Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Power of Responding

Almost a decade ago, shortly after Paul Hastings laid me off, I was talking to one of Jeff's acquaintances. I'll call her R. She told me how sorry she felt for me because "one of the most shameful things" that could have happened to a person happened to me, and so publicly too! I was so caught off guard by her comment that I didn't even respond. But that comment stayed with me.

I thought it about it recently as I read an article for a class (yes, I'm back in school getting my degree to become an MFT! More about that later.). The article discusses the importance of focusing on a person's response to a traumatic event, rather than the effects. Focusing on the effects of the trauma increases the sense of helplessness and casts the person as a victim; focusing on the person's response increases her sense of agency and calls attention to the actions taken by the individual, which highlights the person's values and identity. No matter how traumatic the event, the article argues that we always respond in some way, even if those responses are subtle or unnoticed by others.

Even though I didn't view my layoff as trauma, I realized that R's comment stayed with me because she focused only on what the firm did and completely disregarded my response to it. She only saw what was done to me, something she cast as shameful. Focusing on that, and stopping there, put me in a passive role. Something was done to me, something that I had no control over. Just thinking about that now makes me feel agitated.

My many friends, however, focused on my response. They saw me taking a stance, and in my stance, they saw a reflection of the person they know me to be. Their responses reaffirmed and helped further build an aspect of myself that I very much like. Their perspectives and affirmations were life-giving.

I've been thinking about responses a lot lately. Over the summer, we had a professor who is one of the loveliest people I've met. He smiled all the time, told the class how much he loved us (yes, a professor telling his students how much he loves them! Did I tell you how much I love my program?), gave us warm hugs, and was amazingly attentive to each of us and our stories. Near the end of the summer, he told us his life story. He started out telling us about his family of origin and his academic journey. He also told us how he met his wife. As I started to think he had such a perfect and easy path, he disclosed that his wife suddenly passed away several years ago from an unexpected illness. He was parenting three children alone while chairing a department and teaching and running an organization on the side.

From his story, I learned the value of leaning in to difficult experiences. Instead of shying away from his memories of this difficult time, he tells his story over and over with the hope that his students will learn something from it. And despite his difficulties, he didn't turn bitter or cynical. Before I met him, I don't think I could have imagined someone not turning bitter from such an experience. Instead, he responded with more love and compassion for others. His hardship, as difficult as it was, expanded his experience of life.

Ever since I've had kids, I've lived in fear of certain terrible events, like the possibility that one of them could fall seriously ill or be hit by a car or be kidnapped or choke on a grape tomato or wrap the bead necklace around their neck too tightly or want to ride a roller coaster. There is no end to the list of calamities I've conjured up in my head from which to protect my children. And trailing these calamities, I imagine a sense of helplessness and hopelessness -- a despair from which I am convinced that I could never recover.

I am caught in this idea that we all respond in some way to life's obstacles.  As human beings, we respond to these obstacles with some action or mindset and we make meaning of the event and our responses. In the article, Yuen writes "even when people are sunk in the depth of hopelessness and despair, "small acts of living occur'". These small acts of living may even happen despite ourselves. Thinking about this gives me a jolt of hope. It makes me think that no matter what happens, there is some action we can take or some meaning we can decide to adopt or reject. We can always do something. We can't help but affirm life by the mere fact of living and experiencing what life throws at us.

While I cried about my shaved head, it gave me a sense of purpose to pack my hair in a box and ship it off to Locks of Love. I loved thinking about how some child with cancer could use my hair, and my hair would not have to be wasted. The donation wasn't done for the sake of the unknown child, but for me. To give my act a purpose and to find some way to handle the situation. I think if I had just waited for my hair to fall out and simply reacted to the process as it unfolded over however many days, I would have felt somewhat paralyzed and helpless. Instead, taking some action helped me to focus and feel empowered.

I love how an idea as simple as this can shift how one views life's obstacles. Maybe it was obvious to others, but I think this was the first time I actually thought about the impact of thinking about one's responses rather than the effect. I hope you find it useful.


  1. I'm glad you are posting again. I always like reading your thoughtful insights.

    1. I've missed blogging. I've been so busy with school and everything else, but I can't wait to write about them all. Thanks for sticking around!

    2. Wow! Your writing is beautiful, sensitive and insightful. I have to admit, I found your blog by accident but I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I've seen you post on several of the neighborhood social media sights in our shared town and you sound so harsh, judgemental and angry in many of those posts. It's hard for me to reconcile how you are the same person. Congratulations on going back to school. I wish you all the best.

    3. Thanks for reading! I haven't left too many comments on our neighborhood FB page - if you're referring to the latest comment about the resignation of our mayor, I hope you're not conflating opinionated with "harsh, judgmental and angry." Happy to have a reader from the neighborhood!

  2. No! I'm sorry to have misread you before. It just goes to show you can't tell tone and inflection in short blurbs online. Glad to have found you on your blog. Thats all. =)