Saturday, January 29, 2011


Dan Gardner on the relationship between planning, acting, leadership, and explaining it later:

“Asked to name the greatest challenge to their plans that leaders face, British prime minister Harold Macmillan famously responded, "Events, dear boy. Events."

Only in hindsight do we see leaders carefully formulating plans prior to taking power, then deliberately enacting them in their entirety. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the supreme example. Running for the presidency in 1932, FDR's campaign promises looked nothing like the New Deal he ultimately created. But FDR didn't have a hidden agenda. There wasn't much of an agenda, hidden or otherwise. There was only a small group of men, terrified by the scale of the crisis and the pace of events, desperately putting bits and pieces together into what they hoped would be a functioning machine. "To look upon these policies as the result of a unified plan," wrote Raymond Moley, Roosevelt's top aide, "was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter's tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy's bedroom could have been put there by an interior designer."”

It is a pity that we tend now to focus entirely on the promises leaders make rather than on the principles they represent. It’s their principles we ought to count on. If those principles prove inappropriate for a current reality, then that is what we ought to look back on, not on a count of broken promises.
Gardner is writing about politics, but his observations might apply equally well to the situations you face when you are counselling. You come in—and this is the first thing that differentiates one counsellor from another—with a set of guiding principles and maybe even some ideas about the first few things you will say. Then, some time in the first ten minutes, you hear a story and, as often as not, you are somewhere you didn’t intend to be. In the space of an hour—and this is the second thing that differentiates one counsellor from another—you make certain decisions about how to fit your principles to the events unfolding before you.

The central idea that took hold of me from the moment when I originally climbed the steps to the front door of Hope House was, “There ought to be hope here. People expect it of a place called Hope House.” I long ago lost count of our partially fulfilled promises—uttered in earnest--to make categorical and chronological sense of the array of strategies, practices, tools, processes and experiments we’ve tried to frame as a coherent picture. At times the frustration and complexity of the prospect has driven me nearly to despair.
These days I am more inclined to settle for a principle rather than a promise to pull it all together. If there is any over-arching factor that can account for the work done by the team at the Hope Foundation of Alberta perhaps it is this: Regardless of what is happening, how often it has already happened and the outlook for the future, there ought to be hope. Somebody needs to see it. It might be both of us, or me first, or you first. All the tools we have are aimed towards making sure somebody does.
Fortunately for us, we have been able to stick with the principle. Most of what we have learned focusses on what it takes to adapt that principle to the current reality. If only our political leaders could be viewed and evaluated in that light, if only we’d encourage them to constantly reiterate the principle in order to explain the action of choice, we’d all be better off.

Friday, January 28, 2011


Dryer: (grinding to a halt and throwing its door open) Well, I solved that problem.
Washer: What problem?
Dryer: The problem of the ugly sweater.
Washer: What ugly sweater, David’s green one?
Dryer: No. There’s nothing ugly about that one. It’s just a little worn, that’s all. I mean Wendy’s really ugly sweater.
Washer: Hmmm. I’m trying to think of which one you mean. She threw the faded purple one out long ago. I only remember washing one of Wendy’s sweaters today, that one with all the geometric shapes on the front.
Dryer: yes. That’s the one.
Washer: Oh, I like that sweater. Gee, I hope I didn’t leave a stain on it. I do that by accident, you know, not on purpose. Then you go and make it worse by setting the stain and I get the blame.
Dryer: Oh for heaven’s sake, not this old fight again. Quit pushing my buttons. Don’t blame me if you can’t do your job. But actually, I never even checked for stains.
Washer: Then what problem did you solve?
Dryer: See for yourself.
Washer: (peering out at the mangled tangled lump of clothes in front of the open dryer door) Hmmm. What a mess you’ve made. Looks to me like you trapped the arm of that sweater in the door and then spun around a million times, winding and winding it around everything else until you’d stretched it out about two feet longer than the left arm. Oh my goodness! Look at that bulge in the middle. I don’t think that can ever be fixed.
Dryer: (sighing contentedly) Me either.
Washer: Wendy will be furious. I’ve seen how she gets when you’ve done this before and I tell you, it isn’t pretty.
Dryer: What are you talking about? Why would she be mad. I did it for her. Now that it can’t be fixed, she won’t have to worry about it any more.
Washer: Worry about what?
Dryer: Worry about whether it’s ugly. Blind people do that, you know. They wonder what’s pretty and what’s ugly.
Washer: (haughtily) Isn’t that a matter of taste?
Dryer: Of course it is. But whose taste? They’ll go to a store and try on a blouse and pants. Whoever sees it will say it goes very nicely, maybe two people will say that. And then later on, somebody will suggest that the match could be better. It’s a problem, a real problem, I tell you. The people in their lives don’t always agree on what looks good and what doesn’t. So then they start looking elsewhere for opinions. They ask Washer, Washer says, “That looks fine.” Then they ask Dryer. Dryer says, “That doesn’t really suit you.” Then they ask Iron, Dishwasher, coffee pot. All the way along it’s the same as with the people. Mixed reaction.
Washer: And so...
Dryer: So this time I solved the problem of a rather controversial sweater. But don’t think I’m letting you off the hook when it comes to stains.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Thirty years after he ran his Marathon of Hope THE HOPE LADY read Terry fox His Story by Leslie Scrivener. Thirty years, you say? Here we have a man who explicitly named an event with hope in the title, an event that went viral and raised 400 million dollars so far. Here we have a man with a disability who’s a hope hero to billions of people. Thirty years went by before THE HOPE LADY took the time to read a book about him? You have to wonder about it even if you make allowances for the fact that THE HOPE LADY didn’t start her explicit work with hope until 1995. She had, after all, been a counsellor keenly interested in disability issues long before Terry’s 1980 run. What then, are we to make of her neglect of this iconic Canadian hope hero?
I suppose she was a bit cynical, a bit jaded, a little bit bored by the whole affair. Few icons were as little in need of one more fan. Few stories were as well known. You didn’t have to make an effort to know a little about Terry fox. Thirty years after his death his name was still a household word. In a world of abundant unexplored stories, that story didn’t seem like a story that needed reading. THE HOPE LADY REMEMBERED the mind-numbingly dull second-by-second media coverage of the rumours and truths, indistinguishable from one another, that passed for news in the last days of his life. That was enough Terry Fox to last her for 30 years.
That said, it was probably inevitable that THE HOPE LADY would get around to being interested. It would take an army of bean counters to count the number of counselling clients and audience members who have mentioned his name and told her part of his story when she asked them who comes to mind when they think of hope. He’s the perfect hope symbol after all, with the perfect hope story. a person with a disability who does something extraordinary, meets tragedy and leaves a legacy of generosity and inspiration. Hope stories just don’t get any better than that. So, with nothing better to do on an airplane bound for Toronto, she sighed with resignation, dug earphones out of her bag, and powered up the audio book player. Better late than never, THE HOPE LADY would make the time to read about this hope hero.
The time invested offered greater rewards than she had expected. To her delight, the stereotyped story that had for so long lulled her into apathy was soon embellished by the facts. With a journalist’s acumen, Leslie scrivener had set up the story by addressing a question THE HOPE LADY had never thought to ask: What was Terry Fox like before he got cancer? BEYOND ALL THE HOPEFUL THINGS FOX DID, IT WAS THIS ANGLE THAT MADE IT WORTH THE READ.
To put it mildly, Terry Fox was not your average teen-age Canadian Joe. In a sentence, he was highly focussed, single-minded, goal-directed and bent on achievement. Given his personality, there’s no telling what a healthier Terry might have done. What we know is what he did given the challenge that was presented. Acting in character, under attack by a devastating disease, he conceived a larger-than-life project, defied the wishes of his family, expected more of others than they had originally intended to give and justified the whole thing by ignoring medical advice. So utterly outrageous was the idea that The Canadian Cancer Society failed utterly to plan for its consequences. Things reached crisis proportions when the organization found itself unable to muster enough work hours to count the money that began to pour in. after that, all sensible bets were off. Nobody knew what to expect. The Terry Fox Foundation Reports that more than 400 million dollars has been raised for cancer research by people whose inspiration came from the name of Terry Fox.
There’s a hope lesson that lies beyond the stereotypical Terry Fox narrative. There is a cue that can help us understand why some of the things we commonly say to people with disabilities miss their mark. We assume a pattern, denial, despair, anger, struggle, acceptance. On that foundation rests a common model of rehabilitation, complete with assumptions about what must be happening—spending too much time in denial, refusing to accept, etc. These ideas often make sense. That’s why we repeat them.
But here’s something else to think about. Most disabilities are given to ordinary people. Give a disability to an ordinary person, and you’ll get an ordinary response, denial, despair, anger, struggle, acceptance, achievement if you’re lucky. Give a disability to an utterly extraordinary person and nothing you say to frame that person’s behaviour in terms of the normal response to a disability will make any sense at all. And lately, with that in mind, in an utterly unpredictable turn of events, THE HOPE LADY is sometimes heard telling the Terry Fox story.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


I am searching for something I cannot find. Because I cannot find it, I am experiencing all the classic symptoms of frustration—tight chest, anxiety just behind the rib cage, the sag of doom down toward the navel. Four times a day I do the thing that ought to be done—I give up searching once and for all.
“Quit looking and let it come to you,” says The Voice Of Reason. It’s sage advice, the kind of advice that ought to be taken seriously. So I take it seriously.
But then the moment will come, maybe a moment later, maybe an hour later, maybe not until the middle of the night, when freedom takes over and says, “Now that you have a moment, why don’t you just do a little more looking?” Oh, that’s how the thing unfolds. One minute I’m forgetting all about it and the next I’m back in the frenzy, peeking under rocks, leaving no stone unturned, so to speak.
“Back on the hunt again are you,” Reason observes with a patient little sigh. “Do you not remember the scissors incident?”
“Of course I remember the scissors incident,” I say. “How could I forget that when you remind me of it every time I can’t find something?” And so I push reason aside and keep on searching.
I’m searching for something to set a tone for my upcoming presentation to family members preparing to transition a loved-one with late stage Alzheimer disease into a care facility. The urgency to find that perfect something grows with each passing hour. Where once there was no sweat, endless time to believe that something would come along, Tuesday evening has come clearly into view. If I pause to take a breath, blog a blog, do a bit of laundry, cook a couple of dinners, answer a phone call, and read a few chapters of something light, Tuesday evening will be tonight. Fickle Reason—all too often a bit forgetful will be saying, “Well, you might have found something if you hadn’t spent so much time breathing, blogging, doing laundry, cooking dinners, gabbing on the phone and reading trashy books.”
Still, self-criticism aside, the facts are the facts. I haven’t been able to find what I’m looking for, possibly because I really don’t know what I’m looking for, something to set a tone, likely a story, maybe a poem, possibly even a song. I’ve avoided focussing on Alzheimer disease, or nursing home transitions. That focus will be there as part of the package. I’m looking for something to make us laugh, to help us think differently, to fascinate us, something to give us hope.
It’s not at all like the search for the scissors. We knew exactly what we were looking for then—a pair of medium-priced, medium-size, silver, metal-handled all-purpose scissors. At the time they were the only scissors we owned. I’d bought them at the drugstore—one of those purchases you make when you start an independent life and suddenly realize how many essential odds and ends your parents have. We lost them during a move from one apartment to another. One day we had them, the next day we didn’t. We knew we’d find them somewhere, though Reason did mention that we might have left them behind. We, however, knew we hadn’t left them. We simply had to find them.
There’s only so much cutting you can do with a paring knife and a nail-clipper. Even the most resourceful people come upon the necessity to cut paper, to trim fabric. Eventually we made the ultimate sacrifice, the letting go, the moving on. We scraped up the cash for the purchase of new scissors—plastic handles had become the norm by the time we made the compromise. Plastic handled, cheap scissors being what they are, we had purchased several more pairs before we unexpectedly discovered the old metal stand-bys. They were hiding among the unused sheet music in the piano bench. We must have put them there after taping up the final box.
Reason said, “I told you you’d find them eventually.” And we had to admit that Reason had said this a thousand times, but we hadn’t wanted to hear it. We’d wanted to find them. We knew they were there somewhere.

Friday, January 21, 2011


Me: (opening the front door) You again? Couldn’t you find somebody else to pester? Go away! I hate you.
Snow: (blowing in a little gust) Oh my! Such strong language. Hate is a terrible word, hardly a fitting emotion for a HOPE LADY. Tell me, what have I done to deserve this? Be frank, now. Bottled up feelings are best expressed if you want to have goodmental health.
Me: Don’t talk to me about mental health. I’m the expert here. What have you done? Let me tell you. First you fall all over everything. Then you drift from place to place. It goes on, every day, day after day. I’m sick of it, I tell you, sick of it!
Snow: (settling on the veranda) Well, I suppose you might see it that way. I have been around quite a lot lately. But you know, just for the record, today is the 21st of January, and there were 2 days in January when I didn’t drop any flakes on Edmonton.
Me: Well SORRY!!! Two days when you didn’t fall eh? Somehow I must have missed those.
Snow: (pressing the one-up advantage) Maybe you should think about the good things I’ve done for you.
Me: Like what?
Snow: (offering a one-of-a-kind flake from a pile near the mailbox) Well, I’ll be filling up the sloughs and ponds with fresh water come spring, won’t I? And I’ll be soaking into the ground to provide moisture for the tree roots, won’t I? Just because I’m not usually around in July, don’t think I’m not listening to you complain about the droughts.
Me: Okay. So you fill up the creeks and help the trees. I love all of that. But that’s months away and this is now. You’re here now, and I hate you! You make me miserable.
Snow: (thoughtfully whirling two flakes together) Well, I think there is some conflicting evidence.
Me: Give me some.
Snow: Okay. Is it not true that, at 8:11 on the morning of Monday, January 10, you were straddling a mountain of snow on the boulevard in front of Hope House, waving your arms and laughing hysterically?
Me: Of course it’s true. But what choice did I have. Somehow I had to get from the street to the front door. My feet weren’t touching solid ground and you were up to my hips. I had to wave my arms to keep you from filling up my purse. And as for laughing hysterically, what else could I do?
Snow: What else you ask? You could have stayed home. You could have been miserable. I submit there was little evidence of misery at that point.
Me: That was one brief moment, one moment in a terrible month. You’ve been causing trouble since the Hope House Christmas party on December 15.
Snow: (dripping a little icicle off the overhang) Some call it causing trouble. Some call it creating employment. Think of the crews clearing me off the mall roofs. Think of the snowplough operators. Think of the truckers. Think of all the City employees’ busy answering telephone complaints about the condition of their streets! Think of the newspaper reporters who have stories served up on silver shovels. They don’t even have to dig!!
Me: I’m sick of hearing stories about clogged streets. I’m sick of talking about snow. We’re all sick of it!
Snow (shifting a little) All is such a big word. Tell me now. Are the skiers complaining? Are the snowboarders complaining? Are the resort owners complaining? Is the travel industry suffering from a lack of people going south? No, my dear. You may be tired of me, but you are not all. Take Lawrence, for example.
Me: What about Lawrence, he’s been shovelling every day. It’s driving him crazy.
Snow: (Triumphant) And the day he didn’t have to shovel, what did he do? I’ll tell you what he did. He walked to the edge of the veranda, gazed out on the lawn, and jumped into the biggest drift he could see. He wanted to know how deep I was. Just for the record, I was up above his waist.
Me: (triumphant) Like I said, you’ve driven him crazy.

A win-win situation!

Thursday, January 20, 2011


I don’t recall exactly when I told my first story. It must have been sometime in early elementary school. It wasn’t told on a stage, or even at the front of a classroom. It was, instead, a story I told to myself, a tale about something that had happened to me. By the time I had reached junior high, I was aware that some of my stories were also interesting to others. Thus began a lifelong practice of shaping my experience with stories.
Many others have walked this path also, taking time to study and notice how their stories influence themselves and others. Summarizing a body of research on the effect our personal stories have on our moods and actions Sadie Dingfelder writes: “Taken together, psychologists’ narrative research makes one resounding point: We don’t just tell stories, stories tell us. They shape our thoughts and memories, and even change how we live our lives.” She goes on to say, “In particular, telling stories of struggle that turn out well may give people the hope they need to live productive lives. And stories that vividly describe turmoil seem to help people grow wiser in the aftermath of major life challenges.”
In ordinary conversation, our personal stories are rarely crafted. They simply pour out, disorganized and often interrupted. But those of us who consciously craft our personal stories for telling to others have some important choices to make. We choose how to start, how to end, what to include, which characters to mention and what to say about them. Given that our stories speak not only to others but also to us, perhaps the most pertinent questions we should ask are: “What do I want my story to tell me about me and the world I live in? What kind of person do I want to say I am?”
Browsing through vignettes from earlier times I am struck by the comparison of my role in earlier stories to the stories I tell today. Earlier stories cast me as a victim who struggled and became a hero. There was always humour, usually at the expense of other characters. They seemed entertaining to others, and reasonably true to fact so far as it could be remembered, but to me they somehow rang hollow.
Like their predecessors, today’s stories have humour, and a recounting of facts, so far as they can be remembered. But, in contrast, they cast me in an altered light. Rather than a hero, I tend to be a learner who was present at some event or series of events. I am a learner who can look to the past, then to the future and find the hope there. These newer stories are not necessarily perfect, but I like them better. They seem truer, somehow.

Dingfelder, Sadie F. (2011). Our Stories, Ourselves, Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, 42(1) P42. Retrieved from

Sunday, January 16, 2011


I was a bit surprised when, on Boxing Day, my recently acquired son-in-law said, “I guess the Beatles must be your favourite band of all time.” Like I say, I was surprised, and I was about to ask him why he would say such a thing, until I remembered that I had, only the day before, smiled broadly upon opening a box containing the complete collection of Beatle music remastered for stereo. There are hundreds of Beatles songs in that box. I haven’t even heard them all yet and it’s already mid January. No wonder Derek thought he might have discovered my favourite band, even though I denied it. Looking back I think it would be fair to say that Beatle music provided a sound track to my coming of age. I was 7 or 8 when it all got going. When Love Me Do came out as a single, my two older sisters argued over it. One of them was a modern teen-ager, the other a lover of country music. Later on came She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah, and Shake It Up Baby, Twist And Shout. Enough said about that.
There was Beatle music on the jukebox when I drank a milk shake of the metal mixer container at the Lougheed Cafe. There was Beatle music on the speakers at the local skating rink. The Beatles play the Ed Sullivan Show on a Sunday evening while Mom curled my hair and wondered in bafflement what those crazy girls were screaming about.
When, just before my 12th birthday, I went to boarding school in Vancouver, a city with not even one country music station, our dorm literally vibrated with Beatle sounds. Girls swooned over beatle movies. Beatle records orbited their centres day after day after day. We sang You Won’t See Me in four-part harmony in the stairwells. We sang Yesterday in the shower. And one year, during summer vacation, I sang beatle harmonies with a friend named Kim on a stage at the Calgary Stampede.
Strangely though, it wasn’t until I was well on into adulthood that it occurred to me that the Beatles were truly talented. Some songs still played on the radio, beautiful melodies, intriguing lyrics, Fool On The Hill, She Doesn’t Need You, Eleanor Rigby, Penny Lane. These songs were not the sound track of my youth. I had paid them little attention, probably because of their lack of romance.
So here I am, less than a decade away from 64, reading Many Years From Now, an authorized biography of Paul McCartney by Barry Miles. Here’s how they got so many songs. Lennon and McCartney wrote in motel rooms, facing each other on twin beds. Paul is left-handed, John was right-handed. They could easily see each other’s finger positions on guitar. One of them would start with a line, the other would provide a second line. In an hour or two they’d have a song. If they needed an album, or the sound track for a movie, they’d write a song a day until they had it. In between they’d write extra songs. Songs and songs and songs and songs. They wrote them fast and they wrote a lot of them. As they aged, they wrote better songs.
It’s a lot of work to write a song. I think of how much effort has gone into my writing of perhaps four songs in a lifetime, and my heart bursts with admiration for boy/men in their teens and early twenties who could do it in such abundance and generate a few masterpieces in the bargain. And I wonder, if albeit belatedly, I might be exhibiting a moderate case of Beatlemania.

Friday, January 14, 2011


I come to THE HOPE LADY Blog today chastened by the after-effects of having been forced to make a life-and-death decision--not the most serious decision of its kind, you might claim, but important to me nonetheless. Today I once again had to decide whether to kill, or not to kill the 14th phalaenopsis.
Outright phalaenopsis murder is definitely not an act with which I would choose to be associated. But on the other hand, a question nagged: Should I sacrifice Phal14 in the hope of bettering conditions for the other 13? Examining the question from an ethical perspective, it was necessary to explain why Phal14 should be the object of such a deadly consideration. Alas, like so many of life’s difficult hconsiderations, that question had more than one answer. Simply put, it had three answers: yes; no; and maybe.
In support of yes, there was “Yes. There is no reason to sacrifice the health of 13 blooming and almost-blooming orchids for the sake of one small plant that is neither blooming nor in bud. That plant has been keeping company with an unsavory colony of Mealybugs. Mealybugs don’t like to limit their luncheons to a single phalaenopsis. Think of the rest of them! Let it go.”
Supporting the no side there was “No. Why should you kill a perfectly good phalaenopsis? Are you punishing it unfairly? Did it know what it was doing when it allowed the Mealybugs to visit? Surely you cannot claim that you have made every possible effort to restore it to perfection.”
Soon the other stakeholders were adding their voices to the cacophany. “Kill Phal14,” cried Phal1. “And while you’re at it, sterilize the pots. I’ve been blooming here in this window since 2003. Not once have I entertained a Mealybug. Now I am old and vulnerable, my roots exposed, and shrivelling. Would you put me at risk in a possibly fruitless attempt to save the life of this unproven upstart?” I had to admit, it was difficult to argue with anything that Phal1 had said, and I said as much to the assembly. That brought a swift reaction.
“Save Phal14,” cried Phal13. “Look at me. I have Mealybugs, and I’m still blooming. The same can be said of Phal11. Maybe Phal14 can bloom again. Tell me honestly Wendy. Presented with this evidence, what would THE HOPE LADY say?”
And thus, As so often happens, the results of the investigation are not so easily interpreted. You might claim that the no side won, noting that Phal14 was returned to the window after receiving a bath designed to drown the Mealybugs. THE HOPE LADY argument was bound to carry the day. Trust those bleeding-heart liberals to put the whole society at risk for the sake of a few under-achieving whiners.
But actually, the most conclusive evidence shows that the maybe side won for sure. Bloomless Phal14 escaped by the skin of its leaves, while its blooming and almost-blooming neighbours, having also succumbed to the temptation of inviting guests to dinner, received a somewhat more charitably administered Mealybug-drowning bath. Bleeding-heart liberal I may be, but I still prefer to help those who help themselves.
“Bloom!” I warned Phal14, checking the underside of one last leaf for that telltale stickiness. “The Mealybugs are hiding somewhere, waiting for dessert. If your future is in my hands, evidence of a future blossom could be the one thing that eventually saves your life.”

Sunday, January 09, 2011


I’ve been hiding out for most of the day—doing simple things—listening to the radio, a bit of laundry, a bit of cleaning, reading, having lunch, calling my sister and planning what it is that I will say if anybody asks me why I wasn’t at church.
Maybe I’ll say, “Well, we’ve been awfully busy, you know.” And then again, maybe I won’t say that. When I start saying that, I’ll remember that we haven’t had any company since last Wednesday night when I hosted the after-Christmas party for the Hope Foundation staff. I’ll remember that I was home all day Friday and much of Saturday. So I don’t think I’ll mention being busy, just in case anybody asks what I was doing.
Maybe I’ll blame it on the weather. That will be an easy sell, given the road reports coupled with the fact that Lawrence and David spent so much of the weekend relocating snow amid the wintry blast that obliterated their footprints before the shovels could be stowed in the garage. But then, how will I explain the fact that I waved a cheerful good-bye to Lawrence as he left for work on this same miserable morning? Perhaps the weather ought not to be mentioned. Some other explanation will have to be made.
Maybe I could imply that I was ill—believable with so many people coughing—albeit a blatant lie. After all, I am a Canadian, and I read recently that many Canadians report going to church more often than they actually go. But then, I didn’t count myself among that exaggerating crowd. “I don’t have to lie about it,” I declared sanctimoniously. Perhaps I won’t lie.
The truth—when you get right down to it—is that—despite the drifted roads and icy corners--we had fully intended to go to church today. We were up in plenty of time. We were more or less ready. And then, to our surprise, we had a change of plan. We decided to stay home. We skipped church today because we could. To be more clear, we could skip without causing a panic. David had made no commitments. I had made no commitments. Although somebody might have missed me, and wondered where I was, nobody was counting on me to unlock a door, or play the music, or sing a solo, or hold up a part in the choir. And this was unusual, because, in general, unless I have given notice of an impending absence, I do have a job that people are expecting me to do. And so I thought that—just this once—I could skip church without giving notice to anybody—just skip church and stay home on a whim without a pang of conscience. Obviously, I was wrong about the pang of conscience.
Church, it seems, is different things to different people. To some it is a place to go on Christmas Eve, a nostalgic experience to sample once in a while. To others, church is a place for weddings, funerals and baptisms. For some it’s a place to express a deep faith, for others a place to meet people. For me, church is a community—Sunday mornings and other times as well.
There’s a benefit to being part of a community. We all need communities—places to make a contribution, places where we are valued. Communities give something to us, and the more we give, the more we are missed. There’s a downside to communities also. We have to get up on snowy mornings and show up to do whatever it is that we promised to do. And there’s that paradoxical relationship we have with those communities to which we are most firmly connected. Sigh as we might about the energy they take from us, we miss ourselves in their midst when they meet without us.
And now that I’ve said all this, it is time to admit that I really don’t know what I’ll say if anybody mentions that they did not see me in church today. But—even though the sense of freedom to stay at home has proven to be decidedly delicious--I just might be a little perturbed if nobody notices.

Friday, January 07, 2011

janusian thinking on a friday morning

A new idea came to me today.
Okay, I confess, it wasn’t exactly new. It’s been around for a while. But somehow it missed me, which is probably a good thing, given how much it delights me to be discovered by new ideas. New ideas make the world an interesting place in which to live. When boredom sets in, I try to believe there are a lot of them out there, careening through the universe, bouncing randomly off people the way you do when you’re on a mission and have to thread your way through a crowd of bystanders. If I stand by long enough, a new idea will surely come by. Some days it actually happens.
Today’s new-to-me idea is janusian thinking. It is, according to Albert Rothenberg, the researcher who coined the term, the first step in a creative process that has launched the most important discoveries made by some of the world’s most respected scientists and Nobel prize winners.
Janusian thinking is the act of bringing together opposite or conflicting ideas. Creativity begins when we bring such ideas together, watch how they tangle with each other, and stick around to move things along based on what we observe.
Now that I have a term to describe the process, there are a host of ways I could put it to use. I could, for example, think about how it applies at work.
I can confidently report that we hope counsellors witness a lot of janusian thinking. In fact, our work often begins with the act of setting the process in motion. A woman is visiting my office for the first time. She’s got too many kids and not enough money. She works at a low-paying job and on her day off she’s so depressed she can hardly get out of bed. Some days she doesn’t. The future—when she sees it--is blacker than an inky see. It does her no good to look at it, so she doesn’t look. And yet, here am I, stirring the pot.
“What are you hoping for?” I ask. “Tell me in some sentences that start with ‘I hope’.”
The answer comes in a millisecond. It is right on the tip of her tongue. “I don’t hope for anything,” she declares hotly. “I have no hope.” And you’d think she’d jump right out of that chair and march out in a rage. Imagine a counsellor having the gall to ask such a thing!
But even as she says she has no hope, you can hear that she doesn’t like the sound of it. There’s something about declaring a situation hopeless that wakes people up and starts them thinking. So she doesn’t get up and flounce out the door after all. She sits right there waiting for me to do something. And I do do something. I wait for her to say one more thing. She says, “I haven’t thought about what I’m hoping for.”
Now there’s some janusian thinking. I know I have no hope, but I haven’t thought about it.
Next thing I know, she’s thinking about it. “Well,” she says, “I suppose I hope my children will be happy when they grow up.”
Now something wonderful is happening. We’re talking about the future. Miracles, the future we are talking about is different from the present. Something has changed. In this future her children are grown up.
More janusian thinking. At this point we have the interaction of three conflicting ideas. There is no hope, she hasn’t thought about hope, and there is a hope that her children will grow up happy. Only a moment ago, no hope was the only available possibility. Now it’s got stiff competition. Give this thing a few more minutes, a little more thought, and we won’t be talking about hopelessness any more. We may not even remember that we started there.
It’s easy to give examples of janusian thinking at work. I could give you twenty right now. But it’s Friday. I don’t work on Fridays. So I’ll move on to a discussion of things I do on Fridays.
Just this morning I engaged in some janusian thinking. “There will be no blogging today,” I said to myself. “There is absolutely nothing to write. I have no ideas.”
But alas, the very act of saying it set me to wondering about the truthfulness of the situation. After all, I had just learned about janusian thinking.

Rothenberg, A. (1990). Creativity & madness: New findings and old stereotypes. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Thursday, January 06, 2011


Here I am planning, as I do every so often, a talk on hope for people who work in palliative care
And here I sit, before a computer, wondering how to approach the idea that patients, families and staff may harbour incongruous hopes
And here it is, a channel to hope that all of us can share
Named by a poet in the symbolic language of the 21st century.


”Heck, if I ran the web, you could email dead people.
They would not email you back --
but you'd get an automated reply.
Their name in your inbox --
it's all you wanted anyway.
And a message saying, "Hey, it's me. I miss you.
Listen, you'll see being dead is dandy.”

Tuesday, January 04, 2011


G.F. Watts painted a painting.
Some viewed the painting and called it DESPAIR.
Watts, who had painted it, called it HOPE.

Hope then, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
HOPE by G.F. Watts