Life Lessons Learned Over Coffee

I don’t always know where my life lessons or inspirations are going to come from. Sometimes they come from an article or a good book. Other times they occur while I’m at work or on vacation, when my thoughts seem to focus on the complexities of life. This time my inspiration came from a friend as we were heading to our children’s school for a special event. We were chatting about this and that (as we often do), when she said something that really struck a chord in me. In my friend’s authentic, heartfelt way, she said, “I really want everyone to get what they want.”

I believe I responded with a surprising, “Really?!”

To which she replied, “Really! I really do!”

Now, if this comment had come from anyone else, I might have questioned its genuineness. But in this case, I knew my friend, and I knew I could trust the honesty of her words. She is truly a unique individual — unique in the best possible way. I knew we had to meet again, so I could learn more about how she could be so emotionally generous and be so non-competitive — traits I find particularly appealing. I quickly emailed her to let her know how she inspired me, and told her I’d like to meet up with her and learn more about her impressive philosophy. Funny enough, she had no idea what she could possibly have said to inspire my enthusiastic response.

Ellie (not her actual name) is a true bohemian in the best possible sense of the word. She’s smart, artistically gifted and definitely walks through life in her own distinct and charismatic way. She has friends who are very famous and very wealthy and friends who are not. To her, what other people have materially or do not have makes no difference to the quality of her life. She takes pride in her friends’ successes regardless of what’s happening to her personally. She will openly admit if something is beyond the comfort zone of her wallet as easily and effortlessly as most people talk about the weather. There’s no shame, no guardedness and perhaps most impressively, no status anxiety. In a consumer and status driven world, especially so in New York City, this trait is both special and rare.

We decided to meet for an early morning coffee. I explained to my friend that I needed to find out the secrets behind her ability to live such a generous and envy-free life. When I posed the question to her, she admitted she may not have thought this way or have been such a well-wisher 25 years ago, but over the years, there was something about knowing herself and coming into her own which helped her hone this particular approach to life. I was ready to soak in whatever insights she was ready to share. Although I consider myself a pretty good person, I can’t honestly say I don’t have my moments of feeling competitive or envious. Ellie talked about how she didn’t want what other people had. She doesn’t want “their stuff” as she put it. She wants what she wants, so other people’s lives and what they have or don’t have, have little effect on her life. In fact, sometimes knowing the intimate details, like who earns or owns what, just feels like additional mental clutter to her which she doesn’t want or need. Ellie is able to make this boundary between other people and herself. I just had to ask her,

“What happens when someone does have what she wants?” What then? This must happen sometimes?” I inquired. She agreed that every so often she is aware of those people who seem to be extraordinarily beautiful and blessed or those individuals who seem to have things come so easily and effortlessly, but instead of focusing on this aspect of reality, she instead notices something else equally as true: Life goes by in a flash. This uber awareness of the speed of time helps her to appreciate how special and important the present moment can be. She knows what’s special about her life and realizes these moments may not last forever. She has trained herself to appreciate what’s good about her life in the moment.

“Focusing on what other people have or don’t have,” she said, “has nothing to do with me creating what I want in my life.”

I certainly could appreciate what she was saying. The truth is, other people who have whatever it is they have, aren’t taking anything away from what we have or what we could have. Each person has the opportunity to create more of the life they want to live. It reminds me of a quote said, by the late, great Audrey Hepburn:

“Pick the day. Enjoy it — to the hilt. The day as it comes. People as they come… The past, I think, has helped me appreciate the present, and I don’t want to spoil any of it by fretting about the future.”
— Audrey Hepburn

The bottom line is, like Audrey Hepburn, Ellie doesn’t want to waste her life being a bitter person. And why would she? Why would anyone want to waste their time living in perpetual pain or victim-hood? So as our coffee break ended, I decided to ask just a couple of final questions.

“How do you handle other people’s judgments about you? And how do you handle the snobs who cross your path?”

Ellie answered with a self-assured ease, “Well, that’s not my problem. That’s really their problem, isn’t it?” Point well-taken!

Although I can’t say I am as evolved as my friend is, not yet anyway, one of the many pleasures of living in New York City is being surrounded by so many smart and multi-dimensional women who inspire me. The truth is, life has challenges no matter who you are or what others seem to have. To let out of control envy or competitiveness rob us of our ability to enjoy our lives would be an unfortunate waste of precious time. If we can stop our ego from getting in the way, I bet more of us could adopt what I consider to be my friend’s advanced way of being in the world.

The bottom line is we need to train ourselves to be grateful for the blessings in our lives, appreciate the gifts of being in the moment even if they are difficult and then learn how to work hard to create more of the life we want to create. If we can learn how to do this, I think life can be a lot more, meaningful, fun and truly more enjoyable.

But I’m Not Ready For The Two of You to Divorce Yet!

My son recently came back after spending the day with one of his closest friends. He had this look in his eyes that said, “I have something interesting to say.”

“Hey, Mom, do you know why my friend has two homes in the city?” he asked with genuine curiosity.

So I came up with one plausible theory, “Maybe one apartment belongs to his grandparents and now the family bought this new apartment for themselves?”

My son always seems to be interested in life’s stories, so the conversation up until this point wasn’t so unusual.

Then he made this great reveal, “No, that’s not it! I know why. It’s because his parents are separating. They’re no longer living together!”

I responded with great surprise, “Are you sure? Don’t spread rumors that aren’t true!” I obviously was in denial over this news. I don’t tend to believe unsubstantiated rumors, but I have to admit, I was more then a little shocked. As psychotherapist specializing in relationships, I’m the first to understand that you never know what is really going on in other people’s marriages, but this couple looked so happy and well suited for each other. Although I didn’t know the couple as a couple intimately, they always looked so together. When you walked into their apartment, a huge wedding photo of the two of them hung prominently in the foyer. The husband was a very handsome and successful professional; he was also a great dad. He’s the type of man people find appealing. His wife was equally as impressive and attractive and always a lot of fun to be around. She’s successful in her own right, holding down a cool, high powered job in TV. Their two children were as adorable as they were well behaved. I found myself thinking, WOW! Is this really it for them? The thought truly saddened me.

Now it’s my sad response that caught me by surprise. I had no right to feel sad for this couple. For all I know, this is the best decision for everyone involved, but I guess the romantic in me wasn’t so sure this was the best decision for them. I had this gnawing feeling that maybe this decision was a bit premature. Could it be that we as a culture give up on marriage and each other too easily? We are a society who likes convenience, ease, and expediency. When things stop being easy, we find ourselves wanting more or wanting out. We want to move on to the next best thing. After all, aren’t we entitled to be happy and to have the best life has to offer? Do we feel we are settling for less when our relationships stop offering us this sexy or gratifying experience?

What happens in marriage that some of us so quickly want to give up on them verses work on them? Is it our notion about love and what love should feel or look like that confuse things? It was clear to those who knew this couple that they really did love each other once. Is it the discovery about who we really marry verses the fantasy of who we thought we were marrying that gets us in the end? If we’re being honest with ourselves, do we really work hard enough to sort through our marital issues to get through them and reach the other side of unsatisfied? When you ask couples who have been together a long time and have experienced the natural vicissitudes of marriage, they often say how happy they are to have stuck it out and how worth it was for them to work through the tough times. Maybe my reaction was simply a matter of me not being ready for this couple to go their separate ways? I wanted them to give it another try, because they still seemed to have so much promise.

I have no idea what the future holds for these two people. Maybe they will both find other partners and be happy they made the choice to go their separate ways. But it still leaves me with the question, are we a culture that gives up on our life partners too soon? Do we peter out along the way and tell ourselves we married the wrong person and a better partner has got to be out there somewhere, hopefully not too far away. Clearly, there are no right answers here, really just more questions than anything else. But it’s certainly worth some serious consideration. Perhaps our notions of love and marriage cause us to give up prematurely on relationships that with a little more faith, effort, and reason could really stand the test of time.

To Spank or Not to Spank, That Is the Question!

In the middle of a popular New York City toy store stood a very tearful little boy. He looked no more than 5 years old as he increased his tearful pleas. The young dad bent down and unsuccessfully tried to reason with his increasingly disgruntled son, who at this point turned up his already loud screams as he threatened his father to buy this very expensive toy for him.

The young son (let’s call him Sam) screamed, “If you don’t get me this toy, then I’m not going to talk to you, and I’m not going to sleep in your bed anymore!”

While the bed issue is a topic for another article, Sam’s father trying, in an unnaturally calm, saccharine and weak state, to reason theoretically with his impulsive, temper-infused son was clearly not working.

“Sam,” said the dad, “this is a very expensive store, and your birthday is right around the corner, so now is just not the right time to get you this kind of gift.”

Sam, for his part, wasn’t having any of it, so his threats against his father continued — relentlessly. He stood his ground and wasn’t having any of his father’s logic. He simply continued with his own verbal diatribe.

“Then I’m not going to love you or talk to you anymore!”

I really had to remove myself from this scene or I would have been in serious danger of putting in my two cents, which would have been an unwise move, because I give psychological analyses on national TV.

My impulse, however, was to talk on behalf of this dad and say, “Is this a promise? You won’t talk to me anymore?” (How about starting now?!) I found the father equally infuriating. This child didn’t need to be given reason; he needed parameters. One could even argue that he needed a firm hand in this instance. Sometimes, children push so hard because they need to know their limits and, on some level, want those limits to be enforced.

My thoughts wandered back to a moment in my psychoanalytical training when a fellow student, a father, spoke with much sadness and regret over spanking his daughter when she was a child. His child had recently told him how emotionally damaging this was for her. I was quite shocked by his daughter’s extreme upset, because I was a child who was spanked all the time! My fellow classmate, this remorseful father, was very surprised as I talked fondly and humorously about my childhood memories of getting spanked. He was very surprised that I didn’t feel particularly scarred by these physical punishments — not at all! I explained to him that I felt very loved by my parents, even as they were intermittently exasperated by me and felt the need show this feeling by a spanking. Who knows? Maybe I even deserved it back then.

Now, as the parent of two children ages 9 and 12, I don’t choose to embrace my parents’ physical style of punishment. Each of my children may have been spanked once in their lives, once when my son slapped me across the face, and once when my daughter was very young, completely out of control and in real need of some major limit-setting. Since then, time-outs, strong verbal limit-setting and a sense of humor seem to do the trick for them and their blessed temperaments, which is not from my side of the family, to be sure!

Do I believe in spanking? No, not really, but when carried out in a thoughtful way and not out of parental angst, spanking can work as an effective disciplining tool with certain types of children. However, I don’t think reasoning with an unreasonable 5-year-old who is threatening not to love you or talk to you unless you buy him the whim of the moment is the right way to go, either.

This child needed some firm comments from his father, such as, “Stop your begging, you’re not getting this toy, and you’re not to threaten me, either. You are not going to get this toy at this time, and we are leaving this store — now!

The entire point of setting limits is to prepare our children for the world they will live in. If they do not get discipline from their parents who love and care for them the most, then they will get it from far harsher people in the world that they will have to learn to navigate, and that could prove to be a very unpleasant experience.

Setting limits in a strong and effective way is loving your children, and on a certain level, your kids know that, too. They realize that parents who care enough about them to stand up to them and set limits are mature adults doing their parental job: providing love, care and preparation for the adult world that their children will one day enter. Parents who do give love along with limits are preparing their kids for life and the real world, which, at times, is not always so loving or easy. As parents, our job is to prepare our kids to live successfully in their personal world as well as in the outside world, which comes complete with rules, regulations and imperfections. And this training begins with us as parents.