Saturday, August 1, 2009


Everyone has a movie that they loved and that influenced their life in some meaningful way that nobody else, including the critics, seems to like. Mine is a movie called “Elizabethtown” by Cameron Crowe, which I felt was full of wonderful insights and deep life lessons. Although I liked a lot of stuff about that movie, one thing that stood out was when the female lead Claire would hold an imaginary camera up to her face and take snapshots of people, which was her way of freezing memorable moments in time.

Why is it that certain memories freeze themselves in our minds while others don’t? Of course we all share some collective memories like where we were during 9/11, or when the Challenger blew up, or when JFK was assassinated, but what about the little memories? What it is about certain memories that make us keep them so readily accessible, and why is it that we keep these memories as little guidebooks as we move through life? It is a question that intrigues me greatly, and one that I think makes for an interesting study in terms of human synchronicity.

My first of these memories came when I was 6 years old sitting in church with my mother and my brothers and sisters. I remember looking up at my mom and smiling at her and her smiling back, and taking a long look around. Even then I didn’t enjoy going to church, but there was some feeling I had at that moment that was significant to me. I specifically remember thinking that I was going to remember that moment forever. Even when I was old (like 30) I vowed to come back to that place when I needed to.
As an Adlerian therapist this is fairly easy to interpret psychologically. According to Adlerian theory, our minds select memories from our childhoods that reflect our current
Psychological state. Therefore a therapist might look at my story and say that safety and family were important narratives in my life, and that by selecting that memory of the millions I have made in my life, that these themes were the most salient and relevant in my day to day affairs.

But this is wrong. There is nothing about my life that has ever been safe. I am reckless in my endeavors to the point of foolishness, and I have wandered and traveled all over the world instead of staying close to home. I have a wonderful family and they make me laugh harder than anyone, but still, I also don’t have a family of my own, and am far from a regular reunion kind of guy, so that didn’t quite fit either.

I’ve instead chose to think about that memory in terms of spiritual meaning in my life and synchronicity. Even at 6 I hated the actual church part of going to church, and that hasn’t changed a bit, (it’s gotten worse in fact). The dogma of the Catholic church seemed wrong to me for as long as I was able to make conscious decisions, and I have rejected dogma in all of its forms adamantly and even vehemently throughout my life.

But what to make of this memory? What was that feeling that I experienced and what relevance could I draw from it in my current life?

The answer is I believe an understanding of spirituality as a feeling of connectedness to other people. A feeling of belonging, of acceptance, and that somehow when we as humans are together we’re all a bit stronger than each of us alone. This is certainly how I’ve come to understand spirituality and it also speaks to what I am wrestling with so much as I try to make sense of where I am going on my personal journey.

All of this comes with a very big but however. Despite being extremely social and fun-loving, I am a single man who lives alone despite the fact that I have had a number of opportunities to share my life with someone. This even applies to my friends, who can certainly testify that I am one of the world’s worst people at returning phone calls, keeping appointments, etc.

This speaks to snapshot number two, which occurred when I was at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon by myself, where I had a tremendous surge of understanding that some psychologists refer to as a “peak’ experience. I emerged from this vision sure that I was part of something bigger than myself, but oddly, not only was I by myself, there was no one within miles of me. Somehow being so amazingly alone helped me understand that the interconnectedness of people was a powerful and benevolent force. What to make of this contradiction? I didn’t really know at the time.

Snapshot number 3 occurred on the top of one of the Wicklow mountains in Ireland where they filmed the movie Braveheart. For those that are unfamiliar with the movie, the lead character William Wallace hurdles to the top of the highest peak in the country and looks down at his beloved Scotland (yes it was filmed in Ireland) and seems to arrive at a decision about his own destiny in this world

Although there was no hurdling, I also made it to the top of this mountain, and was utterly amazed at what I saw beneath me. There below me appeared to be the entire country of Ireland sprawled out over hundreds of miles. This was where part of my blood came from, and it was the piece of my lineage I have always felt the strongest connection to. It was truly a breathtaking experience and, as incredibly embarrassing as this is to admit, I raised my hands over my head and assumed the “I’m the king of the world” pose from the movie Titanic.

And then, amazingly, my beautiful moment came crashing down to earth when I heard, “Sir, sir, can you help me please” come ringing literally out of nowhere. There behind me stood a large woman who seemed to have virtually descended from the clouds. How did she get up here? How dare this woman wander into my moment and ask for help. I was surprised, irritated, angry, and interested. Eventually I did wander over to help however, and was able to soothe a very lost soul who had almost miraculously wandered to the top of a very big mountain in search of something bigger in her own life.

Looking back now, this snapshot makes perfect sense to me in terms of my own personal development. Despite having an incredibly powerful moment, ALONE, a mysterious person improbably showed up in need of help. I work as a therapist, which is perhaps the most intimate profession a person could choose in terms of connecting with other human beings. People tell you their greatest fears, darkest wishes, and most powerful longings. You then listen, you advise, empathize, and encourage, but still, when the person walks out of the room that’s the only physical thing you see about their lives. It’s intimate but it is also, oddly, incredibly safe.

So in retrospect I think I know what my third snapshot means. You can have some wonderful, mystical experiences by yourself, but ultimately we have to let some other people behind the curtain. This can feel intrusive and irritating, but truly, whatever it is we are doing here, it’s quite a bit more bearable when we have others along for the ride. I remind myself of this lesson all the time, but constantly struggle to remember it on a day to day basis. It’s so much easier keeping your thoughts to yourself. Every intimate conversation is a kind of adventure really. We brave telling people our most private and revealing ideas, and often these things either go unnoticed or don’t have the impact or power we anticipated. In these moments we feel misunderstood, and the danger in these situations is we withdraw more deeply into ourselves.

But this is a mistake. In those moments we do feel understood everything seems to make a lot more sense. Finally someone has taken a fleeting glance through our personal kaleidoscope and seen what we see, and this is an amazing feeling that often dashes off as quickly as it arrives. We’ve all glimpsed it however. And if we’re lucky enough we find people who we can share the view with a lot more than once in a while. If you find such a person hang on to them. Whether they be a lover, a friend, the janitor at your job, a bus driver, or a person you meet in some unlikely twist of fate, this understanding is a rare thing and should be respected.

I share these snapshots with you from an airport in Dallas. I am about to embark on 3 weeks in Costa Rica where I am quite sure my mind will freeze another snapshot in time. What and why and how this happens is not entirely clear to me, and frankly I may not even recognize it until much later in my life. What I do know is that my personal slideshow is not finished, and I am looking forward to adding a couple of more pictures to the photo album. After 30 some years on this planet I am just now beginning to understand my own narrative, and it is a story I want to make worthwhile. I have no real power to predict where this story is gong, but I do have the power to choose how I’m going to live in the meantime.

1 comment:

  1. Joe - A moving account of some subtle experiences. You might try - if you have not already done so - to order your three snapshots side by side. Then look to see if you see a common theme. The odds are that you will see the idenitifed theme expand as if each snapshot if speeded up would appear to be moving in time.