The Therapist as a House Painter

Imagine this: you have lived in your home for a few years now. It’s comfortable, it’s familiar, it’s, well, home. But it could be better. It could be more pleasing to the eye. It could be updated. Now that you’ve lived in the home, you know what its flaws are and you know what needs to be fixed and well, you think that painting some of the rooms will make a big difference. You like the way the kitchen looks. It’s just about perfect, but the living room, aside from needing a touch-up on the magnolia colored walls should have one darker wall and you have decided on a terracotta color, and the guest bedroom, you have decided, would be nice in a mellow cantaloupe color. So you call up your local well-recommended painter who you heard about through the sister-in-law of the best friend of your butcher and you ask him to come over to give you an estimate on the two rooms.

He arrives and you ask if he has any experience painting beyond the work he did for your butcher’s best friend’s sister-in-law and he at first is a bit put off that you would even question his skill, but then tells you that he can do things with a paint brush that no one else has ever thought of. And you suppress a random thought about what he might mean, but you decide to proceed to tell him about the job you want him to do.

He looks at the kitchen and says, “Oh yeah, I see that this room really needs to be updated.” You say, “Actually, I like it the way it is.” He says, “You can’t be serious.” You ask him to please follow you into the living room and you tell him what you want done there. He tells you that you are right about a darker color, but really, you need a vibrant lime green. You tell him, no, you have decided on terracotta. He becomes insistent. You finally tell him that you need some time to think things through. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.

Once he leaves, you decide to call another painter because you want him to do for you what YOU want. After all, you are paying and you will be the one who is living with the results.

Now imagine this: You walk into a therapist’s office and you say that you are having a problem with anxiety about a job interview. Your therapist, already feeling threatened by your insistence on knowing what his qualifications are, tells you that you don’t really need to prepare for job interviews; you need to examine your childhood and discover why you have this difficulty with presenting yourself to authority figures and where it was that you missed developing healthy self-esteem.

Well, if you are like most clients, you will not walk out. You will think “he’s the expert and so he must know better.” Well, that is not entirely true. In fact, you are the expert on what’s bothering you and what you think a good solution might be. You are not hiring the therapist to do the job HE wants to do. You are hiring him to do the job YOU need done! He is a house painter. He needs to paint the house the colors YOU want on the walls YOU choose. He is in your employ and you do not have to go forward with his agenda. He needs to respect your agenda and priorities.

I believe that people are the experts on themselves. When they are faced with a challenge that is too difficult for them to face alone, they come for help. But they are the ones who determine what they want and need. And we, the therapists, are the house painters.

Our Chanuka Miracle

Imagine this:

It is the third day of Chanuka. It is too cool to stay outside for a long period of time, although compared the Chanuka holidays we remember celebrating in the northeastern United States, it’s absolutely balmy. Nonetheless, the family decides that indoors is the place to be.

But we aren’t in Kansas anymore… Everyone here is celebrating Chanuka. The children have school vacation. There are activities for children at just about every public institution. The museums, parks, and malls all have art workshops and donut making and singers and dancers. And every family in the country wants to participate. And from my experience of past years, they all do. Simultaneously. In the same location.

And all of them are smart enough to figure out that if the weather is not warm, the best place to be is indoors, thereby making any indoor activity crowded to the gills and worthy of the term “balagan.”

So here were are, faced with a dilemma. Where can we (10 adults and 20 children) go to be together where we will not be crowded and where we can actually enjoy being together without being pushed, stepped on, or shouted at (to say nothing of the prospect of being smoked upon…)

One of my daughters-in-law and I had discussed this question a week or so ago and she had said something like, “the best thing would be to meet at someone’s house, but no one would be stupid enough to offer their house.” Those may not have been her exact words, but that was the impression her words made on me. I of course replied, “OK, I’ll do it.”

The participants:

Our five children, three of their spouses, and their collective 20 children consisting of
2 12 year olds,
4 9 year olds,
1 8 year old,
2 7 year olds,
1 6 year old,
1 5 year old,
1 4 year old
3 3 year olds
1 2 year old
2 1 year olds
2 children under the age of 1

Well, the truth is, it turned out better than anyone could have imagined. I had set up four different activity areas for the children and in fact, they almost exclusively used the arts and crafts area which was located in our sunroom. The older ones helped the younger ones and all of the children were amazingly content and well-behaved the entire time.

From start to finish, we had the family with us for about 6 hours and all of it was pleasant. That might count as our Chanuka miracle.

If you would like to see some pictures of our day, they are available at http://michelson.shutterfly.com/action/?a=9AYs2rJi2csLy

Oh Little Town of Modi’in

This is “where it’s at.” Modi’in is the place where Judah Maccabee and the Hasmoneans began their battle to return the temple to Jewish worship. Modi’in, a place literally located at the crossroads of history. The way to Jerusalem passed by our doorstep. On the mountain across the street, there were lookouts, always at the ready to warn the people who lived there of invasion. On this mountain there are over 150 cisterns, an entire system designed to provide water to the people who lived there. There is a Byzantine church. There are ruins from the Stone Age. And, there is the fine tradition of a people who refused to bow to their conquerors and remained strong when passive compliance was the easiest course.

Each year as I read about and think about Hanuka, I wonder what is really the message for us. Is it the victory of the few over the many? Is it the story of the miracle of the oil? What is the message that can speak to us in our day?

For me, the message is loud and clear. The easiest thing for Jews in countries of the Diaspora to do is to comply, to be like the rest of the Americans, French, Italians, British—not to “make a big fuss” about keeping kosher or observing shabbat. Yet, those who we think of as brave took the harder road. They felt that we had something very precious to preserve. And they persisted. They risked everything, even their lives, to preserve what was precious to them—to show their devotion to their God and their people.

In Israel, the easiest thing is to just give in to the international pressures that tell us that we don’t have the right to live in security. They tell us that we don’t need those humiliating roadblocks that have saved the lives of countless Israelis– Jews, Christians, and Muslims– after all, the need for Arab dignity is more important than preserving innocent lives. The easiest thing was for Sharon to give the Arabs a gift by throwing innocent people out of their homes in Gaza, homes some had built with their own hands and lived in for thirty years—dropping them off at hotels, depriving them of their livelihoods, showing the world how easy it is to destroy a Jewish community. That was easy. Standing up for one’s beliefs, commitments, and principles is what is difficult.

An article in the Jerusalem Post talks about one woman’s struggle with a school system in the US that contrary to law was teaching the children Xmas carols. The comments others made to her article were disturbing. Many of those who commented told her to just take it easy—what’s the big deal—doesn’t she have other things in her life to deal with? It is precisely those comments that point up the real message of Hanuka—that we do have something worth preserving, that we are not the same as everyone else, that we will not cede our traditions and belief because keeping them is uncomfortable or unpopular.

From the point of view of family life, it is a similar lesson. If we have values we want our children to hold dear, we must not yield or take the path of least resistance when their friends are influencing them to do something we do not believe is good or safe or moral. “Everyone else” may be wrong. We need to hold fast to what we believe in and not take the easy way. For me, that is the real message of Hanuka.

Oy Little Town of Bethlehem

In 1978, we went to Bethlehem. My husband and I and our five children packed into a taxi and among other places, visited the Church of the Nativity. We took some pictures so that my husband’s colleagues, Christian chaplains, would be able to see the church as we experienced it. It was on a summer’s day that was bright and sunny and very hot. As we bent down to enter the church through the very short door, we felt the coolness of the church’s interior. What I remember most was the silence and peace of the place. We were the only tourists at the time and after spending a couple of minutes, we left.

About ten years later, we drove through Bethlehem, this time in a private car. The first intifada had already broken out and we all knew to ride without seatbelts through Bethlehem so that were we to be shot at or firebombed, we could escape the car quickly.

As the years passed, the Oslo accords turned Bethlehem over to the Palestinian Authority. Visitors to Rachel’s tomb, the tomb of one of the matriarchs of the Bible, on the outskirts of Bethlehem were stoned and fired upon by Palestinians necessitating the building of heavy walls around the tomb to safeguard the visitors. This, even though Rachel’s Tomb was left in Israeli hands.

A couple of years ago a bunch of terrorists barricaded themselves inside the Church of the Nativity and shot at Israeli troops from inside. After a long stand-off, Israel was persuaded to export some of the terrorists to Europe where they were to be closely monitored and others were to be jailed in Jericho under the watchful eyes of the Americans. Most of them are now free and unaccounted for.

During the most recent intifada, Christian Arabs, residents of Bethlehem and the areas surrounding it, have left, fearful of their Muslim neighbors who threatened their existence. Hal Lindsey writes about the phenomenon at http://www.hallindseyoracle.com/articles.asp?HLCA=Next&HLC=12190

Israelis can no longer drive through Bethlehem and foreign tourists we spoke with recently express fear at visiting the Church of the Nativity.

There are those who believe that the war being fought against Israel and the Jewish people would end if all of the land of Israel were turned over to the Arabs. However, for those who look carefully, it becomes clear that the war is not just against Israel; it is against the Christians too and any who are not ready to accept the most radical forms of Islam.

And peaceful little Bethlehem has become the symbol of the innocent victims of the hatred and terror.

We’re on the same team

I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know how to stop it. But I can tell you that one of the most powerful forces working against a good marriage is competition. I have observed, over the years, dozens if not hundreds of young couples embroiled in marital discord. He is unhappy with her. She is unhappy with him. He tells me how she is inadequate and she tells me that if I want to really know what inadequate is, I should spend a day with him.

Sometimes they sit there in my office and it seems as if both husband and wife have as the goal for the session to show me how superior they are to their mate.

And I wonder. Why does one have to be right and one wrong? Why can’t both be happy with the other. Sure her hair gets in the drain and her pantyhose are always draped over the shower door when he’s about to run a shower. But look again and you’ll see his socks on the floor and the stubble from his beard in the sink.

Even if the couple doesn’t squabble, their competition can come out in other destructive ways. The most destructive of these is the inability to appreciate the other. After all, if this person is your competitor, how can you enjoy his/her achievements? How can you appreciate when he/she is praised by others. Doesn’t that mean that he/she has scored a point over you? Such partners actually resent the other’s achievements.

At some point in marriage, there needs to be a realization that the two of you are a team. You are working together to make a full and rich life. It is, of course, not a competition, but in fact, a cooperative effort and therefore one’s success is good for the other.

Years ago when women first entered the workforce as professionals in large numbers, there was a phenomenon of men becoming angry and resentful of their wives’ success. The man would feel upstaged by a woman whose earning power exceeded his. When I mentioned the phenomenon to my husband, he commented, “Let’s give it a try!”

It is only when each person begins to see the other as an asset and not a competitor that couples can really become strong and feel secure. When a husband takes pride in his wife’s achievements in her home and professional life and a woman similarly appreciates her husband’s accomplishments in his life, then both feel loved and secure and both can enjoy the fruits of their labor. Praise and appreciation from others feels good. Praise and appreciation from a spouse is a precious gift that only a spouse can give.

Oprah

Here in Israel, we are able to receive television programming from other parts of the world, but often we see the programs weeks, months, or even years later than they originally were broadcast. All of this is to explain that the other day while “riding” a stationary bike at the health club, I saw an Oprah program that is probably not one that has been recently broadcast in the US.

On this program there were several couples that had one thing in common. In each, the husband was gay and had hidden that fact from his wife. In addition, all of the men had had liaisons with males during their marriage. As you might imagine, it was a fascinating show. Oprah asked all of the questions that curious people might want to ask including the most important one: Did the wife suspect anything? The answer in all cases was “no.”

All of this was interesting, perhaps inviting her audience to be voyeuristic, but isn’t that what TV is all about? However, it was where she went with the program that worries me.

She conducted an interview with a gay single man who showed on TV how easy it was to be propositioned over the internet by married gay men. In a period of several minutes, he had received something like five invitations. Then Oprah stated that there are millions of gay men married to women who have no suspicions of it. She said that many of you women in the viewing audience are likely to be married to gay men who are hiding the fact from you. She spoke in a very authoritative manner. People trust her. I was appalled.

Does she not realize what she did? Millions of women watch her, respect her, and buy books and products she recommends. Now, armed with frightening statistics, even assuming they are correct, she tells these women that they might find out that their husbands are gay. How many women from that moment on felt some doubt about their husbands? How many women began to rifle through their husbands’ pockets, wallets, and drawers? How many women began to question their husbands? How many women who used to feel safe and secure in their marriage are now wondering if and when they will find they’ve been duped.

It is one thing to present a problem on television. It is quite another to suggest to people that something over which they have no control and which affects the rest of their lives may be happening behind their back. Inducing paranoia is not healthy for a family or for a society.

Sorry Oprah, this time you made one colossal mistake.

Marriage and MAF

So you are married. Your spouse is the person you chose to spend your life with—a rather big and important decision. He or she does lots of things that make you feel valued and happy and some things that make you feel disappointed or embarrassed. Welcome to the real world!

All of us have married human beings. Human beings tend to be generous, kind, clever, funny, helpful, caring, and sweet. Human beings also are HUMAN. They make mistakes. They aren’t always as compassionate, considerate, or thoughtful as others sometimes wish they were.

So we find fault. We look at the human failings and we are appalled.

“How could you say that if you really love me!”
“What were you thinking!”

And our poor human partner is thinking, “Huh? What did I do now!”

And that is the way that arguments begin. The hurt one needs not just an admission of guilt from the other, but an apology.

Now that is a problem. There is one gender whose apology gene is recessive. It has to come from both its mother and its father and people of that gender who have such a gene are very rare. There are people from the other gender who also have great difficulty coming to grips with their imperfection.

So what is one to do?

There is one strategy that can be used. It is akin to the Cold War strategy of mutually assured destruction. In that case, the threat of destruction to both sides kept each from attacking the other.

In a marriage, what is needed is mutually assured forgiveness (MAF). That is, that as long as each is acting in good faith and means to do the right thing, the other will agree not to dwell on a thoughtless action.

Such a policy can lead to (MAH) mutually assured happiness. Try it; you’ll like it.

Words fail me

Sometimes I know exactly what I want to say and how I want to say it. Sometimes, like now, I have no idea how to convey what is circulating in my brain.

This week I went to see a friend. She had just suffered an unspeakable tragedy. When I saw her I understood in a new way what grief was. Her face was blank and she looked a bit dazed. Her body was bent and still. She looked, most of all, vulnerable. She is, as I have experienced her, a completely unpretentious and “real” person, yet her tragedy had still stripped her of any pretense and she was unable to relate to anything other than her tragedy. She spoke in a gentle, thoughtful voice. She spoke in a deep, reflective manner. She was completely in the moment, totally engaged in her retelling of recent events and her response to them.

I felt for her not only a profound sadness, but a profound respect. She was, during that visit, the purest, holiest soul I have ever encountered.

And that is why I am confused. Because in her pain and sadness, I found the beauty of God’s presence.

May God comfort her among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Being a grownup

What does it mean to be a grownup?

Let’s start with forgiveness. There are many people who are angry—at their mother for not loving them enough when they were young, at their father for expecting too much from them, at their sister for being Daddy’s favorite, at their brother for always being the one to show off, at a friend for failing to be sensitive to their feelings. I could go on and on. People have lots of reasons to be angry with other people. After all, we are stuck in a world of imperfect people, all having needs, all trying to do the best we can, and all often failing to be as kind or sensitive or caring as we could be. And so, if you are in a relationship with someone—a family member or a friend, that other person will inevitably hurt you. And, by the way, you will inevitably hurt him or her. Sometimes we just don’t tune into the implications of our behavior and no one is immune to that failing.

So what do you do with it? Well, old style psychology insisted that you take the hurt to the person, state how the incident affected you, and then hoped that what would ensue would be a recognition of the other that he or she had hurt you and an apology and a reconciliation. That is really a nice idea. It works. In the movies.

In real life, a thoughtless action, an unkind word, ignoring another or pressing one’s point of view too hard are not always thought of by the person who has done these things as something awful. Their responses might be something like,

“I didn’t mean it.”
“You should have known I was kidding.”
“You’re getting all upset over nothing.”
“You’re too sensitive.”
“You always blow things out of proportion.”
“That’s nothing compared to what you did to me.”

And so, that expected resolution frequently doesn’t happen. People who then push and push until there is a resolution, often are disappointed and end up feeling even worse. People who do not pursue it often retain the right to remain angry.

Now let’s look at that anger:
What good is it doing? Well, it’s making one feel like they are evening the score. The underlying message is, “You hurt me—I’ll hurt you.” Is that smart? Well, not really. Is hurting someone with whom you have an ongoing relationship a very smart thing? I don’t think so. How then does that impact on others who must be around the two of you? How does it make you feel inside, really, to be angry? Most people don’t feel comfortable when they are angry. Anger increases tension, adds to our stress, and makes ugly lines on our faces while we are still young. Is it worth it? What about being the grownup and simply forgiving and letting it go.

Clients I have worked with have reported feeling physically lighter and able to breathe more deeply once they let go of their anger. They learned to see their kind gesture toward to others as something that made them themselves better people. They removed the awkwardness of their friends and relatives having to choose sides.

Is it possible to feel close to someone once you have given up the anger? Well, it depends on the person. If the person is just awkward and sometimes really loses it, then probably yes. Probably you can decide that since he or she is a basically good person, that you will try to not become emotional about their behavior in the future. If the person is truly an unpleasant person who you must interact with on a continuing basis such as a family member, then you need to think about how you can guard yourself from becoming emotionally injured by them while at the same time realizing that other people in the family will resent living in a battlefield should you choose not to forgive. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give ourselves and others is forgiveness. And that is part of being a grownup.

Messages in a tube

On Thursday I began to think about writing an entry on photographs. I had in mind a particular photograph of my older daughter. The piece was to be about how a photo of a little girl is only that. It carries with it no emotion, no context, no meanings. But when I think about the picture, I remember that it was taken in Wiesbaden, Germany, on May 9, the day before her ninth birthday. She was dressed in a pretty dress and had a too big ribbon in her hair. Her look was melancholy.

“Rachel,” my mother said, “Why are you looking sad; we are celebrating your birthday.”

Rachel responded, “I’m sad because I have the chickenpox and my birthday isn’t until tomorrow.”

“But you know why we are celebrating your birthday today,” my mother said.

“Yes,” Rachel replied, “because tomorrow you are going back to America.”

As I remembered the interchange, I too became sad. I felt my daughter’s impending loss of her grandparents for an indeterminate time. I felt my own loss of them from my life.

And that was to be the article, about the difference in perceptions and feelings that people have about their own photographs until…

Yesterday when I was dressing, I took my mother’s locket and put it around my neck and fastened it and had another memory. She was visiting us and wearing the locket. My youngest son, Akiva, asked to see the pictures inside. She opened it up and there were pictures of Ben and Rachel, my two oldest children, her oldest grandchildren. Akiva asked where his picture was. My mother said, “You are right, Kiwi (her nickname for him); I am going to get another locket and put Sammy’s picture and your picture in it.” I am sure she meant to do that, but she never did.

And then this morning, I began to understand what was happening. While riding the stationary bike at the gym on Thursday, I saw a show on the Hallmark station called “The Locket.” It was about a young man whose mother dies and who later forms a connection with an old lady who helps him with his priorities in life. She has a locket with a picture of herself and the man whom she had loved which spurs a story of her lost love. It is through her pictures and films of her life that the pathos of lost love comes through.

I realized that I had been affected on several levels by the film—by the loss of the man’s mother, by the pictures of life gone by, by the locket.

And then I began to think about the fact that at my age I have fairly well-developed defenses. Defenses strengthen as the years go by and very little creeps into the subconscious on it own, yet here I was being affected by a movie I had seen just part of on television while I was doing something else.

And then I began to think of all of the people who think that limiting a child’s viewing of television or movies is unnecessary. How much could it affect them? Well, I am more convinced than ever that it can affect them. The children themselves may not even be aware of the messages that are absorbed, but they are there.

A long time ago I began to think that there are images and concepts that pollute the soul. I still believe that is true. I think that most parents want to protect their children from the truly evil and deranged, from blood and gore, from things that are not ennobling. What I think now is that a bit too much caution is a lot better than not enough. Guard their souls and yours. All of us are vulnerable.