Seeing the best in life's challenges

The Gift of Fear

A friend gave me this book by Gavin de Becker sometime in 2007.  I know it was then because I finished reading it while visiting friends in Alameda that fall.

I was initially a little hesitant about the book, because the title seems to say that fear is a good thing, and I happen to think overcoming fear is really important.  But what I found, is that this book provides a really good analysis of the subject.  Some of what we call fear is extremely important to us, and some can be very counter-productive.

The scenario described in the beginning of the book, from the perspective of a young boy facing a scary situation, is really powerful.  De Becker has a seemingly natural ability to remained detached and unemotional when examining situations that would evoke powerful reactions from most people.  He has taken this ability and turned it into a very successful business, a “consulting firm that advises at-risk individuals on situations that might escalate to violence.”

(About the same time, I read the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.  There were some interesting overlaps in content, and I still sometimes forget what was in which book.)

The book points out that certain fears are good for us.   They help us to survive.  These are the bad feelings we get in our gut, when we are experiencing a situation or interacting with a person.

It also lists behaviors to look for, that are warning signs of impending violence.  To me these were recognizable signs of manipulative behavior.

Society teaches us rules, what we should and shouldn’t do.  Unfortunately, we are not taught to listen to our instincts or to trust ourselves.  In particular, many women are taught to be nice, to get along, not to create conflict no matter what.  Women, especially when it comes to interactions with men, learn to ignore their instincts and fear signals.

We’re talking about our built-in “shit detector” as a friend of mine calls it.

De Becker also talks about the fears that are not useful to us.  The fear of something that MIGHT happen or the expectation that bad things are coming — this is not useful fear, it is really anxiety and worry.  And anxiety and worry only distort our ability to take advantage of the gift of true fear.

For me, becoming more aware about the differences between real fear, and worry and anxiety is really helpful, especially in how I decide to raise my kids.  I’m a huge fan of Lenore Skenazy and her book Free Range Kids.  (That’s another topic I’ll have to write about…)

De Becker’s analysis is directly applicable to how we teach our kids to protect themselves.  The “helicopter” parents, who do everything to try to protect their kids from what MIGHT happen are really full of anxiety and worry, not true fear.  Unwittingly, they cripple the very children they are trying to protect, by teaching them to be anxious and worry about possibilities, rather than empowering them to recognize true fear by listening to their instincts.


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No more mistakes and you’re through!

Another find from the recent “cleaning binge”, is an article I saved from Forbes Magazine, from May 16, 1988.  It’s an article about John Cleese – yes, the Monty Python guy.

The article is about corporate culture, and a speech that Cleese made entitled “The Importance of Mistakes.”  Here are some quotes from Cleese:

“I want to suggest to you that unless we have a tolerant attitude toward mistakes—I might almost say a positive attitude toward them—we shall be behaving irrationally, unscientifically and unsuccessfully.”

“It’s self-evident that if we can’t take the risk of saying or doing something wrong our creativity goes right out the window.  Because the essence of creativity is not the possession of some special talent, it is much more the ability to “play.”

“For a group to function more creatively, people must lose their inhibitions.  They must gain the confidence to contribute spontaneously to what’s happening, and the inhibition arises because of the fear of looking foolish.  Yes!  It’s nothing more than the fear of making mistakes.”

Cleese talks about how viewing mistakes as “bad” leads to either denial or rationalization, or concealing them.  When this happens, when mistakes “go underground”, they are harder to fix.

“Now we reach the real problem.  If all the evidence from business, science and psychology suggests that the best results are obtained by risking mistakes, and by having a positive attitude toward them when they occur, why are we all so nervous about making them?”

“I’m sure that the answer is quite simply that we all have these ridiculous things called egos.  Once you’ve got an ego, you want to be right.”

So, my question is, how do I view mistakes?  (even big ones or really “bad” ones?)  Do I pretend they didn’t happen?  Do I make myself believe that, well, I didn’t really mean it anyway, and so it doesn’t really matter?  Do I keep them to myself?

It’s unrealistic to think that I will never make a mistake.  I’ve made plenty.  It’s just the way life is.  If I am afraid to take chances, act on a hunch, take a leap of faith, do something crazy every once in a while….well, where will that get me?  If I can overcome the fear of making mistakes, and be willing to face the inevitable feedback of making a mistake, I will learn from the ones I make and I will get better at avoiding the pitfalls.  I won’t be afraid to TRY.

Then, the next step is that I will become tolerant of the mistakes of others.  I will remember that we as human beings have this in common.  I will be less quick to judge another.

Seeing mistakes this way is part of the process of moving past the mindset of “right” and “wrong”.  I’ve said it before, the fastest way to stall your ability to learn from a situation is to get stuck in the process of figuring out who to blame.  If you find yourself using phrases like “They should know better,” and “I can’t believe that he/she would do this or that,” stop and ask yourself if there’s another way to look at the situation.

I am NOT saying we shouldn’t evaluate our actions and avoid making the same mistakes over again.  We ARE talking about mistakes here – all of us do things that, in hindsight, we hope we wouldn’t do again if we had that chance.  (This thinking occurs when we have learned from our mistakes!)

There’s that definition of insanity that goes something like “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.”  If you do not face your mistakes and evaluate them, life will continue to present you will the same opportunity to learn, again and again, until you deal with the feedback and make some adjustments.

The next step in the process is to SHARE your mistakes.  As Cleese says, “The most effective way that we can create an atmosphere of tolerance and positiveness toward mistakes is, of course, to model it.”


Personality Tests

I’ve always loved personality tests.  They fascinate me.  In case anyone hasn’t picked up on this yet, I love to think about, analyze, research and understand things.  Ok, I’m kind of obsessive about it.

Maybe the most valuable class I took in college was a counseling class, the course you had to take to become a Resident Assistant.  It was a small class, maybe 8 of us with a professor and a teaching assistant.  Among many other exercises and discussions, we had to write out answers to questions about why we had the ideas and beliefs that we had, an exercise that I don’t think most people, especially 19 year olds, go through.  It got me thinking about self-awareness.

One day in class we were talking about first impressions, and how they can be misleading.  Person by person, the group gave their (really honest) first impressions of each of us, then how that impression changed once they got to know you.  Even though this was a “safe” environment, it was still a somewhat uncomfortable process, I think because it is rare for others to be that blunt.  You didn’t know what to expect.

I remember that what they said about me was, that their first impression is that I didn’t stand for anything, that I just always agreed with people.  (If you know me well, I can hear you laughing!)  But, they said once they got to know me, they realized that wasn’t the case.

So, I’m thinking about all this over the weekend, because of a comment made to me recently that I should be more cooperative and less concerned about getting my own way.  I felt misunderstood, but then I started asking myself if I was missing something…

For a while now, I have been looking for the results of the Taylor-Johnson personality test my husband and I did over 20 years ago.  So, I’m cleaning out stuff in the attic on Saturday, and guess what I come across – the red and blue binders with the results!

The pastor of our church at the time, had a PhD in counseling, and he did a marriage enrichment class and gave us the test.  What made it really interesting, is that you filled out the test for yourself, then you filled it out for your spouse.  So, it told you how you see yourself, and how your spouse sees you.  Blunt, honest feedback from the person that probably knows you best.

(Not all couples saw each other the same way.  I can’t remember who it was, but some couples were pretty agitated by this.  Our results were pretty close, or at least trended consistently, so that was a good thing.)

This test took 9 sets of traits and their opposites, and gave you a score between 1 and 100.  Your results were graphed, and the template had a band of “excellent” which was the optimum range for that type of trait, and lighter bands of “Acceptable” and “improvement needed”.

What popped out at me this time when I looked at my profile, was that I scored myself 97% Expressive-Responsive – meaning spontaneous, affectionate, demonstrative.  The opposite trait is Inhibited – restrained, unresponsive, repressed.  With people I know, I love to connect, communicate, express my opinion, give my point of view. I don’t hold back. And I like to be understood, so I can go on too long, repeating what is by now obvious to the other person.

At the same time, I scored in the “Improvement Needed” range as Submissive, as opposed to Dominant.  I suspect that in the last 20 years, I have grown and made improvement in this category – but still, I know it is my basic nature.  (FYI my husband scored me more Submissive than I did.)

So, my classmates had picked up on my Quiet (that’s another one), extremely Tolerant and Submissive personality as a first impression.  As we got to know each other better, and I inevitably started expressing and responding, they saw that there was more there than first met the eye.

But I can see that, if you only saw me Expressing and Responding, it would be easy to assume I am also domineering, and always have to get my way.  And I even think my husband misunderstands this at times.  I just want to be heard and understood, but I don’t always have to get my way.  If anything, I’ve had to learn to not be as submissive as I used to be.

I could go on and on about just that one test.  I’ve taken others.  I always find them fascinating and a good way to self-reflect.  They remind me that, it is very easy to make assumptions about people, even your spouse, but they aren’t always quite right.  If we want to have strong and healthy relationships with others, it is a huge help to first understand yourself, and then work to understand others.

But right now, what I’m thinking is more important, is allowing yourself to be open to how others see you. It’s very easy to get scared or defensive, especially when you feel misunderstood.  But to resist the fear, and instead self-reflect, is a wonderful exercise. You might indeed be misunderstood, or your friend might have a valid point.  Probably the truth lies somewhere in between.  If you are willing, it’s not that hard to figure out.

Getting honest feedback from another is rare, and it is a gift.  Few friends or even spouses will be totally honest with you, especially when it’s something you might not want to hear.  If you allow yourself to listen and consider, then you just might learn something.

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Joe Paterno’s Final Exam

Let’s talk about Joe.

First, I have to vent about a pet peeve of mine – the oft-repeated explanation that we called him JoePa because he was a father figure.  Umm, no.  If you went to Penn State, you know the cheer – “When I say Joe Pa, You say ‘Terno. “ Yes, it’s just the first two syllables of his name.  Yes, I guess you could say Joe was a father-type figure, but that’s just not why the nickname, people.

I also don’t think it’s accurate to say that Penn Staters idolized Joe.  That’s not the right word, because what Joe always stood for was the opposite of idolizing.  We ADMIRED him, and greatly, specifically because he was someone who would NOT be idolized.  He valued hard work, honesty, humility, doing the right thing as best you could.

I think it’s just very difficult for those outside the Penn State community to understand how deep and meaningful Joe’s integrity was to all of us.  On the surface, the tailgates, the face paint, the cheers, the obsessiveness of fans, well, the behavior looks just the same as all the other sports fans out there.

I knew a lot of the football players in the early 80s, since I lived in Centre Halls for 4 years and we ate in the same cafeteria.  These were guys that I’m sure weren’t any different from any other group of athletes of college age.  A variety of personalities and backgrounds…some I have very fond memories of and others I thought were jerks.  I remember how they would make fun of the coach, imitating his high voice.

My point is, the football program wasn’t some fantasyland where everybody thought the coach could do no wrong, where the players were all put on a pedestal.  They weren’t a group that seemed untouchable.  Rather, they were a group of regular human beings who happened to have athletic talent, coached and mentored by a man who pushed them to do their best on and off the field.

My favorite inspirational example of what was made possible in this atmosphere was the friendship between Todd Blackledge and Curt Warner.  They were roommates and two of our best players.  But what you have to understand is, back then Penn State was not exactly a place where blacks and whites mixed easily.  I actually remember being pretty surprised when I got there, at how backward race relations were at the time.  But Todd and Curt were close, and their friendship served as a really nice example of how we could and should get along.

I was not really good friends with them, and I doubt they would remember me.  But I was friends with another player, Guiseppe Harris, and one night we were walking home from fraternity parties in a group that included Todd and Curt.  As we passed Skull House, we saw this girl hovered over a guy passed out on the front lawn.  Turns out she was a nursing student and he was in bad shape.

It would have been very easy for the star quarterback and star running back to keep walking.  But that’s not what happened.  Curt went and got his car, and we all squeezed in and took the guy to the hospital.  We waited until they said he would be ok.  That was 30 years ago, but still when I think about their lack of hesitation in helping some stranger they didn’t know, who could easily have puked all over the car (he didn’t), I feel great admiration.  This is the kind of character that Coach Paterno modeled and promoted in his players.  This is why I loved the football program at Penn State.

So now, take the life’s work of a man who did the very best he could to work hard, do the right thing, mentor young athletes, and make a positive impact on his school and community.  Seemingly a perfect life.  Then add Jerry Sandusky.

A friend of mine just yesterday shared a quote from the movie Red Tails.  It goes like this:

“Experience is a cruel teacher.  It gives the exam first, then the lesson.”

The way I see it, we were given a very tough exam this fall, through the events that affected the last few months of Joe Paterno’s life.

The exam was all about integrity and abuse, judgment and forgiveness, right and wrong, and how we react to the sometimes horrible reality of life.

So, what’s the lesson?

Well, it’s easy to avoid the tough work of figuring that out, and to just conclude that this was a really BAD exam.  Any prof that would give that kind of exam should not be in the teaching profession!  What a horrible exam, no one should be subjected to that kind of thing!  Who approved giving that exam!  Get rid of that guy!  This situation just should not exist!!

Can you see how easy it is to focus on where to place blame, rather than focusing on learning the lesson(s)?

The other attribute of this kind of exam is, you grade your own.  If you are up to the task of learning the lesson, the first step is to examine your own reaction (NOT someone else’s!) to the situation.

If you read about Coach Paterno’s reaction in recent interviews, you can see that he was reflective and thinking about his own actions and what he would have done differently.  He was working on the lesson.  He wasn’t avoiding the lesson by looking for someone to blame.

I am in awe of what Coach Paterno sacrified in the last few months. Like it or not, we were forced to take the exam.  Let’s not waste the opportunity to learn from the experience.

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It’s All Metaphor

I’ve always thought, that if we could adequately describe God in human terms, well, that God would be pretty disappointing.  A Sunday School understanding of God tells us that God is all-knowing, God is Love, God is everywhere at once, God is inside of us….none of this makes any sense in the world as we know it.

But each one of us has had experiences where we have touched God.  The joy of seeing a loved one who has been away for a while, seeing a baby smile or laugh, hearing beautiful music, watching a sunset, that moment when you know all is right with the world….

Humans want to understand, they want to explain.  But the only way to really describe God is through metaphor.  This is how I look at all the world’s religions and traditions that attempt to explain what God is.  They all get close, but they are only metaphor.  You can know God, but you can’t put God into words.

So, isn’t it ironic that we as humans argue semantics when it comes to religion?  Instead of feeling and knowing the essence of God, and accepting that God cannot be put into a neat, human box, we argue about the details.  We will never get the details “right”, because that’s not the point.

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Paradigms and Assumptions

Paradigm:  A set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them. 

Each of us has a unique way of viewing and interpreting life here on Earth.  Based on personal experience, and our family of origin and that family’s views of the world, the culture we live in or the cultures we are exposed to, we make decisions and interpret events based on our own personal paradigm.

We are all aware that many assumptions we make are not the same as those held by others.  But there are also assumptions about the world that very few ever question.

In history, some assumptions were widely held, and when someone dared to question them, great fear and condemnation resulted.  The Earth is round, not flat…..the Earth revolves around the Sun…  These “facts” seem simple and universal now, but when they were first asserted, it was a really big deal.

So, it makes me wonder, what assumptions do we hold dear, that we are not even aware of?  If one of these assumptions were called into question, would that scare us?

Here’s my favorite example.  The assumption is, that the ground beneath our feet does not move.  A pretty reliable assumption — not something we ever think about, right?

So, I lived in California for a while.  Even though I had felt earthquakes, this still never really made me think about whether the ground was going to move or not….these were just minor disturbances that I could ignore.

THEN, I experienced the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.  The ground didn’t move just a little, it moved A LOT.  Yes, it was a dramatic experience for a lot of reasons, but it didn’t fully hit me until a few months later when I was in Virginia at a shopping mall.

I was on the second floor of the mall, on one of those “bridges” between the two sides, where it’s open to the floor below.  Well, do you know those areas “flex” and move?  I would be willing to bet that very few people ever notice this fact, as most people are very secure with the assumption that the ground beneath your feet just doesn’t move…..even though it does.  We just know we can ignore this minor exception to the rule.

But since that assumption had been shattered for me, I was very aware of the possibility that the ground CAN move, and when it happened, I FELT it!

What other basic assumption might I have that, despite subtle (or not so subtle) evidence to the contrary, I continue to believe without questioning?

What if…..all is not as it seems???

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What to do…

So, the blogging has been quiet since before Christmas.  Partly that’s due to the busy schedule this time of year, we went out of town for a week….but I’m also conflicted.  I feel like I have a lot to share, too much, actually, that it’s hard to focus and decide what to write about.

But I am also conflicted…is this what I am really supposed to be doing?

I’m a little shy about this.  I don’t want anyone to think that I think I know it all.  I am not an expert.  I don’t want anyone thinking I am telling anyone what to do.  On the other hand, I am driven to share, driven to be understood.  At the same time, I have concluded it is almost impossible to communicate who I really am, almost impossible for anyone to really understand who I am.

I do believe that life is full of paradox and conundrum, and really, I am ok with it.

Then, today, I got my first follower.  Actually made me tear up.

So, I think I am going to keep going.

Thanks.  You know who you are 🙂  LOL

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