Category: Emotions

Attention is a Valuable and Limited Resource

One of the personal resources that’s easy to take for granted is attention. That is, what you’re looking at or thinking about at a given moment. And in today’s information age, attention is a valuable resource. Marketers are constantly trying to grab your notice through commercials, billboards, pop-up ads, and product placement. The research on attention is actually pretty cool. Some of my favorite findings are:

  1. Babies use their attention (where they are looking or if they are looking) to help regulate (control) themselves. Ever see a baby fall asleep in a really noisy place? They are overwhelmed with stimulation and sleep is a way to control that. So is looking away from that loud stranger who has gotten too close.
  2. The key problem in ADHD is that children can’t keep their attention from being distracted. This is known as “inhibition.” Whereas children without ADHD are able to ignore distractions, like someone coming into their classroom or a noise going on in the other room, a child with ADHD can’t help but react. Even if that means they get in trouble!
  3. When we learn something new like driving, reading, or tying shoes, our attention is fully focused. We can’t do anything else. Likewise, when we do something challenging, like driving in traffic, reading in fuzzy font, or figuring out our new Smartphone, our attention is fully focused–and again, we can’t do anything else.
  4. Learning something new is often frustrating. When learning a new task, people’s thoughts and attention tend to be negative. E.g., “I don’t like this,” “This is hard,” “I’m never going to get this,” and other downers like that. But the cool part is, the better you get at the task, the less likely you are to have those negative thoughts. The key is to make it past that first, tough part.
  5. Just like babies, children and adults can refocus their attention to regulate or improve their mood. If their friend takes away a toy, a 5-year-old who immediately finds a new toy to happily play with is going to have less trouble in kindergarten than a 5-year-old who strikes out and becomes angry. Likewise, an adult who can “focus on the positive” (ick-phrase, but true) after a setback has better mental health.

Last night, at Torn Space Theater’s surreal production of They Kill Things, I used my attention to regulate my fear. There were lots of creepy situations, and in an everyday environment, I would have freaked out if a bulky masked man walked up to me and looked closely at my hands. Or if a group of masked maidens dressed in white rags wrapped a May pole while chanting.

Maypole Maidens | photo by C. E. Cameron

But I was in Silo City, a converted industrial site. The environment was so amazing and so different from anything I’d ever experienced, that I could move on from feeling scared immediately, simply by refocusing my attention on something else.

Silo City | photo by C. E. Cameron

Obviously there are times when it won’t work to refocus attention. There are plenty of situations that demand your full attention, for safety, or learning an important lesson, for example. But awareness of attention as a resource has definitely helped me in certain situations. Even outdoor interactive theater productions.

How To Talk About Things That Are Hard to Talk About

How to talk about the things that are most difficult? Choose one or more answers that apply.

A. Don’t. Keep it inside, and when a thought that pains or confuses you comes across your mind, wave it away like a fly.

B. Talk about it haphazardly. Talk about it when you don’t mean to, with people you don’t know or trust, and say things that you didn’t realize you thought, accidentally and without intention. Take the consequences and regret.

photo by C E Cameron

photo by C E Cameron

C. Talk about it awkwardly. Start to talk about it, then change your mind and see how the conversation partner responds. If they want to talk about the weather, sports, or a TV show, take it as a signal that they’re not ready, either. Talk about the weather, sports, or a TV show so neither of you has to act awkward in public. Or keep pushing until they hang up or become angry or stonewall. Feel sad that they won’t engage.

D. Talk about it thoughtfully. Mull your feelings over for a while first, write about it privately, decide how to open the topic and with whom you feel safe discussing it. Resolve not to become offended or hurt but to instead take new information in, like you’d feel a fabric before deciding to try it on. Feel grateful when the person(s) responds with thoughtfulness back, validating your feelings and telling you what they think. Feel more connected, trusting, and less alone.

There are so many topics that we would all like to pretend don’t hurt us. Catastrophic climate change, sexist family members, racism and police brutality, end of life decisions, second weddings, our personal writing. What are the consequences for not talking? Are they worse than trying B-D and going from there?

Learning to Be Myself at the Holidays

Even before I got divorced, I had trouble with holidays. Gifts – travel – lots of family visits in too little time – it could all be too much of a good thing. Or too much of a mixed bag (of mixed nuts…). And what’s more, those good things came tinged with a feeling of guilt, for feeling that way despite my blessings, or for being tired despite having plenty of time off.

Letting Go

Letting Go
photo by Claire Elizabeth Cameron
Halloween 2013, UVA Lawn

Then my world turned inside out and I was single again, the “kid” again at the holidays. Instead of a carefree kid waiting for Santa, I was the woman without a husband. Without children. Just myself. So I had to figure out how to “do” the holidays. That first year, I had to reinvent the simplest things, like how to find gifts when I was too sad to like anything in the stores. Or how to enjoy Thanksgiving when I was too distracted to really taste anything.

I finally decided to just be myself. Even though “myself” didn’t feel like much. So instead of traveling by airplane on the busiest day of the year, I drove four hours over a beautiful mountain to see family in Charleston, WV, on Thanksgiving. That weekend, I rested and walked when I needed to. For the first time at the holidays, I tried to just be present, and good to myself – whoever that was. It turned out to be OK. All the worrying I normally did, the fretting over details and whether others were enjoying themselves – turned out to be unnecessary. Being present and good to myself somehow translated into feeling more present and more good to the others around me.

This Thanksgiving, I’m going back to Charleston, WV. My circumstances have sweetened considerably and I have energy to share. But rather than worrying and fretting and planning, I’m going to try to live more in the moment. Oh, and be myself. It sure is easier than trying to be anyone else.

International Widows Day 2013 ~ The Widow “Lifestyle”

Sunday, June 23, is International Widows’ Day. This day of recognition was initiated by the Loomba Foundation in 2011 because around the world, widows are subject to discrimination, marginalization, and even violence. International Widows’ Day was established and ratified by the UN to raise awareness of this issue and to encourage societies to respect, support and care for widows.

young widow in Zorba the Greek

I will never forget the shock I felt after watching Zorba the Greek (spoiler alert). I’d always heard good things about the classic film…but never once did I hear that it portrayed a town’s dramatic execution of a widow who wasn’t “behaving herself.”

Here in the United States, we don’t stone or starve widows. But attitudes are another thing. In our upcoming book, Braver Than You Believe, one of the most powerful scenes unfolds when the main character Samantha runs into an acquaintance. After asking how Sam, a recent widow, is doing, and hearing about how Sam goes out once per week to let off steam, the woman bizarrely tells her, “Some people are jealous of your lifestyle, you know. Doing whatever you want. You don’t have to answer to anyone.”

Sam is shocked and hurt, on top of wondering what type of lifestyle it is, exactly, that widows lead. Her friends – divorcees and widows alike – tell her to brush it off. But the scene lingered for me long after reading it. I too wondered what could be attractive about the lifestyle of a widow. Lonely. Possibly a single parent. Especially for younger widows – no peer group. Filled with grief, which I would argue, on the basis of no data, is the most draining emotion. Sounds great!

When a person is sick, we can empathize to some degree, because we have all been ill. When a person stubs her toe – again, we can probably recall a bodily pain and know what that feels like. But when a person loses her love, her partner, and her helpmate – it is so difficult to really know what that’s like, unless we have experienced the same extreme loss.

Having been divorced myself before age 30, I remember an instant “wall of alienation” that went up between me and my friends. Thankfully, 99% of my friends climbed over the wall and kept right on being friends with me. But at times it was tough to find common ground with even to my closest pals. They were re-doing their houses, when I was dividing up the household. They started having babies, when I was finalizing divorce papers. And no young married person wants to be reminded either that a) marriages end or b) spouses die. DEEEE-pressing!

In the years since I got divorced, I’ve encountered many people who have gone through “stuff.” (This is an appropriate place for a swear word, but I’ll refrain). This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve gotten divorced or had their life partner die on them, but maybe they had a major health problem. Maybe they lost a parent. Maybe they’ve volunteered for the poor or sick.

Going through “stuff” is part of life. And it does help a person develop empathy, but it’s not enough. For me, I had to process and process and PROCESS the pain. I had to work through it, not shove it under the rug, which our society seems so good at telling us to do. All problems should be solved in 30 minutes of sitcom, right? Or else there’s something wrong with us…

Maybe more than any other group, people who have lost a spouse realize that some problems will never be solved. They can only be dealt with, accommodated, and accepted. Acceptance is difficult. Pretending the problem isn’t there or that other people got a better deal out of life may seem emotionally easier. But it’s not necessarily the healthiest approach, long-term.

Acceptance of the hardest truths takes work. But as the women in Braver Than You Believe learn after a year of sharing their sorrows, the work is worth it. The work of admitting their vulnerability, mistakes, and true feelings makes them stronger than they seem…smarter than they think…braver than they believe. Said Christopher Robin to Pooh!

Sue (the character Samantha’s) take~ read more at http://griefbusters.wordpress.comWhat I think happens is that people who are in a marriage or life that is unhappy or stagnant see everything through that lens. Maybe the woman felt jealous because all she could see was that a widow does not have a man dictating her life. If a person is feeling trapped in her marriage, the freedom of no husband may seem carefree. Yet the complete opposite is true for a new widow. I felt paralyzed with fear many nights, worrying how I would be able to raise 3 kids all by myself. Only then did I realize how much my husband had been my partner and teammate. So going out once a week – the target of the woman’s comment – gave me a few hours off from 24/7 grief and anxiety that would have sent me into a deep depression.

Celebrating International Women’s Day…on My Birthday

I can’t remember when I learned that my birthday, March 8, falls on International Women’s Day. I must have been pretty small, and I recall thinking, “Huh. That’s cool. I should do something to celebrate.”

Google's image on IWD 2013

Google’s image on IWD 2013

Then two decades went by. Today, my 32nd birthday, was the first birthday I celebrated IWD in any meaningful way. It turns out that today, March 8, 2013, marks 100 years since the occasion was moved to the date of March 8 following the 1913 late February event.

IWD emerged between 1908 and 1913 following unprecedented tumult in societies around the world. Sound familiar? Today feels much the same, though for educated women like myself living in modernized societies, I don’t deal with life-or-death working conditions. I have the right to vote. Though I love and want to share my life with a particular wonderful man, I am beholden to none. And though it seems a precarious freedom at times in the South, my value to my community does not depend on my capacity to bear children.

Today, I’m mindful that many women around the world live in deplorable conditions, are subject to the whims of violent or controlling men, or lack basic human rights. I recognize that the challenges in my world are more spiritual than physical in nature. Compared to what other women of our world face, it seems a privilege that the challenges in my particular world include figuring out whom to love and how best to love them.

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Three years ago, in the spring of 2010, my three-year marriage was about to unravel. By September, I was living alone. It was the most emotionally difficult time of my life. Then in December, I met a friend of a friend who wanted to write a book. It would be based on a year of emails among six women who had lost a spouse either to sudden death or to divorce after an affair.

This meeting changed my life.

I became the editor of the book, and over the next two years, I worked in the evenings and on weekends to turn over 103,000 words of emails into a 75,000-word narrative non-fiction story of hope and healing after loss. Through the process, I gained confidence. As my heart steadied, I slowly “grew into” myself while I enjoyed a special window into the journey of these six brave people.

Sanctuary Window at Seven Oaks RetreatMadison, VA

Sanctuary Window at Seven Oaks Retreat
Madison, VA

As a newly single woman, I read about other women – single mothers – who were making it on their own.  Their struggles were not mine exactly – for example, I don’t have children. But their heartache was familiar, along with their desire to love and live fully. Like me, they were women emerging from a great loss into their stronger, deeper selves. In that way, they were the same as all of us, male or female, or “prefer not to say.” We are all hurtling through this world, hurting each other and ourselves, wondering how to do better.

We are all trying, really, really hard.

Today – March 8, International Women’s Day – our book is complete. It’s a story by women, about women, for women whose hearts may be hurting and whose feet sometimes have trouble finding the path. Today, Sue Mangum and I are ready to begin sharing her dream…our book…and six true stories with the world.

Braver Than You Believe: True Stories of Losing Love and Finding Self

Happy Birthday, International Women’s Day! This one’s for you.

Elegy ~ Sandy Hook Elementary School ~ December 14, 2012

In memory of those who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, CT, on Friday, December 14, 2012.

It’s humbling to try to write anything as a response to an event like the Connecticut school shooting. It’s a reminder of just how inadequate words can be.

After something horrific happens, whatever we feel is our truth. All feelings are a certain kind of very fleeting truth. Since Friday, I have felt deeply sad, a sort of a grief though I didn’t know any of the dead. I’ve also felt fear, anger, and again, sadness.

Fear is an emotion designed to helps us avoid future pain. It leads us to close down, to escape, to batten for another blow. Some people will feel fear and want to stay home, stay in, stay away. Others will feel fear and want to buy a weapon. Still others will want to ban future weapons sales, or even confiscate the weapons that are already owned. Fear makes us want to control.

Anger is an emotion that compels us to act, to protect and to defend ourselves. Some people will feel angry and lash out at the shooter, the community, the NRA, the lack of mental health care in this country, the government, the President. Those feeling angry will want to do something with their anger. Angry people arm themselves, protest and threaten, or blame. Angry people sign internet petitions and write their Congressperson or Senator.

Grief means that something sacred and dear has been lost. We will grieve and our grief will be overwhelming. We will feel helpless, hopeless. We will want to do something to prevent ourselves and others from future grief. We will want to give up. Those who are grieving will not be able to think clearly or concentrate until their grief has dulled. For their grief will never pass, but only dull. The grieving need our support and our love. They don’t need our fear or our anger.

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After something horrific happens, whatever we do is our choice. In our choices we reveal, or obscure, our humanity.

I agree with Liza Long, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” who wrote that more than anything else, we need a conversation. A conversation with those who become so angry or so scared that the only thing that makes sense to them is destroying life, their own or others’. A conversation with those who are caring for the scared and angry. We need a conversation with those who own guns out of fear and those who train their children to use them out of fear.

After all this carnage, it might help to talk to one another using kind words. It might help to acknowledge that some people only feel safe if they own a gun. Then we must decide together how to make sure that everyone actually is safe.

It might help to look at the data, to learn about the places in the world that are most safe and those that are the least safe. To see how many weapons exist in each of those places and how the laws in the safe places deal with weapons and how the humans in those safe places deal with each other.

Fear, anger, and grief don’t lend themselves to conversation. But I have to believe that we can learn to acknowledge our emotions and then make humane choices. We can choose to talk, and choose not to fight, because we are human beings.

We can look at the facts and the deaths. We can accept each other’s deep emotions and say: I understand. Like you, I also feel pain and anger, grief and fear. Like you, I have felt lost and I have felt loss.

Like you, I want this to change. I hope for this to change.

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Hope means that we trust in a promise, or at least, that we would like to trust. We feel hope when a way opens that seemed closed and when either the rock or the hard place gives way. We feel hope when the angry and fearful voices, the voices that are inside all of us, are heard, acknowledged, and so can finally be quiet.

We feel hope when our fears are no longer ignored.

I’m reminded of the words of non-fiction authors Pam Cope and Aimee Molloy in their story of a journey after grief. They wrote of little children, the voices of our children, the voices of all of us:

Now that you’ve seen my suffering, now that you know about me, what will you do?

 

 

 

 

 

Love is an Ability

For Mother’s Day this year I would like to thank my mom for her ability to love.

I first learned about this idea of love from the special features following the film “Pieces of April.” Derek Luke, who plays Bobby in the film, says the movie is unique because of its message about love. Through the magnificent failings of all its quirky (did I say quirky? I meant dysfunctional) characters, the film shows that love is an ability, not a feeling. Which means it is something that can be learned, a word I usually associate with school.

While I learned about the importance of effort in academic pursuits in graduate school (and boy, did I!), it took me longer to realize that the same effort could be applied to learning emotional and relationship matters. And though I began my academic learning when attending school for the first time, my ways of feeling, reacting, and relating to others had been practiced and reinforced since I was born.

When certain behaviors, like a particular way of responding when another person speaks, are practiced over and over again, they create “super-highways” in the brain. After that, they become the default behavior – the impulse, the automatic response, or the thing that is easiest to do without thinking. For example, if a child is often hungry as an infant, that child will probably react to a snack by eating it immediately when it appears. If the child has never had the opportunity to practice waiting to eat snack, he probably won’t be very good at it: behaviors that aren’t practiced are like roads that don’t get driven on. They simply disappear.

When anything threatening or uncertain happens, my default reaction –  my superhighway – is anger. Lashing out, raising my voice. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean that I’ve been personally threatened – it could be something as simple as someone disagreeing with me. On the phone one night, my mom and I were discussing what I should do about my fatigue. I was (idiotically) trying to figure out a way to continue in my three after-work hobbies: a cappella chorus, weekly writer group, and monthly writer group. I’ve been on a schedule overload like this since high school, and my mom was trying to encourage me to rest:

My mom: “What if this is your window to rest and recover, and what if you spend it too busy? You may miss that window and end up tired…for the rest of your life.”

Me (angry): “What did you need to go and say that for? Don’t you think that’s what I’m worried about most?”

I was angry because my mom had said exactly what I was thinking. It’s kind of ironic to get mad at someone for essentially agreeing with me. But like many default reactions, anger is a defense mechanism meant to deflect other negative feelings like feeling scared (in this case), or ashamed or ignored. It is not a very useful response, because no matter what the anger is directed towards – a person, the store that’s out of a key ingredient, a flat tire – the anger usually shuts down the situation instead of resolving it.

In the past couple years, I decided that I needed to find a way to either avoid anger in the first place, or (more realistically) to do something besides go into attack mode when I felt it. The process was (is, I must admit) messy and stilted. In emotional conversations, I often become angry anyway, even after telling myself it won’t happen. (I once made myself a little note – a “yellow card” like in soccer – to use when I was feeling over the edge; I was in Italy during the World Cup at the time).

It helped when a teacher reminded me that “when under stress, regress,” which means, when a person is under stress, she reverts to her original ways of handling a situation. This helped me to have patience with myself when I was trying to lay down the new highway in my brain. It helped me to realize that even if I didn’t always succeed in managing anger, it was important that I was trying, and some day, I might succeed.

Eventually, after a much longer time than expected, I became able to feel anger and not do or say anything about it. I can “just be” and let the feeling occur. Sometimes, magically, I can even say, “I want to talk about this, but can we do it later?” Other times, it is like my car has stalled on the highway. I won’t let it go any further down the anger road, but it doesn’t have anywhere else to go. So I remain silent, staring, remembering my breath. And still other times, when I am at my most vulnerable, the anger still comes.

My mom has stuck by me in all of this. She has talked and listened on too many phone calls to count (though my cell phone company is delighted to count them). For several months last year, we talked on the phone every single night. I was going through a divorce, plus dealing with health problems, and was not the most cheerful of conversationalists. But my mom was there, putting in the time, listening and responding. Sometimes I even asked her for a different response, which she remarkably was able to give. And many, many times, my mom responded with wisdom and kindness, with words I didn’t even know would make me feel better and with stories that helped me see the strength and dignity in our human plight. She helped me see the value of having the world tumble down around our feet. She helped me find my own particular strength and dignity.

My mother is not a perfect person (I always wonder why that seems like a disclaimer. As far as I know, not one of us is perfect so this is a way of saying “she is a human being, not a robot” which is intended as a compliment). But my mom has a quality that I admire a lot: she tries, really hard, to love. She sees love as an ability and as something you can show a person through words and actions. She believes that people can change their words and actions, that she can change and I can change for the better – “for the healthier.” She is able to love me. And she succeeds.

Thank you, Mom, for all that you’ve done, to get me here, to today. I’m more grateful than words can say (But like the academic I am, I shall try).