Wednesday, November 29, 2006

fear and love

Recently I've been learning a lot from my clients about fear and love.

What has struck me is how very easy it is to make decisions in life based on fear. Taking a job because of a sense that you will be respected, rather than because there's something you love about doing that job. Going somewhere with a group of friends (when you don't want to) because of a fear of social rejection. Losing weight because of a fear of losing social approval. Avoiding one's partner or spouse because of a fear they might discover your secret.

Life can so easily become overwhelmed by fear. And then life becomes empty because all we find is a sense of relief from avoiding some dread consequence.

It is interesting to me, too, to think about what it means to substitute love for fear. To find ways of doing a job because you find something about it that makes you feel happy and alive. To find ways of relating to a spouse or partner openly, genuinely, lovingly -- to support, encourage, and cheer for each other in profound ways despite our flaws. To make brave choices based on our sense of ourselves and what is right (out of a provound love of ourselves).

Fear is easy in part because the rules of avoidance are simple: you just don't bring up the truth. Love is often far more complex and difficult because it involves relationship and courage, vulnerability even. But there is no joy in fear, no life, no freedom. These can only be found in love.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


In this work we do to remediate our sons' autism, there's this concept of providing them with "Regulation-Challenge-Regulation" (RCR) experiences. Basically, the idea is to establish some sort of a regulated pattern (say, a basic activity wherein we take turns pulling each other back and forth), then you add a challenge (e.g., maybe I don't pull when its my turn, or instead of pulling I get closer to them), and then they absorb what's changed, make some sort of modification, and re-establish a new regulatory pattern.

This is all terribly common in everyday situations, it's just that with autistic kids you need to break it down, slow the process down, etc.

Anyway, so with Patrick today he was on this table in our "breakfast nook" area. And he loves his TV, even though there was no video and the thing wasn't receiving any television signal. He would just turn it on. And I decided I would make a noise and turn the TV off. Patrick laughed at that, one of those simple joyous laughs of childhood that makes everything seem worthwhile. And in the spirit of this RCR activity, I began adding variations. Different noises when he got close to the TV, different noises when I'd pull him away.

And then I upped the challenge, running away rather than being right there when it was my "turn," making him turn to engage me in some way in order to keep the activity going. He did and he seemed to love it the whole time.

It was such a positive experience for us both, really. And yet there's this part of me that looks back on things with anxiety. Wondering if I did it right, wondering if I did enough, wondering if all of this effort will really make any difference, wondering...

If this RCR stuff is as universal to true relationships as the developmental psychology folks would claim that it is, perhaps in a sense these doubts or worries are my own form of "challenge." Whether that's emerging out of my relationship with my son...or perhaps even out of my relationship with God, I don't know.

But something about this idea of "challenge" fits for me, as I look back on my relationship with God, with faith, with church. And I like the idea of "challenge" as a doorway to new insights, new depths of relationship. I also like their idea that in good mentoring relationships, there is no such thing as a devastating failure. There is only feedback, support, and guidance without the kind of overt "do this, this way, and at this time" kind of response. "Failures" are moments to learn, we need only keep trying. Development really only gets stuck when we feel so incompetent that we stop trying, when we begin to avoid opportunities for growth and challenge.

Back to that topic of anxiety or worry again. Interesting. Perhaps the lesson in all of this is to persevere, to tolerate the anxiety of not being sure if you're doing it perfectly, and to just simply continue -- to trust in the process, to grow, to be confident enough in my son's potential to know that progress is possible. Perhaps even to model the ability to face anxiety and persevere because that is precisely what I am asking him to do.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


Thanksgiving is rapidly approaching, and every year I try to put together my thoughts about gratefulness. Usually this has taken the form of an e-mail to good friends of mine. This year, I thought I would try putting it on my blog.

I should note that part of my doing so today, right now, is because I have been inspired by some lovely posts by fellow bloggers, including Magdalene's Musings and More Cows Than People. I could hardly hope to approach their eloquence. Still, the act of giving thanks, of acknowledging gratitude, seems fundamentally important to me. It acknowledges and affirms our connections with people, recognizes the role they play and have played in our lives, in who we are and have become.

So, this year I find myself particularly grateful to:

1. My wife, whose ability to tolerate me, support me, and love me humbles me every day.

2. My two boys, Patrick and Jacob. Having two sons on the autism spectrum teaches me so much about life, about parenthood, about development, about relationships. I am grateful more fundamentally, however, because they are such great kids, who bring such such energy, vitality, love and joy into my life.

3. God, who seems to tolerate me despite all my faults, including my stubborn questions about Catholicism and church attendance. Oh, yeah, and there's the whole "basic source of my existence and the existence of all that is" thing. But I'm sure You get that one all the time.

4. All of my dear friends and family, far and near. I have learned so much, grown so much, from having known you.

5. My new friends I've developed on this strange thing known as the blososphere. I look forward to reading your blogs, getting your comments, and sharing thoughts. I've been inspired, uplifted, and at times saddened by this process. Thank you.

6. My clients, whom I learn so much from every time I meet with them, and whose courage is often remarkable.

7. Developmental psychology. You can read some of my other recent posts if you really want to know more about that one.

Thank you.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Of dynamic systems and walking

OK, so this is just one of those thoughts that keeps sticking in my head and I just can't seem to get past it. I find myself enamored by this notion of self as not some distinct "thing," but as process, as something that is actively constructed and constantly in flux.

It makes me think of Buddhism, actually, and discussions of things like breathing meditation or walking meditation. They have this notion that mindfulness to such simple actions brings peace, nurtures compassion, and deepens our insight into how all things are inter-dependent.

Which somehow fits, I think, with this notion of self as actively constructed, as emerging out of relationships with other people and our world. If we walk slowly and mindfully, peacefully, then perhaps we are relating to the world in a way that builds peace within us. If we are mindful of our interconnectedness, perhaps we grow in our awareness and appreciation for this fact.

If, on the other hand, we walk hastily, impatiently, demandingly...what then are the ways we are shaping ourselves to become?

It is a small thing to walk. But perhaps it is in doing these small things with regularity, purpose, and mindfulness that we grow most meaningfully.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Of Developmental Psychology and being "Born Again"

The respected developmental psychologist, Alan Fogel, wrote in his book Developing Through Relationships that, "Upon close examination, one finds that the workings of the mind and the ways in which we perceive and understand ourselves is remarkably like the form of our personal relationships. The life of the mind is a dialogue, most typically a verbal dialogue, between imagined pointes of view...To continue treating the mind as a disembodied relationless computational machine, as an objective thing inside the head, is to be blind to the evidence of one's own cognitive experience." He also writes, "Human cognition and the sense of self are fundamentally and originally relational."

I know. All of this probably sounds rather academic, perhaps even dull. But if you think about it, the implications are rather striking. What he is saying, in part, is that our sense of self is not a "thing" in and of itself, cut off from the outside world. Rather, our sense of self is deeply affected by our relationships, both present and past. In a profound sense, we co-create our sense of "self" out of our important relationships.

Which fits with experience, I think. I mean, I can think of relationships I've ended because I didn't like the person I was becoming.

Part of my reflections about this has been on the subject of just how important it is that we choose good people to be part of our lives, people who are kind, people who are loving and respectful. Because it is truly our "self" that can be affected. Surrounding ourselves with callous individuals, we risk becoming callous ourselves. On the other hand, being around those who are compassionate and caring nurtures those qualities in us.

The other thing I was thinking about is the notion that a relationship with God must mean that we open ourselves to "co-creating" our sense of ourself out of that relationship. We do more than worship, than praise, as important as these things may be. Our relationship pulls us to understand ourselves and our world in profoundly different ways, in ways that open us up more and more to be loving, compassionate, and kind.

Perhaps to "co-create" our sense of ourself through a relationship with God is part of what Jesus was getting at when he spoke of our being "born again." I like that idea, if for no other reason than I had previously written off the idea (it has just come to sound far too fundamentalistic for my tastes).

Monday, November 06, 2006

A trip to Houston

Airplane flights are one of those eerily unpredictable things in life. I got to the airport two hourse before my scheduled flight time, what with the security and the lines and such. And the weather in Omaha was beautiful. Sadly, the weather in Houston at that point was not so much beautiful as, say, downpourish. Like major thunderstorms of such severity that they grounded most of their flights. I ended up leaving about three hours later than I expected.

So I was sitting there with all these other travellers, sharing various grumblings about the delay, about connecting flights, about whether luggage would make it on said connecting flights. And there were the various attempts to get information, schedule different connecting flights, etc. The airline employee was this young guy, probably in his 20s, and you could just see his stress level rise over the course of the three hours.

I couldn't help but feel for the guy. This whole situation was entirely out of his control. Stressed, impatient clients were on his back, growing steadly more irritable with every new flight delay. Towards the end, he almost seemed at the end of his rope.

As I contemplated this, my perspective on the situation changed. It didn't matter so much that I might miss some of my favorite TV shows tonight, or that I might not get a dinner meal until later than I would like. Being "forced" to sit there with an incredibly dense book on Cognition and Social Context (I think that was the title) no longer seemed so much like a decade in purgatory.

As I boarded the plane, I turned to him and said simply "thank you for being so patient with us." I think my response bewildered him, although he said "oh yeah, no problem." You could see in his face that it wasn't what he was expecting.

I hope that my comment helped decrease his stress. But what really struck my attention was how this newfound empathy for him also decreased my own stress level. Something about gettint outside of my narrow view of these events, of this newfound compassion for him, brought a sense of peace.

May we all have more such experiences of peace. I daresay the world would be better for it.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

On why I posted tonight

So I came to my computer tonight because I was thinking that I was "getting behind" on my blog, that I should really write something. And as I sat down, I became aware of this strange sense of pressure to write something interesting or funny or meaningful. I even noticed myself tempted to just log off without posting anything when nothing that seemed "good enough" popped up in my head.

Which is interesting, really, that tendency to not communicate. I mean, I suppose to some extent there is a necessary degree of self-censorship we engage in on a daily basis. We hold back expressing certain reactions. Not to do so could invite relationship conflicts on the level of "Desparate Housewives." And many of us hold back in our lives, in our relationships, out of some sort of nameless or vaguely defined fear? How many feel somehow that they have to do so, that what is inside couldn't possibly be good enough, might even drive people away?

I understand and even encourage holding back certain thoughts for the sake of politeness, for a consideration of others' feelings. But I wonder whether more often the mistake is witholding so much of ourselves that we sacrifice genuineness in our relationships with spouses, friends, and perhaps even with God.

Perhaps we do so because it is that at our deepest levels we feel childlike, vulnerable, afraid, or weak. Perhaps we worry that we are alone in feeling this way or that others would judge us if they knew. Yet Jesus is said to have told his apostles that none can enter the Kingdom of Heaven without approaching it as a child.

Maybe Jesus was saying more than just something about how to get into heaven with that comment. Maybe he was pointing to the necessity to "be real" in this way with those closest to us, as well as with God. Perhaps in admitting weakness we become strong, in admitting ignorance we start to learn, in admitting our need for support we become capable of accepting it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


So today one of the gifts I received was the gift of a couple of hours alone with my six year old son, Patrick. I met him just after school, and (as usual) he was hungry for a snack. So we made microwave popcorn together. He helped open the bag, put it in the microwave, and waited patiently for it to finish.

Eating together, I was struck by the opportunities for togetherness. Little games would develop where we'd put popcorn in our mouths at the same time, pretend to eat it "like monsters," or drop it in our mouths. Just to be silly, we'd do unexpected things with the popcorn like putting it on our heads.

What was great for me was to be able to see how his mind was thinking. Like how he'd notice when something was different or silly, how he'd get in close to share a belly laugh, the care he took when we were trying to take a bite at the same time. Or how he'd respond to my comments of "that was fun" with a pause and then a "yeah!"

I don't yet really know what the future will bring for Patrick. I don't know whether the cognitive delays his teachers keep seeing will improve as we treat his autism, or if he will always struggle with them. I don't know how well he'll be able to read, or write, or think using abstractions. But today I looked at his beautiful face, eating popcorn with me, sharing this simple enjoyment. And somehow none of that mattered. Because if he could really be there with me, enjoying that moment, I knew he was making progress in the areas you need to be able to make friends.

My prayers today are full of gratitude.