Sometimes I write of success; of hope; of happy endings.
These are notable in part because so much of the time, the families with whom I collaborate are those whose children probably won’t learn to talk or bathe themselves, or whose middle aged children might die in the mental hospital, or whose children might never overcome their meth addiction—or women who, like me, wonder if their infertility might be lifelong.
And by itself, merely “facing a challenge” doesn’t do anything.
In a cruel twist, those facing stressful and often life-long battles also encounter the most unhelpful and banal clichés that range from “not comforting” to insulting or humiliating. They often come from well-meaning people who haven’t walked a mile in the moccasins of those they are trying to help. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this and that we all will be again.
But who cares about words. The interaction between a speaker and listener, and the actions of people, matter much more. It’s not what I say in a challenge that matters, compared to what I do. I’m reminded of Ogden Lindsley’s quip that “if a dead man can do it, it ain’t behavior”: I guess a dead person can face a problem. But can he solve it?
Maybe I don’t get stronger merely by facing challenges.
In fact, perhaps I become softer, more tender.
I cry more easily.
I empathize more, and longer, with the parents who struggled for 15 years to have a child often to learn that their expensive and long-prayed-for baby has life-threatening and life-long diagnoses.
If I’m not stronger, at least I’m listening more.
And I notice something else a dead person can’t do:
Whatever skills I practice become more fluent.
I listen and get better at listening.
I empathize and gain fluency at showing empathy.
I help, and gain skills in doing helpful things.
I care, and continue to care.
And I share and feel uncomfortable, and become more comfortable at being uncomfortable.
(Sorry, behavior analysts, I’m not sure if that last one was an actual “behavior”. Similarly, I’m sure a dead man could do this one too, but it took me lots of practice to finally become quite skilled at staying calm while having my blood drawn. I would like to stop practicing now, I’m fluent, thank you very much.)
Many parents of my clients with low functioning autism, or the grandparent clients who are raising their great-grandchildren while multiple generations in between are in jail or recovery, tell me that they are tired of being called heroes. That they are simply doing the best they can, all the time, like you or me.
That often they still wish they could do more or do it better.
As I help clients – such as those whose loved ones have dementia – I discover more and more that our trials are universal, although many of them seem so foreign to young people (and to inexperienced behavior analysts in the helping profession). Lately I have been developing tools that seem so simple, yet also seem helpful to so many different clients, like this Resource_Orienting statement tool for a loved one who is distressed and disoriented.
Whatever tools we use, what matters seems to be to keep going—and to keep holding someone’s hand when it matters.