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Wise words from Kent Hoffman

Spokane psychotherapist Kent Hoffman shared some “Wise Words in Troubled Times” for The Spokesman-Review series of the same name in an interview, followed up by several e-mails. Here’s what he said:

  • I’m a psychotherapist who works primarily with parents and infants with a strong emphasis on working with at-risk families. I have a current working theory on what makes life work and what makes it fall apart and it all has to do with how we deal with vulnerability. If we are feeling vulnerable and alone, we tend to fall apart. But if we can share that vulnerability, we actually get stronger.
  • When you bring together uncompromising reality and an experience of the sacred — grace, community, an experience of shared kindness or care, any of those words are interchangeable for me — then you have the chance to experience what life is all about.
  • Uncompromising reality is something we can’t wiggle out of. Something difficult where we realize we’re in over our heads. It can be a chronic illness, a terminal illness, the breakup of a family, the loss of employment, alcoholism, a variety of things. When we are faced with something we can’t change, regardless of our vain attempts to make it different, and we do it all alone, then we do hit a wall and fall apart.
  • When you can’t wiggle out of it, and you seek the support you most need, really remarkable good things can happen. I see it happen all the time. A good example: Alcoholics Anonymous. The people who do well belong to AA. Their uncompromising reality is that they are alcoholics. When they bring that together with a sense of asking for and seeking the grace they need, remarkable things happen in terms of community.
  • In our economic hard times we are facing issues that are too big for us. When that vulnerability happens that we try not make happen finally has to be acknowledged, that’s where the light gets in. That’s where things begin to change. The devastation we desperately try our whole lives to stay away from is sometimes the thing we most need to experience in order to find why we are here.
  • We felt like a 21st century version of Rome (before the recession). The shared values increasingly moved in the direction of acquiring more things and climbing higher. The fall was coming. We were becoming increasingly arrogant about our sense of entitlement about what we needed, how much we needed and we needed it immediately.
  • Now we are in the aftermath of the fall. The sad truth is that many people being hurt were poor already. I continue to see people who are being devastated by this crash. But I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a better example of community than I see among those who are considered poor.
  • As bad as this has been, we’ve been forced to reach out. That’s what vulnerability requires, whether it’s physical or emotional illness or economic illness. We either reach out or we go under.

  • Vulnerability is pain that is beyond our current capacity to experience without the help of outside resources. Uncompromising reality is reality that won’t give. I know so many alcoholics who try to be social drinkers, but they finally realize they can’t do it. That’s uncompromising reality.
  • The answer is to be found in shared vulnerability, in working together. Some individuals can do remarkable things on their own, but I don’t think that’s a great model, and I don’t think it’s been a great model throughout history.
  • I have a number of friends who are vets from Vietnam, and some people I’ve worked with who went to Iraq, and what they talk about is uncompromising reality in the time of war and the one thing that gets them through is the camaraderie they experience with their buddies. There was an article years ago “Why Men Love War.” It isn’t that they want to kill, it’s that this is how they get to experience vulnerability, because we as men are not invited to experience vulnerability. It’s considered a weakness. But we find the deepest meaning in our lives when we finally go to that place and we find community in that.
  • When things get tough, we need to know we’re not alone. Mental and emotional health is based on the ability to be in a relationship in a successful way. There is no one on the planet who is emotionally healthy who does not have a way of negotiating relationships in a healthy way. We require a sense of connection to deal with difficult experience. My definition of intimacy in a marriage is shared vulnerability, two people who can experience need together and experience difficulty together. It’s true with children and parents. Secure attachment is a child being able to bring a need to a parent and have it listened to. That’s the common denominator in all secure attachments. When we have really difficult times, we feel pain and we feel alone and anything that allows us to feel we’re not alone will be a healthy step to take.
  • If I am participating in, or seeing other people, be kind to one another, caring for one another, honoring one another — especially in the midst of vulnerability — that will inspire me and let me realize I’m connected to the human family.
  • There’s a huge shift when we move from living in a world where we are always thinking of my pain to being aware that everybody has a similar pain, so it’s our pain. Every semester at Gonzaga I do a 3X5 card exercise. On the first day of class, I have the students write down the message you have in your head telling you that you’re not OK, or that you’re not acceptable. I give them five minutes to do it and I read them out loud and every time, it’s as if they all wrote the same message: You’re not attractive enough. No one will ever love you. You always push people away. No wonder people don’t pay attention to you. Invariably what they say is “I didn’t think anybody else had that message. I thought I was all alone. I will never look at my fellow classmates the same way again. I thought I was the only one walking down the hall hearing that message, but I’m looking around seeing all these successful students and they say they have the same message?” That one exercise is what they remember more than anything else in the entire class. There’s a sense that everyone shares difficulty. We’re not alone in this, after all.
  • There’s a story of the Buddha. A woman came to him. Her baby died who was 3 months old. She wouldn’t put it down. She carried it for weeks, even though it was putting everyone off. She said, “Make my baby live.” He said, “I can’t do that. I can give you the seed to finding peace in the midst of this difficulty. Go get a teaspoon of coriander from every family that’s not had a death in the family. Bring back three teaspoons of coriander and we’ll make the elixir. She goes to family after family, and every family she meets, there’s been death in the family and tragedy. She comes back and says, “I am not alone after all.” She can bury the baby. If we think we are the only ones suffering, that makes us suffer the most. One definition of suffering is “pain without a sense of connection.”
  • There’s lots of insomnia out there now. Anxiety and depression have one thing in common: Fear without a sense of resolution. What that really means is a sense of hopeless that is projected into the future. If you are prone to anxiety, your hopelessness says it won’t get better. If you’re prone to depression, you think it never was that good and now it’s just going to get worse. Insomnia coincides with both anxiety and depression. You can have it with either. I’ve never met a person who is dealing with hopelessness who isn’t fundamentally dealing with a sense of being alone. It’s at the crux of all hopelessness. I say this as a psychotherapist with an analytic background which means I’ve often seen people several times a week for years and you’d go down into the hopelessness they feel. It’s always about being alone. To wake up in the middle of the night, or not to be able to go to sleep, is to ruminate on “I can’t see an answer to this problem and I’m alone in it. It’s up to me to save my family.” If people follow it to its conclusion they see things getting worse and being alone in it.
  • So the cure for insomnia, anxiety, depression is always some sense of connection with another person or a community of persons or a spiritual context. I often wake up now with anxiety. I have an anxiety disorder. I’ve had it since I was a child. It’s biologically based, but boy does it show up in all kinds of ways. What’s allowed me to work with that is a spiritual context in which I experience the world as loving. I experience a loving God who I tap into through prayer. In the middle of the night, I do it through breathing exercises. I breathe very slowly into my belly, to a count of four, and breathe out to a count of four. Sometimes I say the name “Abba” which means “Daddy.” I lay there and I do that for an hour until I drift back to sleep. In my past, when I didn’t know how to do that, my anxiety would increase and I moved toward panic. But now I move down into a sense of connectedness and it resolves for that particular night.
  • What I would hope for every reader is an authentic experience of spiritual connection, not something from the top down. I have a very hard time with organized religion that focuses more on behavior and right versus wrong than on tenderness and love. I think God is first and foremost loving us. I don’t experience God as judgmental. A Pew study showed that six in 10 white Christians in the U.S. favor torture. But among non-church-goers – four in 10 do. Spiritual practice invites us deeper into our shared suffering rather than into protecting ourselves from future suffering. I have a hard time when religion is here to shore up the status quo.
  • When people are looking for a spiritual life, it’s hard to recommend where to find that. I’d start with prayer, though. I was at a Trappistine monastery in California once in awhile. I was there once for an extended period of time. I asked this nun I had gotten to know well. I said, “If you could say what you’ve learned in the 30 years you’ve been here, what would it be?” She said, “Ask. Just ask. Ask God for what you need. And then just wait and trust.” Now, that’s a big order. To ask is to be vulnerable. If we’re trying to be self-sufficient — as a culture we’ve tried to do that, we’ve tried to have all the accoutrements associated with success and fortune — that’s all a move away from asking. It’s needing not to ask. It’s just having. That’s why the level at which we’ve been living the last several decades cannot be sustained. We are now facing a time where we have to reach out and ask — our neighbor, our larger community and then, ultimately, God.
  • The most important thing I learned in all my clinical training was from my first clinicals professor, Frank W. Kimper (professor of clinical psychology at School of Theology at Claremont) who said every person you meet has one thing in common. They have infinite worth. The moment he used that phrase — I had never heard it before I was; I was 21 years old — my life shifted in a way it’s never shifted back from. Every person you meet has infinite worth. They have that in common. There is no one worth more or less. Kindness is seeing and responding to the infinite worth in another. It’s recognizing that this person has needs and is probably carrying a battle I may not know about. But maybe I’m seeing a hint of it in a struggle they are having and my willingness and great gratitude in being able to respond to that in some way that will be helpful.
  • There’s this great statement from the songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen that speaks to how I think we need to approach hard times and any experience of crisis: Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.

  • What Cohen seems to be saying here is an essential perspective for all of us. I think he’s saying that life on this planet — in good times and bad — always includes imperfection, difficulty, things that aren’t going well. Most of us think this shouldn’t be, that it’s a problem to have problems. We think one of our main tasks in life is to get rid of the imperfect or the difficult or painful aspects of life. As it turns out, having difficulty and pain isn’t the problem, instead it’s thinking we’re not supposed to have difficulty and pain that’s the real problem. As odd, as counterintuitive as it sounds, it’s actually through our difficulty, our imperfection, our pain — what Cohen calls the “crack in everything” — that the light gets in; that life actually starts making sense.
  • This is where our way of living in this culture of ours actually gets in the way, because we live in a “stop the pain, it never belongs” kind of world. We’ve got 10,000 different ways in our everyday world designed to either kill pain or distract us from what’s actually uncomfortable. We’re all about convenience and pleasure and winning and being the best — the best country, the best religion, the best family. What we don’t see is that we live with a burden that is disguising itself as “good fortune.” We live in a wealthy, highly materialistic society, that gives us the illusion that we’re experiencing the miracle of endless choice. What is much harder to recognize, until moments of crisis like the one we’re now living in, is how addictive and empty many of these choices actually are. New cars, new hair colors, new clothes, new technology, new ideas — all with the promise of giving us happiness. The weird thing is that each new “thing” gives us the hope of getting closer to what we know — deeper down — we’re still missing. Sadly, like all addiction, we never actually arrive. One of my favorite theologians, Ronald Rolheiser, calls this “the insufficiency of all things attainable.” We can never get enough of what we don’t really need.
  • But suddenly, here we are in a crisis. Whether it’s economic, physical, or psychological — most of us, if not all of us, eventually hit the wall. What we’re doing is slamming into what might be called uncompromising reality, something that just won’t budge. It could be depression, it could be anxiety or insomnia, cancer, chronic pain, unemployment, or realizing that our family life really sucks. Our culture tells us these things are an intrusion in our lives, something to get beyond as soon as possible. From my perspective, our culture is wrong.
  • So here’s an equation: Uncompromising reality and an experience of the sacred, defined as each person would choose to define it, opens our lives into a new dimension, the one we’ve been looking for all along. Anyone who’s a part of Alcoholics Anonymous or who has cancer and is now part of a cancer support group knows exactly what I’m talking about here. For the rest of us, this may take some explaining. When I use a term like sacred, I mean “shared vulnerability” or what those in 12-Step programs mean by “community” and “Higher Power.” We’re suddenly talking about a rather hidden dimension in life, but one that I’m quite certain underlies, even holds, every other dimension.

  • As you know, I’m an attachment researcher and clinician, working mostly these days with high risk parents and their infants. What all of the attachment research I know of concludes, and this has been done at hundreds of universities all over the globe, is one simple truth: No one — no infant, no child, no adult — does well without at least one genuine and caring relationship. In all my 37 years in professional work, I have yet to meet one person who is living a healthy life without a sense of connection with at least one other caring being. For many this is another adult or group of adults, and for some it’s a rather remarkable sense of relationship with a loved pet. Either way, there is a bond of love that is real and it makes all the difference in that person’s life.
  • It’s this sense of belonging, of loving and being loved, knowing and being known that I’m trying to get at when I use a word like sacred. I’m not talking about belonging to a church or believing in God in a way prescribed by any particular religion. I’m talking about our deepest hardwiring, which I’ve come to see as a need for safe and caring connection. (The word religion, by the way, comes from the Latin term for “re-connection.”) When we’re genuinely and safely connected — this has been proven time and again by thousands of attachment studies with infants and adults — we are secure. To the degree that we’re disconnected we’re increasingly insecure.
  • Sadly, the path we’ve been on in this highly materialistic society has been increasingly busy, increasingly financially oriented, competitively focused on getting more and on winning as a way to find happiness. We’ve got money channels, food channels, sports channels all over TV. We don’t have any “What do I do when the (stuff) the fan” channels! This blind consumerism in not only insufficient, it’s actually destructive. It’s destructive to our emotional lives, our physical lives, and ultimately to the life of our planet. What I think we all know, intuitively, is that it actually isn’t working. No one has ever sat up on their deathbed exclaiming how they wish they’d gone to more meetings at the office or acquired more toys. I’ve been with so many people at the end of their lives and they are either grateful for the loving connections they’ve experienced and are now feeling loved by, or they’re filled with remorse for how they’ve squandered this one precious life they’ve been given. It’s this quality of genuine connection that I am talking about when I use a word like sacred.
  • What’s this got to do with hard times? Hard times throw us up against the inevitable hardship of life, up against uncompromising reality. And then we’re given a real sense of choice, genuine option for change, a different kind of choice. Because in these moments – whether we’ve just been diagnosed with a serious illness or we’ve just lost our job or a bunch of our retirement funds — the brutal truth of reality suddenly brings us up against many of our well-learned patterns of self-sufficiency. Our John Wayne culture says “The best way, the honorable way, is to do it on your own.” We so prize the “buck up, get over it, quite whining” approach to life. On the surface it seems to work, because we can always put icing or true grit over pain and think it’s gone. Psychologically, the pain doesn’t disappear. It just gets shoved out of sight where it continues to fester and cause problems. In a time of crisis, we can either choose to keep believing this tired and unproductive view of things or we can make a conscious choice to try something that will support us as we face the pain directly.
  • All around us in this community there are people who know just what I’m talking about. They belong to an Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous group, or they’ve found an MS or cancer support group, or a regular gathering for those helping loved ones with Alzheimer’s. They’re facing a horrible “crack” in things that they wish we’re so and they’re reaching out for the help they need from others.
  • When we mix our current experience of being slammed up against some uncompromising reality and our willingness to find others with a similar struggle, then the resulting sharing of pain and struggle — this is how the light gets in.
  • Examples of random acts of kindness and growing compassion:

    I was at Rosauers on 14th and Lincoln last week and the cashier said the usual “You have a nice day.” But it actually wasn’t the usual perfunctory message. I had the strong sense that he really meant it. I think it was the way he emphasized the word “you.” In a heart beat I felt his sincerity and his real caring. It was meant personally for me and for each person he was greeting in that way. I walked out of the story feeling blessed.

    A priest friend of mine recently said to his congregation: “You matter and you matter absolutely.” In about four seconds I had the sense that the entire message of every religion on the planet had just been uttered. His statement wasn’t random; it was remarkably intentional. At the same time, I’ll bet it echoed in hundreds of hearts in ways that he’ll never know. A brief moment in time that somehow opened many of us to what it means to experience the sacred.

    At Crosswalk, I work with street dependent teen moms — all with lives that feel broken and lost to some degree. They’re each burdened in huge ways by the uncompromising reality of being young, poor, broken emotionally, and now with a young life to care for. Recently in a group session a mom — not yet 18 — was talking about how her family had never really wanted her. The room was filled with her sadness as she spoke. Another parent, from a similar background, quietly said: “But we want you. You belong here with us.” The look of amazement and gratitude in the first mom’s face as she let that statement sink in will probably always stay with those of us who were in that room.

    A staff member at a local agency I’m associated with recently took a 10 hour per week cut in pay so that another colleague wouldn’t have to be laid off.

    I have a friend who has several children who always seemed troubled when they saw homeless people asking for money on street corners. He didn’t want to give the street person money, but he didn’t want to just dismiss them by staring straight ahead as if they weren’t there. So he went to Costco and bought a case of canned chili, and keeps it in the back seat. Then, whenever he would stop at a light he’d reach back and grab a can of chili and hand it to the person. The response has often been one of surprise and real gratitude.

    Not long ago the mother of one of my teenage clients was talking to me after a session. She’s actually a very successful businessperson here in town, and she’s been literally brought to her knees by what she’s now experiencing with her daughter. She said “I used to look at everybody I saw and assume they were getting by just fine, you know, doing fine like I thought our family was doing. Now, every time I meet someone, I wonder if they aren’t also struggling, really trying to find their way. We all carry a lot of pain we don’t let people know about. I’m just so much different now, I’ve got so much more compassion for everyone than I ever used to have.”

  • I’d be telling less than my full truth if I didn’t include in this definition of sacred a sense of what we often refer to as “God.” As I’ve said before, I don’t think God belongs to anyone — no particular religion or group or faith. I do believe that if we’re fortunate we finally wake up to how we’ve always been held within the love of God.
  • So, when I’m talking about coming up against uncompromising reality and then in our vulnerability reaching out for connection, this included the whole realm of the sacred that I’ve come to believe is always available, always with us, whether we’re aware of it or not. At several key crises in my life, including when I was diagnosed with cancer, I’ve reached the limits of my capacity to make sense of things. Uncompromising reality has become truly overwhelming. What has gotten me through in those tough times has been my eventual willingness to reach out and ask God for help, knowing I just couldn’t make it within my current skill set. And here’s the good news. Every time I’ve matched uncompromising reality with this Presence that is deeper than my current abilities, transforming options have appeared. Someone hands me a book or e-mails an article or just drops by to say hello in a way that helps me know I’m not alone. I have to keep my eyes open to the hints and clues that start showing up, but they always show up.
  • Since I’ve had my cancer there are many nights I now wake up anxious about its return. In those moments I can’t begin to describe the gift of simple, slow breathing — bringing my fear into a deeper sense of Tender Care. Knowing I’m not alone in precisely the places I’m afraid that I am is the transformation that, at least for me, is most needed.
  • The writer Henry James once said something I’ve never forgotten: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”
  • Kindness seems to be the practical face of the sacred. It’s the way we let the mystery and grace of the sacred enter our everyday lives. Little moments, sometimes as small as a smile to a passing stranger or a brief note or phone call to a grieving friend, unexpected moments where the gift we’re all looking for in all of our busyness suddenly arrives, gratis, for free, here for the giving, here for the receiving.
  • I often wish I had a big answer that would solve the problems of the world. I don’t. What I’m coming to realize is the hidden power of the little acts of kindness that are going on already. Yes, there are thousands of horrific events happening every day. But underneath all of that is a fabric that often goes unnoticed, nourishing and sustaining and holding us. That fabric is the sacred. It’s larger and deeper than we dare imagine. And, in part, it manifests through so many of us all the time — countless times each day, all the world over.
  • There’s a traditional understanding in Asian thought that says “picking and choosing is a sickness of the mind.” I think this is getting at how we want everything good and nothing bad. It’s just human nature. A spiritual perspective asks us to consider another way of looking at things because in every spiritual tradition that I know of we are being asked to trust, regardless of our external conditions. I don’t think accessing the sacred is a way of stopping bad things from happening. I think it’s about finding a sense of connection and necessary resource no matter what’s happening. For me, it’s a way of trusting that God’s presence is deeper than my current experiences of either happiness or suffering.

  • I have this daily prayer that goes something like this: “God, in this moment I don’t know how you are at work in my life. I don’t need to. What I do need is to trust that you are here with me in ways deeper than my knowing. Help me, this day, to rest in your tender care and renewing presence in every circumstance I meet.”
  • I can’t tell you how essential that perspective is for me. As someone with an anxiety disorder, it grounds me moment to moment. Over the years I’ve come to trust that regardless of what our anxious minds tell us, we are never alone. We are always loved. We are always held by a love much larger than we could possibly imagine.
  • No matter who we are, life is filled with inevitable experiences of uncompromising reality: illness, death, loss, heartbreak – all those circumstances we just can’t wish away. The (stuff) is going to hit the fan for all of us, guaranteed. From my experience, the dividing line is between those of us who come up against these events and have them once again confirm that we’re all alone, thus validating an underlying despair that’s always just below the surface. The other option is to face these same circumstances, including our despair, and somehow finding a way to reach out for the support that we’re hardwired to find. No one does well in this life all on their own. No one. Finding an experience of connection and resource that is deeper than our suffering is, from my perspective, an essential step for every one of us.