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An Independent Monthly Newspaper Serving the Community since 1988
  Real People

“When a person could believably say to him or herself that everything was being done to help...they seemed to cross a thresholdfrom the fanciful into the possible, which is where real hope exists.”

Why realistic wisdom beats positive thinking

—Judith Acosta

The other day, a client of mine tearfully revealed a childhood filled with fear. Her father was an unpredictable and menacing man who was nearly as big as the front door. She was only a toddler, but she had vivid memories of him hollering as he came into the kitchen, the sweet smell of too much whiskey floating off his skin as he picked up a utensil to beat her mother. Her mother, also a drug user, in rage at her husband, tried to drown her daughter by pouring soap and water down her throat. With mere seconds to go, she was saved by a neighbor who had heard the screaming.

She cried silently for a while, and then she asked me: “What did I do wrong?”

At first, I heard her as any therapist would. Many, many, too many, children blame themselves for the horror they are born into. Why? Mainly because the people who are hurting them tell them that “It’s all their fault” and because they are children, they simply don‘t know any better than to believe them.

But then I heard something else. I heard the recurrent theme of a culture obsessed with success and the exterior trimmings of “well-being” as a manifestation of our inner grace, a culture that has rejected the entire idea of luck or providence as the limping hope of the loser and has embraced the personal accountability of the “individual as all.” This takes us to many places, not all of them bad, but decidedly not all of them good. This child was one example of what happens when personal accountability is perverted.

I had another client who had difficulties finding work in a professional field. She went to interview after interview, but she kept getting turned down. Finally, I asked her how she went to the interview―what time she showed up, how she dressed, how she spoke. “I go like this,” she said and waved her hands in front of herself proudly. “I go as myself.” She was dressed in flouncy pedal pushers, ankle socks, shoes that seemed way too comfortable (especially for an interview), and a short-sleeved shirt that stuck out of her waist. Her hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail. With every nonjudgmental muscle in my mind working in reverse, I could not help but see her as responsible for her difficulty.

But what about luck? What about those people who seem to have all of it? And those others who seem to have none?

A young woman with a terribly sad story comes to mind: a young illegal immigrant who literally crawled here from south of the border. I mean what I said. She crawled on hands and knees through jungle and tunnel for miles, the only female with 40 men. She had been beaten mercilessly as a child. She had been taken by a man to be his wife without her consent and tormented by her “husband” (who was a high functioning member of a drug cartel) for years. She had been tortured and thrown around so badly that she lost her eight-month pregnancy and spent a month in a coma. She finally left because she was certain he would kill her and reluctantly left her only child with her mother. She grieves every day for that child. Was that her fault? Were her beatings a product of her own negative thinking? Would a couple of aphorisms have changed what she had to deal with? The family she was born into? The country?

I think of another immigrant with a very different outcome. With a similar state of abject misery in his early childhood, he scrambled into this country by jumping cargo trains. Finally, starving, he turned himself into a slave laborer on farms across the Southwest, drinking and drugging to oblivion. During those intoxicated years, he committed a series of crimes for which he is deeply remorseful. But he―as opposed to our young mother―had the good fortune to one, never get arrested, and two, marry a woman who stayed with him, who raised their daughter kindly, and kept a decent job. Then he had the even better fortune to have a moment of divine grace that got him to put down the drugs and alcohol for good. He cannot explain the moment or the grace. He just says as he holds a Bible to his chest, “In a second, it all changed.”

I mentioned my thoughts on this to my husband. I told him that I thought our culture had gone too far with the idealization of the self, that certain things are and will remain a mystery, that bad things happen and we very often don’t know why, that some idiots get all the girls and gold, but some of the finest people on earth suffer in endless silence.

I asked him: Whatever happened to luck? Or providence? Or mystery? Whatever happened to not having all the answers? Whatever happened to the simple compassion we should have for those who don’t have it as good as we do? When did we start lecturing the poor and sick on their lack of positivity and forgetting that we all stand on the edge of an abyss? When did we come to rely so heavily on the “power of intention” and turn our own cortical functions into a spiritual platform?

Does anyone really believe that Trump deserved all the money he inherited? That somehow his mental state was sufficiently advanced or positive and healthy enough that he “drew” that energy to him? I continued on my soapbox: When did we become masters of the universe, whether by our quantum minds or our technology? When did we start thinking that somehow we could control what was around us that way?

And in his typically Montanan manner, he said, “But life without that idea in some form is hopeless.”

Of course, as usual, he was right.

And as usual, things were never quite as linear or straightforward as I might have liked. Life is a mess. This issue is no exception.

A Culture of Control

One way it goes wrong is in degree. America is a culture of extremes. Its need for control is no different. It is an extreme need that manifests everywhere from the personal to the political. While it is perfectly reasonable to say that one’s choices make a difference or that one’s thoughts have a profound impact on how one feels, it’s an entirely different thing to insist that the “self” (whether that’s my thoughts, my choices, my ideas) is all that matters in the formation of a life. There are way too many things that are beyond our control for this to be absolutely true. I may be able to manage my thoughts, but I can’t change the global politic, the state of the economy, or the winds that blow in from the west filled with smoke.

It also goes wrong in its reductionism. We have been taught to be empirical beings, so things must be understood in linear ways. They must make sense, the columns must add up. If they don’t, it’s because we lost control and did something wrong. There must be someone or something to blame.

Two traditions perpetuate this:

  1. Calvinism and the doctrine of the elect/predestination.
  2. Eastern philosophy and the concept of Karma.

While they initially may seem like odd bedfellows, they are curiously similar in that they both interpret our station in life (good or bad) as a function of either our grace or enlightenment. While “karma” is a relatively new ingredient in America’s philosophical soup, Calvinism’s doctrine of the elect permeates the American root system. In both ideologies, nothing is random or mysterious. Your good fortune is either God’s personal choice for you and you are obviously one of His favored, His “elect,” or it is because of something you did or did not do in a past life. If you are poor and suffering, clearly you deserve it. If you’re not slim and simultaneously pushing a baby stroller while running a board of directors, there’s something awry. And that can mean there’s something wrong with you now (your intentions are weak or not right), or there was something wrong with you a 100 years ago, and you’re paying for it now.

Some people take this concept to an extreme, which is where it truly begins to distort.

I remember a woman at an animal training workshop I took some years ago. It involved some psychological techniques that were much like Cesar Milan’s dog whispering. Somehow, the conversation got diverted to the spiritual state of animals, particularly dogs. That woman told a story about a dog who was always tied to a tree, who was clearly in pain, and was often neglected or beaten. I piped right up: “And you got him, right?” It’s what I would have done.

She dismissed me with a toss of her hair. “Of course not. How do I know it’s not his destiny, that he’s supposed to be there because of something he needs to learn?”

She smiled, quite satisfied with how spiritual she sounded. I nearly jumped out of my seat. I do not suffer fools gladly, and I especially do not easily tolerate the smug, intellectual dismissal of pain and need in others―particularly children and animals.

The Power of Proper Rather Than Positive Thinking

One of the most important pioneers in mind-body medicine, oncologist Dr. O. Simonton had a unique perspective on thinking and healing. Quite a while back, he was asked which individuals were more likely to survive cancer. It was clear that the author of the question assumed Simonton would say, “but, of course, the positive thinkers.” He didn’t. He said that pure (sic: unbelievable) positive thinking (“I am healed,” for instance) actually worked against patients as much as grossly negative thinking (“I’m dying; there’s no hope”). What seemed to make a difference was what he called realistic thinking. When a person could believably say to him or herself that everything was being done to help, and they were doing everything they could to be better and healthier every day, they seemed to cross a threshold―from the fanciful into the possible, which is where real hope exists.

I say a prayer (often) that I’m sure most of you know: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

To me, this is truly hopeful. This puts an appropriate percentage of responsibility in my hands. This says I can do something, but not everything. I can do what I can do, and I will. I can use imagery to help myself heal (yes, that works). I can use proper medicine (I choose classical homeopathy). I can pray. I can eat right. I can sleep, play, and work in balance. I can choose to forgive and stay in gratitude. I can use the tools I am given with all my heart and all my strength.

What I can’t do is lie to myself. I can’t use my thoughts to manipulate others, create opportunities that don’t exist, or generate mounds of cash in a toppling economy because “I’m worth it.” I can’t pretend that everything makes sense or that all suffering is self-generated. I can’t make the columns add up when this universe doesn’t add up. I can’t believe that a child who was nearly killed by her own parents somehow merited that because of something she did, either in this life or any other.

I can believe that the young woman who crawled here from South America did nothing to “deserve” her pain, but that, with help and patience, she can find ways through it and possibly build a new life. When I last heard from her, a fund was being taken up by people she had met in this country to help her get her child and mother to safety. It was a spontaneous and unexpected act of love and kindness, just when she had nearly lost all hope.

I believe that good things happen in the same way as bad things―mysteriously and surprisingly. I believe with all my heart that everything does have a purpose, that I can have a personal relationship with God, and that eventually what is wrong will be made right. But I don’t know how or when. In the meantime, I ride the waves of good and bad as they come without pronouncing judgment about them or using them as philosophical weapons of self-justification.

In the documentary film, What the Bleep Do We Know?, one of the doctors interviewed said he had a hard time with affirmations, and, to paraphrase him, he found them vapid and unbelievable. What he could say to himself, and what allowed him to be inspired, sometimes courageous, and hard working in spite of obstacles was this simple idea: “I can always be surprised by how good it gets.”

Me, too.

Amen.


rattlesnake

Dog kills rattlesnake

—Jennifer Houston

I believe in signs. I read my horoscope daily and take it to heart, especially when I am pursuing a new love affair. So, when I awoke to find that my old St. Bernard cross, who is blind and deaf, had killed a rattlesnake, and she was still alive to show me her kill, I took it as a sign. First, I took it as a good sign. It showed me that my old dog was not as feeble as she pretended to be because she had killed a venomous snake and hadn’t gotten bitten in the process, thus saving me a small fortune in potential vet bills. But she killed a snake, and the snake in most ancient texts and mythical musings symbolizes death and rebirth. It also symbolizes, in most ancient religions, the taking on a new skin, the transformation of a new self, taking on of new roles, new responsibilities, and even attitudes. I Googled all of this while sipping my morning coffee.

Of course, I read my horoscope for the day, which read: “Change is on its way, good and bad.” I also read the horoscope for the man I was lusting after. His read: “You might be thinking of a love of the past, but a hot inner-office romance might be in the making.” I then stalked him on Facebook to see if he had posted any new pictures of possible candidates for his “hot office romance.” I did notice that he had befriended two new women. Where did all this leave me? What is the meaning of my dog killing the snake—a powerful totem animal, the all empowering symbol of life-changing transformation? Did my dog just kill my possible transformation? I dismissed this irrational thinking. And yet, there is a rational story to this frightful morning event.

Weeks before on a sunny summer morning, I stepped out onto my front porch and immediately heard a rattle. I looked down, and there, two feet from my bare feet, was a rattlesnake. I screamed and ran back into my house, thinking I had almost gotten bitten. I was hyperventilating, near hysterics. And then I heard the darn thing slither under my porch. I worried about the dogs, but hoped they were smart enough to stay away from it. Like all dogs, they quickly grew bored with it, and for the next three days, every time I stepped onto my porch I heard the rattle.

Of course, I posted my adventure on my Facebook page, and I got several hits. My ex-sister in-law was somewhat informative, telling me it was a good sign to have a rattlesnake appear on my porch because it symbolized death and rebirth. Considering I had just gotten divorced from her brother, I took this as a good omen that I was on the right path with my life. I was being reborn I told myself and was seriously thinking about getting a rattlesnake tattoo on my back, up my leg, or around my wrist. I quickly dismissed the thought. I am not in to pain, and knowing me, I’d regret doing it after a week of looking at it.

With the positive reassurance from my ex-sister-in-law, I began to look forward to hearing the rattle of the snake every morning. And then one morning, I didn’t hear it anymore. A part of me was thankful that the snake had moved on because now I didn’t have to worry about it biting one of my dogs, or me, or the possibility of it getting into my house.

Amidst all of the rattlesnake drama, I was pursuing an old flame from my past. I thought it was serendipitous that the rattlesnake showed up on my doorstep right when I was reconnecting with my old love, well mostly old lust. And, of course, I took it as a good sign that a rattlesnake was living under my porch, but then the rattlesnake left.             

I began feverishly reading my horoscope at this point. I signed up on Facebook to get a direct link every morning on my page. I also signed up for daily Facebook tarot card readings. Then another weird thing happened. On the day the snake left, my horoscope read: “If you are pursuing an old flame, don’t even think about it unless either party is willing to make major changes in one’s life.” Okay, I freaked a little. The old flame lives 3,000 miles away and is well established in his city, and I, well, I have no desire to move anytime soon, plus the budding of our rekindled romance consisted of one phone call, sporadic texting, including him asking me to send a naked photo of myself, and a couple little quips on Facebook. However, I, of course, took this as a sign to rethink my life’s plan, and when, on the next day, the horoscope page asked, “Have you recently reconnected with an old flame and how did it work out?,” I read all 200 comments, and let me tell you, they were not positive. In fact, they were god awful depressing. After reading them, I cursed the rattlesnake for leaving. I cursed the damn thing for even showing up! Why did it have to even show up? To tease me, like the devil, because just think what it did to Adam and Eve. If that snake had not tempted Eve, we’d all be living in eternal bliss right now, not worrying about the common problems of life!

At this point, all communication with the old flame stopped. Again, I blamed the rattlesnake, and again, I adamantly read my daily horoscope and tarot card postings. I tried to stop thinking about how my supposed transformation had slithered away with the leaving of the rattlesnake that had graced its presence at my doorstep, bringing with it a sense of hope for me, but then quickly taking that hope away due to its grumbling stomach or wanton need to find a mate—selfish creature!

I began to dream of snakes. I again Googled the meaning of snakes in my dreams. On one site, it stated that dreaming of snakes predominantly means a fear of something, but then went on to say that it is also a sexual symbol to dream of a snake. It stressed that to dream of snakes means a hidden, repressed sexual desire. I laughed when I read this because there was nothing I could do about it because the guy that I have the hots for lives 3,000 miles away and will not return any of my phone calls or my text messages, and not wanting to be a stalker, I stopped texting him and seriously was thinking about unfriending him on Facebook. 

I called my best friend and recounted my dream to her about the snakes. She went on to inform me that this was a message from a higher plane. She said that if I had dreamt of a cobra, it meant I am being challenged, that I am ready to break free in some way, and that I must listen to my inner self for the wisdom within the message that the snake dreams were sending me. It wasn’t a cobra I dreamt of. It was a rattlesnake, the same damn snake that had lived under my porch. And in my dream, it was basking in the sun and looking very content with its serpent self. I Googled again the dreaming of snakes and found a different site that advised looking at how I felt when dreaming of the snake—was I afraid or uncomfortable? No, I was upset that the snake was happy and basking in the sun and the guy I liked wouldn’t text me back.

My ex-sister-in-law called me after I posted on my Facebook that I was dreaming of snakes. She left me a message: “Jen, I think the meaning of the snakes in your dreams is that you are letting the old go and accepting the new. Because snakes shed their skin, you are in the process of letting go of something that hurt you, and it might mean that you are afraid of letting in the new because you are afraid of getting hurt.”

I didn’t call her back. I simply believed that I was dreaming of the particular rattlesnake because I had him on my mind, and that’s how dreams work. There was no hidden meaning. I simply dreamt of a snake, the same snake that had slithered away, taking with it my rebirth! My chance of finding true love again! My transformation! I was divorced; that was my true transformation—I had shed my old skin when I signed those divorce papers.

But then I awoke from a deep slumber to the barking and whining of my dogs at my bedroom window. I sleepily peeked out, and to my horror, my two big dogs—one a Great Dane and the other a Coonhound—had surrounded the rattlesnake, and the idiotic Coonhound was paw smacking it. The Great Dane, due to her noble birth, knew better and kept a safe distance from the viperous creature. The Coonhound, due to her redneck breeding, had no sense at all and continued pawing at the rattlesnake. I quickly jumped out of bed and ran for the front door, screaming at them to get in the house.

I went back to bed, since it was only 5:30 in the morning, and lay there, listening to the snake rattle up against my garage door, trying to calm itself from its ordeal with my dogs. And then I thought: Oh, my god, it is right up against my garage door probably looking for somewhere to hide, and the pipe that is attached to my dryer sticks out from the corner of my garage to my house. It might slither up the pipe and into my house… and then what would I do? I sat up in bed, but amidst my panic, I thought: The rattlesnake has returned, and so, too, my rebirth, my renewal, my lust for my old flame, my chance, my liberation, my something! Yet, I had to think only about getting the rattlesnake away from the pipe because even though I liked the idea of its return, I didn’t like the idea of it being able to get into my house.

I jumped out of bed. I put on a pair of boots that went above my ankles. I donned a long coat and pair of leather gloves. I looked like some steampunk character; the only thing I didn’t have was a pair of goggles. Rake in hand and courage abounding, I stood several feet from the beast and was amazed at its tender beauty. It was coiled in the corner near the garage, right under the pipe. I cursed my ex-husband. I do this occasionally when I am a little freaked out. I shouted expletives, several times, and the rattlesnake, as if understanding my uncertainty, slithered away from the corner of the house and looked right at me. It had stopped its rattling and hissing. Yes, they hiss. I got a look at its black forked tongue, and it did send chills up my spine. It creeped me out a little, but it was so beautiful. It glowed. Its diamond yellow back pulsated. Its rattle was gold and black. I was in awe of it. And yet, I had to get it away from my house. 

Both the creature and I stood staring at each other for a couple of seconds, I poking at it with the end of the rake and it rattling at me in response. It never struck at me. I took this to be a good sign. Finally, I think it understood that I was not going to kill it, as it looked at me, slithered away along the garage door, and made its way through the fence and into the neighbor’s yard.

I was relieved. I had gotten it away from my house, and yet, there was a tinge of regret that the rattlesnake had disappeared. I took it as an immediate sign to text message the old flame and try to resume some sort of communication with him, to entice him to talk to me again. I sent him a text, right after I stopped shaking from my encounter with the snake, had a cigarette and a cup of coffee. I would have had a shot of whiskey, but since it was only 7:30 in the morning, I thought better of it. Okay, first I read my horoscope, and it said: “Remain calm, you will be experiencing spiritual breakthroughs today, yet there is nagging doubt within your psychic. Proceed with caution with any romantic pursuits.”

I grabbed my cell phone. I paused for only a second to rethink my plan, but I had a sign—the rattlesnake had returned, and yes, my horoscope advised caution, but it was not as if I was calling him I rationalized. No, a cute little text to the old flame wouldn’t hurt. I smoked another cigarette for inspiration. Nothing of profound wisdom leapt out, so I opted with just texting, “Hi, how are you?” I then quickly flipped the cell phone shut and went to take a shower. While in the shower, I heard the phone ring. I thought: Oh, my god, he is calling me! I leapt out of the shower, stumbling over my little dog and stubbing my toe in the process of getting to my phone that I had left on the kitchen counter.

“Listen, I think the snake is your spirit guide,” my friend, the one who told me before that I needed to listen to the messages from the higher plane, informed me.   

I then tell her about how the rattlesnake returned, and I took it as a sign to text the old flame. And as I am recapping my heroic morning to her, I get a text message from the dude: “Fine, and you?”

I sat there dripping water on my kitchen floor, listening to my friend go on about how if I saw red in my dream, it means that I experienced the life force. And that Freud said to dream of a snake is to dream of yourself.

“Did the snake bite you in your dream?” she asks. I am half listening; I don’t respond. I am thinking of what to text back to the dude. He is fine. Okay, at least he texted back. That must mean something, right?

“If the snake bites you, it’s supposed to be a good sign, a self revelation,” I hear my friend say. Well, yes, the snake just bit me, now. The snake just responded. I have an opening. I have a second chance to rekindle some sort of conversation. The rattlesnake under my porch had returned and thus brought back the spark to ignite the flame.

I get off the phone with Terry. I cut her off when she begins to tell me that in the Native American culture, the snake is a symbol of transformation and healing. Whatever, I am in—love, or lust, or obsession—the dude texted me back, and now I have to think of something witty to say, something that will entice him to want to call me or invite me to come visit him. I am desperate, not transforming!

I stand with cell phone in hand, clutching at my towel, and all I could come up with to text was: “I am battling with a rattlesnake, and you?” That was cute, funny, and not too crazy. I flipped my cell phone closed and went to get dressed. The phone rings, and I think: My god, he is calling. I enticed him, once again!

“OK, so in India, the god Vishnu is often depicted sleeping on the serpent of eternity called Ananta, and the goddess Shiva wears snakes for bracelets and necklaces, which represents sexuality.” This is my friend Terry again.

“Yes, yes,” I say a bit flippantly.

“Has he texted back?” Terry asks.

“No,” I whine.

“Hmm, bad sign,” she says, clicking off.

I visit another Web site about snakes. It reads: “The serpent had long been a symbol of sexual/creative life force within humans as taught in eastern traditions. The Kundalini or serpent fire lies coiled at the base of the spine.” I have been experiencing lower back pain recently, I think as I glance at my cell phone, hoping for a text from the dude. 

Again for several weeks, I bury myself in my work, fighting the urge to text him. My snake dreams stop, and I awake each morning with a sense of relief, as if a burden has been lifted from my shoulders. As if I finally see the light and within these weeks, I have had no communication with the dude, nor seen the snake. The days have grown chilly, the night’s cold, and I feel as if I am hibernating, preparing for the winter ahead. I have shed my old skin; the one that thought the dude liked me or even wanted to be my friend. But sadly, our relationship is superficial. I read his posts on Facebook, making a comment here and there, hoping he will respond, but he never does.

And then one fall morning, when I make the rounds to feed the dogs, there in the jaws of my old, blind, and deaf dog is the snake—dead. I scream, then I cry, then I laugh, and then I run to get my camera. I need to post this on my Facebook, but the old dog is no longer interested in the snake and drops it. So I make her pick it up again to get a picture to show the world that my old dog killed a rattlesnake. And when I post the staged picture on my Facebook page with the caption DOG KILLS THE RATTLESNAKE, I get several responses: 

  1. She killed your rebirth.
  2. She saved your life.
  3. Good dog.
  4. She does what all dogs do.
  5. There goes your transformation.
  6. Stop analyzing, it is what it is.
  7. Your dog is going to die.

My old dog is still alive. I hung the dead rattlesnake over the dog’s shed for several days, a trophy of sorts for the old dog, and a reminder that my transformation was stopped dead in its slithering tracks. After a week of it flipping in the wind and being dried by the sun, it began to stink. I buried it under a juniper tree. The next day my younger dog, a Basset Hound, comes to me with another dead rattlesnake. This one was in the process of shedding its skin. It was huge, and I wonder: Were these two snakes an item? I buried this snake next to the other rattlesnake, wondering if they had been in love or was it just a fling, a passing moment, a quickie under my juniper trees.

   

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