Life of Ryan III: Family

(This is the third in a series of “Ryan,” a patient of mine who has MS. I serve as his amanuensis.)

I love my family. That is for sure. There is nothing that is more important to me than my family. I think of them daily, if not hourly. I think of my wife. I think of my daughters and their husbands. I think of my many grandchildren, some of whom are now adults or soon to be. Family: what a wonderful part of life: you love them, you enjoy them, you look forward to seeing them. You laugh with them and cry with them. Can anything be so wonderful as loving people who have your heart, and most of them have your blood.

There are lots of things that go along with family, lots of statements that are often made in regards to family, like”

  • Family first
  • Family is never wrong
  • Family will never leave you
  • Family will always accept you
  • Family forgives you
  • Family is right even when they are wrong
  • Always support your family.

All true, and I believe all these things. I can think of nothing that is more important to me, not ideas, not things, not beliefs, not things, and certainly not money. Blood is thicker than water, right? Am I missing anything here? Perhaps one thing: family, and all that goes with it, is…difficult.

We don’t have to look far to see that family problems are all over the place. It seems that the more money and fame you have, the more likely you will be divorced. How many times was Elizabeth Taylor divorced? Nine times, I think. And all those other actors whose faces you see in the grocery store, and all those millionaire baseball players. The lot seems to have trouble, at least with their marital relationships, and often with their children. How many “tell all” books have been written about these famous actors and actresses who seem to have been less than model parents. But I am not so concerned about these rich folks as I am about us normal folks who just may struggle with various family difficulties. Does every kid have ADHD and every parent suffer from bi-polar disorder?

Forgive me, but I was born in 1946 at a time when we didn’t have all these diagnoses. I might have been diagnosed ADHD had that diagnosis been around in the 1950’s when I was a kid, or any number of other diagnoses that are now around for everyone to choose from.  I may not have been the best parent with my girls but I can’t say that I ever thought of them as having some kind of “disorder.” There were times they didn’t like me, and I must admit there were times that I didn’t like them very much. But we stuck it out and they have done pretty well in life despite my flawed parenting. Thank goodness for my wife who did the bulk of the “parenting.” I don’t even think that the word parenting was ever in my vocabulary. Most of my vocabulary with regards to the girls was “no” when they wanted those $45 jeans when you could buy a pair for $12 at Walmart. When they used to ask my wife for something, she would say, “Ask your father.” But then they would respond with, “You know what he’s going to say: no.” I did my best, but it might not have been good enough. Glad they have turned out so well. Things are not so well in the present, however.

If you’ve been bored enough to read my previous Life of Brian series, you know that I have this minor medical difficulty that has kept me somewhat limited in what I can do. I have multiple sclerosis. I can’t do much of anything but sit around like a bump on a log, and I can’t even do that. I am more like the bump or the log, just sitting there. But I don’t want to go over my physical state. I want to talk about family as it relates to my physical state. The most important thing is still this: I love my family. Love them to death. And…they’re difficult.

They’re not difficult because they are difficult. They’re difficult because I’m difficult. All those things I said about family, like loving them to death and valuing them above all else: all of this is true even though I can’t lift a finger to help them out. I can’t actually lift a finger. Wish I could. But I can’t. No way to change that save some kind of miracle by God’s hands or some remarkable scientific discovery that can cure MS. Not likely to happen. In the mean time I have my family: love them and all the rest…but can’t seem to find a way to be a family man. God, what I’d give to be able to lift a finger, or lift a grandchild. Or lift anything. No such luck. So, family is difficult, or rather I am difficult when I am relating to family. And I expect that they feel the difficulty of my being difficult.

Can’t blame them. I have to admit that I am difficult. I think about being “difficult” a lot, especially about my family. Who would want to see a father, grandfather, or husband who is the bump on the log that I talked about. Can’t stand up when they come in the room. Can’t get down on the floor. Can’t go to the grandkid’s graduation. Can’t hug. Very often I can’t even speak when this damned MS attacks my voice box only letting me whisper. And lots more “can’t’s.” So, I get it. I’m difficult. And this makes “family” difficult for me. Still love them to death. Still would do anything I can do, which isn’t much. Still hold them all in high esteem. But it is difficult being me with my family.

I think I have it better than many other residents here in the nursing home. Some of these people never see any of their family members for one reason or another. Some don’t have any family and they’re just…I don’t know, waiting to die? Some have someone who visits from the state of Oregon once a year. Some have family members who come to visit them, but obviously they don’t really want to visit; they just put their time in. So, I know that I’m not the only guy in this “difficult to be me” situation. But it still sucks. Certainly, would be nice to have this situation be less than difficult, but this is what I have. The whole situation leaves me in a bit of a quandary: I don’t like it, don’t like this lonely thing not seeing my family very much, but I understand it. I just don’t like it. Yeah, I can live with it. I have been living with it for years, now decades really. And the difficulty of who I am (now) and the condition that I am in has only become more difficult.

I hope this doesn’t sound like so much bitching. I’m not complaining. I’m just telling you how I feel. It’s not about what’s wrong with people. It’s not what’s wrong with my family. It’s not even what’s wrong with me. It’s not what’s wrong with anything. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love things to be different. I’d love to be walking and talking like a normal person. And I’d love to have family and friends visit me. But for now, I’m just feeling that life is difficult. Ron tells me that there was some very popular book written 25 years ago called The Road Less Traveled that began with the statement, Life is difficult.

Further Reading

Life of Ryan I and II

The “we” of me

2:37 AM; September 20, 2018

I haven’t been sleeping well. Not since I booked Portugal.  By day I am excited and mindful of my internal excitement of a new space, a new trail, a new breath in my senses, especially sight and sounds while I hike.

At night however, when I lie beside my beloved Ron, I think what in the hell am I am doing? Driving off alone to the Canyons is one thing, because I can, and often do, drive home early for want of him. But flying across the Atlantic without him?  By day, fine. By night not so. But, I am an independent soul as well as a private person and going off is good for my spiritual calming.  Ron knows this and so we have this thing where every once in a while, I “just go”. I always come back and it is always good that I have gone because the individual of me gets restored.

Then came the Middleton shooting this week.

Tracking the temps in Portugal, still in the 90s, I wanted to pick up a fresh hiking shirt. I had found one at the East Madison Marshalls and picked it up even though it was a bit too large. I knew I would have time on Wednesday to check Marshalls at Greenway Station and If they had a smaller size, fine, if not I would make do with the larger one. Sure enough Greenway had what I needed. I checked out, went to the car and then grabbed the bag that I had purchased previously. I went back in the store, walked up to the into the queue for the return.  I was next in line so I was ready to walk to the front register.  If you know the store you know at that position you are in clear view of the entry.

Just standing with my return bag, I saw a man run in and within a flash I heard shouting, “secure the doors, there is a shooting outside”.   He shouted again. The lady behind me pushed through a rolling display and ran towards the back of the store. Another lady near by fumbled asking what to do. I suggested she go behind the half wall at the end of the register line which would be invisible to anyone approaching from the front. I went there myself half hidden and half peeking out to grasp what might really be going on. Then the manager announced for all customers to immediately go to the back of the store…lock down by order of police.  While joining the others scrambling to the back I called Cheri and interrupted her pleasantries: “Cheri, I am in west side Marshalls there is a shooting outside. We are in lock down. Inform Ron”. I hung up.

The guy who ran in the store, I learned in a short time by his own report, was the owner of the structure in which the shooting occurred. He heard the shots. He heard people say by name to the shooter” What are you doing? Don’t do this” …bam, bam, bam.  As he told this report from the back of the store, he shouted again that the doors be barred.  Of course, they already were. At first, I thought he was going to be a problem, over-panicked, a hysteric who could cause more alarm than necessary.  I considered that I might need to calm him down. That wasn’t the case, though.

We were in lock down for a bit over two hours. I never felt endangered. I thought it though and considered eminent danger unlikely given we were a couple of structures down from the shooting location and that (via the media reports), nearly the entire Madison Patrol was within a two-block radius.

When they opened the doors and I walked outside there were a couple of helicopters circling overhead and patrol cars everywhere, rows of cars headed west blocked on the road. I turned East away from the commotion and headed for Starbucks (don’t laugh at me). They were still closed given the entirety of Greenway Station was apparently on lock down. I drove to Target to pick up a camera card for my trip. Walking from my car to the door I noticed a wee shake in my system. I was beginning to feel it: I wanted to get home. Even so, I made a couple of other quick stops that were on my list of “to do”. I found the drive home time consuming. I hoped I would have enough tie to get home, unload the few groceries I picked up, make myself an espresso and with fingers crossed, get a glimpse of Ron before I began to see clients.

In early evening when Ron and I both finished with clients we had a glass of wine at our desks finishing up notes. We made dinner and Ron asked me about the deal in town, how I was. I told him I was okay, noting that once it was over and I was driving home, I felt a little shaky but it wasn’t long in duration. We took a walk, talked about the grievous condition of our society, that we at large have a lot of maturing to do.  We watched a bit of “Barnaby” and went to bed.

Ron can verify that I often am asleep within a minute of hitting the pillow, literally. So these recent restless nights are quite rare for me and I chalk it up to “advance missing of him”. This morning however, I woke up about 1:00.  I heard the rain on our metal roof and just listened. The longer I listened to the rain, the more I could remember what the people in Marshalls looked like. I thought this odd in a way, but I’m a visual person, so perhaps not so odd. I could clearly see the man who got us to lock the doors; mid aged, young looking, casual shirt, styled hair but by then hand ruffled quite a bit. I saw a younger middle-aged woman, about the age of our girls who was leaving later that day for Vegas with four friends. She had pretty blond straight hair, clear skin, calm eyes.   She had told me how the previous night her husband couldn’t find the clothes basket that was within an arm’s reach of himself. We both laughed and just cocked our heads. Even more clearly, I saw a young, petite mother to be, her belly all smoothed and egged. She wore a head scarf that ovaled her face and seemed to balance the oval of her full belly.  She was truly lovely in her symmetry. She was with her lover no doubt, given his constant hand on her and his quiet voice.  I saw a younger woman, sitting alone staring out into the store. She looked so hearty and healthy and poised in her solitude…Interestingly, in my reflection, she was the one person I wished I had engaged and inquired of how she was holding up despite my instinct that she was independent, okay, and just waiting the time out. I saw that large man, keeping his arm around his woman emanating safety and control.  He had been nearby when I was still in the front of the store and he called to his wife and said “we must get out now”.  I can still see many of the other faces as well. I noticed there were no children, but of course why would there be it was a school day.

As I lay listening to the rain, seeing these people over and over I realized that I was more disturbed by this experience than I had yet allowed myself to feel. I let myself go into some eye movements to process the ordeal.  My eyes were eager to shift laterally, a sure sign I needed to do so. My self-induced REMs were steady and consistent, a good sign, I thought. Then I began to feel a surge, a quick breath and my reactive thought was “god damn guns!”  I saw the little pregnant woman again and the beautiful girl going off with her friends for a fun time in Vegas and thought of our beautiful Jenny and Krissie. “God Damn the god damn guns!” Then in one instant I began to cry.  My crying spontaneously out loud is about as rare as my not sleeping. Yet in the very moment of hearing my own cry, I felt a safety in the cry welcomed further subs.  I noticed that within the first audible sob, Ron’s hand was immediately on me. Bless him. He is always there for me.  I cried a bit more letting my body finish up this needed release.  I began then to think of more familiar faces…thought of how hard this last year in particular has been for my friends Holly and Bud.  I thought about our friend Elaine in Newfoundland, who really would take care of me. I thought about Tim, our best friend in CO and how important he is to us given that he knows Ron and I collectively better than anyone else. I thought about Jenny and James planning their wedding and Krissie and Gavin and Alexis and the entwining of their lives. I thought about the clients I see day by day, name by name…even clients from years ago.  They all kept showing up in my mind. I thought about the wonderful neighbors on all sides of our little house in Lodi. I thought about Ron, his hand still on me and mine on him. I thought about everyone I know close and dear near and far. It was an explosion of connection with everyone on the planet, so it felt.  I felt the “we” of those I am closest to and the “we” of those I have only known for two hours. I felt the “we” of America and Portugal.   I felt the “we” of those dear people two building down from Marshalls.

Like the one gal that I wished I had engaged, I am a very independent person and I would just as well sit alone in a crisis than be in the collective. That is just my way. It is a gift. Yet even so, in this brief encounter of potential danger, I experienced the necessity of the “we”.

Crying and breathing this “we” was good for me. How holy to love, to live, to “we”. This night’s interruption wasn’t about just me selfishly missing Ron and Ron missing me for a few days away. It was about potentially missing neighbors, family, best friends, clients and strangers in a lock down. This night was about the “we” that we all are. The “we” that we each must be.

Loving and Liking II: The Importance of Not Liking your Spouse

In our first blog on the loving/not liking phenomenon we discussed how important it is to distinguish liking and loving. Both of these phenomena are of central importance in having successful relationships as well as have an emotionally satisfying life. Simply stated:

  • Loving is natural and often immediate. Loving is most immediate and natural with family members.
  • Liking is the result of something shared: this can be an idea or belief, an experience, or something else that is held in common.
  • Liking comes more slowly and is most common among friends.
  • It is possible to like someone whom you may not love.
  • It is possible to love someone whom you really don’t like. This is the real challenge in relationships, particularly when the person you love but don’t necessarily like is a family member.

A few more things about this business of liking:

  • “Not liking” is not the same as disliking. You can actively dislike someone for various reasons, usually having to do with someone’s character. Disliking someone tends to be complete: you really don’t like the person. This tends to be fairly rare.
  • More often, there are elements of the person you don’t like. You may actually like the person as a whole but not certain aspects of her life. These could be minor things like her table manners, the grammatical errors she routinely makes. Or the dislike could be her political position or how she behaves in a group.
  • Both liking and loving are feelings. We discussed the centrality of feelings in the Feelings I, II, III, and IV blogs. Feelings are a murky combination of emotions, thought, and intuition. They are central to life. They are close to our souls.

One of the things we do with our clients/patients is to help them distinguish the liking and loving phenomena and how they often overlap. Understanding the similarities, differences, and overlap of liking and loving is particularly helpful in spousal and other partner relationships. We have often said to couples, “You got married for the wrong reason: you loved each other.” We make this statement somewhat tongue-in-cheek knowing that it wonderful to love one’s partner and that most people do, indeed, get married because they are in love, at least in America. Yet, getting married primarily, often singularly, because you love someone, does not necessarily make for a satisfying marriage. Very often, sometimes within days after a marriage, people begin to feel a “not like” or even the “dislike” for the person they just married. Then you have a huge dilemma. But why do people discover that they don’t like each other even though they may deeply love each other? The reason, as sages throughout time have told us: “love is blind”.

Yes, love is blind, and it is wonderful in its blindness. When you come to love someone, you are not necessarily interested in everything about this person. You don’t care what s/he does for a living, whether they like baseball, or know how to cook. You certainly don’t think about whether they have ever done the dishes. You just love the person. Wonderful. But also, blind. Love is certainly blind when you immediately love your child when s/he is born. The blindness of loving such a wonderful creation of God is nothing but beautiful, soulful, and perfectly honest. You don’t think about changing diapers for three years or being awakened at 4 AM for the fourth time in the night. You just love your child. Wonderful. But also, blind.

Love can be “blind” when we don’t attend to the whole picture, or better stated, the eventual picture. Blind love is more about a soul-filled moment of perfection. You can really love those Grizzly cubs before they grow up and threaten your life, or love puppies and kittens before they poop on your new carpet. When we love things, especially young living things, we are loving the purity of what is in the moment. We can easily love the stars on a clear night, spring flowers in a mountain meadow, or the call of a loon on a quiet lake because they are representations of some level of perfection. Loving your newborn child is a kind of “perfect love” that is pure and immediate and does not take into account for any potential danger or disappointment. Falling in love with another person can equally be “perfect love” but fail to take into account inevitable disappointments.

We all have things, experiences, and people we “just love” without rational reason. My wife and I “love” the moment we hear Pacobel’s cannon. It is a representation of our “perfect love” experienced on our wedding day. We all “just love” experiences, memories, and people in different ways and times, but all love “blindly,” as we should.  We would never want to give up this glorious experience of such random loving. But when it comes to spousal like relationships, this grand experience of loving can get us in deep trouble.

Here’s what happens. In the blindness of love we see the immediate physical, sexual or otherwise ethereal qualities of another person. And in that immediate attraction we automatically disregard the plethora of differences that might otherwise be caution signs. This blindness does not help us see the things that might be substantially different between us, some of them quite profound, some less significant. The blindness of love convinces us that nothing else matters and whatever “else” there might be, it will be as easy to dismiss as it is easy to love. Most of the things we don’t like or dislike in someone else have to do with honest differences, not flaws. And in the initial embrace of blind love, these differences seem inconsequential.

When we see couples in our office for a marital assessment we always do what we call a “friendly diagnosis”. Our friendly diagnosis identifies each individual’s positive characteristics. This includes gender, personality, cultural, spiritual and intellectual strengths. Once we have identified each person’s strengths, we frame them as “preferences.” In this framework we can then compare these preferences between the partners. What have felt like “problems” to the couple can then be seen as differences. These problems when viewed through the lens of preferences help each partner to see how despite how much they love one another, there are things that they dislike about each other. Then we can talk about the “not liking” phenomenon because we have some content to the discussion rather than a wholesale not liking or disliking.

When couples learn that they actually dislike their partners for some reason, the dislike becomes more palatable, and even useful in how they see each other, hear each other, and love each other. Furthermore, when they accept that there are aspects of their partners that they don’t like, this dislike diminishes in content and in fury, sometimes to the place where they can tease one another about something not liked without hostility or resentment. They also come to realize that some of the things they don’t like not only are foundational to their partners, but that they are good things…that they just happen to not like.

A few suggestions:

  • Note that you love your partner.
  • Note immediately that you want to say things you don’t like about him or her.
  • Identify something very specific that you don’t like. This will usually be something they say, don’t say, do, or don’t do.
  • Don’t tell your partner this thing that you don’t like. Just sit on it for a day or two.
  • Notice how you “don’t like” diminishes over time…but you still don’t like when they…
  • You might find yourself identifying things you like about your partner. Make note of them.
  • You might notice that some of the things you don’t like seem to be intrinsically related to what you do like about your partner.
  • Then it might be time to talk to your partner: about loving him/her, about liking some things, and about not liking some things.

Further Reading

Our book, The Positive Power of Sadness

Previous blogs on Feelings and Loving and Liking I: Not the Same

Forthcoming Loving and Liking on Children and The Spectrum of liking/Not liking