Feb 03

“Wintering” by Katherine May: Selected Quotes

A recent book that’s perfect for today’s world is Katherine Mays Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. Although we’re currently in the actual season known as winter, wintering in May’s book is not necessarily what you readily imagine it to be.

Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure. Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds. Some wintering creep upon us more slowly, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new. However, it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.

Selected Quotes from Wintering

Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered.

Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.

If happiness is a skill, then sadness is, too. Perhaps through all those years at school, or perhaps through other terrors, we are taught to ignore sadness, to stuff it down into our satchels and pretend it isn’t there. As adults, we often have to learn to hear the clarity of its call. That is wintering. It is the active acceptance of sadness. It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can. Wintering is a moment of intuition, our true needs felt keenly as a knife.

We seem to be living in an age when we’re bombarded with entreaties to be happy, but we’re suffering from an avalanche of depression. We’re urged to stop sweating the small stuff, yet we’re chronically anxious. I often wonder if these are just normal feelings that become monstrous when they’re denied. A great deal of life will always suck. There will be moments when we’re riding high and moments when we can’t bear to get out of bed. Both are normal. Both in fact require a little perspective.

There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it all seems impossibly hard. To make that manageable, we only have to remember that our present will one day become a past, and our future will be our present. We know that, because it’s happened before. The things we put behind us will often come around again. The things that trouble us now will one day be past history. Each time we endure the cycle, we ratchet up a notch. We learn from the last time around, and we do a few things better this time; we develop tricks of the mind to see us through. This is how progress is made. But one thing is certain: we will simply have different things to worry about. We will have to clench our teeth and carry on surviving again. In the meantime, we can only deal with what’s in front of us at this moment in time. We take the next necessary action, and the next. At some point along the line, that next action will feel joyful again.

May 31

Commencement Speeches from the Mental Health Field

…Commencement speeches typically draw on timeless themes of optimism, goodness, and altruism. The two most frequent messages…analyzed [by researchers] were “Help Others” and “Do the Right Thing.” Next on the list in descending order of frequency were “Expand Your Horizons,” “Be True to Yourself,” “Never Give Up,” “Appreciate Diversity,” “Cherish Special Others,” and “Seek Balance.” Pamela B. Paretsky, PhD, Psychology Today

Most of the commencement quotes below do fall into the categories cited above. This should not be surprising, though, as they’ve all come directly from the mental health field.

Psychiatrist Neel Burton (Psychology Today) wrote about his “dream graduation speech.” Just a sampling of his 21 points about commencement talks:

  • Keep on asking ‘silly’ questions. People may look at you funny, but at least you thought of the questions.
  • Be very sensitive to your feelings and intuitions. They are your unconscious made conscious. And they are almost always right.
  • Don’t be envious. Whenever you come across someone who is better or more successful than you are, you can react either with envy or with emulation. Envy is the pain that you feel because others have good things; emulation is the pain that you feel because you yourself do not have them. This is a subtle but critical difference. Unlike envy, which is useless at best and self-defeating at worst, emulation is a good thing because it makes us take steps towards securing good things.
  • If you don’t appear to want something, you are far more likely to get it. More importantly, when you do want something, be sure that it is worthy of you. And remember: we are rich not only by what we have, but also and mostly by what we do not.
  • When you do find success or, better still, happiness, don’t expect anyone to be pleased for you. In fact, many people will actively resent you—even, sometimes, friends and family. Some people are small. Just accept it as collateral and move on.

Psychologist Scott Barry Kauffman, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke at last year’s commencement and said the following, among other things:

…Do not be scared of having your mind changed. Do not be scared of being wrong. Be aware of the fact that no one person has the truth. The truth requires multiple perspectives, and you can learn something from virtually anyone– even if you vehemently disagree with them. You will find that this way of having love for others– and even with yourself– will bring you many riches, and a much more fulfilling life…

…Trust yourself to abandon a goal or even distance yourself from people if they are no longer appropriate for your growth, and you are no longer appropriate for their growth. Constantly consult your deep values when making choices about which goals to adopt. You, and you alone, have the power to revise your goals as you learn more about yourself and your unique place in this world. Look: You will rarely regret moving in a direction that feels right to you, but you do risk living a life with a lot of regret if you constantly make choices that pull you way from who you really are. As the great humanistic psychotherapist Carl Rogers, who I have a great affinity for, once noted, ‘trust the totality of your experience. It’s often much wiser than your intellect’.

Finally, psychologist Adam Grant went against conventional wisdom in this year’s commencement speech at Utah State University (Business Insider). A few excerpted quotes:

Sometimes quitting is a virtue.

Grit doesn’t mean “keep doing the thing that’s failing.” It means “define your dreams broadly enough that you can find new ways to pursue them when your first and second plans fail.”

Sometimes resilience comes from gritting your teeth and packing your bags. Other times it comes from having the courage to admit your flaws.

Jul 20

“Tig”: Documenting On Film a Resilient Comic Force

I’m the luckiest unlucky person. Tig Notaro

A few years ago, before Tig Notaro went through a slew of major life challenges (see previous post), she wasn’t that well known as a standup comic. But how she ultimately handled those challenges is what’s eventually set her apart as a performer and strongly boosted her appeal.

Jada Yuan, Vulture, sets up the new documentary Tig that premiered on Netflix last week:

In an ironic twist of fate, comedian Tig Notaro’s life started looking up from the moment she got onstage at the Largo comedy club in Los Angeles in October 2012 and announced, ‘Good evening, I have cancer.’ Before that funny-poignant set — highly praised by Louis C.K. and other comics — Notaro, 43, had endured a life-threatening infection, the sudden death of her mother, a breakup, and a diagnosis of bilateral breast cancer, requiring a double mastectomy. Filmmakers Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York talked Notaro into letting them follow her around for a year as she got back on her feet and prepared for an anniversary stand-up show at the Largo in October 2014. Along the way, Notaro tried to have a baby on her own, found love, and perfected a joke about her breasts getting so sick of her referring to her flat-chestedness that they tried to kill her.

Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times, differs on the doc’s time span—she says two years—and adds that “the movie offers an intimate portrayal of a woman whose career is exploding while everything else seems to be imploding. Known for deadpan delivery, Notaro takes viewers on a bluntly honest journey through her travails. She may not shed any tears, but the stuff she’s talking about feels scary and raw and important.”

The love of her life is Stephanie Allynne, an actress who Notaro met on the set of an earlier movie. “But Allynne,” states Kaufman, “made it clear she was straight. So it was difficult — even for the filmmakers — to see Notaro setting herself up for what seemed like more heartbreak.”

Long story short, Allynne eventually eschewed previous ideas about her own sexual orientation—and she and Tig are now engaged to be married. Also, Tig’s no longer alone in her pursuit of having kids.

Jason Zinoman, New York Times:

What begins as a moody portrait of tragedy turns into a narrative that resembles a lovely, if somewhat mundane, romantic comedy. The structure is similar to her recent show (a version of which will appear on HBO in August), in which she took off her shirt to show the audience her scars, only to continue telling jokes topless and let her routine retake the focus. Like Ms. Notaro’s act, ‘Tig’ chronicles her struggle with cancer, then shows her triumph over it by returning to something that looks normal. It’s the smile at the end of a deadpan punch line.

Check out the trailer here:

According to Yuan, next year Notaro will also be publishing a memoir. As is so often the case, the writing process, she says, has been “therapeutic.”

Dec 18

How to Be Resilient: Two Psychiatrists Help Us Cultivate This Trait

When we began our study, we assumed that resilience was rare and resilient people were somehow special, perhaps genetically gifted. It turns out, we were wrong. Resilience is common and can be witnessed all around us. Even better, we learned that everyone can learn and train to be more resilient. The key involves knowing how to harness stress and use it to our advantage. After all, stress is necessary for growth. Without it the mind and body weaken and atrophy. Steven M. Southwick, psychiatrist, in The Huffington Post

Trauma experts Steven M. Southwick and Dr. Dennis S. Charney, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, are the brains behind this year’s Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. In other words: how to bend, not break.

The authors conducted their own research, studied important research from the last couple decades, and interviewed many survivors of severe trauma. From this work they came up with 10 factors that help people recover most effectively:

  •  Optimism
  •  Flexibility
  •  Core value system
  •  Faith
  •  Positive role models
  •  Social support
  •  Physical fitness
  •  Cognitive strength
  •  Facing fears
  •  Finding meaning in struggles

Southwick states in USA Weekend that a couple of these—social support and optimism—are particularly powerful.

In an interview in Time, Southwick says of the former: “It looks like social isolation has as powerful an effect on longevity as smoking and [heavy drinking] and lack of exercise. It’s very bad for you. There’s lots of neat connections between social connectedness and ability to handle stress.”

And of the latter, states Charney: “It’s important to note that it’s realistic optimism we’re talking about. You need to have a very clear eyed view of the challenges you’re facing.”

(On the opposite end of the spectrum, an example of realistic pessimism? Jim Gaffigan, comedian: “If there was an award for most pessimistic, I probably wouldn’t even be nominated.”)