Persistence and Gratitude

Thank you to everyone who called or emailed or messaged me or just wished good things for me regarding the operation (or operations) on my hand and wrist. The surgery seems to have gone well. At the literal last minute, the surgeon and I decided to only do two surgeries, not three. He did the carpal tunnel, which is not a big deal—and a proximal row carpectomy, which means taking out three of the eight bones in my wrist. He did not do the cubital tunnel surgery. Instead of general anesthesia, I asked the anesthesiologist to use a nerve block and just enough anesthesia to put me asleep. This led to fewer after-affects from the surgery.

 

The only complication was with pain medication. I am allergic or sensitive to many painkillers. And despite many conversations with the doctor about which painkillers to take home with me (I did the surgery in a surgicare facility, not a hospital, and did not stay overnight), I was given one we hadn’t discussed and soon had to stop taking it. Tylenol and Motrin are all I have taken since.

 

The fun part—aside from a short bout of feeling I never want to do this again— my mind has been fairly clear. Visualizations have been helpful with pain relief and meditation has been a great friend.

 

And I am so grateful for my doctor—and also for my health insurance, without which I probably could never have afforded the surgery. I know I pay a lot for insurance, but it’s comprehensive. If the Republicans have their way, such insurance plans will likely disappear for the middle class.

 

I can’t type well right now and have little tolerance for sitting at my computer, but have still written a few emails and made some phone calls about the denying health care to Americans act being considered by Republicans in the Senate. This bill is just too shameful to resist mentioning. It exposes two Republican agendas: redistributing money from the poor and middle class to the rich (also see President Obama on the issue). And making life so expensive for lower and middle class Americans, and politics so difficult, that we will not be able to persist in fighting against the denial or undermining of our rights and freedoms.

 

But persist we must. For example, according to the CBO analysis, the House Republican bill would lead to 23 million people losing their insurance. This would also be the case with the Senate version. But this includes, if I understand it, only those getting ACA government subsidies. It does not include all those, like seniors, who might lose coverage due to prohibitive increases in premiums. A CBO estimate of the House plan says that an average 64 year old earning $26, 500 would see their out of pocket costs for health care rise from $1700 to $14,600. The Senate plan has (as of this writing) not been analyzed yet. The increase in costs could wipe out savings and spending power for so many people. And remember: Medicaid covers millions, one fifth of Americans—those with disabilities, in nursing homes, the poor; 49% of births in this country are covered by Medicaid.

 

The exposure of Republicans possibly colluding with Russians to interfere in/manipulate the election, interfere in investigations, rip off tax money, etc. might lead us to think Mr. T and his cohorts will be inevitably dethroned, that our legal system will get him, or them. I certainly feel this yearning for dethronement, but nothing is inevitable (except…). How often has the legal system been compromised before by money and power?

 

Opposing the Republican plan to destroy democracy and undermine our rights, freedoms and economic power will take time and persistence, but I think it’s just something that needs to be done, even by those of us with casts on our arms.

 

*Photo by Kathy Morris.

The Power That Liberates vs The Power That Corrupts

Two articles in the recent Scientific American Mind (May/June, 2017), when read together, provide an extremely relevant, even fascinating insight into the situation in the world today. One is on the psychological effects of power on the powerful. The other is on self-compassion.

 

The first article was called Power Moves: Success Changes How People Think and Act—Often, But Not Always, For the Worse, by Theodor Schaarschmidt. The British politician and historian, Lord John Acton, has often been quoted as saying: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power to corrupt absolutely.” He was mostly speaking of Popes, Roman Emperors, and absolute monarchs.

 

But are the corrupting influences of power real? And if so, are they attributable to the mere fact of having power? Or is it that ruthless people are the ones most likely to search for power to begin with? The article discusses psychologist Susan Fiske’s research—as people gain influence, they change. They act more freely, with less empathy, and a reduced concern for details.

 

The research by psychologist Dacher Keltner, quoted by Schaarschmidt, adds depth to this picture. When we feel powerless, our actions are more inhibited; we are more sensitive to punishment and also the needs of others. As our influence and power increase, we become more sensitive to rewards and less inhibited. The skills needed to obtain power and to lead effectively are the ones most likely to deteriorate once we have power. The powerful tend to overestimate their skills, take greater risks, think in terms of stereotypes, and ignore outside viewpoints.

 

Further studies show the more power people get, the fewer social norms they tend to follow. They can become “Machiavellian;” they disregard moral or even legal limits and feel free to use others in their pursuit of status and advantage. According to psychologist Kibeom Lee, when Machiavellian traits combine with narcissism and psychopathy, people show less honesty and humility.

 

At first glance, it might seem from this research that empathy is somehow opposed to agency or the ability to act and assume power. Not so. In his book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, Keltner says it is social intelligence, the power to understand, value and advance the goals of others, that yields true power and it is involved in every relationship and interaction. Without this social intelligence we “tend to act like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes” (parts of the brain critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior). The paradox is that we tend to “rise in power in the world due to what is best about human nature but we fall from power due to what’s worst.”

 

According to Schaarschmidt, the corrupting influence of power is slightly less likely with women, for example, whose path to power is often different than with men. As you might expect from the ubiquitous sexism in our society, women are more likely to be attacked for anything that might appear as dominating a group or asserting power, and rewarded with influence by looking out for others.

 

Self-compassion, according to the article The Self-Compassion Solution: Building On A Buddhist Principle, Psychologists Are Learning How Being Kind to Yourself Can Bolster Resilience, Buffer Against Stress and Improve Relationships, by Marina Krakovsky, means “treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would a friend.” In his research, psychologist Kristen Neff discerned three elements of self-compassion: kindness toward yourself, “paying attention to your suffering in a mindful, nonobsessive way,” and a cognitive component, where you understand that suffering is a normal part of life. Neff found that people who score high in self-compassion are less prone to anxiety and depression.

 

Krakovsky mentions the work by psychologist Juliana Breines, who found that self-compassion also helped people not get caught up in feeling their self-worth is dependent on approval by others. But Breines wondered if this diminished worry about the opinion of others would lead to a loss in motivation, as in schools. She found the opposite to be true. Students with self-compassion tended, for example, to study even more for a quiz than others.

 

And in a study with seniors, researchers led by psychologist Batts Allen found that people with self-compassion had a stronger sense of well-being. They were more mindful of what they were doing and feeling, and thus more capable of acknowledging and accepting what was true. Self-compassion apparently led to a better sense of, and valuing of, who they were.

 

Compassion in general is a readiness to act to reduce suffering. Compassion practices strengthen the insula, which is an area in the cerebral cortex of the brain, behind the frontal lobe, involved in emotional regulation, stimulating energy and focus. Compassion for self and others not only energizes us to act to relieve suffering; it energizes us to act with more awareness. It increases our ability to learn and discern what is going on. Especially when combined with mindfulness, it can help people think more clearly and critically.

 

We have this maladaptive, basically Machiavellian, idea in the U. S. that only by being selfish and ruthless can we achieve any political change; that ruthless behavior can somehow result in a “better” or more equitable world. The research on power shows the opposite to be true. And one of many reasons this idea is maladaptive is because it can undermine the motivation by ethical and empathic people to want to take political action. We have an example now of a leader whose craving for power, rewards, and status has clouded his empathy and understanding and caused political chaos, an increase in racist incidents, an undermining of democratic values, etc., etc.

 

If we want leaders who can think clearly and act with understanding, we need to learn more about the power of compassion, starting with compassion for ourselves. We need leaders trained in compassion so they can resist the distorting influence of power and more clearly empathize with and prioritize the needs of the great majority they represent, not just the rich few. The power that corrupts is power over others. The power that liberates is power over oneself. A wonderful, short novel based on the life of the Buddha, by Satish Kumar, called The Buddha and the Terrorist, makes clear the differences between these two types of power. The first is power based on opposition and so creates perpetual conflict and distrust. The second is based on understanding self and others, the power to learn and change, and thus creates trust and cooperation. And one way we can begin to advance the power that liberates is by teaching compassionate critical thinking in schools.

 

Mindfulness and Pain

 

This Thursday, June 15th, I will have surgery on my right wrist, or actually three surgeries. I did not want to undergo anesthesia multiple times so I thought I’d do them all at once, and the surgeon agreed. The first two are relatively simple: carpal tunnel (medial nerve in hand) and cubital tunnel (ulnar nerve, at elbow and blade of hand). The third is more complicated and is called a proximal row carpectomy; the surgeon removes three of the eight bones in my wrist. The surgeon predicts it will take two-three months to heal. I will be in a cast for two weeks, and writing may be difficult for an indeterminate length of time.

 

So, I am taking a vacation. I feel better approaching surgery as a vacation then as a dreaded time of suffering. It’s important, in difficult times especially, to be nice to yourself. For the next few weeks or more, instead of feeling an obligation to publish each week, I will do it only when it feels right. I have a blog prepared for next week, but after that—who knows. I will most probably miss writing, miss you as an audience, so I don’t know how long my “vacation” will last.

 

The wrist has been hurting on and off for many years. Driving, writing, certainly carpentry or splitting wood, but even holding a book or sleeping, could be painful. Karate has become problematic. My handwriting was never beautiful, but years ago, before I retired from teaching, I had trouble giving written feedback on student papers due to the pain. Students often commented that my writing was illegible.

 

Yet, I became sort of used to the pain—sort of. In early March, I pointed out to my acupuncturist the swelling in my wrist and she recommended I see a doctor. That led to x-rays and a CT scan, then nerve conduction tests. After seeing what my wrist looked like and reading the radiologist report, of “severe” this and torn that, the pain actually got worse.

 

I found this interesting. When I thought of the pain in my wrist as simply an unpleasant sensation that couldn’t be treated, I accepted it and lived with it. But once it had a label and a doctor’s evaluation, once I had the clear image of bones rattling bones, it became more solid and took on a life of its own. The sensations I felt became an alien presence I wanted removed. I scheduled the surgery.

 

This led me to use mindfulness training to study in more detail how my mind influenced the pain. I began to think of pain as a blatant and confounding puzzle, as a chance to learn more about how my mind and body worked. When pain arose, I breathed it in—if I could. I noticed whatever was there for me—how the beliefs and expectations I held influenced the sensations I felt and the thoughts about the sensations. My response to the pain influenced how much I suffered from it. When I let go of the thoughts and images, and focused on the breathing, the pain sensations moved to the periphery of awareness, and lessened in strength. Without resistance, pain decreased. It became one sensation among others. My response went from flight-flight-freeze to something a bit more open, and more relaxed.

 

And, over the last few days, as the fact of surgery sank in and the big day approached, the incidents of high level pain decreased. I don’t know what was most responsible. Was it the natural therapies, pain pills, or increased mindfulness? Was the anxiety over surgery masking the physical sensation?

 

I still need the surgery. But I have a few strategies to help me face it, and my fears about it, with a little more confidence and less anxiety. I have realized how fear can be useful. It tells me to wake up. This is my life on the line. The kindness I give to others I can give myself. I have also accumulated a few good movies and books to enjoy. And I am forever grateful that I still have good health insurance. (Please tell Republicans in Congress that you oppose their undermining-health-care legislation.) On Thursday, please wish for me a good result, a healing. Thank you and may you be well.

 

*Many Buddhist teachers write about how to face pain, or face whatever. Pema ChodronShinzen Young, and Jon Kabat-Zinn are three authors whose wonderful books I can recommend.

 

**My friend Eileen Ain recommended Peggy Huddleston’s Relaxation/Healing CD.

 

***Photo by Kathy Morris.

Snippets of A Gloomy Day: Hoping to Hear He’s Been Impeached

3

In the gym yesterday, one of the younger men, in his late twenties, turned off CNN on the tv monitors above the elliptical machines and stationary bikes. He said, “I am sick of watching politics.” I understand how the news has become too disturbing for many to watch. But for this man, the news itself was political; facts were opinions or political statements, not statements about what was real.

 

This is one legacy of all the fake news we’ve been witnessing. And it is truly frightening. If all facts are opinions, mere statements of likes and dislikes, or arbitrary, with no basis in truth, then how can I trust in anything people say? How do I know even what words mean to you? A word’s meaning is a fact of language.

 

While some people can’t stand to watch the news, others fear turning it off. They are afraid of what they might miss. Watching the news has become like guarding your home from attack, or guarding your prized possession, your sanity, so it won’t be stolen.

 

I notice a little of both in me. The President is in the news so frequently that it is difficult to hear about anything else. Part of me likes this, because I’m waiting to hear the latest stupidity, the latest revelation of possibly treasonous acts, of obstruction of justice, of him using his position to make money for the family businesses, etc.—What I am waiting to hear is that he has been kicked out of office.

 

But his possible crimes and misdemeanors blind us to other equally disturbing actions, like on health care for women, the environment, undermining the separation of state and religion, undermining voting rightsfree speech and controls on Wall Street and bankers. Trump might be the first President to use his own impeachment to distract voters from even worse actions he is party too, if there are such.

 

His narcissism is so deep it is contagious. It is like he is subconsciously trying to give all of America the anxiety and disordered thinking that lies at the root of his psyche. What a generous man.

 

One of his biggest gifts is to comedians. He has revived the profession. President Obama was, by comparison, so boringly dependable and literate, so normal. Now, comedians are swamped with material, helping us laugh at what we would otherwise cry about. They have become heroes. They are able to say things that otherwise couldn’t be said on a public stage.

 

Life before Trump felt relatively predictable to many people. No more. He has awakened us to the fundamentally unpredictable and unknowable nature of reality.

 

The Republicans are re-shaping America’s expectations. Before Trump, people wanted health care that was reasonably priced and comprehensive. Now, many will settle for insurance that is cheap but covers almost nothing, or costs less than double their rent or mortgage. Republicans are trying to pit men against women, the young and healthy against the old or those burdened with pre-existing conditions. Make America Great Again seems to mean make health care another vehicle of redistributing wealth—or of making life so expensive that only the wealthy will have the energy or resources to participate meaningfully in politics.

 

Republican politicians and their supporters have been saying for years that they want to reduce the size of government. Is it possible that all along, their strategy was to make government so intractable and toxic, so lacking in compassion that even Democrats would come to hate it and let whatever controls there are left on the wolves of greed be dismantled?

 

And in all of this, FB and other social media have become the place to share information on petitions, letter-writing campaigns, Town Hall meetings and other demonstrations. But it can be shocking to see information on government crimes and lies, on a possible loss of health care coverage for millions, alongside cute cats and our best friend’s latest vacation. The extent of his destruction alone makes it difficult enough to accept; the camouflage of “fake news,” lies, and distractions, of saying one thing one minute and another in the next, makes speech seem meaningless and facts difficult to discern. Hoping for the best and “liking” posts on FB is just a beginning.

 

I think we are re-creating what it means to participate in governing, despite the administration trying to stop us. We are learning not to ignore the difficult, and how to muster in ourselves the strength, compassion and persistence needed to resist Mr. Trump and create a new political reality.