Google+ Followers

Friday, June 29, 2012

Productive Teasing

I have never been very "tease-able."  I am a serious and insecure oldest child.  I grew up with serious and relatively insecure parents, who also weren't very tease-able (at least, not at home and with each other) and didn't engage in much teasing.  I spent a large part of childhood as an outsider, often subjected to taunting and physical punishment rather than teasing.  

So I've never been very good at the rough and tumble of good-natured teasing that makes up so much of normal human community.

Dacher Keltner offers four lessons from research to distinguish between the "productive" tease and "damaging" tease.  In an age where bullying is a primary behavioral concern in schools, offices and churches, this is important material.  You can read more about this in his New York Times article at and in an article in
  Scholastic Magazine at

First, "harmful teasing is physically painful and zeroes in on vulnerable aspects of the individual's identity...Playful teasing is less hurtful physically, and thoughtfully targets less critical facets of the target's identity."

Second, the damaging tease is offered without any non-verbal qualifiers, things that Keltner calls "off-record markers."  These are the changes in tone, facial expression, cadence, timing and body position that indicate the tease to be good-natured rather than aggressive.

Third, "critical to the meaning of the tease is power," Keltner notes.  "Power asymmetries," he continues, "particularly when targets are unable through coercion or context to respond in kind--produce pernicious teasing."

Fourth, the older we get (at least as children) the more skilled we become at the productive tease.  Once children learn the use of irony and sarcasm, they seem to develop a mean streak, at least for a while.  Those who continue to mature move beyond that meanness and refine their teasing to be productive and relationship strengthening.  Of course, those who do not move emotionally beyond this emotional level carry their bullying into adult relationships.

Those four points are made regarding the one who generates the tease.  There is also the emotional condition of the recipient.  We all know how reluctant we are to respond to teasing when we are angry, sad or depressed.  We all know how likely we are to take the productive tease as a damaging tease when we are in such conditions.  And for those of us who are "tease-challenged," it takes real discernment, patience and a hesitation to react  in order to benefit from the productive tease.

Add to that the prevalence these days of bullying behavior in our major social institutions, and it's no wonder we can be so thin-skinned.  Nonetheless, the productive tease is a major element of relationship and leadership repertoires.  It is a skill to be practiced and refined if we are to be serve as good leaders, persist in good marriages and friendships, and raise resilient children.

Here's my internal dialogue as a result of this post.

  • So, Hennigs, lighten up a bit!  
  • But I don't like it when people make fun of me.
  • You, Lowell, are quite a source of general amusement!  Enjoy it!
  • Sigh...all right, if I have to.

The Laughing Leader

I'm in a group (re)reading Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, Annie McKee, and Richard Boyatzis.  There are several intersections between the insights in Primal Leadership and Dacher Keltner's work in Born to Be Good.

How does the projection of positive emotion impact a leader's leading and the followers' following?  Goleman, McKee, and Boyatzis have no doubts on this one.
"The fundamental task of leaders, we argue, is to prime good feeling in those they lead.  That occurs when a leader creates resonance--a reservoir of positivity that frees the best in people.  At its root, then, the primal job of leadership is emotional" (Primal Leadership, Preface).
How can this be so?  Both Keltner and Goleman et al rely on the insights of neurology to inform, in part, their assertions about both leadership and grieving.  Goleman and friends describe this as "mirroring"--a description of the emotional and physiological feedback system that exists between people at the pre-conscious level.  They write, 
"our physiologies intermingle, our emotions automatically shifting into the register of the person we're with.  The open-loop design of the limbic system means that other people can change our very physiology--and so our emotions." (Primal Leadership, page 7).
I continue to wonder how my pre-conscious affective behaviors have primed both me and the people I have sought to lead for particular interactions and relationships.  I'm not talking about the times when I am aware of  how I function--the times when I know that I'm "on."  I'm talking about all those million moments that are not conscious.  It's the brief conversation at the door of the sanctuary after worship.  It's the momentary reaction of disgust or derision at a meeting.  It's the thousand small expressions and gestures that punctuate a sermon--whether I really intend them or not.

So I wonder to what degree my loss and bereavement have changed that pre-conscious affect.  Part of the package here is the working of "mirror neurons" in our interpersonal relationships. Keltner gives this description connected with the contagious impact of laughter.
"Specifically, laughter triggers activation in a region of the motor cortex in the listener, the supplementary motor area (SMA).  Bundles of neurons leaving the SMA go to the insula and amygdala, thus triggering the experience of mirth and amusement in the perceiver of the laugh.  When we hear others laugh, this system of mirror neurons acts as if the listener is laughing." (Born to be Good).
Over the years, I have observed other pastors who have had major personal losses.  In most cases, they have moved on to another parish in relatively short order.  That is not systematic research.  It is anecdotal at best.  But I wonder to what degree and how our bereaved pre-conscious affect shapes this mirroring connection with those we lead. When we're sad, we laugh less.  We're not as pleasant to be around.  That isolation makes us sadder and grumpier still.  And all along, we may not even notice that we are more sullen and more alone than is good for anyone--leader or followers.

The action I can take in this regard, according to Goleman and colleagues, is to maintain good, basic personal emotional hygiene.  Rather than trying to deal with the sadness itself, I have sought to address more issues concerning general and ongoing well-being.  I have worked on choosing hope more regularly.  So far, so good.

Laugh Your Way to Hope

Bonnano (pictured left) and Keltner interviewed forty-five widows and widowers who had lost a spouse in the previous sixth months.  Bonnano used these interviews as a baseline for following them in their recovery for several years to chart and understand their recovery processes (or the lack thereof).  Keltner used facial emotion/expression studies to predict potential recovery based on positive affect shown during those interviews.

The first finding demonstrated that positive emotions during early bereavement are not signs of denial, repression and later difficulties.  "Measures of laughter (and smiling) predicted reduced grief as assessed at six, fourteen, and twenty-five months postloss"  (The quotes in this post are from Keltner's book, Born to Be Good).

Such laughter and smiling took place during the conversations about life after the loss of the spouse.  This wasn't laughter induced by a joke or a funny movie.  This was pleasure and joy expressed during the process of remembering the spouse, the death, and life after loss.  The laughter and smiling wasn't in the absence of tears but rather in the midst of them.

The Culture of Bereavement Orthodoxy encourages (requires) us to get in touch with our feelings and express our anger.  That is regarded as healthy.  However, this study and many others have shown that such demonstrations do not lead to greater long-term health.  "Just as important, people who showed more anger were observed to be experiencing more anxiety, depression and disengagement from daily living, for the next two years," Keltner writes.

The people who laughed and smiled as they shared their stories were not unusual in terms of the circumstances of spousal death.  They were not suffering less financially or otherwise as a result of the loss.  They weren't overall happier people before the loss.  Nothing set the laughers apart from the non-laughers that would skew the results and save the normative understandings of bereavement recovery.  They laughed in the midst of the tears, and that predicted a healthier recovery path.

But why does laughing help?  It's the role of laughter as an emotional vacation that makes the difference.  "Metaphorically," Keltner writes, "laughers were taking a vacation from the stress of their partners' deaths, freed from the tension of stress-related physiology."  I remember so many times thinking to myself, "I wish I could just go and have some fun."  I should have done more of that.

Laughter is, however, more than a metaphorical vacation.  Laughter creates the capacity to consider alternative paths to the future.  So laughter is a hope-building behavior.  Keltner notes this capacity: "data suggested that laughter is not a sign of denial of trauma, as widely assumed, but an indicator of a shift toward a new perspective enabled by the imagination."  The laughers were the ones who could begin to see a new way into the future and who were freed up to imagine a different kind of life.
"Laughter was part of these individuals' shift in viewing the death of their spouses.  It was a portal into a new understanding of their lives.  A laugh is a lightning bolt of wisdom, a moment in which the individual steps back and gains a broader perspective upon their lives and the human condition."
If your bereaved friend or family member wants to go have some fun, be first in line to help make that happen!  If that person has lost the capacity for fun, find some gentle ways to help restore that capacity.  That's not denial.  That's a tested strategy for healthy recovery.

Laughing Vacations

"The laugh, then, signals the suspension of formal, sincere meaning.  It points to a layer of interaction where alternatives to assumed truths are possible, where identities are lighthearted and nonserious.  When people laugh, they are taking a momentary vacation from the more sincere claims and implications of their actions."--Dacher Keltner, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (Image of Keltner below).
Keltner collaborated with George Bonnano to examine how people adjust to the death of a spouse.  Specifically they looked at the role of laughter in adjustment to bereavement.  They interviewed forty-five adults who had lost a spouse in the previous six months.  Each subject had six minutes to talk abut their deceased loved one.  Keltner's role was to assess each participant, via videotape, according to the Ekman/Friesen Facial Action Coding System.

In Born to Be Good, Keltner describes their efforts.
"Our question was a simple one that had never been addressed before: What emotions predict healthy adjustment to the death of a spouse, as assessed by clinically sound measures of prolonged bereavement, which captures the individual's continuing longing for the deceased and inability to reenter daily living?  And which emotions predict poor adjustment during bereavement?" 
 I was first attracted to this information because I was trying to unravel the conundrum of recovery I experienced.  

On the one hand, I was told that I was recovering and moving on too quickly.  I wasn't working through my grief, so I must be engaged in pathological denial.  At some point, I was assured, that "deferred grief" would come back to get me.  

On the other hand, if I really was getting better quickly, then my assertions of love and devotion for my wife must have been self-deception at best and outright fabrications at worst.  In any event, I was supposed to be a good boy--take my medicine of suffering--and wait for others to determine when I was "ready" to move on.

Those professional and orthodox responses did nothing to help me make sense of my loss.  Folks who had been through losses analogous to mine had a different response.  Good for you!  Keep it up!  Most of all, many of them said, "Laugh!  Do something fun!  If you spend all your time grieving, you'll curl up and die."

This was the thesis for Keltner and Bonnano as well.  "Our thinking was just the opposite [of bereavement orthodoxy], that laughter would allow our bereaved participants to distance themselves momentarily from the pain of the loss, to gain perspective, to look upon their lives in a more detached way, to find a moment of peace, to take a deep breath, so to speak."  That is precisely my experience as well.  

If you are actively grieving, find one of your favorite comedy movies and watch it with someone who will laugh with you.  

Do something silly with friends or family and laugh with abandon.  Give yourself permission to giggle, to chuckle, to guffaw, to howl with mirth, to vibrate with glee!  

You aren't dishonoring your loved one by living in some moments of laughter.  You aren't denying your pain or masking your moments of melancholy.  You don't have to pay for your future happiness with a sufficient amount of present misery (as determined by others).

I'll give some specifics from the work of Keltner and Bonnano in my next post.  But for now, find a good internet humor site or a silly youtube video.  For a while, for example, I was addicted to "laughing baby" videos, and they were some of my best medications.  Here's one:

Laughing really is a way through the tears.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Master Strength?

Is there a "master strength"?  That is, is there one character strength that is somehow better or more desirable than all the others?  Or perhaps there is a group of strengths that make up the "big three" or "fab five" or "super seven" of character traits.  Proyer, Ruch and Buschor sought to explore these issues in a study they reported in the Journal of Happiness Studies, published online on March 16, 2012.  The research paper was entitled "Testing Strengths-Based Interventions: A Preliminary Study on the Effectiveness of a Program Targeting Curiosity, Gratitude, Hope, Humor, and Zest for Enhancing Life Satisfaction."

It's clear that you don't have to come up with snappy titles when you are writing a research paper.

They suggested that enhancing a targeted set of strengths with strengths-building interventions will produce the biggest bang for the buck in terms of subjective well-being.  The strengths they targeted were curiosity, gratitude, hope, zest and humor.  These are character trait strengths as identified on the Values in Action Character Survey.  You can take that survey for yourself on the site.

The experimental group engaged in four new activities that encourage exploration and absorption and then wrote a report describing their experiences.  This enhanced curiosity.  They did a "one door closes, one door opens" activity to build hope.  You can find a modified version of that exercise in an earlier post.  They followed an eight-step plan to increase humor in their lives.  They added zest by taking on additional physical activity and/or more challenging aspects in their routine.

The test group did, in fact, show the highest levels of satisfaction with life on their tests after the interventions.  

Three additional elements stand out.  First, the role of self-regulation was also critical for the increase of satisfaction with life.  Self-regulation involves managing what you feel and do.  Another label for this characteristic might be "impulse control."  It involves self-awareness, realistic appreciation of one's own gifts and liabilities, and a capacity to continue to learn about oneself.  Even though self-regulation wasn't targeted in the study, it was shown to be catalytic for all the other strengths and for an increase in overall satisfaction with life.

So when the New Testament talks about the virtue of self-control, that's not a discussion about heavy-handed rules and regulations.  That's an encouragement to engage in practices that produce the greatest long-term happiness and satisfaction.

Second, the one trait that produced the greatest benefit when increased was hope.  The experimental group engaged in activities for several strengths, so we can't tell if it's the combination that was critical.  However, hope showed the greatest increase in satisfaction with life.  If you want to find one place to begin a systematic campaign to feel and live better, start with hope.

Third, the older the participant the greater the benefits.  Age was not a tested variable, so explanations for this are speculative.  It has been demonstrated, however, that the benefits of strengths-based interventions increase with age.  Older participants were better at self-regulation and generally were more hopeful.

Does this mean that having other strengths isn't somehow "good"?  No, not at all.  Those with other strengths also demonstrated significant growth and development with helpful interventions.  The really good news is that if there is a master strength, it has something to do with self-awareness and the choice of hope.  Those are things anyone can take action to improve.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

One Plan B Produces Another

Here is a hope coaching exercise I’ve been developing.  

It is based on a combination of several “closed door/open door” exercises in positive psychology interventions and my own take on Snyder’s model for the psychology of hope.  It’s called “One Plan B Produces Another.”

1.            Think about a time when an important opportunity, possibility, relationship or dream           stopped being available to you.  Briefly describe that experience.

2.            How did that experience impact your identity (your sense of your own worth, abilities, gifts, and value)?  What did you do to deal with those impacts on your identity?

3.            How did that experience lead you to seek help for yourself?  How did that help “help”?  How did that experience lead you to offer help to others in new ways?

4.            How did that experience challenge your optimistic, positive views of yourself, life and the world?  What did you do to remain positive and to become even more positive?

5.            What new pathways and alternatives did you develop when the old path was closed off?  How did you develop those new possibilities?  How did you choose the one that was right for you?

6.            How did that experience cause you to reflect on the ends, meaning and purpose for your life?  What questions did it raise?  What new depth and significance did this challenge bring to your life?  How is your life better now?

After you have reflected on that past experience and re-told that story to yourself and at least one other person, then apply the same questions and techniques to a current challenge that is facing you, a current path that has closed off.

Then I’d love to hear if this exercise has helped you to be more hopeful today.

One Plan B produces another!

Stop and Think (and then Feel)

"We cope well with loss because we are equipped--wired, if you will--with a set of in-born psychological processes that help us do the job.  The most obvious of these is our ability to feel and express sadness."--George Bonnano, The Other Side of Sadness, page 198.
French neurologists were testing a new way to treat Parkinson's disease.  The possible treatment involved implanting tiny electrodes at specific points in the midbrain of the sufferer.  The scientists then electrically stimulated the various electrodes to determine which specific location in the patient's midbrain would produce the best treatment results in relationship to the Parkinson's symptoms.  Anthony Damasio reports this incident in his book, Searching for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain.

The testing with one patient produced surprising results.  When the scientists stimulated one of the electrodes, she plunged into deep and immediate sadness.  The neurologists knew they had stumbled on to some new information.  When they quickly withdrew the stimulus, it only took about ninety seconds for the patient to return to a pleasant, happy emotional state.  And she wondered what precisely had happened to drag her into the emotional abyss.

The French neurologists had charted--in a basic way--how emotions, feelings and thoughts are related.  Emotions are the neurological processes that happen in our brains.  Feelings are the conscious experiences we have of those processes.  Thoughts are the cognitive responses we make that can sustain the emotions and feelings or bring those processes to an end.  Thoughts of particular types can prompt emotions that lead to feelings.  Those feelings can lead to further thoughts.  This is the cycle of our neuro-emotional life.

One of the benefits of this useful accident is that we can better understand that cycle.  Emotions can come completely unbidden sometimes.  I have those moments when I am sad for no reason that I can discern.  If I am not paying attention, I will go ahead and feel sad in order to make sense of and accommodate the emotion that arrived on its own.  And then, in order to justify that feeling, I will engage in thoughts that fit with being sad.  If I'm not careful, those thoughts will produce deeper emotions of sadness, more feelings, further thoughts we go.  Damasio lays it out:
"When the emotion sadness is deployed, feelings of sadness instantly follow.  In short order, the brain also brings forth the  kind of thoughts that normally cause the emotion sadness and feelings of sadness...Psychologically unmotivated and 'acted' emotional expressions have the power to cause feeling.  The expressions conjure up the feelings and kinds of thoughts that have been learned as consonant with those emotional expressions" (Looking for Spinoza, page 71). 
If we are relatively unaware of ourselves, we can believe that we have some reason to feel, for example, sad.  But if we are paying attention, we will discover that oftentimes a neurological switch has been accidentally flipped.  We are not required to generate the feelings and thoughts required to justify that tiny chemical accident.

The other side of this is the neurological basis for "fake it till you make it."  We can choose thoughts that will produce emotions that will produce the feelings we seek.  If I thin and act happy, and keep thinking and acting happy, my brain and mind will at some point catch up.  It's in the nature of our emotional brain.  "All emotions, including sadness, are designed to be short-term solutions," George Bonnano writes.  We are not required to make them into long-term realities just to make sense of some brain chemicals that made a wrong left turn.

We are confused about this because of the speed at which all of this can happen.  If, however, we can train ourselves to stop and think (a great AA slogan, I believe), then we can have greater control of our feelings and thoughts.  I find myself more and more often asking, "Do I have some reason to feel the way I do?"  And often, the answer is, "No, not really."  Then I can choose to feel a different way.

Monday, June 25, 2012


We sorted through a box of things that we're going to put up for sale.  These were items from my life with Anne and the boys.  They meant a great deal to her.  I know that I gave some of them to her, but I can't really remember which ones (I'm such a guy...).  Many of the items were connected to special times--births of sons, Christmas, birthdays, Mother's Day.

I was fine working through the list and gauging prices from the various online bids we saw.  As we got to the bottom of the box, we arrived at those items most closely connected to the boys.  

That's when the tears came for a few moments.  I zoomed right back to the feelings of their loss.  I felt for a moment responsible once again that they won't have a mom for much of their lives, that their children won't know their Grandma Annie, that they don't have her calm and steady influence in their lives.

The tears and sniffles were real.  They didn't last long.  They weren't bad.  It really does help to write this down and get some psychic distance.  And it is wonderful to be able to choose how to feel after the emotional moment has passed.  I am so wonderfully grateful for all the love and joy that those trinkets represented.  And I have such joy in the life that I have now.

It's all true at the same time.

I was reminded of a passage from Melodie Beattie's The Grief Club.
"Maybe the scars from losing someone we love are like zippers on our hearts.  We can't stay open and crying all the time.  That would hurt too much, and we wouldn't get anything else done.  So we shut off the pain.  But these emotional zippers keep us from closing our hearts too much or too long.  The waves of grief keep us open.  They let other people in and let our feelings out." (page 35)
So I unzipped that spot for a few minutes, and it was all right.  One of the things about this journey is that I don't have to unzip that spot as often as I used to do.  But I dare not sew it shut.  Beattie is quite right.  The pain and the love travel the same path in and out.  

Later Beattie describes this as the two commitments we must make in order to go on: the commitment to life and the commitment to our grief.  Those are not competing or contradictory commitments.  In fact, we travel the same road in each case.  This is the dual process understanding of grief put into non-clinical terms.  If I shut off the path to the pain that erupts still on occasion, then I will block the road from my heart to the people I love.

So unzipping the heart and shedding a few tears is worth the price.  And when I've blown my nose and wiped my eyes, then I can choose to be grateful for what we had and to rejoice in the life we have now.

Yes, I Really Will Die

We heard a talk yesterday by Paul Becker, the director of the Deeded Body Program of the Nebraska Anatomical Board.  Mr. Becker spoke about whole body donation after death.  This is different from organ donation for possible transplantation.  Whole body donation is for educational purposes—to train physicians, surgeons and other health care professionals through the use of specially prepared bodies for gross anatomy classes, surgery rehearsals and other important training education and skills development.  The Deeded Body Program is a not-for-profit enterprise whose sole purpose is education.  The program has a website with information and bequeathal forms at

This seems like a wonderful program.  The relationships with the family and friends of the deceased receive appropriate care and respect.  Cremation and burial costs can be covered by the Anatomical Board.  A funeral can still take place prior to the donation (and with appropriate prior notification to the relevant funeral director).  Funeral expenses are not something the Anatomical Board covers.  This whole body donation program is a worthy consideration.

It does require that one comes to terms with the realities of personal mortality.  That may seem obvious, but it isn’t really.

Most people who have lived beyond adolescence have thought about their own deaths in intellectual terms.  
  • Every person dies.
  • I am a person.
  • Therefore I will die.  

It is one thing to construct a logical equation.  It is quite another thing to deal with that equation at the level of emotion and experience.  A conversation about whole body donation, for example, forces individuals to have that more intimate self-conversation.  I observed a lot of nervous glances and anxious fidgeting during Mr. Becker’s talk.  People began to imagine physicians in training using their bodies for thoracotomy practice.  Things got a little tense and quiet.

I imagine that Mr. Becker has gotten used to that kind of response.  On the other hand, there was great appreciation for the opportunity to use one's dead body to give life.  This seems like yet another way to do battle with death and to be part of something that lives beyond us.  Perhaps that's why Mr. Becker referred several times to the "donor" rather than to the body and described what would happen as "teaching" rather than something more passive.  We want to make a difference even when we're dead.

George Bonnano discusses a sub-speciality of bereavement studies called “Terror Management Theory” (TMT).  TMT is rooted in Ernst Bloch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death.  Bonnano summarizes TMT in these words:
“The great discovery of TMT research is that most of us have, somewhere, simmering just below the surface of conscious awareness, a vague dread of our own vulnerability and mortality.  Even the simplest reminder of our mortality may dramatically alter our attitudes and behavior in ways that appear to be consistent with some of the larger claims of the theory” (The Other Side of Sadness, page 120).
Those larger claims of TMT include the assertion that we engage in shared beliefs and worldviews that give us a sense of being part of something larger than ourselves, something that will outlive us in one way or another.  “One of the strongest claims TMT researchers have made is that when people are reminded of their own mortality, they cling all the more tenaciously to shared worldviews, thereby fending off the threat of death” (page 118).  

Simple and immediate reminders of personal mortality can affect the ways in which judges set bail for prostitutes.  These same reminders can influence people to value good behavior more highly than they would otherwise.  Reminders of personal mortality can prompt people to demonstrate an increased desire to have children.  You can read about this one in the article entitled “Mortality salience and the desire for Offspring”

This reminded me of a striking experience.  I preached once at a service for parents who had suffered the death of their infant in the previous year.  I was honored to participate in that powerful and meaningful service.  One of the things that struck me in that experience was the predominance of another pregnancy among the bereaved couples.  My observation was that about three-fourths of the couples present were expecting again.  I was surprised by that rapid turnaround, and I asked one of the staff people if that was representative of her experience in such cases.  In fact, it was.

Our awareness of mortality has at least this effect.  We are, unless completely debilitated, moved to seek and to affirm life.  We will examine our priorities and problems.  More often than not, we will find ourselves making the resilient response.  More often than not, we will choose hope.  That doesn’t assuage our fear of death.  That doesn’t remove the pain of our loss.  But we are not wired, for the most part, to allow death to win.  We know that God, the Universe, our Higher Power (pick your worldview) is on the side of Life.  

And we will, in most cases, do something to pick that side as well.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Do You Need a Grief Coach?

I want to offer my services to the suffering as a grief coach.  I come to this offer based on
  • my own experiences of loss in the last two years
  • my intensive study of positive psychology in general and the psychology of hope in particular
  • my personal wish in hindsight that I would have had such a coach
  • my personal gratitude in hindsight that I did not engage in grief counseling as such
  • my professional experience consisting of thirty years of grief support as a pastor, and
  • my conversations with others in grief along with me.

I find that grief isn’t about stages or phases or checklists.  It is about a series of interlocking themes.  These themes can’t be parsed out into a to-do list.  They can, however, be identified with enough clarity that we can do good work together.  The goal of grief coaching begins with recovering, but it doesn’t end there.  There can be new life, new growth, and (most of all) new hope during this process.  I don’t say that the outcomes are at the end, because grieving is the project of a lifetime.

Those interlocking themes include
  • Identity
  • Help
  • Optimism
  • Paths to the Future, and
  • Ends and Purposes that matter.

If you have followed my work, you can see the familiar acronym: I-HOPE.

A significant loss forces us to renegotiate aspects of our identity.  I needed to figure out how to be a man without Anne, how to be a “single” parent and pastor, how to make decisions by myself, and a dozen other things.  For a while the world asked, “Who are you?”  And for a while I answered, “Who do you want me to be?”  That wasn’t a good place to be.  I can help you get clear about your identity.

A significant loss forces us to seek help in ways we never before considered.  One of the ways to feel better, however, is to also give help.  I can help you identify the places where you need help to move forward.  I can also encourage you to re-engage life and joy by helping someone else.

Our explanatory and attributional styles make a big difference in our responses to loss.  Together we can examine your levels of optimism and pessimism.  We can design exercises and homework to move you toward the optimistic end of your emotional spectrum.  We can free up energy, happiness and focus so that you can live again.

A major loss shuts down our thinking for a while.  It is hard to see any real path to the future.  One of the large elements of hopeful living is the capacity to envision a variety of alternative pathways forward.  We will use several techniques to discover those alternative pathways and then pick the ones that feel right for you.

Grief can causes us to wonder if life is worth living at all.  We grieve within the larger frameworks of meaning and purpose.  Together we can wrestle with what this loss means in your life.  Together we can discern the larger purposes and lessons for you as you take this journey of grief.

If you are among the ten or fifteen percent of the bereaved who suffer long-term grief (regular, ongoing and debilitating effects of grief after twelve months), then please seek out a professional counselor or therapist as soon as possible.  If you are in that category, then grief coaching is not for you at this point. 

If you are suffering from real depression, then please seek out a professional counselor or therapist as soon as possible.  You can take a simple inventory to give you some insight in this matter if you wish.  That inventory is at  This isn’t a substitute for a real, professional and clinical diagnosis.  But sometimes we don’t even know that we might be depressed.

If you think that grief coaching is for you, please contact me at  I can work effectively by phone or videoconference if you are at a distance.  If you are in the Omaha metro and surrounding areas, we can work out face to face meetings.  This is a fee-for-services arrangement, but those fees are negotiable.  

I want you to feel better.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Moments Pass

I went to a meeting this morning where one of the discussion points was about "being in the moment."  That's a difficult discipline no matter what our situation.  It is also a very helpful discipline if we want to be content and productive.

The conversation reminded me of what may seem to be an obvious fact.  The present moment is, in fact, only a moment.  The present moment becomes the past very quickly.  Moreover, our present emotions--whether positive or negative--are brief and temporary states.  "This too shall pass" applies to emotions more clearly than to almost anything else in life.  How we feel--good or bad-- is always temporary.

This isn't to say that love, for example, is just a temporary thing--not to be trusted or reciprocated.  No--in fact that is a feeling to which we can and do return over and over again.  If in fact we remained in one emotional state for a long period of time, we would become habituated to that state.  If we persisted in one emotional condition without a break for an extended period, it would no longer feel good.  We oscillate between emotional conditions many hundreds or even thousands of times each day.  And that's the good news.

In their article, "Social support as a predictor of variability: An examination of the adjustment trajectories of recent widows," Bisconti, Bergeman, and Boker (Psychology and Aging, Vol 21(3), September 2006, 590-599) examined the social support networks of twenty-eight recent widows.  One of the findings of the study demonstrated the moment-by-moment variations in the emotional states of the widows in the study.  George Bonnano (The Other Side of Sadness) reproduces the chart for two widows in the study.  You can see that chart here as it illustrates his point.

"Indeed," Bonnano writes, "when we look more closely at the emotional experiences of bereaved people over time, the level of fluctuation is nothing short of spectacular" (page 41).  The oscillation of emotions, he says, "is a normal part of grieving."  One of the great things about moments is that they tend to last only a moment.

There are several implications of this discussion.  First, "the most striking implication of the oscillation of mourning is that it bears to little resemblance to the conventional idea that grief unfolds in a predictable sequence of stages" (page 40).  So if you find yourself going back and forth between joy and sadness, you're not in denial or "skipping steps."  You're typical.

Second, typically we grieve in a "dual process" mode.  So if you are bereaved and you still laugh and smile and have a good time as part of your process, you are not a heartless SOB who never really cared for your dead spouse.  You should be prepared to get that response, but you don't have to own it.

Third, when you have those awful, terrible, throat-constricting, bowel-clenching, breath-stopping moments of pain, you can let the moment happen.  And then you can let it pass.  The great thing about being in the moment is that it is only a moment.  We have choices about when and whether we want to return to such moments.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Surrender to the Paradox

"Many who volunteer for our studies make the point that they tried to read up on bereavement.  They quickly add, however, that they couldn't seem to find anything in their reading that matched their own experience.  They often tell us, in fact, that they wanted to participate in our research just to have the chance to show the so-called experts what grief looks like from the inside."--(George A. Bonnano, The Other Side of Sadness:What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss, page 4).
After nineteen months, here are things I think.  Who knows how this will look at thirty-six months or ten years or more (God willing)?

  • Mostly I have returned to my state of being prior to loss, but the small changes are remarkably significant.
  • My psychological "set point" does seem lower but I have many, many more resources for raising my affect on any given day.
  • Walking with communities of twelve-step groups has provided more resources than any other self-help information or group.
  • I am both more resilient and more vulnerable to the challenges of life, both large and small, than I was prior to loss.  And I can be both more resilient and more vulnerable at the same moment, facing the same issue. 
  • I am happier now than I have ever been.  And I have moments of crushing sadness and despair (but they don't seem to last all that long unless I choose to make them last longer).
  • I am engaged more deeply in life with other people than ever before.
  • I am less engaged with more public and institutional realities than I was before--news, politics, organized church, organized sports, television.
  • I am in better shape physically than at any time since high school.
  • I am more confident in striking out in new life directions and more terrified of taking such steps than at any time since my senior year in college.
  • I know more about bereavement, hope, resilience, relationships, recovery, renewal and Resurrection than I have ever known before.  And some days I need every bit of that information and experience to keep my head up and my eyes dry.
Life is paradoxical in ways that I never before experienced.  I wish every day that Anne had not died.  And I thank God every day for the life and love I now have with my beloved Brenda.  Both are true at precisely the same moment.  One secret is to surrender to the paradox rather than resisting it.

Our Global Conversation

"Choosing Hope" Page views this week by location--

United States     197
Germany            3
Japan                  3
China                 2
Ghana                2
France               1
Mozambique     1

I'm astonished and honored!  This is a global conversation.  Thanks so much.

My Hopes

I hope that I can use my experiences, my training, my research and study, and my prayer and meditation to be a source of help for others.  That is why I write these posts.  Some of what you read is original on the day I write it.  A fair bit of what you read has come from two different manuscripts developed (but not finished) over the last two and a half years.  Perhaps one or more books will come out of these materials.  We'll see.

I hope that I can earn at least a part of my living at some point in the future as a coach and consultant.  Some folks need a bereavement counselor.  If you do, please seek one out as soon as possible.  Some of us would have done better with a bereavement coach.  The difference is that the counselor rightly seeks to address the pathologies that come with grieving.  As a coach I want to help you build on your strengths to move forward into the new life that has been thrust upon you.

I am developing my coaching practice in line with the theology and psychology of hope.  I have been offering services for free to a few initial clients.  Now I am ready to begin offering services for fees.  I can share the outline of my coaching process with anyone who might be interested.  I am looking forward to providing life, work, bereavement and conflict coaching face to face, by phone, by Skype and by email or chat.

I hope that I can earn at least part of my living at some point as a contract mediator.  I have begun that work with the Concord Center here in Omaha.  I look forward to additional affiliation and a broader practice both in the public world of mediation centers and in the private world of individual clients.  I am particularly interested in developing a practice in Eldercare mediation, a growing subfield in the larger discipline of Alternative Dispute Resolution.

And I hope that in the above ways and in other ways  I can continue to serve our Lord Jesus to speak good news to those without hope and to walk alongside them as one who has known both despair and joy.

Oh, and I hope that some of you continue to click on the ads on this site.  Thanks so much to those of you who have done so.  My blog has now earned enough that at some point I can buy two gallons of gas!

My writing and reflection continues.

Dethroning the Imperial Self

"Our society grants power to the self that selves have never had before: to change the self and even to change the way the self thinks.  For this is the age of personal control.  The self has expanded to such a point that individual helplessness is deemed something to remedy, rather than our expected and accepted lot in life."--Martin Seligman, Learned Helplessness
The individual helplessness to which Seligman points, when coupled with a pessimistic explanatory style, produces depression.  The rate of depressive illness in the population of the United States has risen in conjunction with what Seligman calls "the waxing of the self."  This is in contrast to the "waning of the commons"--that decreasing sense that the tribe, the church, the village or the nation has some importance over and above the individual.

All of this academic discussion has some day to day value for one who has suffered Radical Loss.  Such a loss, in this nation of narcissists (of which I am a full citizen), shatters the sense of personal control to which Seligman points.  What I find is that such a loss unmasks my ongoing narcissism for what it is.  I am a child of this culture, and I have as much investment in personal control as anyone else.  Now, in the wake of such losses, I am clearer about the decisions that self-absorption creates for me.

If I insist on placing myself at the center of the universe, at the locus of cosmic meaning, then Radical Loss makes my life (and therefore all Life) pointless.  That is one kind of decision that I can make in the wake of such loss.  Sometimes that is precisely the decision I do make.  Sometimes I still descend into the darkness of depression because I can't control things; because I can't make things come out the way I think they should; because I can't manage other people according to my standards and specifications.

The power of the Imperial Self is an illusion.  If I cling to that illusion I will choose a certain level of ongoing misery.

Or I can decide to let go of the need to control all.  I can decide to place myself within a larger context.  Things happen to me, and to you, that are awful.  Of course things happen to me, and to you, that are wonderful as well.  My life is a tiny part of a much larger pattern.  My existence is a drop of purpose in an ocean of meaning.  In Christian terms, I see through the glass dimly when it comes to how things will turn out for me.  But I trust that in fact God does work in all things to make Good the result.

The power of the Imperial Self is an illusion.  If I acknowledge that illusion and dethrone the Imperial Self, then I will choose daily happiness as my way of life.  The real challenge is that this kind of choice is indeed a daily one.  It is the daily discipline of gratitude and humility, of meditation and prayer, of reflection and self-awareness.

This is the life that comes with choosing hope rather than despair.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Do Robots Hope?

Here are some lessons about choosing hope from the world of robotics.  I love it!

Can I Get a Witness (Part 4)?

Novotni and Petersen say it well.  “To cry out to God in the face of injustice and human misery is not a lack of faith.  It is the very essence of faith.  We cannot bury the hard questions under the topsoil of too-easy Bible texts.  We must take the hard questions to the only one who can possibly answer them” (Angry with God, page 42).

Perhaps this line of discussion gives us a clue about the original setting of the book of Job as we have it now.  Isaiah 64 opens with a powerful and terrifying image.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”
(Isaiah 64:1-2)

The Babylonian Exile is physically in the past.  The remnant has returned home to Zion.  Yet, the nations (the Gentiles) still control the Promised Land and the Temple precincts.  The real exile, as N. T. Wright points out, is not over—not by a long shot.  Here in what many scholars refer to as “Third” Isaiah, the prophet pleads with the Lord to intervene as in days of old.  The prophet remembers the days when the Lord made the mountains shake:

“When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.”
(Isaiah 64:3)

Commentators suggest that the prophet is remembering, for example, the experience of God’s people in the wilderness of Sinai, at the foot of the mountain.  As Moses prepared to go up the mountain, it was wrapped in thunder and lightning, and veiled with clouds of smoke and ash.  The Exodus writer describes the eruption as “a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled” (Exodus 19:16).  News images of volcanic eruptions from Washington to Hawaii to Iceland can give us a small sense of this image.  

In the face of that earth-shaking display of power, “Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God” (Exodus 19:17).  I suspect that this is the part of the story that attracts Third Isaiah the most.  O Lord, could we meet you face to face again in the shaking and quaking as did our ancestors in the wilderness?  In that moment, they received a new covenant from you.  Perhaps the prophet longs for an encounter and a gift like that in his time.

Followers of Jesus point to a time when such an event took place.  Mark’s Gospel describes it best.  At Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are “torn open” and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus.  Mark uses the violent Greek verb, “schizo,” to describe what happens to the heavens at the moment Jesus enters the water (see Mark 1;11).  

O that you would tear open the heavens, Lord, and come down!  That is what the Lord does in beginning the New Covenant that produces the New Creation.  Come, Lord Jesus!  “What the Gospels offer,” notes N. T. Wright, “is not a philosophical explanation of evil, what it is or why it’s there, nor a set of suggestions for how we might adjust our lifestyles so that evil will mysteriously disappear from the world, but the story of an event in which the living God deals with it” (Evil and the Justice of God, page 93).

Can I Get a Witness (Part 3)?

To be clear, I have to acknowledge that once the Lord begins to speak, the Lord doesn’t answer Job’s charges as such.  Instead, the Lord testifies to the glories of Creation.  In the end, we all become clear that the Lord will not be used as a character in Job’s personal drama.  Job is not the author, the director or the producer of this theatrical tragedy.  

Job is a bit player on the great stage of Creation.  Of course, that clarity of roles makes it all the more impressive that the Lord shows up and answers at all.  Again, it seems that the specifics of Job’s charges are not nearly so important as Job’s demand that the Lord would simply show up and acknowledge what has happened.

In addition, this is a dialogue—not a monologue.  In chapter 40 of Job, verses one and two, we encounter the word for “answer.”  This time the challenge comes from the Lord to Job.  “Anyone who argues with God must respond,” says the Lord.  Job must enter into the dialogue of question and answer.  The Lord expects full partners in the conversation, not mere whiners and complainers who wish to cry out but avoid true dialogue. “Gird up your loins like a man,” the Lord demands, “and I will question you, and you declare to me” (Job 40:7).  

Asking the Lord to answer the summons requires a dialogue with the Creator of the universe—a dialogue the Lord seems to desire passionately.

There is, however, more that happens.  In chapter 42, we read that God will find Job’s prayer for his friends “acceptable” (Job 42:8-9).  The Hebrew phrase that is translated as “accept” is really a phrase that says God “lifted up Job’s face.”  There is a deep sense of direct contact here.  When Job prays that his friends will be forgiven their arrogant presumption, God promises to have a face to face conversation with Job—to acknowledge him, his prayers and his personhood.  No longer will the “system” mediate between Job and God.  Instead, they will have this deeply interpersonal connection.  That is the new thing that comes out of Job’s experience.

An alert reader might note that God also makes restitution at the end of the story.  “And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends” (Job 42:10).  A sharp attorney could surely make the case that this restitution is a tacit admission of guilt on God’s part.  The Lord gives Job twice the wealth and property he had before.  His family comforts him with “sympathy and compassion” (more on that later).  He gets new sons and daughters.  And he lives one hundred forty years more after the tragedy—twice the normal “three score and ten” that the Psalms describe as the span of human life.

It is the face to face acknowledgment, however, that heals Job: “The power of a mediated dialogue to be a transformative experience is to be found in the parties speaking directly with each other about issues and concerns of importance to them” (Jean Greenwood, (Victim Sensitive Victim offender Mediation Training Manual, page 79).  

I want to suggest that Job’s longing for such a dialogue is not a lack of faith but rather a new and deeper experience of faith.  Job’s demand for acknowledgment and his desire for this divine/human dialogue is a venture into the deeper waters of faith where the rules of the system will not protect.  Those same rules, however, will no longer separate him from direct relationship with the Lord.  It is that direct engagement, I would argue, which the Lord seeks out in the story and struggles of Job.

Can I Get a Witness? (Part 2)

To jump to the end of the Book of Job for a moment, I believe that God honors Job’s request for acknowledgment before the conversation is over.  Of course, God makes a face to face appearance—and Job doesn’t die!  That is perhaps impressive enough.  Look closely at Job, chapter 38, for the details of that arrival.  Notice that the same words are repeated at the beginning of the Lord’s second speech in Job 40:6.

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind…”  The whirlwind is a sign that God has “shown up.”  In technical terms, the whirlwind is a sign of “theophany,” a word that means “God-manifestation.”  This isn’t the mighty wind that Elijah hears in 1 Kings 19.  No, this is the tornado—the maelstrom, the gale, the edge of the Chaos—that Ezekiel experiences when he envisions the fiery wheels within wheels.  This is the “storm of the Lord” that Jeremiah declares in chapter 23:18-20.

For who has stood in the council of the Lord
so as to see and to hear his word?
Who has given heed to his word so as to proclaim it?
Look, the storm of the Lord!
Wrath has gone forth,
a whirling tempest;
it will burst upon the head of the wicked.
The anger of the Lord will not turn back
until he has executed and accomplished
the intents of his mind.
In the latter days you will understand it clearly.

God comes as a “whirling tempest.”  A few verses later, the Lord reminds Jeremiah that it is in the Lord’s nature to “show up” and not to remain distant.  “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord.”  The Lord answers Job’s demand to make an appearance and does so in the way that the prophets have come to expect when the Lord plans to speak a word of judgment.  The verbal form of this Hebrew noun has to do with violent outbursts and passionate responses.  This is God’s hurricane that might blow us off the course we have set for ourselves and on to a new and different path.

Out of the raging and whirling tornado, the Lord “answers” Job.  The Lord does more than merely to speak.  The word for “answer” is the word for giving testimony.  This is the translation for that word in a number of Old Testament texts, including Job 15:6.  Job has demanded that God would appear for questioning, or at least to deliver a deposition.  The Hebrew word indicates that the Lord has consented to do exactly that.  Let me say immediately that the Lord doesn’t give the kind of testimony that Job wants.  The Lord does, however, answer the summons and acknowledge Job’s demand that the Lord would speak to Job’s suffering in some way.

I want to speculate a bit now.  The Hebrew word for “answer” has the same root consonants as the Hebrew word for “bend down” or “be humbled.”  It is not unusual for quite different Hebrew words to have the same letters in their dictionary entries.  Translators do not suggest that we have alternative possibilities for translation at this moment.  However, most of the book of Job is poetry.  Poets love to play not only with ideas and images but with the sounds of the words themselves.  Could it be that the writer of Job is telling us that when God shows up, God agrees to bow down to the human level?  Could it be that the real “gospel” of the book of Job is that the Lord kneels to the human condition in answering Job’s plea?

Could it be that the Lord’s answer to Job vibrates at the same frequency as a critical New Testament text?  In Philippians 2, Paul quotes a hymn that he and the Philippian Christians sang together in their worship:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Here is the God who shows up and takes on humility as the task of salvation.  In answering Job’s charges, the Lord stoops down and enters the human fray.  This is a god who is far off, but one who is near at all times—even to the point of death on a cross.  This is indeed part of the “gospel according to Job.”  The Lord enters into human suffering, not to explain it, but to redeem it.  And it is in that humble descent that the greatest glory is revealed.  Paul finishes off the hymn with these words:

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

The Lord comes to testify and Job hears the good news.  The Lord enters human suffering and death in Jesus, and every tongue testifies to God’s glory.

Can I Get a Witness? (Part 1)

What does Job want?  Perhaps Job wants nothing more than simple acknowledgment from God.  In chapter twenty-three we can read Job’s passionate plea.  Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!  I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments” (Job 23:3-4).  Job wants his day in court with God in the defendant’s chair.  Job longs for the opportunity to present his case and simply to be heard.  Job hopes that God might give some explanation of his situation: “I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me” (Job 23:5).  Job holds out hope that there might be some meaning or rationale for his terrible suffering and tragedy.

Even if there is no discernible meaning in what has happened to Job, at the very least God would acknowledge Job in his distress and despair.  “Would he [God] contend with me in the greatness of his power?” Job asks in verse six.  No, Job answers, that won’t happen.  It won’t be a fair fight.  Job knows that God holds the high ground—at least in terms of sheer power.  Nor does it seem that God will answer the specifications of Job’s lawsuit.  The word used here for “contend” is the verb form of the noun that describes a formal lawsuit in the ancient world.  Job doesn’t believe that God will answer Job’s summons to appear in court.

Job is willing to settle for something less.  The first thing Job wants is for God simply to show up and answer a few questions.  That would satisfy much of what Job needs.  Would God wrestle with Job the way God did with Jacob on the banks of the River Jabbok?  Apparently not, Job says, “But [God] would give heed to me.”  God would at least make an appearance and acknowledge that something significant, something life-changing has happened to Job.  Job wants to start with simple acknowledgment.

I am trained as a mediator under the laws of the state of Nebraska.  Recently, I have received further training in the area of “Victim/Offender Mediation,” especially as it applies to cases involving juvenile offenders.  This training has moved me further into reflections on the nature and dynamics of “restorative” justice.  The training reaffirmed for me and all the participants just how important and healing it can be for the victim of a crime to have face to face conversation with the offender—in a safe, facilitated and orderly setting.  In his training manual for “Victim Sensitive Victim Offender Training,” Mark Umbreit gives this description of this type of mediation.

“With the assistance of a trained mediator, the victim is able to let the offender know how the crime affected him or her, to receive answers to questions, and to be directly involved in developing a restitution plan for the offender to be accountable for the losses they causes.  The offenders are able to take direct responsibility for their behavior, to learn of the full impact of what they did, and to develop a plan for making amends to the person(s) they violated” (Victim Sensitive Victim offender Mediation Training Manual, page 5).

Crime victims want answers.  They want to know why this terrible thing happened to them.  They want to bring some meaning, order and control back to lives that have become terribly chaotic, unpredictable and uncertain.  They want to feel some sort of safety again.  More than that, victims of crimes and other tragedies want to know that they are still people who matter.  When someone injures me or steals from me and there is no acknowledgment, then the message is clear.  “You don’t count as a person.  You don’t really matter.  I can do to you whatever I please, and I don’t have to factor you into the equation.”  So acknowledgment is a critical part of the healing potential for victim/offender dialogues.  Let me quote from Umbreit once again.

“This dialogue addresses the emotional and informational needs of victims that are central both to their healing and to development of victim empathy in the offender, which can lead to less criminal behavior in the future.  Research has consistently found that the restitution agreement is less important to crime victims than the opportunity to talk directly to the offender about how they felt about the crime.  A restorative impact is strongly correlated to the creation of a safe place for dialogue between the crime victim and offender” (Victim Sensitive Victim offender Mediation Training Manual, page 6).

I think it is very questionable to suggest that the character of Job can be run through an imaginary time machine and placed in a victim/offender dialogue with God.  However, I do think that there is some insight here both for understanding Job’s questions and ours.  Even if Job can’t stand toe to toe with God in the divine court room, at least God could show up, listen to Job’s case, and acknowledge Job’s existence.  Even if Job can’t wrestle with God and win, at least God could “give heed” to him.  That sounds to me a great deal like the desire for acknowledgment.


"Perhaps human reaction to loss in general--rejection by those we have loved, failure at work, death of a spouse--could be understood through the learned helplessness model" (Martin Seligman, Learned Helplessness--my italics).
When I first encountered the concept of learned helplessness, I began to think about the connection to spousal loss.  If there is any experience in life that could teach one about the futility of one's actions, spousal loss would be a prime candidate.  There was nothing I could do that made any changes to the situation.  There was nothing I could do to reverse Anne's death.  I could be happy or sad, upright or in bed, working or weeping.  It didn't make any difference.

To read Seligman's almost offhand comment including "death of a spouse" was like touching a live wire.  It was jolting and a little bit nauseating.  That jolt, however, also helped me to make sense of so much of my experience.  In particular, this whole idea helped me to understand the depression that overcame me.  Seligman and his colleagues see learned helplessness as the laboratory model of the kinds of depression that we endure at times of failure and loss.  He describes depression in laboratory rats.
"Defeat and failure generated the same symptoms as uncontrollable events did.  Being defeated in a fight by another rat produced symptoms identical to those caused by inescapable shock...So learned helplessness seemed to be at the core of defeat and failure."
I experienced Anne's death as a massive personal failure and an utter defeat--at least in the first several months.  What didn't help was the reminders people unintentionally provided to me that I had failed and was defeated.  The ways in which our culture has trained us to sympathize with the grieving were, for me, those reminders.

More than that, I find myself now more allergic than ever to experiences of failure.  I also have far greater resources for overcoming the sense of depression that comes with a failure experience.  But I have very little tolerance for such experiences and do not go into them willingly.  For example, I look for ways to serve and work with people who are seeking solutions to real-life, everyday problems.  I crave that sort of work where hope the framework and improvement is the goal.

And I believe that bereavement therapy needs to be much more focused on re-training the bereaved to overcome the learned helplessness of spousal loss.  "Learned helplessness could be cured," Seligman writes, "by showing the subject his own actions would now work."  His research and that of colleagues such as Donald Hiroto demonstrates that we can be "immunized" to learned helplessness through experiences of competence and mastery.  In other words, we can be taught that we have choices.

This, of course, is why my journey with friends in twelve step programs has been such a personal boon.  Such recovery programs are positive psychology with hands and legs.  I can choose how to respond to a situation.  I can choose how to manage my momentary thoughts.  I have tools for moving from defeat to decisions, from loss to living.

And once acquired, this immunity is resilient and lasting.