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Beginnings and Endings, Part 2

My job follows the academic calendar, so today is my first day back at work. I was never one of those kids who looked forward to the beginning of school. I didn’t care about seeing my friends; I didn’t want to have to do homework. I didn’t want to have to go to bed and wake up early. I pretty much have the same mentality now that I did when I was in elementary school. Some things never change, I guess.

My summers follow a distinct pattern: I have a hard time transitioning from being stressed and having to be super-productive to not having a whole lot that needs to get done. Boredom doesn’t do justice to the intensity of how badly I feel during that adjustment period. It’s more like, my existence is a complete waste of time. I have nothing of value to offer to the world. I know it’s is my inner critic talking, but it still makes me question my worth. I think that’s why most people would rather be stressed than bored: it makes you feel more useful.

However, by the time I have about 2 weeks of vacation left, I start panicking about having to go back to work. I don’t want to feel stressed out again–to be on call, have back-to-back clients, rush to get my nightly routine completed. By the end of the summer, I feel like I could quit my job altogether. But I have no one to support me, so that’s not an option.

This summer I had the added adjustment of being alone for the first time. Braking down on the side of the freeway alone. Attending weddings alone. Spending holidays and weekends alone. At least when I was working, I was guaranteed to see people every day. Over the summer, I had to make plans to motivate myself to leave the house, and sometimes I couldn’t do it.

Plus, I was also going through the steps to finalize my divorce, so I no longer had the illusion that I could return to the more stable state of matrimony. I didn’t date anyone or even have someone I could fantasize about dating. Well, I guess there’s Federer, but even in his case, the most I could imagine was being one of the nannies for his new twin boys. Not terribly romantic.

Despite the struggles with boredom, reversed sleep cycles, and solitude, I think the highs and lows actually helped me tolerate my emotions better. I would remind myself that boredom and loneliness are painful sometimes, but I’ll be busy eventually. (Usually the next day, because I played in 7 tennis leagues and captained 5 of them over the summer.) And when school starts and I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’ll remind myself that I have a long break to look forward to at the end of the term.

I think it also helped that I spent the past 2 weeks on vacation with family and friends. It was the highlight of the summer, but it was also hard to be around people 24-7. Now that I am accustomed to extended periods of solitude, I realize how much I need down time to feel sane. So by the time my vacation ended on Friday, I was ready to go home. Ready to catch up on tennis, blogging, and even work.

This summer was a good reminder of how, even when something seems intolerable, that feeling will pass. And you might even find value in the experience that you hated so much at that time.

Good Fortune

Money can’t buy happiness. Beauty is only skin deep. Age is just a number. It may be an illusion that wealth, beauty, and youth bring happiness, but I have to admit, sometimes it’s still a convincing one.

Earlier this summer, when I was stranded in South Carolina waiting for my car to be fixed, I had the good fortune of staying with a friend from graduate school and her family. At the time, I had been on this kick about destiny, so her daughter recommended that I read Holes, by Louis Sachar. It’s about a boy who is sentenced to work at a camp for delinquent boys for a crime he didn’t commit. Although it didn’t seem like it at the time, he was exactly where he was supposed to be. I was working hard to stay positive about my situation, so I wondered if my reading “Holes” was meant to be, as well.

I asked my young friend what else I should read, and she recommended Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. It’s about a Chinese girl named Minli who goes on a long journey to try to change her family’s fortune. In the end, she learns that family is the greatest fortune of all.

Every year my college friend and I have an Inner Child Reunion. During our first reunion a few years ago, I introduced her to Sophie and she realized that she had a part of herself that was not allowed to play. So we make it a priority to get together for a few days over the summer for an extended play date. This year we could not find a mutual time to meet, so she decided to bring her son and meet me at my brother’s house because I had to babysit my niece. So it was a double reunion since she, my brother, and I all went to UVA.

As usual, my friend and I lamented over the very adult burdens of money, weight gain, and aging, but without the same level of obsessiveness as before. Perhaps it was because spending several days with 4 adults and 2 actual children, in addition to our inner children, left us with less energy for lamentations. Or perhaps it was because being together helped us to be more grateful for what we have.

I’m not gonna lie. We did not become enlightened beings over the past few days. We would still like to make a little more money, lose a little weight, and slow down the aging process. But we were also reminded that we are blessed to have family and friends who enjoy singing and recording “Let It Go” for hours on end, several days in a row. How many other people can say that? (I would post one of the videos but it’s kind of embarrassing.)

Perhaps it is no coincidence that I finished “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” last night, at the conclusion of our Inner Child/College Reunion. Grace Lin was right: gratitude brings good fortune.

Honesty and Trust, Part 2

“You should know; you’re a psychologist.”

Sometimes I don’t know. Sometimes I, too, am puzzled as to why people do the things they do.

I’ve been trying to make sense of why, despite my commitment to honesty, I remained in relationships with people who consistently lied to me. And I didn’t even like them very much. I have this tendency to try to make relationships work at all costs, even when I don’t like the person. Even when they do things that are inconsistent with my values, like lying. It’s maddening.

One of my exes told me up front that he was a liar. Still, my first instinct was to believe him. It’s too much work not to trust people, I think. But sometimes it was more costly to make myself believe that he was being honest. It’s hard not to beat myself up for trusting a self-proclaimed liar. Why would anyone do such a crazy thing?

My best guess is that I stayed with these guys because I wanted to believe in the version of themselves that they were selling. It’s who they wanted to be, and who I wanted them to be. I wanted to help them get there, even. You can do it! I have faith in you!

Plus, I knew they were lying because they were ashamed of who they really were. I was trying to do the whole unconditional positive regard thing that therapists do. Because that is the most healing gift that we can give to others. It works well in therapy, but not so much in romantic relationships. I realize now that there is a limit to how much you can allow someone to hurt you in order to prove to them that they are lovable.

I understand what it’s like to fear that people won’t love you or respect you if they knew what you’re really like. That is the purpose of this blog, after all. To challenge myself to show the world what I’m really like. And while I haven’t outright lied about who I am, I haven’t always shared the things that I’m ashamed of. Not even to my family–the people who do love me unconditionally.

So I guess we can all challenge ourselves to be more honest. Some people have further to go than others, but as long as we’re making the effort, that’s what counts, isn’t it?  Anyway, it makes me feel better about myself to frame my tolerance of dishonesty in this way, so that’s what I’m going with.

But I’m still going to be more selective about who I choose to be with from now on.

Blessings in Disguise

Remember how my car broke down on the way to my friend’s wedding? Well, it turned out to be more of an inconvenience than an extra day and $1000. Try 2 extra days and $3000.

I tried my best to have a good attitude about it. I made a list of the things I was thankful for. I tried to put a positive spin on everything. It helped some, but it was still annoying.

You know what helped the most? I looked at the service ticket when I got home and it turned out that my rear brakes were 95% worn. I kind of thought they were unresponsive, but I didn’t think it was that bad. I’m actually thankful that my car broke down. I was speeding because I was late for the rehearsal dinner, and if I had to break suddenly, things could have been much worse. Maybe breaking down wasn’t a punishment for having a bad attitude after all. Maybe God was looking out for me.

I often tell clients that the events that they think are terrible at the time may turn out to be blessings in disguise. This is also supported by research on happiness. I mentioned in a previous post how people who become paraplegics from car accidents return to their baseline level of happiness after about a year. Sometimes they are even thankful for the accident, because it moved their lives in a more positive direction.

I guess if you’re really cynical, you could argue that they’re just rationalizing to make themselves feel better. I don’t think this is true, but even if it were, so what? Our beliefs are more compelling than reality, anyway. I’d love to be irrationally grateful.

This holiday weekend has been tough for me. Holidays are the hardest because they are supposed to be filled with family, friends, and food. And in this case, fireworks. I am 0-4. I think about how I’ve spent the 4th of July in the past. Some of the most recent ones were far worse than I could have imagined. Now that I’m single, the best I can hope for is that holidays won’t be as lonely and depressing as I think they will be. This one is about what I expected. (Unless Federer wins tomorrow. Then it will all be worthwhile.)

My tendency is to beat myself up for my single status. I must deserve it because of all the terrible relationship decisions I’ve made. Or maybe I’m just unlucky. Or maybe at some point in the future, I’ll look back and realize that this period of solitude was also a blessing in disguise. I’m not completely convinced of this, but I’m trying to be hopeful.

These are the flowers from the wedding. It has nothing to do with blessings, but I think it’s a cool picture.

Joy and Pain

I finally saw The Fault in Our Stars the other day. I thought that the movie was true to the book but wasn’t long enough to include all the scenes that I loved. But I guess no one else would be interested in a 10 hour movie.

One of the things they left out was the discussion of whether we need to experience pain in order to know joy. In the book Hazel repeatedly says she doesn’t believe this: “the existence of broccoli in no way affects the taste of chocolate.” I thought that this was such a compelling argument that for awhile I forgot all of the research I’ve read that supports the joy-pain connection.

Hazel worries about how her death will hurt the people who love her. She is afraid that her parents won’t have a life after she dies. She pushes Augustus away because she doesn’t want to be a grenade. But Augustus cannot be dissuaded: “you don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you do have some say in who hurts you.”

This whole joy and pain thing is actually why I have so much trouble with endings. I look forward to having the summer off but by the 2nd day of summer I start obsessing about how my vacation is running out. I suffer from existential anxiety about death and aging. Even coming to the end of books like this one is difficult because I don’t want to have to say good-bye to characters like Hazel and Augustus.

When I read the book I didn’t fully appreciate Hazel’s obsession with knowing what happens to the characters at the end of “An Imperial Affliction,” which ends in mid-sentence because the narrator dies of cancer. But after watching the movie, I understand. Hazel wants reassurance that life will go on for her parents after she dies.

I’ve always thought that life was kind of cruel in this way. My heart may be broken but the world doesn’t seem to care. Life goes on, despite my pain. It’s kind of insulting, really.

But now I think it’s a good thing. Life isn’t like a book or a movie that begins with joy but ends with pain–and wisdom. Life is more like a series of stories, where we have more joy–and pain–ahead of us. More people to love. More summers to look forward to.  More books to read. So I’m looking forward to the next installment.

I think this doodle looks like lightning bugs.

Why I Have a Superhero Complex

When I was a kid I remember going to K-Mart with my dad, trying to get him to buy me a toy, as usual. We passed by the jewelry section, and he said he needed to buy something first. He had promised one of his patients that if she lived he would buy her some jewelry. He said that he didn’t expect her to live, but since she did, he wanted to keep his promise.

I never forgot this incident because it impressed upon me what a good doctor my dad was. I could imagine him talking to this patient as he made rounds at the hospital. I could see him greet her with his unmistakable laugh, reassuring her that she was going to get better. All of his patients loved him. I wouldn’t be surprised if she got better just for him.

My dad was equally dedicated to his family.  During his periods of depression, the thing that plagued him the most was his fear that he had not spent enough time with us because of work. I was shocked when I heard this. My dad attended every tennis match, awards ceremony, and piano recital we were in. Even now, although we all live in different cities, we try to get together for birthdays and holidays because being together as a family has always been a priority. He has his faults, but failing to spend time with us is definitely not one of them.

Above all else, the reason my dad was a dedicated doctor and father is because this is how he has chosen to serve God. I must admit, it bothered me to hear this when I was a kid. Kind of like when the flight attendant tells parents to put their oxygen mask on before helping their children. As a child, I didn’t want my dad to love God more than he loved me. But as an adult, I appreciate how admirable it is to live your life with that level of commitment.

One of the reasons why I berate myself when I’m not able to function is because depression never stopped my dad from performing his duties. Once he confessed to me how bad things were for him when he was depressed. How it would take him forever to dictate his notes because his cognitive abilities were so compromised. How he would obsess about forgetting some detail and would drive back to the hospital. How there were times when he wanted to give up. But he didn’t. He still went to work every day, came home every night, and made us pray together as a family before we went to bed.

People give me a hard time because I want to save the world. But with a dad like mine, how can I expect anything less of myself? It is a high standard to try to live up to, but if I have to struggle with something, there are worse things than having a superhero for a father.

Escape in the Moment

Back by popular demand, here is another post by my brother, Romeo Barongan, in honor of Father’s Day.

ESCAPE IN THE MOMENT:
A Father’s Day Reflection

I have always dreaded change. Even as a child, my happiest moments were plagued by the knowledge that the more time I spent in the moment, the closer I had come to its end. Lately, the dread of watching my free time evaporate each night with the dawning of a new day, a new shift, & set of new obligations has returned. To offset the gloominess, I have been going to the beach every morning before preparing for the day for no more than 20 minutes. At first, I just did it because I was told that I needed more sunlight & I knew I at least had to go through the motions of feeling better; but truthfully, I didn’t expect any results. But then, after just a few minutes of staring at the peaceful water of the bay with the sun in my face & the sea breeze blanketing me from the summer heat, something happened. I felt peace. All the apprehensions that had kept me up the night before disappeared for just a moment in a place where sand met sea & sea met sky. When I left, it no longer bothered me that my moment of peace was so brief & that obligations still loomed before me; I had a sudden appreciation for the concept of balance.

My morning visits to the beach brought to mind one of my favorite myths from Greek mythology—the story of Icarus & Daedalus. Daedalus is a brilliant Greek inventor who, among other things, creates the Labyrinth that houses the Minotaur of Crete. Icarus is Daedalus’s young adult son. Somehow or another, Daedalus & his son manage to cross Crete’s King Minos. In order to escape punishment, Daedalus crafts wings made of bird feathers & held together with wax. His plan is to escape the island kingdom of King Minos through the air. He teaches his son to fly.


Daedalus, being older & more experienced, warns his son not to fly too close to the water for fear of the moisture loosening the wax that holds the wings together. It would be equally important not to fly too high for fear of the sun’s heat melting the wax that holds the wings in place. The father warns the son to strike a balance somewhere in the middle. Sadly, Icarus becomes too intoxicated with the majesty of flight & soars too close to the sun. Its powerful rays melt the wax, the wings crumble apart, & the young man plummets to the sea. The son fails to heed the father’s lesson of moderation & balance.


While this myth has a sad ending, I think it summarizes the dynamic of fatherhood well. Our fathers push us to reach our potential—they teach us to fly. We, as sons, benefit from their experience & advice. We are given opportunities that we would have been hard-pressed to come by on our own. And finally, we are given guidelines on how to best manage the opportunities we are given. We are taught to strike a balance.


Today, I invite my Father to enjoy his own perfect moment of peace & satisfaction. This day, while only a single day on the calendar, embodies innumerable days collected over the years wherein my Dad crafted two pairs of wings out of feathers & waxed & taught me to fly….Not too high as to touch the sun, & not too low as to dip into the waves, but in a place of balance & equilibrium. Hopefully, I can do a better job of heeding my own father’s advice than Icarus of the myth heeded the advice of his own. 


When I’m tempted to ignore my own responsibilities for a day, I’ll remember my Father’s clock-work commitment to his own profession. Before I mourn the end of a free moment, I’ll remember my father’s example of striving for a balanced life that accommodates both time for recreation & time for focused productivity. On this Father’s Day, I encourage my Dad to live in his own moment of serenity & satisfaction similar to the place I found the day I saw the sand meet the sea & the sea meet the sky. Happy Father’s Day.