Sunday, January 31, 2010

What Are Friends For?

“I just want you to be happy.”

That has always been my mother’s final answer whenever I’ve gone to her for help with making a big decision. Sure, we’ll talk about the what-ifs and examine every aspect of the situation, but in the end, she will ultimately step aside and leave it up to me.

Of course, that doesn’t mean she has no opinion on the subject.

Having nurtured me since the day I was born, she knows me as well as anyone. She’s very familiar with my strengths and weaknesses, with what gives me fulfillment and what does not. And she has taken this information, mixed it with a dash of intuition, and painted her own vision of what I should be doing with my life.

This vision is ever-changing, and it took on a new look several years ago when she began her second career as a Licensed Professional Counselor. Building a successful practice from a stack of manila folders and some refrigerator magnets, she has learned what being a therapist is all about, and she’s slowly become convinced that I have what it takes.

I don’t disagree with her, either…I think I would make a good therapist. A natural observer, I feel as if I “see” the world well, like a quarterback who can cut through the chaos of a defense and determine the best place to throw the football. I try to understand the reasons behind a person’s actions before ever passing judgment on their character. And I believe in the power of therapy – that everyone could probably benefit from quality time on somebody’s couch.

Plus, considering how screwed up I am, there’s a high probability that I’ve experienced every issue that any potential patient could be suffering from.

In spite of all that, I have never had the desire to go into the profession. There are just other things I want to do with my time – and none of them require me going back to school. Having gotten through my mandated educational career largely by picking “C” on Scantron tests, I’d be terrified of pursuing a graduate degree for which I would have to actually learn the material.

So I have decided to maintain my amateur status, applying whatever skills I may have to any family and friends who turn to me as a confidant. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously, and I’m flattered when someone entrusts me with the more sensitive aspects of their life.

Most of the time, I feel like I do a good job, and it is quite a compliment whenever I get a return customer.

But there are other times when I’m about as effective as George Costanza in a job interview. No matter what I say, no matter what persona I take on – from advisor to cheerleader to drill sergeant to rabbi – I end up making things worse, giving the person a whole new set of reasons to be mad and upset.

And it is during those moments, as I’m getting yelled at for not understanding or reading an e-mail full of angry capital letters, when I can’t help asking:

When somebody turns to you in their time of need, what is your role as a friend?

It’s never fun to see someone who you care about struggling. You feel their pain, and your natural instinct is to take charge, to dive in headfirst and do whatever you can to make them feel better.

Unfortunately, that emotional connection can cloud your view of things, making it difficult to maintain any semblance of objectivity. You inject your personal opinions and beliefs into the situation, confident that you can fix the problem yourself.

But it’s not your problem to fix.

That realization can be hard to digest, but the quicker you take a step back and relinquish any ownership over what is happening, the quicker you can start having a positive impact on the matter.

Because the only way the person is going to make a lasting change or improve their circumstances is if they figure it out for themselves. It’s the same principal that applies to learning: listening to a lecture or watching someone perform a task is great, but there’s simply no replacement for doing and experiencing something yourself.

I mean, I warned people about the nightmares I suffered after watching the internet video “Two Chicks and a Cup,” but it took them clicking on the link to fully grasp the horror.

That’s why I am always hesitant to give my friends advice. Without having Quantum Leap powers that allow me to step inside their body, I have no idea what it’s like to be them. I don’t know what they’re going through. I don’t know what they’re feeling. I don’t know how what they’ve gone through in the past is affecting their outlook in the present.

All I have is a second-hand, outsider’s opinion of what is going on. So while I can tell them what I might do – or have done – in a similar situation, any solution I offer beyond that would be my own issues and biases talking.

I also respect that everyone has their own timeline for dealing with something, and it’s useless to try to disrupt it. Just look at the couples who take forever to break up. They schizophrenically ping-pong back and forth…one minute they’re together, the next they’re not. And even though those close to them can see why the relationship will never work, it can take them longer to reach that conclusion – and not just because the “backslide hookup” is wreaking havoc on their judgment.

So you can shout and lecture and preach all you want, but the person has to be ready to hear what you are saying. And until the idea of making a change or taking a step clicks in their heart, your suggestions and recommendations will most likely be translated as a high-horse scolding or dismissed with a nobody-gets-me wave.

As my mother-the-professional taught me, a good therapist doesn’t tell their clients what to do. Instead, they act as a guide, gently nudging and prodding the person in the right direction.

In that vein, I try to serve as a wide-angle lens, giving the person the panoramic view of their situation. I ask the stereotypical how-does-that-make-you-feel questions, so that they can process their emotions. I challenge them by pointing out destructive behavioral patterns. I present them with the different options they can pursue.

But above all else, I do my best to validate their feelings, to let them know that no matter what course they choose, I will be there for them.

That doesn’t mean that I always agree or take their side. Being a “Yes Man” is not being a good friend. And even though at times my difference of opinion has been interpreted as a lack of support, I will not blindly back someone’s actions or decisions simply out of friendship. They came to me because they felt they could trust me, and to automatically fall in step with them would be a betrayal of that trust.

So it is a constant battle to find the right buttons to push, and what is successful in one instance can often fail in the next. But when nothing is working, and I feel like putting my head through the nearest wall, I take a deep breath and think about what I want whenever I’m the one in pain.

I want to be heard. I want to be understood. I want to know that the person I’m talking to really gets what I’m saying. I want to be comforted and loved and supported. I want to be told that there is a way out, and that everything is going to be all right.

In other words…

I want my mom.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

It's Better to Have Played and Lost...

I have always been a loyal fan of my sports teams. From the moment I began following them as a kid, I felt this special connection, and I’ve been emotionally invested ever since. Watching games, it’s like I’m out there with them, living and dying with every play, and anyone who’s brave enough to sit next to me has to understand that it’s even money as to who will disgustedly throw something first – me or the head coach.

Some of the happiest times in my life have coincided with my teams’ successes. The night the Houston Rockets won the first professional championship in the city’s history, I danced through a traffic jam of fellow Houstonians, high-fiving and hugging strangers, some of whom looked like they’d just been paroled from the TV series Lockup: Raw.

Of course, the flip side is that when one of my teams loses, I’m absolutely devastated. The game replays through my mind over and over, and I think about what might have been had this play or that play gone differently. Listening to sports radio is not an option, and I quickly flip past ESPN, because any mention of the loss feels like a kick to the stomach.

I freely admit that this obsession is completely irrational, and confessing the depth of it is somewhat embarrassing. I often question why I care so much about something that I contribute nothing to, but I don’t know…it’s just part of who I am.

So on January 7, 2010, when the Texas Longhorns – my alma mater and lifelong passion – were set to play the University of Alabama for the national title, I could barely contain myself. This was going to be one of those where-were-you-when-Kennedy-was-shot moments for me, a night for which I would always remember every detail and every twist of emotion.

Utterly useless at work, I got to the sports bar nearly six hours before the game, and by kickoff, my tapping foot and beating heart were going so fast I worried they might simultaneously combust.

But mere minutes into the game, on the Longhorns’ fifth offensive snap, everything changed.

Texas senior Colt McCoy – the all-time winningest quarterback in college football history and undisputed leader of the team – took a hit on his right shoulder that sent him back to the locker room.

In came Garrett Gilbert, a true freshman who had completed a total of 15 collegiate passes, all of which had come against second- and third-stringers at the end of lopsided Longhorn victories. And while he was a highly decorated prep star, he had never been in a situation like this before, facing the top-rated defense in the country on the biggest stage imaginable.

As Texas struggled to move the ball, and Alabama took control, I sat there grappling with myriad emotions. I was angry at the incredibly tough break, and I wondered why the Sports Gods were frowning on the Longhorns. I hurt for McCoy for not getting to compete in the game he’d been preparing for his whole life. I was stunned at how a season’s worth of anticipation could be deflated so quickly.

And in a strange way, I also felt relieved.

I know that sounds crazy, but once it became clear that Colt wasn’t coming back, any nerves or anxiety I had were gone. I was suddenly in a no-lose situation: if Gilbert somehow led the team to an unexpected victory, great. If not, the built-in excuse of Colt’s injury would prevent me from ever having to face the harsh reality of a Texas loss. I’d be able to tune into sports talk and log onto message boards and read every article without fear of getting upset or frustrated by any of it.

Over the next couple of days, though – after UT had fallen 37-21 – that relief slowly turned bittersweet. After all, your team only gets so many shots to play for a national championship, and this one evaporated before it ever got started. Plus, no one had believed the Longhorns could win, and I was hoping their performance would serve as a fully-extended middle finger to the entire nation. Instead, the story of this game would forever be filed in the “we’ll never know” folder.

So while I wasn’t suffering through any pain or disappointment, I had lost a real, viable chance of feeling joy and happiness.

And that was the rub.

Every so often, life presents us with the opportunity to achieve and experience greatness. And whether it’s pursuing a new career path, professing your love to an unsuspecting crush, cat-fighting for a rose on The Bachelor or anything else that our hearts may desire, it’s up to us to take advantage of these moments.

But like a poker player going “All in” to try to score a big pot, we have to accept the inherent risk that’s involved. Going after something we care deeply about demands that we expose ourselves to the possibility of rejection and failure, of being completely embarrassed or humiliated.

And the higher we reach, the further we can potentially fall.

When I was chasing my dream of playing golf competitively, I turned my life upside down to try to make it happen. I learned to wait tables, studying harder for my menu test than I ever did in college. I picked balls off the driving range at a local country club – the same job I’d had as a 16-year-old – so I could play for free. I moved back in with my parents to save money, even though I knew that having to disclose that information on first dates would lead to an endless string of cold showers.

If I wasn’t lifting weights, I was practicing in the 100 degree Texas heat, buoyed by the belief that with each putt I rolled, with each golf ball I hit, I was getting one step closer to achieving my goal.

So it became increasingly frustrating to not see improvement in my game. While my technique got better – video images of my swing were similar to that of a successful tour pro – my scores did not.

I realized that what was ultimately holding me back was not a physical problem, but an emotional one.

I couldn’t seem to get out of my own way. When I wasn’t struggling with my lack of self-confidence, I was indulging in my fear of failure or worrying about what other people thought of me. I was a walking Psychology 101 textbook, and no matter how hard I tried, nothing ever got better.

After banging my head against the wall for two years, I finally decided to put my dream aside. It wasn’t easy, because for as long as I could remember, I had wanted to be a professional golfer. It was what I’d always thought my life would be about.

Suddenly, I needed a new answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The ensuing aftermath was tough. I didn’t touch a club for months, and I even had to stop watching tournaments on TV, because I’d end up berating myself for not being able to do what the guys on the screen were doing.

It was difficult to accept that my internal issues had railroaded me into surrendering something that was so important. I felt like I had the passion, desire and talent to succeed, but as my own worst enemy, I couldn’t stop sabotaging myself long enough to find out.

When I look back now on the experience, I feel as if I left something on the table, and I wonder if things could’ve been different had I found the mute button for my inner demons. With no sense of closure, the uncertainty still haunts me.

But it also gives me comfort.

Because while I was crippled on the golf course by a wide range of fears, the thing I feared the most was giving my dream every ounce of my heart and soul – only to have my best not be good enough.

That would’ve been an awfully tough pill to swallow, like getting your heart broken by someone you think you’re destined to be with. I don’t know how I would’ve handled it. And sometimes I question if, in some small, subconscious way, I held back – even just a little – to shield myself from the possibility of facing that realization.

If so, I executed the plan brilliantly, as my emotional shortcomings have since served as a crutch I can lean on, a rationalization as to why I came up short. So when I’m sitting in my cubicle, working a job I never thought I’d have, angered that I’m not on a golf course somewhere, I have a therapist’s pad full of excuses that I can hide behind.

Yes, it’s human nature to protect yourself. Nobody likes dealing with failure, and when something doesn’t turn out the way we want it to, our initial reaction is typically to question why we ever did it in the first place.

But the fact is that in order to experience life on its deepest and most meaningful level, we are required to take chances, to risk falling flat on our face in a heap of humility. And if we are not willing to drop our defenses and step out of our don’t-hurt-me cocoons, we will be sentenced to a guarded, flat-lining, even-Steven existence.

Like Mike McDermott said in the movie Rounders, “You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle…but you can’t win much, either.”

As someone who has too often played not to lose, I can attest that it’s no way to be. Sure, it’s safer and more comfortable to “hope” than “know,” but I can’t think of anything worse than looking back on your life, knowing that it’s full of regret.

I’d rather do something about that while I’ve still got the time. So when the next opportunity presents itself, I want to approach it with an open heart, give it everything I’ve got, and accept whatever results – good or bad – may come.

After all, you only get so many chances to have fun in a traffic jam.

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?