Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Urban Life: The City Park

I've recently come to believe that one of the best places to experience cultural equality is at a good city park.

I've started running since I moved to this new city. And by running, I mean power walking mixed with jogging, and trying to increase the jogging. Less than half a mile from my apartment, is a lovely little park, adorned with one a fountain complete with charging horse statues, which is often frequented by a flock of geese. It features a track around the narrow park, parts of which are lined with trees and go up and down small hills.

But it's not the picturesque fountain or tranquil trees that I like best about this park.

It's the people who come there.

A middle-aged woman photographing the geese. Six Muslim women in head-coverings sitting by the fountain with their children. White, black, and Latino men playing a game of soccer together. White chicks and dudes playing volleyball. Hipsters juggling and playing with hula hoops. A Latino family taking pictures at the fountain, later followed by an Indian family doing the same. A couple laying on blankets reading. A woman by herself reading. People running, biking, walking their dogs.

I can out power walk the middle aged women but the fit men always pass me. No matter, everyone has a place at the park. It's not like a gym that you have to pay for, where everyone else seems to lift twice the weight and run twice as fast as me. Even with my currently low level of physical fitness, I don't stand out when I work out in the park.

City parks are free. Paid for by taxes, but it doesn't matter if you paid a lot of taxes or paid none or cheated on your taxes, the park is available to you - so long as you have transportation to get there. You don't need expensive equipment or clothes or an invitation or your name on the VIP list. As long as it's safe, anyone can go there and enjoy it - men, women, children, teenagers, elderly.

Maybe I'm being overly idealistic in my park description. Despite the equality offered by the park, the reminders of inequality are ever present as the park is only yards away from the most upscale shopping center in town, mainly frequented by the affluent white citizens and college kids with credit cards. And the park is always populated with homeless men, so going to the park is not a luxury for everyone. For some people, they go there because they have nowhere else to go.

Despite the realities of poverty and racial inequality that I'm still aware of as I walk/jog in my park, the fact that so many people from different backgrounds come to enjoy it makes this park one of most beautiful places I've been to.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Support and challenge

On the first day of my psychology internship, we spent some time getting to know potential supervisors. In response to a question about how much support vs. challenge that she provides her supervisees, one psychologist replied, “I think that you can only challenge someone as much as you support them. In fact, I think there always needs to be a little more support than challenge so that you don’t run out of your ‘support bank’.”

This concept certainly resonated with me as reflecting how I best receive challenge in relationships as well as how I approach my clients in therapy. In order for me to effectively receive a challenge or constructive criticism from someone, I need to trust that the person challenging me also supports me, that the person has my best interests in mind and intends to build me up through the challenge. If I don’t feel an equal or great amount of support, then the challenge feels more like an attack on my person and abilities, and I react defensively instead of embracing the challenge as something that will help me grow.

I’ll admit that I am overly sensitive to any kind of criticism (perceived or otherwise) and even when challenged by someone who genuinely supports and cares for me, it’s easy for me to forget that support and just feel threatened by the criticism. But in the times when I do recognize the immense support I’m receiving and trust the other person(s) to speak into my life in a challenging way, then I can more easily accept the challenge, even if it’s still difficult to receive.

This is also how I approach both therapeutic and non-therapeutic relationships. For me to be able to challenge someone else, I must first support them and build a foundation of acceptance and trust, and continue to supply that support even as I challenge. This taps into what Rogers calls “Unconditional positive regard,” though I don’t think Rogers practiced any kind of direct challenging of his clients. These ideas of support and challenge going hand in hand also reflect the Christian saying of “speaking the truth in love.” Truth spoken without love for the one who is receiving that is just noise, a clanging symbol, that may be heard but won’t be listened to. I also recall a friend advising me, “If you’re coming from a place of love, then you can say just about anything to that person.” And I think it’s more than just having love in your heart as you say something – it requires the kind of demonstrated love that will lead to trust. The people I saw the other night on the street corner with their signs announcing repentance or eternity in hell were perhaps motivated by love for the multitudes of hell-goers they were preaching to, but I highly doubt than anyone who walked by felt loved by them.

While many of you might agree with these ideas (they’re millennials old and not original to me at all), some of us may have different ways of knowing that we are supported. I’m not saying that we all need to hug everyone and dote on them to make them feel loved, though that’s certainly appropriate and necessary in some relationships and in some cultures. In some contexts and cultures, support and love if felt through actions and words that are very different that what I find to be loving. For example, I’ve heard that in some Asian cultures which value authoritative parenting, children feel loved and accepted when their family members challenge them to perform better. Maybe some of them grow up believing that they only loved as a result of their good performance, but many probably grow up believing that the expression of requiring someone to succeed is a sign as love as it reflects a desire for that person to reach their full potential and have a good life.

So, I intend to keep these ideas in mind over the next year and hope to continuously examine how those I’m in therapeutic/romantic/family/friendship/coworker relationships with best feel loved and supported and best receive challenges. And when I receive challenges from others, then I’ll try to remember that (usually) the person challenging me cares very deeply about me as a person so that I can receive the challenge as an opportunity to grow.