Compare and Contrast Does Not Mean Assume and Disregard

One of the skills many are taught and develop while in grade school is the practice of contrasting and comparing. Many of us remember prompts like “Compare and contrast Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to Homer’s The Odyssey,”

What we were not taught is that this skill, intended as a tool of critical thinking, may become a crutch or a disability without the added insight of reflection. “I don’t like: Thai food, large cities, small towns, the desert, rap music, classical music, liberals, conservatives, Christmas” more accurately reveals a person’s experience, or lack of, to any particular event, place or thing.

I may not like Christmas because my family is religious while I’m not; or I hate shopping for things people in my life don’t need with money I don’t have; or half of my family are drinkers and I’m uncomfortable with that; or my father died on Christmas and it is a time of grieving, not of celebrating. What happens is that I am comparing this Christmas with all of the others from my previous experience. I am convinced it’s not to be enjoyed. Once I am convinced, then I have prevented the opportunity to grow. I could be more creative about extending love in other forms besides buying gifts from the mall or attending large family dinners. With reflection and courage, there is an opportunity to consider more satisfying ways to address our collective expectations and needs. Perhaps that comes in the form of having a Christmas breakfast instead of a dinner or choosing to spend the day on my own.

I lived in Santa Cruz for many years. I love the salty moist air, the rich earth of the redwood forest, the red bougainvillea that grows on the side of the government buildings. I now live in Reno and many of my Santa Cruz friends don’t understand my affection for the high desert. It’s dry. It’s hot. No trees. I realized they don’t see Reno for what it is, they see it for what its not. As long as the desert is compared to the ocean and then dismissed because it does not possess those familiar qualities then one is incapable of appreciating the sparse yet resonate beauty of the desert landscape.

Rap music. Hate it. Assumed it was an inferior art form because it requires a very different ear when listening than what I am familiar and therefore comfortable with. Compared to almost all other forms of music which posses melody and foundations of music theory. This assumption allowed me to dismiss an entire genre of music and in some ways a generation of concertgoers. That’s okay. I’m right. You’re wrong. But then my daughter insisted I listen to Nicki Minaj and her outrageous/courageous voice of a woman’s experience. Surprised, I discovered an appreciation for the art form. I will probably never spend a hundred bucks on tickets to a concert, but my willingness to embrace my daughter’s appreciation drew us closer and more engaged as I understand her life a little better.

Our differences can be unsettling. And the easiest way to deal with this discomfort is to disregard and dismiss the value of the “other”. However, as long as you dismiss your wife’s pleasure in theater or your husband’s delight in finding the correct fly fishing lure or a parent’s love in participating in the community chorus, you miss knowing something important about them. You miss the opportunity to love a part of themselves that they love.

I get it, the fishing lure is not that interesting to someone who doesn’t fish and rap music is certainly not interesting to someone who adores Leonard Cohen or Dinah Washington, but if we take the time to listen to one another’s story and let them teach us, we just may learn we have more to join through comparison than dismiss in contrast. And this simple yet significant act may provide the magic elixir of connection.

Several items of clothing hung carefully on hangers.

Hangers in the Closet, Feelings in the Heart

I’m old enough that I have clothes from the ‘80s hanging in my closet.
And, like some of these clothes, I am experiencing my vintage years.
Between these clothes from the ‘80s and current fashion purchased from Forever 21 by my stylist daughter, I have a lot of hangers in the closet. Hanging with these clothes are memories; the holiday party I wore that sweater to, riding in gondola through the canals of Venice in that pair of pants. They’re all clung on to the growing collection of hangers.

As organized as I try to be by placing all of the empty hangers in one place, it almost always happens that I pull one out and another four come with it. “@#$%^! I have got better things to do than spending the next five minutes untangling all of these hangers! All I wanted was two!“ I can feel the irritation rise up the back of my neck and in a flash I am cursing at that bunch of hangers.

It happens so fast. I lost it. The hangers have won. Hopefully no one else or the dog has heard my rantings. It scares and upsets them. It’s humiliating. A nest of hangers has control over me and the loved ones in my life know it.

What the heck is going on? Is it that there are too many hangers in the closet or too many memories? Because of course, that’s how memories work. No memory is isolated from another and no memory comes without a feeling attached.

I remember a particular day I was running late. It was the beginning of the economic recession. The variable rate loan I had was now increasing at an alarming and prohibitive rate. I had tossed all night because I was worried about how to pay the mortgage. Finally at 5:00 am I got a few blessed moments of sleep. The result is now I’m 15 minutes behind schedule. My daughter was late to school and furious at me. I was late to work (because, of course, the car needed gas) and my boss noticed. I was attempting to do my best and my best was not good enough. That day was a nest of feelings: despair, overwhelm, heartache, fury, resolve and even pride. To the people in my life it didn’t matter I had figured out a solution; I had failed them.

The memory of that day is attached to today because I disappointed someone again.
In the moment my best is not good enough. So once again I am filled with not one feeling but many. They are all attached. It’s a mess. And just like that, the heat rises up the back of my neck.

The task is to take a breath. Slow down. Separate out the feeling from the event. Soothe the heartache and the panic. Make a plan. Do the next right thing.

I believe my story mirrors the story of many. Few of us were taught how to cultivate the emotional resources and practical skills for unraveling the nest of feelings that come with the daily complexities of living and loving. The emotional discipline to separate out our feelings and actions is an acquired skill developed over time. It is my view these skills are developed in the context of relationship and that the psychotherapeutic relationship provides a matchless opportunity to develop and practice. Spare the dog. Spare the spouse.