution, which I can then query over time in order to understand myself better.  But I don’t write it only for myself—otherwise why make it public?  I write to connect, because that makes me better, always better.

Maybe I can ask more of the blog in 2020.  Maybe I could make it more focused?  More organized?  More goal-oriented?  Or maybe not.  Nothing has to be decided tonight.  I’ll know when something needs to change.

Meanwhile, my sincere and heartfelt thanks to all who take time out of your lives to read Healing Through Connection.  I hope you get something out of it that makes you better, too.

November 29:  Reflection Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

How was 2019 for you, friends?

Looking back, what stands out?  What gives you pride and joy?  Guilt and regret?  What’s the best thing you learned?  What do you look forward to the most in 2020?

In the first post of this month, I described my last role play experience, one marked by intensity around domestic violence and dense communication skills practice.  Dr. Orit Kalnieri-Miller led the workshop, and I will forever be grateful for her groundbreaking work incorporating reflective practice in medical education.

Wikipedia says reflective practice is

 the ability to reflect on one’s actions so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.[1] According to one definition it involves “paying critical attention to the practical values and theories which inform everyday actions, by examining practice reflectively and reflexively. This leads to developmental insight”.[2]A key rationale for reflective practice is that experience alone does not necessarily lead to learning; deliberate reflection on experience is essential.[3][4]

Regular reflective practice, I think, is mindfulness in action.

This whole month I have been reflecting.  Looking back, seeking patterns.  What really does make me better?  Better for whom?  For What?  How does it all help me going forward?  I have probed my habits, my relationships, roles, activities, ideals and attitudes.  Writing the reflections every night as a blogging challenge probably does not give each idea much time to sink in.  But now they are recorded.  They are a collection that I can review over time; I can revise, rewrite, and continue the reflection-learning-practice cycle of self-improvement.  Reading past posts reminds me of where I was then, which allows comparison and contrast to today.

I am, still and always, me.  I’m also always learning and changing.  Reflection helps me to know myself better and more deeply, to claim and exercise my authentic agency in service of the causes that matter to me.  Reflection keeps me focused on my Why.  In the coming year, it will help me identify, refine, and enact my next Just Cause.  Very exciting!

But maybe the best part is that reflective practice is not a solitary activity.  When I have any opportunity to get feedback from those whose perspectives I respect, the learning is that much deeper and more meaningful, even (especially) if it challenges and agitates me.  People mirrors do not always show the reflection I want, or the self-delusions I believe–they call me out.  But sometimes they show that I’m living exactly and fully in my integrity and values.  Both are equally valuable.

So I will continue looking for reflections everywhere.  They keep me honest, and that makes me better.

November 22:  Listening to People’s Stories Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

What a long, strange week.  I almost forgot to write a post, just wanted to relax and do nothing.

Looking back, overall it was good. And it was people who held me up, as always.  I had some pretty moving and meaningful conversations with patients, and I really helped some people, I think.  But it was a new acquaintance who really made my day today.

I finally had time to bring my car to the body shop this afternoon.  After an unfortunate encounter with a fire hydrant while backing out of a very poorly planned driveway, my front bumper has been partially detached for about 7 weeks.  Every single person at this shop was remarkably nice—from the lady on the phone, to the young man who so politely offered to move my car when I parked it in totally the wrong place.  The waiting area was clean, neat, and well lit, with comfy, non-holey chairs.  After a short wait, a petite and pleasant woman, maybe 40, introduced herself.  She would provide the estimate on my repairs.  We headed outside.  She pointed to the ledge at the doorway on which I had tripped walking in, so I would not do it again.

After I brought her to the car she said I could go back inside and wait, but I asked to hang out with her, because I like to see what other people do.  I know less than nothing about cars, and I loved that here was a youngish, friendly woman who clearly knew her way around them.  I admired her right away.  She was thorough and conscientious, looking inside and out.  She was also extremely knowledgeable and patient, showing me everything, talking me through the parts and functions, and answering my ignorant questions, down to how the VIN includes the paint mix of the make, model and year.  She stayed with me through the whole process, including walking me out to show me the key drop box, because they can’t fix my car for another two weeks.

Before we said goodbye I could not help myself.  I told her how happy it makes me to see a woman doing a job that I have only seen men do.  She seemed genuinely proud and thankful for the compliment, and I’m glad I said something.  I didn’t mean to make her stand outside in the cold any longer, but she started reflecting and telling me her story.  Turns out this was her first day on her own at this job—I thought she had done it for years already.  Nope.  She had done inventory for a railroad company, and programmed machines that cut industrial dies.  She had worked in shops and factories of various kinds, it sounded like, always surrounded by and holding her own among men.

I asked her if it feels different (and hopefully better?) being a woman in these male-dominated fields now, after all these years.  She thought for a moment (looking completely comfortable, while I had started shivering already).  It almost seemed like she had never considered the question before?  She concluded that her peers and coworkers have never been the problem.  It’s the customers.

She kept talking, as if the subsequent story had been waiting days for a sympathetic ear.  In her last days of training, a man brought in a car with severe rear body damage, clearly from a collision.  He gave her a history, she made her appraisal, and he was suspicious and dismissive toward her the whole time.  To assuage him, she brought her trainer to review the case, whose assessment and recommendations were the same as hers.  This time the customer told a different story—admitted to lying to her, basically—and accepted the trainer’s evaluation.  No apology, no remorse, no respect.  She was still affected by it today, and upset with herself that she had let him get under her skin.  Whatever, she said in the end, she’s here to do a job, and there will always be people who underestimate her because of her sex.  Thankfully her trainer was an ally, which made me proud of the good men in our midst.

This woman’s life experience, though clearly different from mine, felt relatable and real to me.  In those few minutes, in the waning daylight of a brisk fall evening in Chicago, surrounded by broken cars, I felt solidarity with and pride for her.  It made me better for reminding me once again of our shared humanity:  Hers, mine, my patients’, those crazy drivers on Wednesday, even her lying customer.

We’re all here doing our best with what we’ got.  I firmly believe this, but sometimes I forget.  Hearing folks’ stories always brings me back.  So I’m thankful for them.

 

November 17:  Elasticity Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

What was school like for you growing up?  Were you bored?  Confused?  Frustrated?  I had a pretty easy time, but many of my classmates did not, even the ‘smart’ ones.

In high school I was on the speech team.  One of my events was persuasive speaking.  I chose one year to advocate for teachers to broaden their teaching styles to match a wider variety of learning styles.  I used the Gregorc Mindstyle Delineator as an example of how styles can vary (mine is Abstract Random, go figure).  It was an interesting thesis and I sincerely believed what I wrote and presented in those 8 minutes each weekend.

Thirty years later, I wonder how much I walk this talk of meeting people where they need me.  Simply asking the question, raising my awareness, makes me better.

Parenting.  It doesn’t matter how many parenting books you read or how well you think your parents raised you.  General principles apply, of course.  But every kid is unique, and we parents do better when we realize that the methods we use for anything on kid #1 won’t necessarily work with kid #2, #3, an onward.  Flexibility is key to a happy and functional household, for getting out the door every morning without yelling.

Marriage:  According to the Dr. John Gottman, about two-thirds of marital problems are perpetual, meaning they will never actually resolve.  So how do couples stay together successfully?  Among other things, they learn to accept one another and work around the hard stuff.  At least partially, we have to soften our rigidities, learn to bend and sway, embrace the supple, intimate dance of commitment.

Teaching:  Not all students learn best by watching.  Not all learn best by doing.  Or by hearing, mimicking, or competing.  Luckily, medical education gives trainees multiple platforms on which to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to care for patients.  For all its flaws, our profession actually does well here.  I’m happy that I realized this in my own experience.  When I precept students in clinic, they shadow, scribe, see patients alone or lead a joint encounter, so they can experience the work from different perspectives.  I think this mutual versatility and adaptability makes us all better.

Patient Care:  Over the years I have accumulated myriad articles and books to share with patients.  But not everybody’s a reader like me.  Not everybody wants to meditate or journal.  Some people do better with a personal trainer, others in spin class.  It’s my job to assess how each patient is most likely to succeed in health habit optimization, and present the most appropriate resources for consideration.  Primary care definitely does not work with a one size fits all approach.  So now I include audiobooks, podcasts, phone apps, and YouTube videos in my repertoire of medical information sharing.  I am blunt when it’s needed, and also gentle and diplomatic.  I can speak from the head and the heart, often both at the same time.

Speaking Engagements:  Here is where my elasticity has grown the most in recent years.  For the first decade of my career, I still used the expository presentation style I learned in high school.  Thankfully in 2014, I watched Nancy Duarte’s TED talk on transformative oral presentations, and then read her book, Resonate, in 2015.  Make the audience the hero, she says.  Tell a story, contrast what is with what could be, paint the vision of the blissful future clearly.  Engage people’s emotions and aspirations.

This is not easily done with Power Point decks full of words.  But words are my medium!  I had to add color, diagrams, cartoons, photographs.  I started making my presentations more interactive, between myself and the audience, and between audience members themselves.  Now I have people stand up and move their bodies.  I may bring raisins to my next talk and do a mindful eating exercise.  I need to learn how to embed music and videos into my slides.

What is the objective in all of these relationships?  It’s connection.  How do we best connect?  We reach out.  We extend ourselves to others—make ourselves relaxed, flexible, spring-like.  That is how we gather people closer.  It’s not formless or weak.  A strong elastic maintains its integrity even under high tension.  But it must be stretched often, or it becomes stiff, brittle, and ultimately ineffectual.

 

November 15: Smiling People Make Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

Winter has set in here in Chicago. Oh well, this too shall pass. The kids were off from school today, so my morning exit was quiet and solitary. I drove along our alley, coming up behind on a slight female figure pushing a stroller. As I passed her, she looked up with a big smile and waved with an open, ungloved hand. She really seemed to look for eye contact with me, the unknown driver passing her. I had wished for the same, but had no expectations. In my pleasant surprise, I smiled back and nodded, one hand on the wheel, the other holding my coffee, which I raised in greeting. I had learned long ago that life in the big city is usually not this friendly.  She pretty much made my morning.

I’ve been thinking about it all day. How many times a day do we contact strangers? How often does a person on the street look at you, make eye contact, and smile? Or say hello? How often do you do this? Does it not just brighten your day, even a little? How does it feel when you pass a dozen people and nobody acknowledges your existence? The most fascinating is when someone looks at me, makes eye contact, expresses nothing whatsoever, then looks away and keeps walking.

I used to be much more judgmental of these behaviors and people. I may have even taken it personally in early adulthood. But now I’ve lightened up a little. I don’t think it’s about me. But it makes me wonder about people—what is it that closes us off from strangers? Based on people’s expressions, I tell stories that they are worried, anxious, angry, distracted, rushing, arrogant, oblivious, or just mean. I make it about them. But this is neither productive nor healthy. It just makes me resentful and less likely to smile at the next person I meet.

Every one of us is one of these things I listed at some point—I think I experience each of those states at least once every day. I apologize in advance if you meet me in one of these moments. So now I try to tell myself that everybody has a unique story of getting through life and the world. This attitude shift has done two things for me. 1) It makes me appreciate smiling people that much more. I notice the twinkle in someone’s eye, the dimples, the cheekbones, the sterling white and/or crooked teeth. I appreciate these joyful strangers and let their joy sink into me. 2) It makes me more, rather than, less, likely to look for eye contact with others. If you’re not having a good day, maybe I can make it better by seeing you and smiling. I do this especially when I see moms with little kids or babies. I remember those days (so hard!) and how reassuring it was when strangers smiled and looked at us lovingly.

That woman really did make my day.

Crossing the street on my way to the parking garage after work today, a car turned left in front of me. The driver had not seen me crossing until the last second. When we made eye contact I could tell he was apologetic. He mouthed, “Sorry,” and raised his left hand in a humble wave. I smiled that I understood, no harm done. Further down the sidewalk a couple walked quickly in the cold, coming toward me. The very tall man marched in front, apparently focused on his destination behind me. His female companion came a couple steps behind. I smiled, and she smiled back—big! She had on a puffy black faux fur coat, a stylishly coordinated black fuzzy hat, nicely coifed hair jutting out from underneath, and neat, metal-framed eyeglasses that complemented her round, friendly face. I think she even said hello. My mood was definitely better for having passed them.

I’ve been in a great mood all day, maybe because of these strangers.

I think we profoundly underestimate the impact we all have on one another, positive and negative, in our smallest interactions. A genuine smile from a stranger on the street can really make your day better. When you smile at me, it makes me smile back at you, and vice versa, obviously—but the best thing about it is that we are both better off for it. That’s how joy works, I think—it doesn’t matter who starts it. It just grows wherever it is, and expands exponentially with each person who shares it.

So here’s to smiling people. You make me better. May I always smile back at you and keep the pageant of joy alive and well.

November 12:  Edits and Revisions MMB–Fierce Optimism 2.0

 

NaBloPoMo 2019

24 hour learnings:

  1. Unfocused thoughts lead to unfocused writing
  2. I tend toward word vomit when I’m excited

Note:  Hereafter, I will use “MMB” as the abbreviation for “Make(s) Me Better” if the title gets too long.

My deepest gratitude to lovingly honest friends whose feedback on last night’s post inspired me to attempt it again!  Let’s see how this goes—

***

Last Saturday, as I prepared for the Better Angels workshop, I thought of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspirational words:  “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  I have referred to this quote many times over the years, and a phrase that I often add goes something like, “Bend that arc!  Hang on it with all your might!”  Meaning the arc bends toward justice only because we make it so, by working tirelessly for it, by consistently walking our talk.

Preparing for the presentation, I thought about friends who express hopelessness at any possibility for connection between opposing political sides, that we can actually work together to get anything done.  Some might even say that the Better Angels mission is futile, a waste of energy and time.

Then I felt something akin to a tidal wave rise within me, and I texted a friend, “I intend to make today a day of fierce, infectious optimism.”  At that moment I knew my goal was to take every experience of kindness, connection, empathy, openness, generosity, magnanimity, conviction, and hope, and channel it to the workshop and its participants.  Because though it was to be a skills workshop, teaching a way of doing, what we really need are all of the qualities I just listed—they are the way of being that bring true meaning and connection to the skills.

Google Dictionary defines fierce:  “showing a heartfelt and powerful intensity”; and optimism: “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.”

Yes, and:

Fierce Optimism Is:

Urgency with Patience

All important social movements occur (and continue) over generations.  Confrontation and revolution are necessary sometimes, but they are not enough.  It’s consistent, slow, grass roots change on the local level that sustains progress.  Fierce optimism gives me faith that even the smallest actions I make in service of my cause have impact.  I can set realistic expectations for how much I can move this mountain today.  Pacing myself, practicing persistence with patience, conserves energy and prevents burnout.  I can feel empowered and liberated at the same time, confident in my individual agency.

Patient urgency also allows me to look up every once in a while, notice my surroundings, and adapt to subtle changes, like when someone starts to soften.  The bulldozer of impatient words and heavy dogma plows through the door of someone’s mind that might have swung open freely, had I taken a more gentle approach.

Strength with Flexibility

Fierce optimism roots itself in core values, and also allows for learning and adaptation.  It confers the confidence to challenge our own beliefs and values, perhaps reinforcing them, grounding us in and strengthening our own personal truth.  But this confidence also helps us hear others’ stories, which broadens our perspective.  Standing in our core values while reaching out in curiosity, we learn about each other, and curtains open on a vast landscape of understanding that we may never have imagined.

Bruce Lee’s life philosophy included a metaphor of the bamboo and the oak.  Both are admirably strong, but under intense forces of nature, the great oak may break irrevocably.  The bamboo bends; it maintains its integrity, standing straight and strong again after the storm.  Listening with openness and curiosity is not weakness.  Allowing for nuance and the possibility that my mind may be changed is strength.  It makes me calm, agile, adaptable, and more effective.

Conviction with Generosity

Our assumptions matter.  They show up in our presence.  Let us check our attitudes toward the ‘other’.  Assuming and speaking only to their presumed selfishness and malevolence, we make ourselves small.  We become exactly the narrow minded and prejudiced enemy we deride.  How ironic.  Now more than ever, we need generosity.  This encompasses empathy, vulnerability, sincerity, humility, and a willingness to allow the complete humanity of every person.  Extending this grace to others in no way undermines my own cause.  It opens my heart to attract allies from everywhere.  Conviction without generosity too easily becomes tyranny; I want no part of that.

Fierce optimism choreographs an intimate dance between agitation and peace.  It holds tension without anxiety, potential and kinetic energy.

When I live in Fierce Optimism, I can hang on that arc and bend it like a badass.

November 11:  Fierce Optimism Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

On Ozan’s Inner Circle forum today, another member posted about his admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It reminded me of a favorite MLK quote, which came to mind on Saturday as I prepared for the Better Angels workshop:  “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  I have referred to this quote many times over the years, and a phrase that I often add goes something like, “Bend that arc!  Hang on it with all your might!”  Meaning the arc bends toward justice only because we make it so, by working tirelessly for it, by acting visibly in accordance with our core values, and by consistently walking the talk.

I texted my friend the morning of the workshop: “I’m 90% excited, 10% nervous…Maybe 15%…”  Then I thought about the people I know who like the idea(l) of Better Angels, but don’t want to participate.  I thought about my friends who express hopelessness at any possibility that people on opposing political sides can ever connect, that we can actually work together across our differences to get things done.  I thought about the pushback I might get, that the Better Angels mission is futile, a waste of energy and time.  I felt something akin to a tidal wave rise within me, and I texted my friend again, spontaneously, “I intend to make today a day of fierce, infectious optimism.”  At that moment I knew my goal that day was to take every example and experience of kindness, connection, empathy, openness, generosity, magnanimity, conviction, and hope, and channel it to the workshop and its participants.  Because though it was to be a skills workshop, teaching a way of doing, what we really need are all of the qualities I just listed—they are the way of being that brings the skills to bear in the most meaningful ways.

This idea marinated for a couple of hours while I pictured the venue, reviewed the workshop content, made notes about delivery.  I thought again about my friends who feel like our world is crumbling around us, that so much progress made the last century is being eroded.  I completely empathize with this perspective, and I understand how it makes us feel we have to fight, to be aggressive and confrontational, to come at the opposition full force, like a bullet train.  Do they think listening and speaking skills focused on curiosity and openness too passive and ineffective?  Does optimism, the hopefulness and confidence that things will be okay, make me lazy about the issues that matter to me?

Below are the words I texted my friend to describe what I mean by ‘Fierce Optimism’.  Normally I would not share such nascent ideas on the blog, but whatever, it’s all an experiment, who knows what better ideas may come from this early sharing?

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Fierce Optimism Is:

Urgency with Patience

Or should it read, “Urgency without Impatience”?  What I mean here is simply that most things worth doing take a very long time.  All important social movements occurred (and continue) over generations.  At times confrontation and revolution are necessary.  But they are not enough.  Consistent, slow, organic, grass roots change on the local level is what sustains consistent progress, keeps it from regressing.  The acute urgency I feel to address my deep concerns (for instance, the profound rifts in our relationships) drives me to action.  But when that action is directed at another person, I must attune.  I have to set realistic expectations for how much I can move this mountain today.  Pacing myself, practicing persistence with patience, conserves energy and prevents burnout.  It also allows me to look up every once in a while and adjust to my surroundings, adapt to subtle changes, like when someone starts to soften.  If I’m bulldozing with strong words and heavy dogma, I am more likely to plow over and through any crack in the door of someone’s mind that might have swung open freely had I taken a more gentle approach.

Strength with Flexibility

Better Angels does not seek to make everybody—anybody—a moderate.  Rather, the goal is to hold our positions firmly and with principle, and practice seeing why someone else may hold a different position with equally strong principle.  In doing so, two things often happen:  First, by challenging our own beliefs and values, we can reinforce them.  Telling stories about the experiences that led us to our core values reconnects us with their origins, grounds us in and strengthens our own personal truth.  Second, hearing others’ stories helps us broaden our perspective.  Most of the time we only see things from our own point of view—this is our default setting.  But when we share personal experiences, really learn about each other, the curtains open on a vast landscape of understanding that we may never have imagined.  So while I may still hold my goals and objectives firmly, I can more easily release the rigidity of my method, tolerate setbacks with less suffering.  Earlier this year I listened to The Warrior Within by John Little.  He describes Bruce Lee’s life philosophy, which included a metaphor of the bamboo and the oak.  Both are admirably strong, but under intense forces of nature, the oak may break while the bamboo simply bends, sometimes to the ground, but without breaking.  Both stay rooted where they are planted, but one is more resilient.  Listening with openness and curiosity is not weakness.  Allowing for nuance and the possibility that my mind may be changed in some ways, while holding steadfast to my core values, makes me calm, agile, adaptable, and, I think, more effective.

Conviction with Generosity

This is about the assumptions we make.  Too often we cast ‘the other’ in abstract as sinister, evil, less than.  We hold up the most extreme members of the opposing group as representative of a dull and dumb monolith.  We oversimplify and overgeneralize, and then approach any individual we identify as belonging to that group as an assembly line package, a completely known entity.  We think we know all about them already, even if we have never met them, just because they identify today as “Red” or “Blue.”  In so doing, we make ourselves small.  We become exactly as narrow minded and prejudiced as the folks we accuse on the other side.  How ironic.  Now more than ever, we need generosity.  In my mind this encompasses empathy, vulnerability, sincerity, humility and a willingness to allow the complete humanity of every other person, regardless of their political, religious, racial, cultural, or any other persuasion.  Conviction without generosity too easily becomes tyranny, for individuals as well as organizations and governments.

*sigh*

Well, like I said, these ideas were just born two days ago.  Have I expressed them at all coherently?  Have I shown you intuitively apprehensible paradoxes?  Can you feel the dynamic balance of agitation and peace?  Tension without anxiety?  Potential and kinetic energy?  If not, that’s okay.  I’ll keep working on it.  That’s the essential outcome of Fierce Optimism, after all—we keep working, steadily, to bend that arc.

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