Thursday, October 8, 2015

Why do we Fight?

Why do we fight with each other? Once an argument is past, when we look at it with clear eyes, it's seldom worth the effort. But in that moment, I'm ready to wipe you out, and you're ready to annihilate me. We've gone into out most primitive parts, where the law of the jungle applies: kill or be killed.

How does this happen? You're saying something about the news, perhaps, and I suddenly feel attacked. I come back with my own attack. And we're off to the races.

Truth is, I probably don't care all that much about your comment, but for some reason I took it personally. 

We're never, ever, ever, ever going to agree on everything. That never happens. But much of the time, we can agree to disagree -- you say po-tay-to and I say po-tah-to. Our differences make life interesting, otherwise it would be all vanilla (or chocolate, or pistachio). How is it, that we can accept each other's differences so often with equanimity, and then somebody says something… and BOOM! We're out to kill each other?

The answer is one of those simple but incredibly difficult things to manage: one or both of us have taken something personally. Suddenly, I feel as though you've said I can never again have "my" vanilla, but have to give in to your preference, and have "your" pistachio. Not only have it, but LIKE IT BEST. So I'm ready to fight.

There are also those times when criticism is more direct: "I wish you'd clean up," for example. Worse, "this house is filthy, you never clean!" Now it's even harder NOT to take it personally, as the finger is being pointed at you. Interestingly, even those accusations are not truly about you. They come out of my bad mood. Or my anxiety. Or even my fear that you don't really care about how I would like to live. If you take my misbehavior personally, we're off to war. 

If you don't take my behavior personally, you have more choices. This means that you take a step back, and realize I'm not speaking "objective truth," but rather acting out some feeling I'm trying not to own. You can choose not to respond at all. You can choose to say something like, "I'm sorry you feel that way." or "I really can't hear you when you speak to me that way." I may, or may not, back off, but you haven't gone postal. And I'm likely to simmer down.

So next time your hackles rise, and you want to bite someone's head off for what they just said, check in with yourself: is this a matter of me making something personal? If the answer is yes, take a step back and give yourself choices. I will if you will.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Depression has been plaguing people probably from the point of ejection from the mythical garden. (Eve probably felt guilty and depressed for starting the whole thing!) In the last couple of centuries, we’ve developed the hope that we can do something about it. We’ve studied it, tried to explain it, medicated it, but we can’t really fix it.

What is it, then? Before there were so many anti-depressant medications available, the psychoanalysts worked with talk therapy. There was considerable evidence that what was involved had something to do with what we do with our aggression. We developed the idea “depression is anger turned inward.” So it would make sense to think that rerouting those feelings would make a difference -- and it often does. When a person stops beating up on himself, and realizes that he’s really enraged at Mom, but is too afraid of her to say so, he does feel better. 

With the advent of medication, there are many depressions that actually get resolved, although I personally wonder if they might not recur down the line. There are also, sadly, those that get a little better -- perhaps suicide goes from the top of the option list to near the bottom -- but too often the suffering remains.

Those people who don’t get a “cure” are left with the need to find ways to live better, feel happier. They can purposely make choices that lead to pleasant thoughts rather than unpleasant ones (maybe watch a comedy instead of a tragedy). Staying active is important, as is having a solid group of friends. It is even possible to learn to make snap choices about what thoughts to think. And everyone swears by exercise. 

So where would music come in? 

There’s a famous study that demonstrated that simply changing one’s facial muscles from a frown to a smile lightened mood. 

Breathing well, so that the brain is well charged with oxygen, increases both a sense of safety and a sense of energy.

Acting “as-if” really works. A funny example: My dog grew up with cats, and got a little identify-befuddled. He often tried to purr when he was feeling good. But he couldn’t make that exact sound, so he would rumble in his throat. Now, what does a throat-rumble mean to a dog? It means he’s growling. The next thing we knew, he’d be upset and angry. He made the noise, and the response followed.

So if we make a noise, why wouldn’t that work the same? There are “laughing groups”  in which people purposely laugh -- for an hour. They actually do laughing exercises. And they are much happier at the end of the hour -- so they keep coming back.

Singing combines (1) the open mouth of a big smile, (2) the depth of breath needed to charge the brain with oxygen, (3) the production of sounds that we associate with joy. Add to that the expression of emotion and the benefits of exercise (anyone who thinks singing isn’t exercise hasn’t done very much of it!). How can one be depressed with all that going on?

Short of a cure, I can’t think of a better treatment for depression.