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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Frodo, the Lord of the Rings, Robin Williams, and Harry's Law

At the end of Lord of the Rings (I'm thinking of the movie here, not the book), while Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry are sitting around drinking ale at the pub, there is a bittersweet quality.  Why?  Because their quest is over, and because there is nothing in life which can compare from that point forward to what they have already been through.  I suspect that they would wish to be back in the action, fighting the Dark Lord.  Of course, when fighting dragons (literally and figuratively in the book/movie), they were terrified.  Back then they were terrified partly because they did not know how things would turn out.  If they had known how well everything ended, they probably would have enjoyed their whole quest it a lot more.  In that scene, they can only enjoy it retrospectively, and that's just not the same.

A lot of times what keeps us from enjoying life, is our worry that things will turn out badly.  And I have to admit, sometimes they do.  But a lot of times life turns out well, and we need to learn to live in the moment and enjoy it while we have it.  If we enjoy the moment, then in one sense, things have already turned out well.  And if we don't enjoy the moment, then in one sense, things have already turned out badly.

Remember the movie Dead Poets Society?  Robin Williams plays the role of a prep school teacher.  He talks to his students about previous students that have gone off to war and died:
John Keating: They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? - - Carpe - - hear it? - - Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.

This scene makes a similar point, whether things turn out well or turn out badly,we need to seize the moment and use it, feel it, experience it.

Here's another more recent quote from the Media, from the TV show Harry's Law:

Harry: (Tommy takes Harry by the arm and pulls her into his office) What? What are you doing?
Tommy: (pulls up a chair for her) OK. You need to listen to me. (closes his office door) You're not having fun. You need to be having fun here, Harry.
Harry: Fun? A man's life is on the line. If I lose he might be put to death.
Tommy: Even so.
Harry: Even? Tommy, what's wrong with you? You think is all cause for amusement?
Tommy: I think you're 62 years old, I'm in my 50's, and it won't be long until you're the woman who used to Harry Korn, and I'll be the guy that used to be Tommy Jefferson. You hear me, Harry? We're not far from our 'used to be' years. Right now, you're in the game. The world is watching. A man's life is in the balance and you're right smack in the middle of it. (sighs) This may be the most irrelevant 15 minutes you'll ever know and, trust me, you do not want to wake up 10 years from now and say 'My God, why didn't I savor it?' So, yeah, it's pressure. Yes, there's stress but savor the moment because tomorrow we could be yesterday. That's what I'm saying. (Harry nods)

Perhaps it is not a tragedy if things turn out badly and we didn't enjoy the path to getting there.  But it would be a tragedy if things turned out well, and we didn't enjoy our way there.

Carpe diem readers.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Substituting One Feeling for Another

One interesting coping mechanism in stressful situations is learning how to substitute one feeling for another.  If done in one way, it is probably a very healthy mechanism.  In another way, not so healthy.

I first learned this lesson as a novice skier.  I was skiing for the first time and came to a small blue slope (blue being a slope of intermediate difficulty).  I fell down three times.  For the next two days, I avoided the slope.  Then on the last day, when it was time to leave, I decided that I hadn't had enough fun.  I wanted to ski the slope--for the fun of it.  I fell down three times--and laughed all the way down. 

What was different between the two times?  I fell down three times on each occasion.  My heart was beating just as fast.  I was breathing just as hard.  My adrenalin was probably at the same levels.  What was different?  Somehow I had side stepped from anxiety to excitement, from one emotion to another, and it was very adaptive.  It helped me take another step in skiing.

So anxiety and excitement are sometimes just a step away from each other. Sometimes when we are anxious, it is possible to think of it as excitement, and excitement is a whole lot more fun than anxiety. 

The physiological arousal symptoms of anxiety and excitement can be quite similar.  Two psychologists, Schachter and Singer, injected college students with adrenalin (with their permission) and found that the adrenalin by itself did not produce reliable emotional effects.  The emotions which the college students experienced depended on what they thought they should experience.  This in turn was manipulated by the experimenters using two other students who were confederates of the researchers.  They were able to show that the physiological state of sympathetic arousal on adrenalin can go along with anger, amusement, or euphoria.  It greatly depends on the context.

So next time you are anxious and your heart is pumping, and your breathing is getting more rapid, try the following. Imagine that you are not anxious but excited.  You are excited and eager to get on with whatever stress you are facing. It is making your blood pump and your heart race and your lungs breathe faster. But it is not a bad thing; it is good. It is exciting. See if you can do the sidestep, replacing one emotion for another--another emotion which is much more palatable.

Are there other emotions where this sidestep is possible?  Probably.  I will be giving this more thought.

Now I said that sometimes replacing one emotion with another is not healthy.  When is it not?  When it involves denial or reaction formation.  When we are not aware of what we are doing.  When we are being dishonest with ourselves somewhere deep within our mind, so that we don't even know that we are doing it.  "I'm not angry!" would be denial if it were not true and if we were being dishonest with ourselves.  And "I'm not sad, I'm actually very happy" would be reaction formation if it were not true.  So adaptive coping mechanisms would differ from unadaptive defense mechanisms in that the person knows what he/she is doing; it is being done intentionally, and the person is being honest with themselves.

Now, for some theoretical comments from non-psychology fields.  (Skip this if you like.  It is just some theoretical stuff I have been thinking about.)

I came to understand this principle of side stepping is not limited to psychology when my jazz piano teacher and my painting teacher taught me the same lesson in the same week.  In a general sense, this can be called chromatic substitution.

"Chroma" is the coloring of something.  Two things can be similar but have a different coloring.  Of course a "coloring" when listening to something means something different from the coloring in a painting.  And both of those are different from the "color" of a feeling.  But there is quite a bit of similarity, too.

In jazz piano, a tritone substitution can be used for a dominant seventh chord, or any diatonic chord.  A tritone substitute chord shares the major 3rd and minor 7th of the original (usually dominant 7th) chord.  They have just changed places.  Now the fifth and ninth become something different, causing what is in essence the altered version of the original chord.  Altered chords are very cool sounding in a jazzy sort of way.  They sound good, and they are similar to the original chord, but they are also different.  And to a jazz musician, they often sound better.  So chromatic substitution here means using a tritone instead of the original dominant seventh, or using the altered chord instead of the original simple dominant chord.  And the substitute can be used because it is different, but in some ways also the same.

In painting, it is possible (especially in impressionist painting), to add additional colors, replacing the original "realistic" colors.  The new hues might be only hinted at, or even absent, in the original "realistic" image.  These colors usually disappear entirely in photographs but can be glimpsed by an artistic eye in real life.  In impressionistic painting, they have to be added at the same value level as the original colors.  (The value level is the black/white darkness level.  If you "desaturate

There is one other type of sidestep in therapy, and that is reframing.  Family therapists discovered early on that it is often not clear exactly what motive a person has in a family interaction.  When families become angry and deadlocked, they tend to "frame" the motivation of another family  member in a very negative way.  A reframing can be quite helpful in family counseling.  For more on this, see .