Comparing Pain

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It was a really long day at work. There was a million people all demanding my attention at once. There were deadlines looming that I couldn’t envision possibly reaching. The computer wasn’t cooperating, and I couldn’t figure out why nothing would load properly. Couldn’t anything just go right?

And to top it off, I had an hour long commute after this crummy work day was complete. By the time I got home, I had a pounding headache and I still had to deal with a disaster of a kitchen before I could even start thinking about preparing some kind of sustenance for supper. By the time the family was fed and watered, I was thoroughly exhausted. What a day! My poor husband got an earful that night about all the stress that I was feeling!

Ever have one of those days?

Don’t we all?

Now, I know that I have a lot to be grateful for. I live in an amazing country, with amazing freedoms, and amazing opportunities. I am blessed with a fantastic family and a group of incredible friends. I love my job. I have a beautiful home. I have a wonderful life.

I am not fighting cancer. I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. I don’t have to live in fear for my life because of political unrest in my country. There are a million things that I take for granted every day.

But that doesn’t mean that sometimes I don’t just feel overwhelmed and tired.

This week, our Prime Minister’s wife expressed that she is overwhelmed and feels that she needs some additional help. And a whole firestorm of public outrage ensued about how someone who leads such a privileged life has no right to complain.

And then I thought about my day. Did I not have a right to feel the way I did?

I often have students come into my office that share the burdens they are living with, who feel they have no right to their pain because there are people much worse off in the world. I always tell them – it’s not fair to compare pain. Pain is pain. It hurts. If you break your arm, does it mean that you have no right to feel that pain because there are people in the world who have no arms?

Of course, it’s good to keep things in perspective. It does help keep me grounded to remember that I have much to give thanks for. I don’t want to turn into a person who chooses to be unhappy and wastes their life with constant complaining.

But at the end of the day, when it’s been a challenging one, it does ease my load to share my thoughts with someone who cares, and have them wrap their arms around me and tell me they understand, and that it will be ok.

When someone shares their load with you, do you validate their feelings, or tell them they have no right to feel that way?

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Why Are We So Cruel?

A couple of events that hit the news recently left me incredibly sad at the cruelty that we humans can heap upon one another.  One was the tragic death of a young toddler in Austin, Manitoba who wandered off from his home and was found in a nearby stream.  And this week, the same thing happened when Fort McMurray, Alberta went up in flames.  In the midst of the most horrific experiences of their lives, other people pointed the finger and blamed the people involved for bringing these events upon themselves.

That mother should have been supervising her child more closely.

Its karma that the environment took down a city built upon the oil industry.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in your darkest hour, and to see such hurtful comments being thrown around social media.  Does any mother want to do anything to cause the death of her child?  Does any person really want to endanger the survival of our planet?

Anyone who knows me well can attest to the fact that my hands are covered with scars from a never-ending series of kitchen knife mishaps.  Now, I know that knives are sharp.  I am more than aware of the consequences of not being careful while handling them.  But it still happens.  Why?  Because I believe that I can save the time of pulling out a cutting board and instead slice up an apple in my hand to calm a screaming toddler.  I think I can be safe and get things done quickly at the same time, and sometimes I make a mistake in judgement.  And I’m sure thankful when I need stitches that I’ve never had a doctor tell me that I deserve to be in pain.

People do the best that they can, and sometimes things just don’t go as planned.

But in both these recent tragedies, I don’t think this is even the issue.  It’s not that anyone made a mistake in judgement.  Bad things simply happen sometimes, no matter what you do.  Kids get away from their parents, no matter how watchful your eye.  Forest fires do not target anyone; they just burn.

So then why must people point fingers and blame instead of having compassion?  When I’m getting my fingers sewn up, the medical staff  are gentle with me and freeze my hand so I won’t feel anything as they make it all better.

I wonder if it has something to do with power.  We all need to feel a sense of control in our lives, and when we see these terrible things happen to others, it makes us afraid that perhaps we could be vulnerable too.  But if we can find some fault with the victims of tragedy and convince ourselves that they did something to deserve their pain, then it follows that as long as we make better choices, then we can make sure nothing like that ever happens to us.

Of course, it’s smart to be careful.  Don’t drive while drinking, be careful with electricity, ensure you have supplies in your home to manage a power outage.

But don’t for a second think that any of us our capable of controlling everything so perfectly that nothing bad can ever befall us.  Sometimes we misjudge.  And sometimes things happen to us that were beyond anyone’s control.

And when they do, wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could lift each other up when disaster strikes?

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Abe Was A Wise Man…

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I had this one teacher that drove me crazy.  He would give us the stupidest assignments.  They were always half-thought out, and never clear.  We struggled like crazy to know what the heck he wanted from us.  I was a very driven student and wanted to do well, but I never knew what I had to do to please him.  It was probably one of the most frustrating classes I ever was in.

Looking back, I think he was brilliant.

It was the first time that I ever was forced to create a project that I set the standards for myself.  I had to self-evaluate, and create something that I thought was quality work.  I wasn’t simply vomiting up what I thought the teacher wanted to hear; I was thinking for myself, and it was probably one of the classes in which I learned the most.

 It also taught me an important lesson:  Whenever you think someone is a complete idiot or a terrible person, if you really take the time to get to know them, you will usually find something that explains their behaviour in a way that changes how you feel about them.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  He knew that we were a group of dedicated students, and he wanted to give us the opportunity to be the best we could be.

Anyone else out there have a story of how someone they thought was evil turned out to have motivations that you just didn’t understand at the time?  Please share!

First Things First

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There’s a reason why survival needs are placed in the centre of the needs circle in Restitution.  It seems obvious that if you can’t survive, nothing else much matters.  But it’s amazing how often this simple fact is overlooked.

I know I’m in a privileged position as a counsellor.  I often have information that classroom teachers don’t have.  I hear the stories about how the family got evicted and are currently homeless.  I know all about the fact that the cupboards are bare and everyone went to bed hungry last night.  I see the fear in the eyes of the person who was assaulted over the weekend who is scared that it’s going to happen again.

What the classroom teacher sees is that homework wasn’t done.  That the student fell asleep in class.  That they grunt two word answers to direct questions.

It’s not hard to understand how quickly such a situation can escalate.  For many of us, we don’t ever have to think about where our next meal is coming from, or where we are going to sleep.  We have the luxury of being able to focus on getting our other needs met, because survival comes easy for us.  So we forget that this is not the reality for everyone, and we try to get those students motivated with the things that motivate us.

We talk to them about keeping focused on graduation.  We talk to them about being kind to other people.  We talk to them about doing the things we love and having fun.

But when you are fighting to survive, those other things seem pretty unimportant.

So next time you see someone who seems not to care, consider that the truth may actually be that they do care very much – it just may not be about the same things you care about.

How Can People Be So Mean?

Every day, I hear people say things like “That guy is just an ass!”, or “She’s such a bitch!” I have to admit, when I get frustrated with someone’s bad behaviour, I partake in this as well. We just write people off as being bad people.

But if you were to walk into the nursery at a hospital, and look at all the babies, could you pick out which ones were bad people?

I can’t look down at an innocent baby, and see any evil in them. I simply can’t believe that some people are born bad.

This hit me in a new way when I attended a conference recently on Aboriginal Mental Health. The presenter was talking about the horrible things that the colonizers did to people. It’s scary to me to think how it’s possible for people to be so cruel to other people. How does this happen?

The presenter talked about how the only way people can participate in such acts is if they have experienced trauma themselves. That’s what happens between that time that someone who started out as an innocent baby starts to behave in such a hateful way towards others.

I sat in amazement as I listened to him talk. This man had every right to feel bitter and angry about the people whose actions had resulted in him having to face overwhelming challenges in his life. But, instead, he was filled with compassion. He wondered what must have happened to those people to make them shut off their emotions and lose their humanity.

It’s humbling to think of how he can do this, when I can call someone a horrible name for being rude to me on the phone, or for not following through on a commitment that they made to me. These things hardly have any real impact on my life. Yet, I can lose sight of the fact that everything people do, they do for a reason.

Instead of calling someone down when they behave badly, perhaps I should step back and remember that I don’t know their whole story. Bad behaviour comes from unmet needs, not from someone being a bad person.

If this man can show understanding to people who tried to wipe out his entire culture, perhaps I can find some compassion for the people that frustrate me in my day to day life.

Can you?

Nothing Else Matters

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I got struck down this week. It started in my chest, and then spread through my sinuses. My nose wouldn’t stop running, I had a constant headache, and I couldn’t get enough sleep. I knew I was REALLY sick when I woke up, stood up, and laid straight back in my bed. I never do that. I pride myself on never taking sick days. When I do, it’s because I’m practically on my deathbed.

Normally, I would push through. I would think about all the things I need to do at work, and all the people I would let down by not making it in. I’d think about how far behind I’d be by taking a day, and how overwhelmed I’d feel trying to catch up on everything when I get back again.

But not this week. Nope. This week, I couldn’t care less. I was going back to bed.

It got me thinking…. No matter how driven we are to meet our psychological needs, survival really trumps it all. In spite of the fact that I care about the people I work with, and how driven I am to be successful in my job, none of that mattered when I was feeling so sick.

It made me think about those students that get labelled as unmotivated or lazy. Nobody was calling me those names this week, because it was obvious why I was lying around and getting nothing done. But sometimes the struggle for survival is a little more hidden. What about that girl who can’t sleep all night because she’s listening to her parents fight and wondering if someone is going to get hurt? What about that teen who can’t concentrate at school because all they can think about is their baby brother at home, and whether he’s safe today when mom’s been drinking again. Or even that parent who can’t focus on anything else except where she is going to get the money to put something on the table tonight so that her family doesn’t have to go to bed hungry.

Is it possible that those people who appear to not care about other people’s needs or achieving their best work are just like me – so caught up in survival that nothing else matters?

Is it possible that if you knew the hidden story behind that lazy person who is making you crazy, that you might feel more compassion than anger towards them?

Back At It!

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The first day of school always floods my mind with memories…. The crispness of the fall air, the pile of shiny new school supplies, the excitement of reuniting with friends I hadn’t seen since spring. For those of us who grew up and chose to work in the education system, the emotions that arise at this time of year run even deeper than that which are brought with these nostalgic childhood images. We know the incredible power of education, and how it can change people’s lives. It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill that comes from having the opportunity to really make a difference in the world. That first day of school is so exciting!

But if we are going to serve our students well, it’s important to remember that not everyone experiences this day in the same way. For some, there may be embarrassment about not being able to afford all the new clothes and supplies that others have.  It may mark the return to a place where they are excluded on a daily basis from feeling like a part of the group. It may signify many torturous hours to come of feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by academics that they just never seem to be able to grasp.  Although we may do our best to instill in our students the idea that there is a world of possibilities open to them, some will not believe that this applies to them.

Let’s make sure that we remain open to understanding the reality of every student that comes through our doors this September. Otherwise, we may miss the opportunity to create the connection with a child that is needed to help them grow and flourish to their fullest potential.

All the best to each of you this school year!