On “Winning” Life’s Tragedy Game

A lot of articles about grief tend to pop up around the holidays. If you take a moment to reflect, I think this makes a lot of sense. Holidays can be one of the worst times for emotional wounds, both new and old. That being said, I’ve seen what I consider to be a dangerous trend over the last few years as far as the tone of these articles.

First, I guess I should establish my “street cred.” Oldest of four, we lost my father when I was 18. It was a 5  year battle with a disease called neuro-sarcoidosis, and involved a lot of hospitals. The diagnosis part took several years in and of itself, so it wasn’t a very straight forward battle. It was neither the best, nor worst, of the many stories I’ve subsequently heard.

It probably should be pointed out that, in addition, I’ve gone through a divorce in my twenties, and my mother is a breast cancer survivor. The point of establishing this is to say that I understand grief, struggle, disease, loss, and helplessness on a very intimate basis. You could say we are old friends. But again I state: my life experience is neither the best, nor worst, of the many stories I’ve heard.

As my birthday rolls around, I find myself retrospective, as I often am at this time of year. It is another birthday my father will not see. I will likely celebrate it with my new wife, who my father has never met. He did not see me help coach a team to a state championship in football this past fall. He was not able to witness the Cubs finally winning a World Series. He did not see his youngest daughter, the last of four to begin attending Butler university. He has not been there for the dozens of little marking stones that happened last year, much less the many more that have occurred in the last 13 years.

13 years is a long time.

This is why loss hurts. This is the source of grieving. The fact that you have been robbed of a potential future, a future in which someone important to you existed, is painful whenever you choose to reflect on it. This truth is, this does not get better. It does not go away. You may get better at handling it, but you never really stop grieving.

But what about the whole “dangerous trend?” Right, sorry. I got lost for a moment. That is also something that happens, from time to time.

The thing that bothers me is that the tone of many of these articles seems to adopt the stance of trying to tell everyone else, everyone not in “The Loss Club,” how to treat those of us in the club. What to say. What to do. What not to do. All of that good stuff. And it is all said within the very positive frame of attempting to help those who have not experienced the same sort of loss try to understand. A noble goal, to be sure.

But, here is where I’m going to say something radical: Understanding is a two-way street. My problem with these articles is that, to me, they end up being preachy because while they make a valiant effort at understanding the loss side of things, they completely miss the boat when it comes to understanding the other side. You know, the one where everyone else hasn’t lived your life. I believe that the onus is as much on you to understand where they are coming from, as it is on them to understand you and your grief. Sometimes people express things imperfectly, but with the best of intentions. It is on each of us to look beyond the clumsiness of words and into the intentions and feelings that were meant to be conveyed. That is to say, it is not a one way street; it takes effort on both ends.

Or, to put it another way, I see a lot of it coming down do what I call life’s “tragedy game.” You, Dear Journal, there seems to be this unspoken competition where, unless someone can trump you with a worse life experience, then it’s as if you win and therefore you are in control of the relationship. You are also relieved of the responsibility of understanding them because, hey, your life is worse. They should then cater to you and your feelings because their life is better.

That bothers me. As someone who, for a good while in his life, was very much “winning” at the tragedy game… I don’t ever want to go back there. I’ve since racked up some positive stuff and distance, so my score has probably fallen to levels where I can more easily be “beaten” by others. After all, my losses didn’t continue. My mom survived. I got married again. I’m personally pretty healthy.

But it’s not a game. I don’t ever want to compete with someone for “worst life.” That’s a terrible competition to be part of. This fact has often led me to keeping my mouth shut when others are sharing their stories, for fear of unintentionally trumping them. Like: “I’m sorry to hear all that, but I’ve been through worse.” One of the most frustrating things I often hear from those going through something is: “You just can’t understand.” It is the cleanest, and most effective way to shut someone else out, and when we humans are hurting, that is often what we do.

Look, it is true that everyone experiences loss and grief differently, but there are some common human elements to the experience. I would argue that someone who has experienced a simple heartbreak, like from a high school date, or losing a dumb contest important to them, can absolutely understand loss if they choose to reflect on how they felt. It’s a simple matter of magnitude. Remember how it sucked when you lost and how helpless and scary it might have felt? Perhaps how robbed you felt of something that should have, rightfully, been yours? Magnify that by a lot when it’s someone or something you really loved. Same feelings, different scale. We have all felt sad, helpless, frustrated, scared, and alone sometimes. Loss is a lot like all of those things, except bigger and all together.

You do not need to “win” the tragedy game in order to understand others. It is not always the person who has lost most or the same that can understand best. Mostly, it just takes love and understanding. Effort, on an emotional level. People on both sides of the coin need to be willing to make that effort.

So, to those who have the best of intentions and are always just trying to empathize but feel like they can’t… don’t stop. Don’t let the advice articles or people push you away. Keep trying. Keep trying to empathize and understand, because if it comes from a place of love, love is awesome. You don’t need “street cred” to express love. Keep doing it in the best way you know how and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The world needs more love and understanding, despite the feedback it may be giving you.

And for those of us in the Loss Club, take care that you aren’t stifling the love flowing your way. It can be real easy to think that no one else can truly understand because, frankly, that is probably true. They aren’t you. But it doesn’t mean that no one else without the same experience can love you adequately enough to help. In our grief, we often turn from love, but instead should strive to grasp it with grace. Encourage love to flow as best you can can with whatever scattered shards of your heart you can sweep together. Putting yourself back together after being shattered by loss is one of the hardest things you will ever experience… but life and love does go on.

There are benefits that come out of loss if you choose to find them. Through loss we can gain a renewed appreciation for what it means to live and love. We can learn to harness and cherish the precious time given to us, acknowledging that it can all end unexpectedly. We can strengthen bonds among those that remain. We can bear more of a load on shoulders broadened by trial and adversity. We can recognize that it is better, truly, to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all. We are always better off for love.

Be patient with one another out there. Find the intentions behind words, and forgive one another for never fully understanding. It is such a challenge to truly walk in another’s shoes. Try not to be too critical when someone inevitably falls short, especially if you can tell the attempt is rooted in love. Trust me, it’s something I still struggle with 13 years later, but when I’ve been able to succeed, it is absolutely worth it.

 

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Consider This My Christmas Card

Not really. My wife will be sending real ones. They just may be more like New Years cards this year because we’ve been so busy. Adulting is hard.

I skipped last month, Dear Journal, in part due to the aforementioned busy-ness, but also because I didn’t want to jinx myself. You see, this November may have been the absolute best sporting month ever for me in my 31 year history of sporting months. (Yes, I came out of the womb playing sports. Blame my father.)

First, to start off the month in style, the Cubs broke their 108 year hiatus and won a World Series. I’ll be honest, I was an emotional wreck for a while in there. For a few days afterward, I couldn’t watch recaps without tearing up, which was a huge problem because, you know, world keeps on spinning. I still had to work, and I still had to coach.

Which brings me to awesome thing number the second. My football team, the Westfield Shamrocks, proceeded to win the the 5A state championship for the first time in school history. 1935 is the first  year I can find record of Westfield having a football team (high school records aren’t real great if you go back too far), so let’s just do some friendly rounding and say that, this November, nearly 200 years of non-championships was purged from my sports world. That’s pretty awesome, and to have really been a part of making the second one happen is even sweeter.

(Side note: I think how abysmal my Boilers have been in football is helping to balance my karmic scales a tad… but even with that – and they were REALLY bad this year – I still think I’m way ahead!)

Anyway, Christmas apparently came early for me. It was a great November and, except for the biting chill in the air today, December has been pretty decent. I’m just trying to catch up on everything that sat on the back burner while SPORTS were happening. Hopefully your fall was also awesome, Dear Journal, and may your Christmas be joyful. Safe travels if you’re planning to, I don’t know, mail yourself somewhere. And if I don’t get back to you before the end of the month, have a Happy New Year.

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This Is Not About Politics

I absolutely hate talking about politics. That’s not entirely true. Perhaps more accurately, I love debating about things, respectfully. What I hate is when respect is lost and there are hurt feelings, which is very easy to do (and I, personally, am often guilty of this). It’s sort of the same way I hate making fun of people. I was teased a lot in middle and high school, and I guess I’m a pretty sensitive dude. Nothing wrong with that, Dear Journal.

On the other side of the coin, let me also say that I’m not a big fan of the “ultra PC” approach to things. That is to say, I believe life is going to offend you sometimes and you better grow some thick skin in order to deal with it. Just because something offends you, doesn’t mean it should be outlawed. This is a thin line, or slippery slope, or whatever, and ultimately I think it needs to be approached from both sides to form a lasting solution. To put that last point more succinctly: I think people become both MORE and LESS sensitive. More where it comes to how they affect others. Less with how they are affected. Not really an easy thing to manage in today’s “self driven” culture.

That was my preamble to a story I wanted to relate. This is a story that involves the current political race, and attempts to illuminate why I am ready, so desperately, for this election cycle to end. A tender heart like mine just can’t take it.

This is NOT a story meant to display any particular leaning. If you must know, I’m most likely voting third party, for Gary Johnson. I simply like him the most, all things considered. I can understand a lot of the arguments for other folks, but I do not find myself currently swayed by them.

That being said, I recently observed a situation where a group of professionals were chatting. They were laughing about a story where a pair of coworkers had staked off in a bit of a “political cold war.” Apparently, one has an “I’m with her” mug and poster prominently on display in their cube at work. The other, in response, has a computer background that is prominently anti-Hillary. Neither of these individuals were involved in the conversation as it took place.

The professionals were commenting about how funny it was to observe how the one individual liked to needle the other individual with anti-Hillary slogans and pictures… attempting to elicit an emotional response. It was seen as “all in good fun,” and the group had a good chuckle before progressing to other topics.

Big deal, right? Yet my insides were roiling. This is the sort of thing that I hate most about the current election cycle, and has become all too common. First of all, I’m of the opinion that the workplace should remain politically neutral. Politics do not belong in the work place. It is unprofessional. It can create a hostile work environment. So, one could make the case that, the original individual, by displaying the mug and poster, was “asking for it” and I wouldn’t wholeheartedly disagree.

But, here’s the thing, that second person? That’s textbook bullying and harassment. Just because one person, say, pushes the envelope of professionalism, doesn’t give someone else the right to harass them about their proclivities. And it grinds my gears that everyone just sort of laughed it off and didn’t for a moment consider how WRONG it was.

Now, Dear Journal, I agree, it wasn’t a big thing, and it really didn’t even involve me. I was mostly eavesdropping, which is probably impolite. But it bothered me, and I guess I wanted to write about it.

By all means, vote for who you want, support who you want, but refrain from harassing anyone. Be respectful. Try not to suck.

I can’t wait for this election cycle to end.

 

 

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Swedish Meatballs

It’s been a busy month, so I just wanted to touch base on a few things, Dear Journal.

First, football has started. We’re 2-0 so far, so off to a good start. That alone keeps things busy, but I had a hard time even making the first two games.

We had a good friend get married, and then it was off to Sweden for me. No, I did not go on a solo honeymoon… it was a work trip. My first trip across the Atlantic, and it was paid for by someone else. Can’t beat that, even if I did have to squeeze in my sightseeing after a solid day of meetings.

I’ll keep this brief because things are really busy right now, but Sweden was fantastic. Most people there spoke English, so it was very friendly to an American like me. I am trying to learn a little Swedish on the side (thanks Duolingo), but it was helpful that I really didn’t need to. The food was good, and the people were all friendly and helpful. Plus, Stockholm is gorgeous this time of year. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this:

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Back to the grind, Dear Journal. Hopefully I’ll have more time to write next month.

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On Lives and Mattering

I’ve seen a lot of posting, with good reason, over the past few weeks regarding a vast disagreement in our nation that can succinctly be stated: Whose lives matter? Obviously, the most prominent group is those involved with the BlackLivesMatter movement. On the other side of the coin are those who often respond that “all lives matter.” This has created a national dialogue that, I hope, has identified some problems in our American society that still need addressed and mended. This isn’t to say that there are a whole lot of easy solutions, but rather that identification of a problem is the first step to solving anything, and it’s generally good that we, as a whole, are at least attempting to define a perceived problem.

I think all sides could agree that there are problems. People may disagree on the nature and scope of the problem, as well as on where the blame lies, but there are definitely problems. Americans should not be dying needlessly, and in my previous entry, I attempted to write down some of my thoughts on gun violence, so I’m not going to rehash that here.

Instead, I wanted to point out that I believe this whole “whose lives matter” argument brings to light a simple problem with human communication. In an effort to deescalate and use a somewhat parallel example that I’d recently seen posted on my Facebook feed, let’s examine the hypothetical example where someone outwardly shows support for our troops. This is a common enough thing. Perhaps they are wearing a “Support Our Troops” ribbon. Now, let’s imagine that someone saw that and responded: “I believe we should support all people.”

Taking the words at face value, literally, the statement is actually a very positive one. After all, wouldn’t the world be “better” if we attempted to support “all people?” This, however, does not take into account the intent of the speaker. In psychology, there is a construct where a message, any message, is defined as having three parts. First, there is the message in and of itself. The literal words. Then, you have the perception on either side. The individual that sent the message has a certain perception that we could call, in this case, their intent. The individual receiving the message also has a perception that we could label a bias. This is true of every message, no matter how mundane. When intent, message, and bias mostly agree, we get a clearly communicated message. When they don’t, things become muddied, and interpretation is required for true understanding.

Returning to our example, we must examine both the intent of the speaker and the bias of the receiver. It has often been the case, I think, that folks who might say “support all people,” are in fact intending to minimize and marginalize the original topic. This is a problem that is being intentionally clouded in their message, as clearly communicating such an intent might be seen as crass or inappropriate. Similarly, there are receivers whose bias is so strong (perhaps for good reason, perhaps not), that they cannot perceive the original intent of the words and, again, the message becomes clouded with the potential for offense.

This is the crux of the argument I see happening currently within the black lives matter conversation. I truly believe that all lives do, in fact, matter, and that saying so isn’t, in and of itself, wrong. If your intent is, however, to trivialize the original topic instead of honestly pointing out the preciousness of all life… well then perhaps you should spend some time self-reflecting on your reason for saying something in the first place. Similarly, if you find yourself being constantly offended by the conversation going on around you, you may have a bias problem. Take some time to think about intent, and analyze how past hurts may be impacting your current reality. (It should be noted that bias can be both positive and negative. Though currently societal connotation may give it a more negative cast, that is not my intent here.)

Either way, both communication issues are exacerbated by the popularity of short form social media. Often we try to reduce complicated topics to a clever graphic or pithy phrase because that is what shares well, and will be passed around. This can be both boon and bane, as it has the potential to greatly proliferate a message while also potentially muddying it.

This is not a “get off my lawn” dart thrown at social media, though. I believe short form communication definitely has a place and purpose in the greater arena of human interaction. I do fear, however, that we risk losing the nuance of message that can make long-form communication more appropriate. Sometimes we all do well to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, read the longer article, or have the more drawn out conversation. Often we can learn and understand so much more if we only take the time.

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On Gun Violence

As happens in the wake of a tragedy such as the Orlando nightclub shooting, Facebook feeds blow up with opinions from every possible corner of the world. I try to read a lot of them, even if I don’t agree, in an effort to broaden my worldview. The more I do this, the more I realize how many others fail to do the same thing. We are all very comfortable looking at life through the lens convenient to us, but attempting to look through the lens of another? That’s hard work. But it seems like useful work that could solve so very much. So, while I’m not claiming to be an expert or have all the answers (or actually, to have any answers), I felt like sharing some of my observations with you, Dear Journal. At the very least, it will provide me an opportunity to look through a different lens, 10 years from now, and say: What the heck was I thinking?

Let me start by recapping what I know in case my memory fails me 10 years hence. The basic story is that a dude walked into a nightclub in Orlando with an assault-style rifle, opened fire, killed a bunch of people, injured a bunch of others… numbering somewhere around 100. I believe the exact total killed was 49. It is also important to note at this time that the club was frequented mainly by people who self-identify as “queer” or “LGBT.

(Aside: Notice I say “at this time.” I’m hoping that 10 years hence, it may not be so important to note sexual persuasion. Let us recall that there was also a time in our history, Dear Journal, when it was important to note that a place was frequented by “blacks.” I’m happy that in my lifetime that has become much less important, though perhaps not “not important,” yet.)

First, can we agree, Dear Journal, that killing people is bad, period. In fact, killing is pretty bad in general. As in, I’m not a big fan of euthanizing pets. Though, I do eat meat, which involves killing. So, there is some line at which killing becomes acceptable. We must acknowledge that. Like, let’s say, with self defense. And tacos. Both are likely acceptable reasons for a death to occur.

Walking into a nightclub and offing 49 human beings just trying to get their dance on is, very clearly, Crossing The Line. Or, to use the eloquent words of my father in law: “That’s not what you do.”

I want to also note that, at this juncture in American history, I, personally, feel like I want to grab America, collectively, by the shoulders and shout: What the hell? Alternatively, I’d like to grab a rolled-up newspaper, shake it at the universe and say: Stop. Just stop. No. Bad.

All of the clearly across the line killing. All of the mean-spirited name calling instead of rational discourse. All of the dividing between ideological camps. All of the violence. All of the hate. Just stop.

However, you may have noticed, Dear Journal, that my amount of influence on the world is very, very small. I do what I can, but the folks leading the hate parades of the world aren’t peeking at these pages. That, I can pretty much guarantee.

Anyway, dude walks into a nightclub. But wait, some are saying that it must have been multiple people. No way could one guy with a gun, even a big one, do so much damage. It would take a bazillion bullets, right? To this, I will simply offer that, having been to a nightclub or two, it would not be unfathomable for a single bullet, fired from a close enough range, to notch more than a single victim. Firing into a crowd, a shooter would not need to be very precise, nor very well-trained to really rack up the injuries. I believe there is a phrase about shooting fish in a barrel that applies here (not to equate human life with fish, see above about killing. Different lines.) It is an uncomfortable truth that, indeed, such carnage is possible by a solo shooter in the right conditions. (Does that mean it is impossible that there actually were additional shooters? No, but I guess I’m not sure why it matters. Again, see above about killing. Even if this entire thing is some sort of crazy conspiracy, lots of people were killed by a gun or multiple guns. This is becoming more common in our society, and you can’t say every gun-related death is a conspiracy.)

So where does that leave us as a society? What can we possibly do? There are a lot of talk about laws to try to stop such senseless killing. Another uncomfortable truth is this: killers gonna kill. That is to say, criminals do criminal things even though there are clearly laws to try to stop such things. But that doesn’t make laws completely ineffective, either. Like I tried to elucidate above about the moral line of when killing is okay, there are also legal lines for things like killing and guns. Now, it is important to note that the moral line and legal line don’t always line up. Therein lies the problem. In an ideal society, we’d all have the same lines and the laws would match those lines and… utopia.

This is real damn life, though. We all have different lines and different ideas of lines and different thoughts on which lines actually are effective. But, let’s revisit the current fact: it is entirely possible for a single person to legally purchase something that will facilitate killing 49 people in mere minutes. How does one not at least ask: is our currently drawn line sufficient?

Like I said before, I don’t have any answers. There are some good ideas, like trying to classify weapons and limit based on those classifications so that what remains isn’t “too” deadly. Good idea, very difficult in execution. It’s easy to see when things are clearly over the line, but what do you do about things “on the line?” Maybe we should just slightly shift our lines over time until we find what works. Quit swinging the pendulum radically in different directions. But what does that even look like, legally?

We could maybe look into improving safety technology in relation to guns. I mean my phone has cameras and fingerprint scanners and voice recognition and GPS and I’m able to use it pretty effectively. Does any of that translate to solving the whole gun violence problem? What if guns had magic chips that could deactivate them completely in certain areas and there was magically no way to bypass it. Like magical cease fire zones that can be cast over areas where guns are extra dangerous, or private places that don’t want guns, or even initiated by police in such a way that only nonlethal weapons become usable and they have really badass stun rays or something else that sounds like a magical sci-fi concept (Because, you know, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.) I don’t know.

I do know this, however. Killing a bunch of people primarily because you don’t agree with their lifestyle is clearly beyond any line you should be drawing. It both angers and depresses me. I wish I had a magical newspaper and shaking menacingly could work and afterward we’d all wag our tails and be happy. It won’t, though. This is real damn life.

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Short Week

It’s been a busy and productive spring so far, Dear Journal, filled with a lot of travel, though May was pretty calm. Summer has officially kicked off for some. My sister just graduated High School last weekend, signalling the last of the Hofferth clan to pass that particular marker, 13 years after I started the trend. I suppose you could call it the “end of an era.”

We had a great party for her on Sunday that leaked over into Monday. I find myself currently dragging from that, but fortunately this week is a short week. Tomorrow, I have a work trip to a minor league ballgame in Peoria, and then we fly out to Florida on Sunday for some much needed R&R. Somehow I’ll need to find time to mow the lawn in there. It’s getting shaggy.

Otherwise, I’ve just been working, enjoying the nice weather, and writing. I’ll keep this post short and just paste in a picture of the my little girl on Memorial Day. It was her first boat ride:

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