The Snark Defense

snark-warningSunday was graduation day for my coaching class. As I boarded the Q train to Manhattan, I was half dreading it. We’d all been asked to make a short presentation about what the program and our colleagues had meant to us. My immediate response was an eye-roll. I hate this kind of thing, I thought – the sappy language, the forced emotions. I managed to fulfill the obligation by finding a kind of clever, snarky poem I could read, and I did get a laugh. Job done.

But as I watched my classmates make their presentations, some of which involved heartfelt displays of acting, singing, dancing, personal poetry and videos, I realized once again that I’d taken the easy way out. And, I realized, I’d lost out in the process.

Hiding behind a wall of cynicism is not just something I do in coaching class. My response to frustrations at work, for example, has often been to withdraw, make snarky comments or otherwise join in a generally negative office atmosphere. While that’s protected me in some ways from taking disappointments personally, it’s also kept me from really engaging in a positive way with some of the really wonderful people who work there.

I don’t know if it’s because I was trained as a lawyer and a journalist, both professions where emotional distance and a critical eye are considered essential to doing a good job. (In the age of online journalism and social media, it’s even worse – the snarkiest posts get the most eyeballs.) Or maybe it’s the way I grew up – my parents were both doctors, another profession where emotional involvement is forbidden, and critical judgment prized.

Whatever the reason, the result is I’m not someone who displays deep emotions very easily. I always though that was helpful, at least professionally – no one wants to be caught crying in the office, for example. But increasingly, I’ve come to realize it’s also an impediment. Sure, I can come up with a snarky response on Twitter pretty quickly (though not nearly so quickly as some), but when it comes to face-to-face communication and connection, with co-workers, classmates or anyone else, it’s a barrier. I’ve also come to realize, mostly through coaching, that genuine connection with other people is something I really deeply value. My snarkiness has been getting in the way.

Not that criticism or sarcasm doesn’t have its place. As Alan Henry puts it in this post I came across: “There’s a difference between being occasionally sarcastic and a little derisive in your head, but when negativity becomes your default reaction, you have a problem.” Henry cites the “wake-up moment” of Anna Holmes, founding editor of Jezebel, who once tweeted:

Henry goes on to list all the bad things snarkiness and cynicism can do, including:

On Sunday, it mostly just made me sad.

As I watched my classmates belt out a song, recite their own poetry, or dance gracefully to music that brought tears even to my eyes, I realized that I’m the one missing out. 

Learning to become a coach has begun to crack me open. A year ago, I wouldn’t have had those tears in my eyes and I probably wouldn’t have realized what I’d missed. I would have just been relieved when it was over, and my unexamined tension relieved.

This time, as I sat through our graduation ceremony – a candle-lit, spiritual music-filled affair – I felt both grateful and a bit disappointed. Yes, I had completed the program and learned valuable skills as a coach and am now certified and eager to help others. That’s what I came here for. But by holding part of myself back, by maintaining some of my critical distance, I had in some ways kept myself from fully participating in the experience. As I looked around the room, I saw 34 amazing people who I’d come to know some really meaningful things about, but whom I hadn’t really come to know.

Maybe we never fully know other people, but I’m increasingly realizing that the more we open ourselves up to them, the more they open to us, and the more we share the world together. And that makes it a much less lonely – and far more fun – place to be.

I’m not going to be really hard on myself about this: we all protect ourselves in various ways, and I’ve always been on the shy side. Dramatic performance about my innermost feelings was not going to come easily for me. That’s okay.

And I’m slowly getting better. All weekend I was dreading that time at the end of the final class when everyone has to hug and kiss goodbye, worried no one would really care to say goodbye to me or that it would all feel fake and I would want to run and hide in the bathroom. Instead, I just took a breath and slowed down. I decided I would just be real. No one was watching me or expecting me to perform. So I could decide, who did I want to say goodbye to, and what did I want to say? I found that when I let myself actually face those feelings, I had a lot to say, to a lot of people: about how much I appreciated what they’d brought to the class, to me, and to the whole 9-month training experience. And it turned out, I genuinely felt, and wanted to express, that each one really brought a lot. And that I truly appreciated it all.

When I could let go of my shyness and fear and the snarky shell I wear over it, I could genuinely share what I was feeling. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to connect with everyone I wanted to. But I did manage to hug a whole lot of them. And that felt great.

Should You Go on a News Diet?

image_83A couple of years ago, I went on a silent meditation retreat after a particularly grueling period of work. I had just returned from a week at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, where I was monitoring hearings for prisoners stuck in indefinite detention. It was all pretty depressing. So I’d decided to take a break. But even on retreat in the Berkshires in February, I couldn’t help checking my e-mail and news feeds. The drumbeat of bad news was continuing, and what was I doing isolating myself in the mountains?

One afternoon, Jack Kornfield, the renowned Buddhist meditation teacher who was leading the retreat, gave a talk about the importance of checking out sometimes – turning off the news and maybe listening to beautiful music or just enjoying silence for a while. While I appreciated the sentiment, I also thought to myself: “that’s fine for other people, but I have to know what’s going on for my job – and besides, how irresponsible to just cut ourselves off from the real world!”

Determined to tell Kornfield that this just wasn’t possible, I lined up to speak to him after his talk, and explained my dilemma. He smiled his wise and kindly smile, looked me in the eye and said: “you need to go on a news diet.”

Kornfield’s prescription was to cut news out of my life for 3 days a week. I listened and nodded politely, but I thought “I’ll never do that.”

I’ve thought about his advice a lot since then. I realized he was right — I needed to seriously limit the amount of time I was spending reading and listening to and watching the news. The onslaught had become toxic, and it wasn’t helping me or anyone else do anything to change it.

It’s a fine balance – between burying your head in the sand to take care of yourself, and being so alert to the problems of the world that you unwittingly bury yourself under their weight. It’s not an easy balance to find. But it’s really important.

In journalism school I had a professor who used to say “you are what you read.” She was referring to the quality of the writing, of course, but it’s equally true for the subject matter. Not surprisingly, psychologists have studied the impact of following all that bad news and found it causes major physical and psychological stress. images

I think it was the Dalai Lama who pointed out that we shouldn’t be too discouraged by all the bad news we hear these days, because the fact that it’s on the news is itself a positive sign: it means it’s an event that’s unusual, and hence, newsworthy. It’s not like everyone out there is killing and raping and pillaging; and that’s why those that are make the headlines.

That might not seem like much comfort, but it’s a truism of the media that “if it bleeds it leads.” And with the 24-hour online, cable and social media news cycle, we can easily become engulfed in it. But if you immerse yourself only in the day’s headlines, you’re not experiencing “reality” any more than you would be if you immersed yourself only in the sounds of birds and waterfalls. They’re all real. It’s a question of what you want to focus on.

I’m not advocating focusing just on birds and waterfalls. Being aware of the Ebola crisis in Africa, wars in Iraq and Syria, terrorist attacks in Pakistan, and global warming all over allows us to make informed choices about how we live – and whether and how we might affect any of those situations. We can support aid or peace organizations, vote for anti-war candidates, and reduce our energy consumption, to name a few examples. But it’s also important to allow ourselves the space to rise above the bad news, to notice and seek out good things happening in the world, so we can consider alternatives and what role we want to play. Sure, our government is at war, but there also people volunteering their time to tutor people in prison, deliver meals to the homebound, or just clean up the neighborhood. And that’s inspiring.

It was on that same retreat with Jack Kornfield that I remember being struck by the thought, during a silent walking meditation in the snow, that I needed to allow more beauty into my life.

When I got home to Brooklyn, I enrolled in a life drawing class – returning to a way of honoring beauty that I’d loved when I was younger but had given up as an adult. And I eventually decided to study coaching — connecting with people in a positive way to help them discover what makes them happy and hopeful.

I rarely manage to pull off three whole days a week without news, but I’ve gotten much better at shutting it off in the evenings and on weekends. I’m also careful to not check my Facebook or Twitter news feeds too often, which can feel like another kind of assault. Sometimes, it’s important to create temporary barriers to limit the stuff bombarding us from outside in order to have enough quiet space inside to consider and make real choices: How do I want to live? Where do I want to focus my attention? And how can I really make a difference?


The Importance of Being A Beginner

Zen Bizarro-07-22-12-WEB bizarrocomics comOne of the biggest challenges of becoming a coach at this stage in my life is being a beginner all over again. Having spent years becoming an “expert” at things – first law, then journalism, then national security/human rights – it’s frustrating to go back to square one. Of course, no one ever totally masters anything completely, but after a few years doing something you get the hang of it enough to feel at least competent. Not so when you’re learning something brand new. It is, to say the least, humbling.

That can be true even for things that are supposed to be fun. I’m on vacation right now, for example, stretching the summer into September by spending this week in Maine. It’s beautiful up here, and I decided to bring some drawing materials with me to really immerse myself in that aspect of it. But the truth is, I haven’t done much drawing since I graduated from college. That was a long time ago. Over the last year, though, I’d decided I wanted to get back into doing something more creative, exercise the right brain a bit and let my more rational, judgmental side get some rest. So I’ve been taking the occasional drawing class (with this great teacher) – some life drawing, and an occasional pastel workshop. Surely, I thought, I could capture the beauty of Maine if I tried.

Not so easy. Two hours of pastel drawing while perched on the edge of a cove on an overturned canoe yesterday, trying to render an incredible landscape of wildflowers and beach grasses and evergreens, turned into a pretty big mess. There are a few parts of the drawing that kind of work, but there’s a big blob in the middle that I can’t make head or tail of.

At first, I found this really frustrating. I’d just spent half the afternoon to create this? It didn’t help when later in the day I stepped into a gallery in town and saw a perfectly-rendered framed pastel of a woman kayaking in a blanket of fog. I felt defeated.

I love what I’m learning, whether it’s coaching or drawing. But learning something new will always be hard, and sometimes even a bit humiliating. It requires going back to being a beginner while living in a culture that’s focused on celebrating expertise. For those of us raised to prize achievement and accumulate merit badges over the course of our educational and professional lives, it’s hard to start back at the beginning. But I’m finding it’s also wonderful: it allows me to truly value and appreciate and learn from others, while I grow and stretch myself.

This made me feel better about my lousy drawing, too:  Scientists have found that learning new things actually rewires our brains and makes them function better, through a process called myelination. That requires practice.

I like the Buddhist perspective, which, unlike Western culture, actually celebrates “beginner’s mind.” As Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki puts it in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

The idea is not only to be open to the new, but to deliberately adopt a fresh perspective on everything — including on the things you do or see every day. Dr. Kevin Tidgewell, a professor of Medicinal Chemistry at Duquesne University, applies the idea to his scientific studies: “this beginner’s mind philosophy is the idea that you should come in your practice with no ego…. you should come with an open mind in that all things are possible, not simply the previously held beliefs and the standard beliefs of the field.”

Consider the alternative:  if you’re not willing to brave being a beginner or to adopt a beginner’s mind, you never learn or see new things. And so, for the sake of maintaining a polished exterior and a comfortable, if somewhat stale, interior, you stay stuck – pretty much repeating yourself over and over again.