Snapshots

Photo by Ryan Magsino on Unsplash

If the inside of my own head is any indication, we all carry around a few snapshots of what our childhood was like. These snapshots are extremely powerful in determining our self-image, the choices we make, and the way we feel about everything.

One snapshot of my own childhood is that of me, sitting in a school bus. Every other seat is taken, but the seat next to me is empty. Continue reading

Freedom

Photo by Ryan Magsino on Unsplash

If you have ever been to a sawmill like the one I used to run, you have seen one of the most fearsome objects you are ever likely to meet: a sawblade at least three feet in diameter with teeth as big as a tiger’s whirring loudly just a couple feet from the operator. There were no safety guards on my sawmill. I’m not sure how there could be. I frequently had to reach close to the blade to remove boards and some debris.

One day while I was working, the thought entered my brain that I could just dive onto that sawblade and have it cut me in half. This thought frightened me so much I shut everything down, went home, put the covers over my head, and talked to no one. What was going on with me? I wasn’t suicidal. Until this happened, I was happy with my life. Was I going crazy? Continue reading

Defamiliarization

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One of the advantages of being a reflective eclectic is I can borrow techniques from other fields and apply them to psychotherapy. Some of these techniques come from surprising sources. Today I’d like to talk about something I learned from being a photographer: defamiliarization.

Photography can be a simple reproduction of the object photographed, or it can be art. When I get all artsy-fartsy with my pictures, I’m trying to enable the viewer to see something in an object that belongs to the object but she has never seen before. I‘m trying to cut through an overfamiliarity with the world that numbs us of delight and creativity.

The easiest way to do this in photography is often to shoot in black and white. When you look at a black and white photo of a familiar colored object, you can usually recognize the object, but it’s presented in a new way. This unforeseen appearance causes you to look closer and become more mindful of seeing. Suddenly new possibilities come to view. You might enjoy the play of shadows, the gradations of gray, and the stark contrasts that a black and white photo bring out. It’s funny how stripping things down to basics can enrich them.

Unfortunately, if you have seen a lot of black and white photos you can become immune to them. Black and white can become too familiar. Photographers have always got to come up with something new to stop people in their tracks. They crank up the saturation levels, adjust the tint, blow out the background, make something fuzzy or sharp, or find a new camera angle and frame things in a different way. However, they can’t make the new images so strange that the viewer cannot understand them. The art photographer has got to fit into a small window: familiar enough to be understood and strange enough to be intriguing.

It’s not hard to see defamiliarization at work in all the arts. The term itself comes from literature. The plot of a novel can be summed up in a few lines: boy meets girl, they fall in love, boy loses girl, they make up, and live happily ever after; so ordinary, you can see it happening every day. You’ll read a novel with that plot for 363 pages because the novelist has made it original. He’s added sparkling dialogue, unexpected twists, and quirky characters, all to keep you guessing. When you finish a good novel, you will have gained an understanding of the course of love as you have never understood it before.

Poetry and song do the same thing by putting in meter, verse, and startling vocabulary, thoughts you’ve had a million times before. This is why the same song is better in concert than it was when you heard it in your CD. The concert experience adds something new. For that matter, have you ever wondered why a singer or a musical instrumentalist doesn’t sing or play a well-known piece straight up, as it was originally written? He’s trying to make it fresh, so you can hear it as people first heard it when it just came out.

Have you ever wondered why some people, like me, prefer to live in a place like Rochester, New York, where the weather changes every day, from one extreme to another? There’s nothing like a new blanket of snow to make the world refreshed. Did you ever wonder why you’re sick of the same snow in February that you enjoyed in December? It’s gotten so familiar that you can no longer find the joy you once had in it.

Did you ever wonder why this person who you once fell in love with can do nothing but annoy you now? She’s gotten too familiar. Did you ever wonder why you get along so well when you’re on vacation? Just enough changes then that the relationship is renewed.

When you come to therapy and tell me something you’ve been thinking a million times before, you might think that going over it once more might not do you much good. Oh, but it does. Just hearing your voice say it, rather than your thoughts think it, may be just defamiliarizing enough to you that it enables you to look at the situation a whole new way. Then when I respond, you get another shot of defamiliarization. You see how that happens? The whole purpose is to wake you up.

To understand how defamiliarization works, you have to understand what’s happening when the opposite occurs. When you are familiarizing yourself with something, you’re taking it in and making it your own, making it part of the family. You’re fitting it in comfortably in your schema or world view. Once you have familiarized yourself, you no longer can do anything more with it. It’s become too close to you. You’ve lost objectivity. Defamiliarization gives you some distance, so you can see it more clearly and notice things you have not noticed before or have forgotten. When familiarization happens all over again, perhaps you fit it in a new place or have allowed it to change your schema. Generally, your world view becomes a little bigger then. You have more choices and more ways you can look at things.

There’s a saying in medicine: the thicker the chart, the worse the prognosis. That’s often true in therapy, too. The longer the person has been in therapy, the less likely a session will do him much good. Therapy also can get too familiar. That’s another reason I’m a reflective eclectic. I have a big bag of tricks, so that when one method starts to get old, I can try another.

In the interest of defamiliarization, let me conclude this post in a way I don’t usually. I’d like to quote from the master of making the familiar fresh, J.R.R. Tolkien, from his lecture titled: On Fairy-Stories. You probably know Tolkien as the author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In this lecture, he surprisingly talked about recovery.

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view… as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness…This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.

Since Tolkien’s thing was building fantasy worlds, he puts in a plug for his way of writing as the best defamiliarizing agent since sliced bread.

Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.

Click here to go to my photography website.

Better Angels

shrinbks-links-photo1Last week, which was the second week of the government shutdown, was the week in which a large proportion of the clients I saw complained about the stress of having a government that, not only can’t get along, but does not seem to even want to get along. I didn’t bring it up; they did. These clients see me for all kinds of problems and issues; but for many, this was one of their issues last week competing or even eclipsing other concerns.

The stress might be similar to that a child might feel when his parents are fighting; when they are fighting so much that dinner never gets made, baths are never drawn, and bedtime is forgotten; except for one thing: my clients are not children and Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi are not their parents. The government is at odds because the people are at odds; at least the noisy ones. And they are at odds because they value the point they are trying to make more than they value getting along.

If you value getting along or at least having a civil dialogue and not making hostages of federal employees, then you could start yelling, too, and add to the clamor; or you could get involved with the Better Angels, a citizens’ organization uniting red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America. I’ve been involved for a couple years. Just before the holidays we tried to get a local event going, but simply lacked enough people to plan it.  I know there should be more who are willing to speak up, not to add their voices to the din, but to get everyone else to settle down.

Click here to go to the Better Angels website.

When You Need Your Space

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Some days, you just need your space.

The trouble is, your partner is there, too, and if you try to get some space, they may take it personally. You don’t want to get into a long discussion over why you need your space when you need your space. It may not be good to get into discussions when you need your space. They seldom go well, then.

What you need, at times like that, is a hat.

Not just any ordinary hat, but a hat that is easily recognizable and officially designated as the I Need My Space Hat.

So, some time when you don’t need your space, pick out a hat and talk with your partner. Put the hat in a common area where both of you can find it. Whenever you need your space, put on the hat. Only use this hat for that one purpose. The hat communicates something to your partner, so you don’t have to. It says, I need my space. It’s not about you, it’s about me. I’ll tell you why when I take off the hat.

It’s important that you have this discussion first, before you need it, so both of you understand what the hat means. It’s also important to obey the hat, no matter which one of you is using it. Finally, it’s important to talk after you take the hat off. Tell your partner why you think you needed your space and was going on with you.

Some days, you just need your space and it’s hard to get it. Unless you use a hat.

Mental Illness Happy Hour

shrinbks-links-photo1If you have ever thought you were the only person who thinks the thoughts that you do, in the way you do, I would recommend that you listen to the Mental Illness Happy Hour. There, you will hear yourself think.

The weekly, hour-long audio podcast of interviews with artists, friends and the occasional doctor is hosted by Comedian Paul Gilmartin.

Paul hopes that you hope, that the show and its website give you a place to connect and smile. So look at the website, listen to the show, fill out and read the anonymous surveys, and watch for hope returning on the horizon.

Click here to start.