Overt Assumptions

“What makes earth feel like hell is our expectation that it should feel like heaven.”
― Chuck Palahniuk, Damned
 
     For nearly 5 years, I grew up in Hendersonville, TN. Then, in my 4th grade year we moved to High Point, NC. Both states had many similarities. Food, family, and freedom were important to everyone. A few outsider, like ourselves, shared some insights into living in North Carolina: 1) “Yankees” are like hemorrhoids: If we come down and go back up, we’re alright. If we come down and stay down, we’re a real pain. And 2) Southern people are the nicest people you’ll never get to know. This isn’t to imply they’re inhospitable. Traditionally, and culturally, Southerners tend to have large and close-knit family systems. It can be difficult to get into the culture without a blood relative.
     Another slight difference was sports. When I lived in Tennessee, soccer was not even on the radar. If it was popular, I missed it. In North Carolina, it was unavoidable. Everyone played, watched, and lived soccer. Because the last 5 years had provided me very little exposure to soccer, I was not adequately prepared for this cultural shock. Still, I wanted to fit in, so I jumped in and tried to play whenever I could. I was awful.
     Part of my awfulness was due to the fact that I’m just not gifted in coordination. Some people are kinesthetically brilliant. I was kinesthetically blinded by that brilliance. To that, add a lack of general exposure to the sport. I never practiced the mechanics and fundamentals of the game. The physical act of kicking a soccer ball was a mystery to me! The ball may as well have been made out of cement. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone else that I was also completely unfamiliar with the rules of soccer! A game would be mid-half and suddenly, WHISTLE! Everyone, nearly in unison, would turn to look at me. Even the kids who didn’t know me looked! Took me three seasons to figure out what off-sides was.
     There had been a break down in communications. The other players began learning these things they were very young. The rules were taught alongside the mechanics. As they developed their mechanical skills through kinesthetic repetition, they strengthened their overall knowledge of the game. I missed these developmental milestones and was thrown into a game where nearly everyone knew all the rules; and they assumed I did, too.

     Blended (and blending) families often present to therapy seeking assistance in how to make two families into one. I’ve seen families adopt or foster children when they have had no children of their own. That’s one of the nice things about having kids: They (somewhat) ease you into the process of parenting. Slowly, they learn to roll, then crawl, then walk, then run like wild animals! It’s fine when we’ve been with them for literally every step of the way because our parenting skills have grown with them. Imagine having a 2 year old dropped off at your house if you’ve never had children before! What’s normal? Are their noses supposed to make so much snot? Do they really have no volume control? Do they really have no sense of privacy when I’m going to the bathroom?
     Sudden baptisms into parenting are incredibly difficult. A healthy response is to cut ourselves some slack and realize we’re going to be playing catch-up for a little while. But what happens when there are sudden shifts in family functioning? Isn’t that what therapy is supposed to provide? New insights, awareness, and skills which a family will implement and change their pattern of relating.
     Sometimes, therapists can make the mistake of assuming the family understands the rules of relationship. Instead, we need to make the new rules (and they ARE new) overt. This can be done through verbal or written contracts, reflecting current changes in the process, modeling/coaching, and even through paradoxical injunctions. Regardless of the means, we have to take time and make the assumptions clear. This way, we prepare the family for change and mistakes, accidents, and regression becomes part of the learning process instead of demoralizing failures. Communicating this can relieve a great deal of anxiety associated with change and encourage open discussion among struggling families.
     Have any suggestions on how your therapy or therapist has helped people adjust to change? Leave a comment below!

Fragile Soccer
Nathan D. Croy, (c) 2015

Traps and Trauma

     The difference between children who have experienced trauma vs children who have not is the difference between a well-fed dog and a dog caught in a trap. Being bitten by a dog stuck in a trap will be interpreted differently than the same action by the well-fed dog. The pain and fear of the person bit may remain the same in each case, but the reason behind the bite is very different. The knowledge of this difference could lead us to quickly forgive the trapped animal while punishing the well-fed animal. Same behavior, same outcomes, different levels of acceptance.

     The reason it is more acceptable for the trapped dog to bite is because we expect it. We know they are acting out of fear and self-preservation. The rescuer may even fault themselves for not taking extra precautions when approaching a wounded animal. We do not fault the animal because we see the trauma. Some animals may need extra care and services before they are rehabilitated enough to join a family and be adopted. Some dogs that have been trapped are euthanized and deemed impossible to rehabilitate. Most often it could be possible, but the expense, time, and resources estimated to bring that change about are seen as too great in a cost-benefit analysis.

     Unfortunately, even dogs that are well-fed and well cared for can still bite and are often “put down” for reasons citing temperament. As if “temperament” were an unchangeable aspect of the animal existing in isolation from the environment. This is not including elderly dogs who may be suffering from dementia. While there may be some truth to this, most healthy dogs can relearn how to behave appropriately in a family/pack unit.

     So it is with children who have experienced trauma. The scars are not always as visible as they are with dogs. Children can arrive at school or daycare, interact with children every day, and be caught in an invisible trap they have brought with them from their home. It is not clear we should approach them with caution or additional supports. Good intentions are greeted with snarls and threats. Well-meaning people are driven away, confident their loving actions will not be “wasted” on an ungrateful child.

     All the while, the traumatized child and the trapped dog know two things: 1) Someone more powerful than myself has done this to me, and 2) only someone more powerful than myself can help save me. Therein lies the fear that drives the bite. These victims have learned they cannot trust those who are more powerful than they are, yet they know they are dependent on them for safety. It is a dichotomy of terror with no hope. Realizing this, the dog chews off his paw and risks bleeding to death. Coming to a similar realization, the child cuts off their emotions (reactive attachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder, etc), their connection with reality (schizotypal personality disorder, schizophrenia, etc), both their emotions and reality (Bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, PTSD, etc), or their own self (borderline personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder, etc). Ultimately, they may even choose to end their own life as a means of escaping what they perceive to be a world full of traps and void of help.

     There have been instances where people like this have been “put down”. It happens under the guise of justice and death penalties. It happens through social isolation and institutionalization. It happens socially and economically and religiously. Through these processes, humanity is enacting the age-old rite of self-preservation on a social level. “We” are protecting “Us” from “Them” because “They” are threatening. It makes complete sense and, evolutionarily, protects us from threats. However, too often we are in a rush to protect, to diagnose, to define, and to dispense. The onslaught of managed care has taught us to ignore the traumatic traps and treat the paw, the specific injury, and discharge the patient in under seven sessions.

     In the process of being so quick to protect ourselves from the threat, we have become the very thing we thought we were protecting ourselves from: Isolated. Isolation is a social tool of punishment designed to either alter behavior so “they” becomes more like “us” (a part of our pack), or else relegate “they” to alienation and almost certain death. This ensures homogeneity and easy identification of who “we” are. The United States claim not to be savage, to be moral, to be respectable. Yet, if we are judged by how we treat our sick, our young, and our old, we are incredibly cruel, immoral, and lack any modicum of respect. If the sick could heal themselves, we would not need doctors. If the traumatized could free themselves, we would not need therapists. If the elderly were cared for by family, they would not need retirement homes.

     This is not strictly about government policies, universal healthcare, or insurance companies. This is about a society becoming so consumed with living a safe life they have failed to live a life. Convenience, ease of use, and customer satisfaction has replaced effort, attentiveness, and prudence. Somewhere along the line, acquisition of material goods and resources became synonymous with safety and wellness.

     So we abandon the dog that threatens us. We forget the child that scares us. We ignore the parent that cannot remember us. We waste our lives on things, and are surprised when things dominate our lives. To quote Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death:

     “What we call worldliness simply consists of such people who, if one may so express it, pawn themselves to the world… The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”

     And this is just what has happened. We have become worldly at the expense of our own selves, at the expense of those smaller, weaker, poorer, or sicker than ourselves. This has happened without a sound, with no notice, and it silently continues on, perpetuated by greed, fear, and the unending pursuit of safety. Let me assure you of one thing: a safe life is no life at all. There will be traps and traumas for all of us. Each of us will require the aid of another who is greater than ourselves to free us from these traps through relationship with patience founded on deep love. Just as each of us will encounter a trap, each of us will encounter another in their own trap. Will we risk being bitten?

(C) Nathan D. Croy
Trap

Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fix

“If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin.”
                                                                      ― Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

     Most people are aware of the fight or flight response that people may have to a stressful event. An animal perceives a threat to its safety and must decide: Can I fight this threat or can I outrun it? I use the term “decide” here to describe the automatic process of the amygdala and hippocampus (click here for more). There’s no conscious decision making going on. Even a bunny will attack if there are no means of escape.

     Then, a few years after I graduated high school, the freeze response was added to the mix. This is when the amygdala and hippocampus go, “uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” and nothing happens. Technically this is a survival response. It can work for prey animals with effective camouflage; like deer. However, it can also be an abysmal survival mechanism when a deer sees two headlights bearing down on it and it thinks, “uhhhhhhh, I’m gonna go ahead and not move then the car won’t see me standing in the middle of the road and it won’t try to eat me”. We’ve all heard/seen the outcome of that particular strategy played out. All animals (and humans) have all three of these responses programmed at a genetic level.

     Humbly, I would like to add a fourth option. Fight, flight, and freeze are all processed in similar areas of the brain. None of them rely heavily on the frontal lobe and/or the prefrontal cortex where our higher level reasoning and processing occurs. In fact, humans have a very difficult time calming their anger when these areas are not engaged (click here for more info). Which got me to thinking: what if we get really stressed and are able to override our natural reactive responses (fight, flight, freeze) and engage our higher level thinking processes (fix)? This would in no way be reflexive; it would require training and intentionality and a level of self-control that, if I’m being honest, I don’t really have. Still, the possibility is there for a fourth response to a stressful event: Fix.

     In truth, when faced with a stressful situation our primary/reactive responses will remain the same: Fight/flight/freeze. However, we can exercise a secondary/active response: Fix. Fixing a situation necessarily requires the activation of the higher thinking/limbic areas of the brain. This cannot easily happen when people are highly stressed or threatened. The irony, then, lies in the fact that until a stressful situation is corrected or until the threat is has been alleviated, it is very difficult if not impossible, for us to really think about the situation we actually need to fix.

     All is not lost. We can learn how to accept the fear which triggers our primary responses, acknowledge it, and then begin to process it. Some times this takes years of therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes before we are able to begin really processing our fear. It is all worth it. Until we process the fear, our options will be limited to the reactions of flight/fight/freeze. We will run from healthy relationships, we will fight those who provide aid and support, and we will freeze in the face of new threats. But, when our fear is identified, when it is named and recognized for the projection it has always been, it becomes smaller and less threatening, and this allows us to grow. Once we process our fear, we add a fourth option to our repertoire: Fix. Having the option to fix empowers us, broadens our horizons, and allows us to live an authentic life. Fixing is active, fighting/flying/or freezing is reactive. If you feel out of control of your emotions, your life, or your relationships, ask yourself how you respond to threats. Are you reactive or active? Empowered or threatened? Prey or predator? If you do not feel in control, find someone to help you figure out the source of fear which holds you back and begin to be a fixer.

Flight, Freeze, Fight, & Fix
(C) Nathan D. Croy, 2014

The Ukraine and Kansas University

*This post contains quotes which have strong language. Just thought you should know.*

     Recently, KCUR (Kansas Public Radio) did a story on a professor that was fired from Kansas University for expressing a view that was in conflict with the views of KU. Please click HERE for that story. Leading up to that story, KCUR asked people to chime in on their own opinion concerning firing people for expressing views that are not compatible with the views of the employer. It was surprising to see how many people felt it was fine for schools or corporations to maintain a “media policy” that prevents their employees from expressing dissident voices; even on personal or private pages.
     It would be unfair to compare the firing of one professor to the current struggle and protests in the Ukraine. While the issues are very different, what interested me is the response of those in power to the protests of others. The Ukrainian president recently passed laws outlawing the gathering of people in order to protest. If a protester did register for one of these events, they received a text stating they were in violation of the recently passed law. Bypassing the Orwellian implications of receiving electronic notifications on something you haven’t even done yet, does anyone else see a similarity between what happened to this KU professor and what is happening to the Ukrainian people?
     Being kept quiet can happen through various means. In the Ukraine it is happening through threats, imprisonment, violence, and electronic tracking. In other countries, like North Korea, the control is more overt and the media is clearly a mouthpiece for the government. It can also be more subtle. In countries where advertising and media are prevalent, the fight can be so subtle we are unaware we are losing.
     In the 2011 movie, Detachment, Adrien Brody plays a teacher (who probably plays the piano). Speaking to his class he says this about the “Marketing Holocaust”:

     “Examples of lies in society: I need to be pretty to be happy. I need surgery to be pretty. I need to be thin, famous, fashionable. Our young men, today, are being told that women are whores. Bitches. Things to be screwed. Beaten. Shit on. Shamed. This is a marketing holocaust. Twenty-four hours a day for the rest of our lives, ‘the powers that be’ are hard at work dumbing us to death. So, to defend ourselves and fight against assimilating this dullness into our thought processes, we must learn to read. To stimulate our own imagination. To cultivate our own consciousness. Our own belief systems. We all need these skills to defend…to preserve our minds.”

This message is not new. Fight Club expressed a similar message, albeit with a slightly darker and nihilistic response. The Matrix is an allegory for this message that “the powers that be” want us to remain docile, calm, quiet, and forever pursuing the status quo which “they” conveniently create. If this is beginning to sound a bit paranoid, go to the Ukraine and enjoy a quiet and peaceful protest. For a less dramatic approach, why not try going shopping while asking yourself why you like the clothes you like.
     This is not a blanket excuse to be an unmitigated argumentative pain in the neck. Part of being mature and learning to exercise love is to be sensitive and appropriate. However, that does not allow institutions, in any form they may take, to silence our voices. An offense even worse than trying to silence a voice is trying to replace it. To require others say, through their actions or their voice, that everything is fine, when everything is not fine, is to deny them their humanity for our own comfort. If we are honest with ourselves, the reason we seek uniformity and conformity is to avoid the discomfort that comes with difference.
     As I tweeted to KCUR, firing someone for expressing a dissident voice is tantamount to eradicating autonomy in the name of peace; it is self-defeating. When we ask people not to disagree with our beliefs, our policies, or our motives, we deny ourselves opportunities for growth. When our insistence on being right outstrips our desire for relationship, our rightness no longer matters.

*UPDATE* I was informed by KCUR via Twitter that the professor from KU has not been fired and instead is on administrative leave. Here is an article from the Huff Post about his supension.

Everything Is Great No Mouth
Everything Is Great
(C) Nathan D. Croy, 2014

    

Dynamically Static.

     A book was just recently published about tough questions kids ask about Christianity. During an interview about the book, the author spoke on how he wanted to help parents not have a “deer in the headlights” look when their kids asked something and they didn’t know the answer. He rushed to say that no one has all the answers, but we should be willing to find the answers with our children.
     I think the entire premise of this book is what is wrong with Christianity today. The book, due to its format, is a static description of what we think the answers are at this moment in our history and culture. While there may be some absolutes (see: “Just Love”) that we should all agree on, there was a time when some of the principles we see as bedrock now, were absolute rubbish; and vice versa. Christ illustrated this throughout scripture when he condemned the pompous and proud Pharisees. They were so sure they had all the answers, they were no longer willing to be wrong. Their answers had become their god, so God could no longer be their answer.
     An alternative to static, rigid, unchanging answers is that, instead, we teach process. However, this manner of education is a double edged sword and we must be aware of this as we wield it. What I suggest is that we discover what the core process(es) of Scripture are. According to Scripture, loving the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength is the greatest commandment, and the second is like it; love your neighbor as yourself. For all the laws and prophets hinge upon those two commands. Both of those commands hinge on our ability to love. That seems to assume that we should be figuring out what it means to love and how we know when we are being loving. In other words: What do we do and how do we know we’re doing it?
     The laws of Scripture have never been, nor will they ever be, the path to salvation. Scripture says this, not me (Rom. 8:3-6). The process that is at the core of Scripture is to love. If this is the case, then when our children ask about the Trinity, the covenant, politics, abortion, gay marriage, or anything else, why not join them in discovering what the most loving thing is? In order to do this, however, we must be honest with ourselves and brace for the day when we follow this process and it leads us to doubt what we believe to be right or wrong.
     My parents generation fought against racism. Their parents fought against sexism. Their grandparents fought to against slavery. Our generation is fighting for equality. But here’s the thing, and it’s something we must not forget as we age: Each generation thought the previous was backward and needed to change. Each generation thought they were right. And each generation, for the most part, thought the one that came after them was forgetting their values. When we begin to walk this path with ourselves, our children, our parents, we may not always like where it takes us. But if we spend the time to discover what it really means to be loving (something I’ll talk about in my next post), and judge our actions by that standard, we will begin to live out the lives and actions to which Christ called us.  
     What do you think? Is it better to have “the answer” and tell our children what is right, or should we take the chance of them coming to the “wrong” conclusions and being mislead? There are risks to either choice, so which risk is the most severe?