Meanderings: 2018

Introduction

Each year, I approach this final blog of the year to reflect upon the past 12 months, project some ideas into the future, and summarize my thoughts about things professional and personal. As I reflect back on the year, retirement mode, my private practice, and changes in the counseling field stand out. As I think about the future, readings in neuroscience, supervision methods, and building my clientele surface to the forefront of my mind. In terms of things professional and personal, I have a sense of being in a good place as a counselor but I need to pour more work into making my practice what I hope it to be. Writing still pulls at me, so I have set a goal over the next year to accomplish some projects upon which I’ve been reflecting for some time.

Retirement and Private Practice

I reached semi-retirement as a professor over five years ago. I have written on this blog about my thoughts on retirement, knowing that I was in the midst of that transition. Now retirement mode has come full force, and I’m completely retired from being a university professor, with that income no longer flowing into my bank account. Of course, that raises some anxiety, but presently I haven’t fallen into impoverishment. Although I may at times do some adjunct work for the university, for the most part, the identity of being a university professor has come to an end. Having lived in that identity for nearly thirty years (counting time spent teaching at the community college level), its finish brings on a strange sense of existence to say the least. But overall it’s a good sense.

Transitioning from university prof to professional counselor has its challenges although I’ve maintained a part-time private practice over the many years I’ve taught at the university. Building my practice is not something I have to start from scratch, which is a good thing. Because well-seasoned thought is difficult to accomplish, what will be more difficult for me is to conceptualize how I want to shape my practice going forward. What do I want my private practice to be about? The lingo used by some to reflect upon this question revolves around the notion of branding. When people see my practice, what is it exactly that I want them to see? Answers to these questions must be worked out over the next year because the time to truly solidify my thoughts on these questions is now. No doubt, supervision will remain part of the make up of what I do. Where I really need to put in the work is discerning what kind of clientele I hope to attract. I have written about that topic on this blog before, but now I need to put some shoe leather on making that come alive in my practice.

Of course, the above thoughts assume that I don’t want to fully retire from work all together. I don’t see not working as a part of my life. Even if I did fold the practice, I would want to see what I could accomplish with writing, which is another goal I’ve set for myself.

So I Want to Be a Writer

When my goals are put in a statement such as that, it sounds silly. A writer writes. He doesn’t sit around thinking about being a writer. Although at this point I’m not ready to make public my ideas about writing, I most definitely have some thoughts I want to pursue. Presently, I have over a hundred poems I’ve written over the past four or five years that I hope to self publish. I have some other ideas as well that I’m not ready to state publicly. Suffice it to say that I’m having some thoughts while reading Richard Foster’s Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer. Projecting into the next year, I’ll have more to say about this reading and what it means as well. For now, it’s important to say nothing until I’m more certain about things. Too often I talk, but do nothing. Now is the time for silence and to get things solidified. My personal faith will have a lot to say regarding how my future will be shaped. At least, I hope it does.

I’m not sure how much my ideas about writing will involve counseling. Obviously, at least to some small degree, this field in which I work will influence my ideas, thoughts, and conclusions in ways that will work into some of the things I might write. The major way in which counseling will play out in my writing is its contribution to my understanding of human nature. Presently, researchers and practitioners in the counseling field are experiencing the impact that neuroscience places upon the field. Given this pressure, I hope to do some reading and study in the arena of neuroscience. I’m not sure that counselors recognize what the full impact of findings in neuroscience mean for our field. I have already written on this subject to some degree. I believe more work is needed in this area because so many claims are being made on which we need solid and concrete clarification.

Conclusion: Things Professional and Personal

The name of this blog is Contemplations: Exploring the Life of the Mind: The Arts, Sciences, and Critical Inquiry. I want to fill out what that title means for this blog. I have written before about core areas in which I’m interested, one of which involves mind, exploring the core elements of human nature. I still strongly believe that we are meaning-making creatures seeking a life of fulfillment whereby we search out ways to live in alignment with our values, lining up how we act with what we believe. We are creatures with a worldview that we hope will guide us through the living out of our lives.

Presently, we live in a postmodern age where the idea of truth has been made so relative that it’s difficult for people to take a stand on what they believe to be true. Given the impact of postmodernism, a backlash in thought has occurred where the age of Enlightenment is seen as a remedy to the assault on science as a way of guiding us in thought and action. Although I agree with many thinkers who have come to be heavily critical of the postmodern age, there are also dangers in store from the new gurus touting a return to the Enlightenment. I value what the Enlightenment brought to human thinking and knowledge, but there are many questions regarding spirituality and the sacred for which neither postmodernism nor the Enlightenment offer a foundation. All of these ideas, thoughts, and inquiry I hope to explore and write about moving forward into the future, which begins with the New Year of 2019.

Highways and crossroads wait for us all. Hope to see you there.

 

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D, LPC-S/December 14th, 2018

GENERAL ESSAY

Foundations: Reflections upon the Holidays

Introduction

For as long as I can remember, the holidays have always been a fun-filled time for me. I’m glad during these septuagenarian years that I haven’t changed in that regard. Beginning with Halloween, the celebration is on. Of course, being a Christian, Thanksgiving and Christmas carry more import for me. No doubt my growing up in the family that surrounded me imbued the holidays with special meaning. Solid foundations that a loving and nurturing family can lay form springboard for moving on into life.

Home at Thanksgiving

Last year at this time, I penned a blog regarding my mom and her journey into becoming a professional nurse. I tend to become reflective about family at the beginning of every holiday season. Unfortunately, I believe Thanksgiving gets the short end of the stick when it comes to festivities. Everyone is wild about Halloween, and then the Christmas decorations start emerging in all the retail centers. One hears questions from various people like, what happened to Thanksgiving. Christmas decorations coming out in late October and early November appear to jump over Thanksgiving like a game of checkers. As for Thanksgiving, people can become more excited about Black Friday sales than the holiday with family interactions.

My family always celebrated Thanksgiving with the traditional dinner, joined by relatives and friends. Although there was plenty of turkey over the years, my mom enjoyed baked chicken due to its succulent and moist taste. She learned from my grandmother on my dad’s side how to cook, and she never disappointed. The aromas of food ready for preparation created a mien throughout the house beginning a couple of days before the big Thanksgiving feast. Over the years mom became more and more adamant about preparing holidays meals herself rather than letting other family members take on the task. She loved the big spread that covered a large dining table, and before she would let anyone take a bite, plenty of photographs had to take in the scene to commemorate each year’s feast.

I remember those times being about family, fun, and of course, food. Seeing relatives that otherwise lived miles away made the few days of Thanksgiving special. Cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents filled the times with memories. The Thanksgiving meals remained a Jones tradition for decades. During the time I was in school, Thanksgiving Day always fell on the last Thursday of November rather than the third Thursday as it does now. That meant that my birthday also fell on the Thanksgiving holidays. Ever so often, it would fall on Thanksgiving Day itself. So for me, that made Thanksgiving even more fun.

What made Thanksgiving, as well as the other holidays, truly special was the energy into which mom poured her self into preparing all the food, calling and inviting the relatives, and decorating the house. She truly loved those times and never saw them as something she felt coerced to engage. Was she exhausted when they were over? Absolutely. But she wouldn’t have changed a thing. I will always remember our home as festive during the holidays.

Time Moves On

When I was young, I had a faint sense that the future would entail the passing on of my parents. As I grew older, that sense strengthened into a full-fledged awareness, and eventually became a known reality. As a professional in the work-a-day world of counseling, I know the importance of family. My experience of my family, however, imbues that importance with a reality that counseling theories can never touch.

You see, I’m one of those corny guys who does not hold grudges against either my mom or dad. I didn’t grow up in a home where I regret anything regarding family. Any regrets I have are due to my own actions. I don’t have any repressed hostilities against family authority or something called patriarchy. Did my parents and I have disagreements? You bet we did. We had our disagreements and arguments like any family. The key thing for me, however, even in the midst of times where we vehemently disagreed on things, there was never a question regarding support and love.

As a professional counselor, over the years I’ve worked with people who didn’t grow up in the kind of family I was blessed enough to be a part of. So yes, I know the importance of family first hand. I know the importance of how core beliefs, values, and ways of taking on life emerge from family. I know, as well, that it’s hard to learn those lessons when a nurturing, supportive, and loving family is absent from one’s life. Learning about life is something that cannot be made up in a short time. Even with the supportive family I had, I’ve had to learn about time and heeding lessons. The foundations laid in family experiences will last a lifetime. That’s why those times are immensely important. They shape the way we view, engage and experience the most important relationships we have moving forward.

Time moves on whether we want it to or not. In many ways we become aware of its inexorable press forward when we would like to slow it down, hold it back, or shut it down for at least a little while. But we do not as finite creatures possess the power to stop or alter time. The one thing I would advise people to do, if I can take the position of a septuagenarian here who at least has some worthwhile advice to give, is to grab hold of your family experiences with all you have in you, and learn from them all that you can glean. Make memories. And then make some more. Family can be a foundation on which you can stand for all your life.

Conclusion

Time moves on. My dad died in 1999 of coronary heart disease. He would have been seventy-five years old that September. I watched esophageal cancer take mom when she was seventy-seven in 2007. I miss those days with them everyday that I move on with time. The lessons learned and forgotten are worthy, but the memories of love are forever and never relinquish in strength. Like so many, I was a rebellious teenager, a young adult who grew up in the 1960’s, and a person who changed with adulthood like anyone else who navigates life. Even during those changes, there was a foundation that never wavered. John Bowlby calls it secure base. I called it a home.

As I look back on those times now, I realize something very important. The energy and gusto that mom poured into Thanksgiving meals were not just about the holidays. Those happy times emerged from a solid and loving family that generated the festive times during the holidays, and not the other way around. My family was not what it was because of the holidays. The holidays were what they were because of my family.

I’ll never let go of all that those times meant for me. I’ll never let go of continuously learning what those times mean for my life now as a septuagenarian, who is still moving on in time.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/November 14, 2018

GENERAL ESSAY

Postgrads: Considerations Upon Entering the Field of Professional Counseling

Introduction

As a Licensed Professional Counselor with Supervisory Status, one of the most fulfilling components of my work entails both supervising and mentoring Licensed Professional Counselor Interns (LPC-I).

For those not familiar with the field of counseling, the supervision process requires graduates of counseling programs to undergo a postmaster’s internship, during which time they are designated as Licensed Professional Counseling Interns. Typically licensing boards within each state set particular standards by which interns undergo weekly supervision with their chosen supervisor. As part of those standards, interns must undergo supervision while logging so many administrative and direct counseling hours. Direct counseling hours involve any face-to-face time that interns meet with clients. Administrative hours entail hours associated with the work of counseling, involving anything from writing case notes and researching information about clients to hours spent in supervision. For most states the requirements for interns is that they log 3000 postmaster’s hours, with a minimum of direct contact set at 1500 hours. Although, these standards vary from state to state, many states are now moving to more uniform requirements due the accreditation process that university counseling programs must undergo. Additionally, interns are not allowed to complete this process in less than eighteen months. What that means for prospective graduates of counseling programs is that they are looking toward at least an additional eighteen months before they are fully licensed. They are also looking at limited income during this year-and-a-half due to their status as an intern.

Obviously, interns enter the supervisory process with a shipload of questions, not only about how to work with clients, but also how to think about their professional futures. In this blog article I want to proffer some possible guidelines that LPC-I’s can reflect upon if they find them helpful to do so. I will break down the discussion as follows: a) entering the process of supervision; b) undergoing the process of supervision; and c) exiting supervision – the transition from Intern to fully Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC).

The postmaster’s Internship is an onerous process, so I do hope both present and future interns will find some of these thoughts helpful.

Beginnings: The Transition from Graduate School to LPC-I

I can only highlight some general steps involving your transition from graduate school to the professional world of counseling. Each state has its own State Board for counselors, and several of the states have different names for their licensees. Some states, as the one in which I live, designate counseling professionals as LPC’s. Other states use the title Mental Health Licensed Counselor (MHLC), while other states designate similar titles. Due to the move toward common accreditation for university counseling programs, though the name for practitioners varies from state to state, the training is similar, as are many of the regulations for counseling professionals. I will use the nomenclature utilized by the Texas State Board of Examiners of Licensed Professional Counselors. Much of what I outline here will apply generally to all state designated licensed counselors.

When you graduate from a counseling program, now typically a 60-hour program with the curriculum delineated by the State Board, you will not step into the professional role of a fully licensed professional counselor right away. Instead, you will step into the role of the LPC-I. Note that the LPC-I is a license, so once you navigate the beginning requirements set by the the State Board, you will possess a license to work as an Intern. First you will have to pass a State Board Exam, typically containing 250 multiple-choice questions. There are several study guides and preparation workshops available for your study and prep for the exam. The postgraduate is allowed three shots as the exam before remediation is required, which typically involves repeating some graduate coursework. There is also a Jurisprudence Exam that you must complete, but it is not a pass/fail exam. You read through the regulations and answer the questions until you know the correct answers. Once you have completed the LPC and Jurisprudence exams, you begin your search for a supervisor. In Texas, LPC counselors with Supervisory Status are designated as LPC-S. The website for the State Board has rosters of all three levels of counselors – LPC-I, LPC, and LPC-S. The Board indicates where each counselor is located in the State, so interns looking for a supervisor can note those who live in their area. Interns cannot begin accruing their supervised hours until they pass the required exams mentioned above, have obtained a setting where they will work as an intern, and have a supervisor in place. Once the intern lines all that out, he or she can begin chipping away at the 3000 required postgraduate hours.

Choosing a Supervisor

Typically some graduates already know the LPC-S with whom they would like to work as a postgrad intern. Many new graduates, however do not, or the individual with whom they would like to work has no available space. Choosing a supervisor is an important decision for the postgrad. Here are some pointers I would offer. First, do not simply choose someone because you feel desperate to obtain a supervisor. Good reflection upon choosing a supervisor is an important process, and it’s an interview in which you interview the supervisor as much as he or she interviews you. The relationship between you and your supervisor will last for at least eighteen months, so you want a good working relationship with the LPC-S you choose.

Supervisor – Intern Fit

Second, you are looking for a good fit between you and your supervisor. The field of counseling is conceptualized and approached in terms of practice in a myriad of ways. One’s counseling theory is just one component that you look for in terms of fit. There is no reason, however, that you can’t work with a supervisor who holds a different theoretical model than you. Most practitioners these days integrate several theories as it is. I’m not saying that theory is unimportant, but I don’t believe it’s the single most important determinant for choosing a supervisor. But it is a start. For example, if you want to work from a behavioral or cognitive-behavioral model, a supervisor who practices from a psychodynamic perspective will view the work much different than you do. But that’s not a reason that you shouldn’t or couldn’t choose such a supervisor.

Supervision Atmosphere

Third, in terms of looking for a good fit, you want to try as best as you can to discern in your interview if the supervisor is someone with whom you would feel comfortable working. Though they may have some different conceptualizations, they may also have a style and a personality with which you feel at ease. Some supervisors simply don’t care to match on the basis of theory. Other components such as style, willingness to take and give feedback, and openness to continued learning as a practitioner are deemed more important than theoretical orientation, both by interns and supervisors. The type of clientele with whom the supervisor works may be the kind of population with whom you would like to work as well. So the context in which counseling work takes place can be an important and deciding factor for choosing both your worksite and supervisor. I meet with prospective interns for a free consultation so that both the intern and I can decide if the fit is a good one.

Know that there are a variety of components by which you can decide which supervisor will be a good fit for you. A few of these components are: theoretical model, counseling style, supervision style, personality, type of clientele and practice, setting of practice, and many more. You might want to make a list of what you’re looking for in terms of a supervisor before you begin the interviewing process. Obviously, supervision fee is an important consideration from your own personal financial standpoint. Some agencies or institutions may have supervisors on staff from whom you can receive free supervision if your place of employment offers that perk.

Engaging the Process of Supervision

Just as they have with their clients, supervisors have a supervisory style by which they work with interns. Although you can clarify that as much as possible during the interviewing process, there’s a lot regarding the day-to-day supervisory work that you will not know and see until you are in the middle of the process. Know that you can change supervisors at any time. At the same time, you want to be clear as to why you want to make a change in supervision. The ability to work with supervisors who conceptualize and see some things different from you can be good training if both you and the supervisor know how to navigate such differences.

Regardless of the specific supervisor’s approach and style, there are some things that you can decide that you want from supervision. First, do not approach the supervisory experience as a place where a supervisor merely tells you what to do with your clients. You want a supervisor who will work with you so that you can truly build your own approach and style as a professional. Thereby, second, you want a supervisor who will engage supervision as an exploratory process to help you come to your own conclusions about the way you want to approach the work of counseling and the manner in which you hope to engage your clients. Although you want challenges, questions, and an open exploratory process, you do not want a supervisor who merely tells you what steps and interventions to use with your clients. Although interventions can be a major discussion in supervision, you want that discussion to revolve around your training, skill development, and how interventions fit with your personal approach and style. In other words, the over-arching goal of the supervision process is to provide a pathway for you to develop your own professional approach and style. Supervisors should help you with not only some possible interventions to utilize, but also they should help you develop your own conceptualization as to why you work the way you do. Note that such conceptual knowledge and skill building will not end in supervision, but will be a continuing developmental process as you work in the field of counseling.

There are several questions you can reflect on during the supervision process that can help you decide how the fit and supervisory work is going for you. First, is the supervisor allowing you to develop your own way of working with clients, or is he or she trying to strongly influence everything you do, including adapting the theoretical model the supervisor holds? Second, does the supervisor challenge you in ways that will help you develop and grow as a professional? Third, do you get the type of feedback you’re looking for that is conducive to professional growth? Do you feel like you have room to grow and develop professionally in the way that you hope to do so? Does the supervisor meet his or her responsibilities as a professional LPC- S should? Do you sense that the supervisor has your professional interest and development at heart, or is the supervisor trying to simply reproduce the way he or she works?

There are some other emphases that I believe supervisors should engage in additionally to staffing the intern’s caseload. First, I think it’s important for supervisors to have an ongoing discussion with interns regarding their professional goals for the future. What kind of work does the intern hope to pursue? Is there a particular population with whom interns hope to work fully, or at least emphasize in their caseload? You want to find ways to broach these subjects as much as possible with your supervisor as you work through your required supervised hours. Likewise, you want to engage in research in areas of personal interests to discover what the type of work you hope to do actually entails. Hopefully, you have been able to engage this work at least to some extent during your postgrad Internship, although that may not be possible for all Internship settings.

Second, I believe it’s important to have thorough discussions with your supervisor regarding the Code of Ethics for professional counselors. You want to bring any ethical concerns you might have to supervision and to determine as clear an answer to them as possible. It is important that you constantly update your knowledge on ethical issues in counseling. It is also important that your supervisor recognize any situation that may bring up certain ethical questions.

Finally you want to trust your supervisor when your working with clients that really challenge you, and perhaps make you feel less competent than you would like. These are important discussions to have during the supervision hour. Supervision should be an open forum where you can voice your questions, doubts, and any feelings regarding the confidence you have as a developing professional. Work in this field has a way of challenging your sense of competency. You should not let that undermine your work and future goals. Although your supervisor is not your counselor, those areas where you professionally vulnerable are welcomed opportunities for professional development when working with a good supervisor.

Exiting Supervision: The Transition to a Fully Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

So now, you have made the transition from Intern to a full LPC. What’s next? This is the exciting part of your career obviously. As stated above, hopefully in supervision, you have been contemplating and reflecting upon the kind of professional you want to become. Your work can involve private practice, a practice that serves particular populations, or work that involves such settings as mental health institutions, professional clinics, or clinical mental health hospital settings. Likewise, hopefully you had the opportunity at least part of the time during your Internship to work in the areas you hope to develop. Moreover, as you begin nearing the end of your supervisory requirements, you began checking out settings and counseling professionals involved in the kind of work you hope to do. The best scenario is that you chose a setting where you will continue the kind of work you were doing under supervision. Note, however, that all the experience you receive as an intern will serve you in many capacities as you move on toward your LPC practice. Working with clients is the experience that will help build your skills and determine which direction you want to go post Internship. No experience with clients is wasted, even if it keys you to the kind of work you most decidedly do not want to engage.

Let me offer some advice as you move forward into your professional journey. There will be many other professionals who have a take on what they believe you should do as an LPC. That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with input and some guidance. What you must be aware of, however, and where you must draw the line is that the decision regarding your professional direction is yours and yours alone. It is important that you are honest with yourself as to the type of work you hope to do, and about the type of setting in which you hope to work. By all means, take in and listen to input, feedback, and advice; however, ultimately the decision falls in your court. The last thing you want to do is seek to live another person’s goal for your professional life. Working in a setting or with a population that is not a good fit for you is a short road to burnout. The work you want to do that truly comes from your mind and heart is as worthy as any work other people are doing.

Those who want to go into private practice particularly face pressure from others in the field about pursuing their own goals, way of living, and professional satisfaction. There are plenty of people who want to work in agencies, clinics, and hospitals. That type of work is admiral work, but it’s not for everybody. And the same can be said for private practice. It isn’t for everybody. Indeed to pursue private practice requires that you have somewhat of an entrepreneurial spirit about you. Those with such a spirit experience other pressures from the field regarding setting fees and the amount of money they hope to make. I hope individuals realize that becoming a professional counselor will most likely not make you a millionaire anytime soon. But what you should not feel is any pressure and guilt regarding your desire to make a decent living for yourself. If you are not income aware, or if you find it difficult to charge clients respectfully for your time in order to meet your personal needs, then you are on another short road to burnout. You are a professional, trained, and skilled, so you have a right to give it a shot to build a good practice and make a decent living for yourself.

There are a multitude of settings in which people can find satisfying counseling work in addition to private practice and agency work. Some counselors I know personally love their work in corporate settings. Again, it’s not for everybody, but it’s satisfying work for many. Others enjoy their work in Community College and University Counseling Centers. There are a variety of roads you can take as a professional counselor. Don’t cut off the paths and possible opportunities by looking only at what counselors typically do. You can be as creative and imaginative as you want in carving out a professional life for yourself.

The populations that experience severe mental health problems, and have little financial means to obtain the help they need indeed need people to serve them. And there are many agencies and clinical settings where one can find fulfilling work in meeting those needs. Like any setting, it’s not for everyone, but it is satisfying work for many. Moreover, you can seek out opportunities to volunteer your time at such agencies or clinics if your other work gives you time to do so.

Like anything else in life, you have to determine for yourself the path that you want to follow and responsibly do what it takes to set yourself on and travel that path. And like many roads in life, rather than a straight highway, you will encounter many sinuous pathways that will lead you to question, doubt, and possibly change the road you’re on. After all, these are the experiences that your clients engage as well. And the many questions and doubts they have about their journeys might well lead them into your counseling setting.

Conclusion

What is it to be a professional in any field of endeavor? Some of the things I think of include a body of knowledge, skill level, and the opportunities to pursue self-development, both professionally and in the way that one takes on life in general. Knowledge and its continued pursuit and growth allows us to reflect upon and think about how and why we work the way we do. Accruing professional knowledge should not end, and it should not only grow in some linear fashion, but also it should expand in ways we could have never realized when starting out on our professional journeys. Our own personal horizons should expand with our work. Skill development entails that 10k-hour rule that allows us to develop an expertise that is carved out over time. Skill development also has a way of taking us in directions we couldn’t realize before we developed the skills needed in our work.

Finally, work is one component of so many others that contributes to the kind of life we hope to carve out for ourselves. Although it is only one component, that is why it is important that we own the professional path we choose to follow. Over time, our thoughts, beliefs, and ideas will alter and might even dramatically change. The way in which we approach life with integrity in all areas of living should also inform the way in which we with integrity face, pursue, build and stand upon our professional endeavors.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/October 14th, 2018

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING

Reflections on Group Counseling

Introduction

I’m not sure what the power of group work is all about, but I do know that group counseling offers intense experiences for those who engage the dynamic of group psychotherapy. Because of the intensity that crescendos at times in group therapy, this approach is not for everyone. I do believe that group therapists should interview possible candidates for group work, assessing whether or not each individual is a good fit for group dynamics. There is not a hard cut method to eliminate all possible problematic clients, but at least a meeting one-on-one with potential members before the group is established gives therapists a possible look at any interpersonal concerns that could disrupt good group interaction.

Group counseling can be designed to help various individuals who experience a wide array of concerns. I have in mind three types of group work I would like to offer clients. I will label each type as follows: 1) interpersonal dynamics and personal growth; 2) group dynamics for social anxiety; and 3) group dynamics for values exploration. I will provide a short discussion of each of these group topics respectively. First, I will offer some thoughts on face-to-face meetings with clients previous to their beginning group therapy along with some ideas about assessing prospective group members as to whether or not group counseling would be a good path for them.

Assessing Clients for Group Counseling Fit

Although the diagnostics that revolve around personality disorders are controversial at times, I do think descriptions of potential interpersonal dynamics that the DSM-V offers associated with personality disorders can be helpful in determining the potential fit for prospective members for group counseling. The emotional dysregulation that accompanies those who are diagnosed as Borderline does not bode well for process oriented group therapies. The group skills work that DBT offers these clients is the best pathway for them until they can better regulate their emotions and then pursue process work in therapy if they so choose. Obviously therapists would want to rule out potential members who evidence antisocial or narcissistic tendencies. Dependent personality disorders can also prove problematic where interpersonal relating is key to group work. Those people who might be considered by some as fragile, not open to others’ feedback, and lack the ability to be self-critical would be better served by individual therapy until they are ready for group dynamics.

Those individuals who experience psychoses, intense anxiety disorders, severe depression, and struggles with eating disorders may not be ready for group work as well. On the other hand, group work can be helpful for these individuals if they engage group therapies that specifically deal with these particular diagnostics. I don’t believe a diagnosis of these disorders should automatically rule out one’s ability to engage group work.

The face-to-face interview for potential group members should focus on several interpersonal dynamics. How well does an individual articulate his desire for wanting to engage group counseling? Does the interviewee appear open and honest about her needs? Is the individual self-critical about areas where he wants to pursue personal growth? If someone merely wants to meet people, then he or she should pursue social networks rather than group counseling. Group settings are not the place to find someone to date. Even those who have experienced therapy in the past, and group therapy in particular, may be too therapy savvy, looking for a place to show off their therapy know-how rather than legitimately seeking group counseling because they believe it might help them.

There are many other things to think about regarding the pre-group therapy interview. At the same time, as a therapist, one doesn’t want to overthink the assessment. After all, individuals are unique in their interpersonal strengths and those areas where they think they need improvement. I simply want to see how a person engages conversation with me in a way that I would feel he or she would be interesting to work with in a group dynamic. Group counseling involves a context where people can be glaringly honest with one another. So individuals need to possess somewhat of a strong ego at the outset while simultaneously possessing the willingness to open themselves to possible areas of growth and improvement.

Types of Group Counseling

There are countless foci out there around which group therapists shape their work. Therapists might shape the group work they do according to a particular diagnostic, such as Major Depression or Social Anxiety. Therapists also can work with particular populations of individuals. Group work can be designed for those who have reached retirement age, those who have recently gone through a divorce, and those who are facing some type of bereavement and grief. Therapists usually design group counseling around those areas in which they are interested and experienced. I have in mind three types of group counseling that I would like to offer clients: 1) Interpersonal dynamics and personal growth groups; 2) group dynamics for those who experience social anxiety; and 3) group dynamics for values exploration. I would structure each of these types of groups so that they contain no more than eight members, and the time limit of each group would entail eight weeks. Hence, these are not long-term groups in my mind, but they are long enough for people to accomplish some specific goals.

Interpersonal Dynamic and Personal Growth Groups

What immediately comes to mind when one thinks about this type of group work is the old encounter groups associated with Carl Rogers. Others might be more familiar with Irvin Yalom and the type of group work he designs. Although influenced both by Rogers and Yalom in my reading and study of their work, I would add some structure and get some idea of specific goals that people have for wanting to engage this type of group. Interpersonal growth groups allow people to interact in ways that they discover things about themselves and others, mostly derived from how they relate to members in the group. Historically these types of groups can be ongoing for quite some time, and they can either be closed or open-ended groups, the latter allowing for the introduction of new members from time to time. These types of groups allow people to work out some of their concerns revolving around interpersonal relationships, be they intimate, family, or close friendships. It is the type of group counseling that calls on people to learn more about themselves as they engage others. Thereby they also may learn how to better relate to others. Interpersonal interaction, giving and receiving feedback from others, and honing a self-critical eye about how and what one wants to change in his or her life form the core work of this type of group. The eight-week time limit that I would place on these groups make them quite different from the old encounter groups developed by Rogers and the interpersonal psychotherapy groups that Yalom led. The tasks of the therapists is simply to facilitate interpersonal interaction among group members.

Group Dynamics for Social Anxiety

Over the years that I have worked as a private practitioner therapist, I have worked with numerous individuals who experience social anxiety. It appears more prevalent in society than people would anticipate. Cognitive Behavioral therapists have worked with all anxiety disorders in terms of what they call exposure therapy. Clients confront the very objects or situations that cause anxiety to overtake them. If an individual experiences intense anxiety when driving over bridges, and thereby becomes unable to do so, then therapy proceeds in working with the person to do just that, drive over bridges. Such exposure work may entail flooding, whereby the person jumps headlong into the pool of anxiety that threatens him. If clients are not willing to engage flooding, therapists and clients strategize some step-by-step process through which clients can at their own pace approach angst producing situation. The first approach is called flooding, and the latter approach is called systematic desensitization. For those individuals who experience social anxiety, the group itself is the exposure treatment because those who are socially anxious seek to avoid social situations, especially those social contexts where they do not know people. Group work is ready made for the type of exposure that might help clients face and deal with their social fears. Those who are socially anxious excessively fear negative evaluation from others, so the interpersonal dynamics in this type of group will become important in helping individual members receive feedback about how others perceive them. Obviously such interpersonal dynamics can be risky, and one of the major tasks for the therapists is to squelch any dialogue that approaches verbal attacks and abusive words hurled from one member to others.

Group Dynamics for Values Exploration

Values exploration has become an important component in various types of therapy from a variety of modalities ranging from existential work to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The work entails the search that individuals carry out regarding what they believe to be their core values that guide how they want to live out their lives. In most ways, we are doing just that all the time, but we may not be aware of the core value off which we are operating. As well, we may claim to hold a particular core value, but we have never thought it through as to why it is a core value. Moreover, we may sense that there are too many times that we act in ways that are not in alignment with what we claim to value. Work around such experiences may involve trying to uncover why we are failing to live in alignment with our core values, or as important, therapeutic work may lead us to question do we in fact believe what we claim to believe. Alignment between what we claim to value and how we act in our lives is one of the major goals of values exploration. Values exploration is premised on the notion that a life of fulfillment is based on such alignment. Although we are never perfect in this alignment, for many people it is a worthy goal to pursue. The notion that the good life entails the fact that we say what we mean, and mean what we say is a strong value that pulls at many people. Moreover, we hope to claim that we act in ways that we claim to believe. As described here, this type of group work entails an overall specific regimen that then allows individuals to establish goals for their lives based on what they conclude in terms of their search for core values. The tasks of the therapist may be more structured than the other two types of groups, specifically in the beginning when group members are seeking to decide what they believe their core values to be. Many therapists utilize Q-sorts to engage clients in the work of values exploration.

Conclusion

The above descriptions of the three types of group work that interest me are necessarily short, and their discussions in no way tap all the concerns that therapists face in designing group work. The general concerns for therapists who lead groups are always present. I purposely didn’t discuss those because this particular blog is not an introduction to group therapy. Rules for group dynamics, methods and techniques, and group leadership or facilitator style always remain important reflections for therapists who want to engage group work. Single leader/facilitator versus co-leaders/facilitators is also an important position that group therapists want to consider.

As I stated above, I determined these three types of groups based on my interests. I also think that, for whatever reasons in the evolving process of therapy, these topical themes appear to be ones that are popular in today’s therapeutic world. People still want to learn how to develop interpersonal relationship skills. Devastation and avoidance of life fulfillment due to social anxiety is a constant reminder of how prevalent this concern is in today’s social climate. And values exploration has become a hot topic along with the practice of mindfulness. For these reasons, it is important that as therapists we shape well-articulated reasons for how we work with these concerns. Likewise, it is important that we find ways that generate good outcome when it comes to this type of work. Popularity can indeed breed onslaughts of mountebankery. I believe group therapy designed around these concerns can and will generate good therapeutic outcome. Like any other type of work in the therapeutic world, we should attend to the research and work of other therapists. Also, we must possess the attitude that we want to assess as best we can the outcome of our work. That’s easier said than done many times.

 

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/September 14th, 2018

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING

The Good Life: Articulating an Idea

Introduction

Ideas are wonderful phenomena. They can be exciting as well as fun, especially when they bring one to the brink of possibly carving out a creative path for the journey one is traveling. I have been thinking lately about what the notion of the good life actually means. One of the reasons I liked being a professor for so many years is that graduate students can keep teachers tied into any creative sense they might possess. Although I’m retired now, I work with practicum students and postgraduate interns through my private practice. Recently I had a discussion with a practicum student who indicated that she is interested in career counseling, but not from the typical angle in which that genre of counseling is approached. She is more interested in what work or career means to people. What kind of value do people place on the notion of work and career? How does work fit into the way they envision life for themselves? My practicum student’s thoughts strongly resonated with me because I’ve have sought for several years how to talk with clients about work and career along the lines of valuation. Yet my thoughts have continued to float around in kind of a haze that I cannot quite articulate. How would I build a practice around such thoughts? What would my work with clients in this area actually look like? What would the work that clients and I pursue entail? Ideas are wonderful phenomena indeed. They come and they go. Some of them have handles onto which one can grasp. Many of them slip into and out of consciousness and are lost forever in cyberspace or some kind of other space. If ideas are going to fructify in one’s life, then they must move from that vague sense of haziness in the mind to becoming fully articulated. Somehow and in someway, I believe thoughts around work and career in conjunction with personal values can open up life and allow one to glimpse into some possible meaning about the good life.

Values and Career

Values exploration has become somewhat of a hot topic in counseling for several years now. An emphasis on values has always informed spiritual counseling. The resurgence of values exploration has come about especially with the popularity of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Additionally I have never worked with a client where at least in some small way work or career hasn’t surfaced as a concern for the client.

At one time I thought I would enjoy the work of a career counselor. Such work is specifically delineated so as to help people find possible career paths or the type of job at which one would be efficient as well as enjoy. The notion of working with clients to help them find a job is not an idea that really interests me. I am more interested in the way people’s personal values relate to the jobs or career paths they have chosen. I’m particularly interested in the value and meaning that people place on work for themselves. Questions come to mind generated by this fuzzy idea I have of branding a practice. What place does work play in people’s lives? How does a job or career serve a person in terms of the way they desire to approach life? Is a career one’s ultimate goal, or is it a means that serves other ends? Is one’s work one’s passion? Or does work enable a person to pursue more meaningful passions? How does work or career fit into one’s idea about the good life? These questions and more presently form a fuzzy framework for how I envision the future of my work as a counselor. The goal, of course, is to fully articulate that framework, which is now nothing more than a vague idea.

Goat’s Milk

No. I’m not going to present a diatribe on goats’ milk, how it compares and contrasts to cows’ milk, or any other kind of milk. I will however present an anecdotal story that might lead people to think about values and work, and what might make up the good life.

Several years ago – I can neither remember the specific date nor the name of the individual involved – I read an article about a woman who worked in the power world of corporations and pulled off a success that took a lot hutzpah to get to the acme of her career. She gave it all up. And what was her reasoning for giving it up? She wanted to purchase and work a goat farm. At least I think it was a goat farm. It struck me in a way that I’ve not forgotten what that article was all about. From the acme of being a corporate CEO to goats’ milk and goat’s cheese. What was that all about? Simply put, it was about her pursuing and doing the very thing she has always wanted to do. Goats’ milk? Who knows why? What does it matter? She wanted to do it. Like anything else, she had to learn the skills that it took to make a goat farm work. The article was primarily about needing and learning the skills one needs to make a go of whatever kind of dream one is pursuing. One doesn’t simply sit around, and with the wishing all comes true. But the article about this woman’s major transition in life brings up something even more important. For her, a goat farm carried deep meaning for her, and it was her take on the good life.

The Good Life

No. I’m not going to delve into the entire history of ideas whereby countless individuals have addressed how they view the good life. What interests me along these lines is more about how people understand what entails a balanced and meaningful life. Work or career is but one component of a well-balanced life. But in our culture, it is a supercharged and an important component for most people. Work can mean a lot of things to a host of individuals for the simple reason that each person is unique. And each individual has an angle on how he or she wants to tackle life. Along these lines I hope to shape my future private practice as a professional counselor. These are questions about life that truly interest me. As I discussed with my practicum students just the other day, articulating this vision for a private practice is a key that will open up whole ways of rethinking and approaching the work they want to do. On some level such reflections will lead to what professional entrepreneurs call branding. The articulation I seek to unfold within my own mind is much more than merely branding, as important at that is. The avenue I’m seeking to clarify at the moment is about how I think about life in general, and how my thoughts and values will shape the way I hope to develop my practice. As I stated earlier, there are few if any clients I’ve worked with who have no broached the worlds of work and finances somewhere along the line we have worked together. Work and money, like it or not, are always important parts of our lives. And please, that doesn’t mean that all one cares about is the filthy mammon. It doesn’t mean that one is a coarse materialist. What it does mean is that understanding how to navigate the worlds of work, career, and money contributes to a well-lived and fruitful life.

Conclusion

Theoretically, I believe my spiritual beliefs, values exploration, some existential thought, all encased in ACT provide an excellent framework for how I hope to articulate my vision for what I hope my practice to become over the next few years. I’m somewhat excited about moving forward on this vision because it dovetails with some other literature I’m reading in the areas of economics and an anarchist approach to life. The ideas of a well-lived life, living in accordance with my values, and the pursuit of a balanced and fulfilling life require personal liberty in a context where political power is viewed as the enemy of human decency. These ideas fold into what Albert Jay Nock called the humane life that brings about civilization. My spiritual beliefs form the foundation for all these thoughts, and they provide the means by which I make meaning of life. Meaning making is another important component of a life well-lived, or the good life.

 

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/August 14th, 2018

GENERAL ESSAY

Psychotherapy, Neuroscience, & Consilience

Introduction

A couple of months back I published a blog article titled, Game Plan, that laid out various areas of interests and research that I want to pursue going forward on this blog. I proffered those areas of thought with the hope that they would become a guiding framework for future discussions and explorations. I believe each area addresses important concerns, not only within the field of counseling, but also in dealing with human nature and the human condition. This month’s blog article concludes five years of monthly blogs since I constructed this website. Next month’s blog will kickoff a sixth year of blogging. Going forward in accordance with my game plan I will inaugurate some detailed pursuits of the major changes occurring in the field of counseling, as well as discussions revolving around the Arts and Sciences – all within a wide framework of mind, meaning, thought/action, finitude/humility, and worldview. Within the next couple of years, I do believe that major changes for our professional field of counseling are heading our way. As I stated in a previous blog, the fields of endeavor that will produce the most impact on the way we see our work will be the those of cognitive science and neuroscience. In 1998 E. O. Wilson wrote Consilience, addressing a confluence of knowledge among the sciences and social sciences, as well as the humanities. These themes have been furthered explored by cognitive scientists, such as Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett. Are we seeing the inroads of such a confluence when we consider the fields of cognitive science, neuroscience, and counseling?

Unity of Knowledge

The areas of cognitive science and neuroscience will introduce some earth-shattering changes, not only in the way we conceptualize within the profession of counseling, but also in the manner in which we do our work. The new technologies emerging in these fields are introducing information about the brain that we could have never imagined just a decade or so ago. The fields of cognitive science, neuroscience, and neurology will most likely shatter the way we have thought about counseling theories in the history of our field. We will have to take on revolutionary ways of thinking about human nature. For some time now, holistic theories in counseling have been gathering momentum that challenges past thinking about how we work as counselors. These holistic approaches for several years now have criticized the headiness of counseling and have sought to reintroduce the mind-body connection back into our understanding of human nature.

Although the pursuit of understanding the mind-body connection has always fallen in the domains of philosophy and psychology, the fields of cognitive science and neuroscience have open the door to empirical evidence of what occurs in the brain in real time. Technologies that have been developed within these fields provide correlative and palpable snap shots of brain activity while we think, act, and emote. We can actually look into the brains of people who are depressed and compare them to those who are not depressed. We can get a picture of an individual’s brain as its changes overtime as a person experiences therapy, engages exercise routines, makes dietary changes, etc. These technologies provide practitioners of various fields such as counseling with information we couldn’t touch or even get to until recently. We need to heed the warning that if counselors discount and negate these technological innovations, they do so at their peril. Fields evolve. Fields also overlap and interact in ways that are helpful. Shared information among the sciences and other fields is leading to partnerships that can now be made stronger due to the technological advances that not only inform research in the medical sciences, but also inform innovative research methods in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy.

It’s not that the field of counseling has never drawn from what are considered the hard sciences to help better understand human nature. It’s just that now, such interaction with other fields of endeavor are becoming easier. More importantly, such interactions are becoming vital if we want to better serve our clients. I think this is particularly true in clinical contexts where counselors are working with such populations as those who are severely depressed, experiencing crippling anxiety, dealing with past trauma, navigating life disturbing mania, and having to live day-to-day medicated for psychotic disorders. The information and technology from the fields of cognitive science and neuroscience can and will lead to a confluence of understanding and knowledge within the fields of the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. I think we are seeing the flow of knowledge merging like several streams coming together in ways that E. O. Wilson discussed nearly a decade ago in his work Consilience. Such unity of knowledge will bring about some amazing transformations in our understanding of human nature, and the ways that we work with human beings.

The Art and Science of Counseling

Of course such overlapping and integration of many fields of endeavor can also create problems. Turf battles for funding always come to mind. But what are some of the concerns that counselors may have regarding the fields of cognitive science and neuroscience?

Medicalizing the Field of Counseling

For some time within the field of counseling there has existed what is similar to C. P. Snow’s description from several decades ago in 1959 known as The Two Cultures. According to Snow these two cultures divided along the lines of the sciences and humanities, not only in problem solving about the world’s concerns, but also in embracing two completely different worldviews as he saw it. Though Snow has been severely criticized over the years, one can recognize the animosity that has no doubt existed between the two cultures. For example, in what might be called Romantic movements, one can detect an attitude of anti-science and anti-technology. Likewise, many believe that the fields that are deemed the hard sciences have sought to become the new priesthood of the day. Across the history of the field of counseling, this animosity has played out particularly in the debates between the behaviorists, psychoanalysts, and the humanists. The debate usually falls along the lines of who and what defines the framework for the field of psychotherapy. The cognitive behaviorists attacked psychodynamic approaches as being unscientific, promulgating concepts that could be neither observed nor measured. Others in the field shot back that counseling is not a science, but an art in human interaction, communication, and relating. Other debates followed along these lines involving such historical philosophical questions as free will versus determinism. Still others in the field of counseling were uneasy with what they considered an overuse of diagnostic labels and medication, leading to what they called the medicalization of the field of therapy. Hence there began for a number of decades the development of various conceptual camps resulting in what have been called the theories wars.

Yet the challenge stood: How can professional counselors inform public consumers that what they’re buying actually works? To say that this question is unimportant is naïve? To say it can be easily answered offhand is equally naïve. Research protocols began to be developed within each theoretical camp, the main emphasis being to prove the benefits of a particular theoretical conceptualization. Such divisiveness haunted the field in certain ways, especially in academia and the fallout among faculty who held different theoretical positions. It was not unheard of that some individuals were refused academic tenure due to the theoretical position they held.

I truly believe that the consilience E. O. Wilson proffers can quail and put at ease much of this theoretical bickering. For many counselors, however, there is still the fear that the field is becoming medicalized. With the onslaught of cognitive science and neuroscience challenging views of human nature, for some counselors their fear has intensified. A particular concern for many counselors regarding these innovative fields is the notion that they will lead to another form of reductionism. I see no reason for such fears.

Helpful Research Protocols

On a positive note, the debates among the conflicting perspectives in the field led to some worthwhile research. Perhaps in any field of endeavor its development requires such debates, infighting, and bickering in order for the field to evolve. Researchers developed a host of protocols for particular diagnostic groups, such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, etc. Likewise, other researchers developed ways of possibly measuring the impact of such variables as client strengths when they begin therapy, client engagement of therapy, and the therapeutic relationship. Hence, the two cultures were finding ways to solidify their various interests and conceptualizations.

More importantly, however, the description of what the field of counseling is all about had to be expanded. I personally find it useful to distinguish between clinical concerns for clients versus general concerns that clients bring to counseling. There will always be clients who enter counseling, not because they are experiencing some diagnosis, but because they have general concerns about their direction in life, particular problems they need to solve, and life decisions they need to navigate. Many of these clients simply do not fit diagnostic criteria. They simply need to work some things out, and in doing so, they may find it helpful to talk to a professional counselor.

We have to recognize these two populations within counseling without falling into the hard lines of the two cultures. Not only that, we also have to recognized that the concerns clients face might very well overlap. Those who work through clinical difficulties will still need to possibly address general concerns when they no longer meet particular diagnostic criteria. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) recognizes such distinctions in the way they conceptualize various levels of therapy. Likewise, we need to be aware of the extremes whereby some therapists view medication as a panacea, while other practitioners oppose diagnostics and medication all together. In other words, we need a radical change in the way we view the field of psychotherapy, but a change that reconciles the concerns of the two cultures. The fields of cognitive science and neuroscience have ushered in that need – to the excitement of some and the fear of others. One of the more immediate ways that cognitive science and neuroscience will impact our fields is in the area of theoretical conceptualization. Although this is another blog article for another time, we may be looking at a radical change in terms of how we talk about theory in counseling. The old theoretical textbooks just might have seen their day or will soon enough.

Conclusion: Consilience

We have moved a long way in the field of counseling where we recognize that we possibly dissected the human being in terms of mind and body. For some time now, various approaches have sought to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Whether people like it or not, there appears to be a confluence in the streams of knowledge that help us understand human nature and the human condition. Moreover such consilience can lead to a proper and civil working relationship among scientists, social scientists, and the humanities. Obviously, there will always be disagreements, even sharp disagreements regarding our conceptualizations and understanding of the human predicament. Why should we expect these different perspectives and worldviews not to lead to some sharp and intense debates? Such debates further the growth of the field.

I strongly believe that counseling professionals should welcome the influences from the findings of cognitive science and neuroscience. We should also be aware that when we adapt such knowledge for our practice as counselors that we are rightly and accurately utilizing the knowledge from these scientific endeavors. Avoiding misinterpreted and misapplied pop neuroscience is as important as avoiding reckless pop psychology.

We are in an age where what E. O. Wilson designated as Consilience is coming to fruition. Hopefully the animosity produced by the existence of the two cultures will abate. It behooves all of those who have existed in the two cultures to find ways to make peace, while at the same time rightly adapting to new, innovative, and cutting edge knowledge and technology so as to enhance how we work. There exists no need for counselors to fear that cognitive science and neuroscience will put an end to the need of how they serve their clients. That need will always remain, but it will also evolve. If counselors, however, choose not to embrace new knowledge and technologies that can benefit their understanding of human nature, then it might be that it’s the counselors themselves who will put an end to their field.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/July 14th, 2018

GENERAL ESSAY

Bucket Lists?

Introduction

I suppose that having entered the Septuagenarian club, the idea to create a bucket list is something logically that would occur to me. Note the question mark in the title of this blog article. I’m not questioning whether or not people should make bucket lists, or whether having one is a good thing or not. I just wonder what they mean, why people feel the need to make them, and what difference they may or may not make in a person’s life. Creating a bucket list appears to speak to and resonate with many people on some level. No doubt setting goals to accomplish before the final tick of the clock sounds addresses the existential question about living life out to its fullest. In addition to those questions, obviously I have indeed pondered the big question of what I would put on my bucket list. (Is that really such a big question; perhaps to me it is J.) Like many journeys, however, the highway that bucket lists take us on appear to be more about the meaning in the journey, rather than merely checking an item off as done.

What Do Bucket Lists Mean?

Legitimately, to answer that question, I would have to ask as many people as I could who have taken the time to formulate a bucket list, and then proceeded to make them come true. Just given human complexity, I’m sure that the nuances of meaning are spread across people in ways that I would find out something interesting to ponder regardless of to whom and how many people I might interview.

Obviously the one big meaning revolves around the notion of finitude. There are things I want to get done before falling into the proverbial hole and covered with dirt. Perhaps my bucket list would contain things that I want to accomplish that would make my life feel more complete and meaningful before exiting the stage. Is that part of everyone’s bucket list, or is it just something that I think about? I pose that question because another component of my bucket list would entail having some fun, especially at this stage of my life. Simply put, there are some experiences I want to undergo. Are they deep, purposeful, and meaningful? I’m not really sure, but I know I would most definitely enjoy having some fun doing things that I’ve always thought about, but have yet to do.

On a personal level, my bucket list will contain experiences that I simply always wanted to engage, but have yet taken the time to do so. The three major themes that emerge for me are traveling, skill building, and encountering the unknown. About twenty-five years ago I decided to drive from Austin, Texas to Durango, Colorado simply to experience one thing I had always heard about, but had never done, though I had visited that state several times. I wanted to take the train ride from Durango up to an old mining town in the mountains called Silverton. The trip up to Silverton and back down to Durango crosses over some amazingly breath-taking mountain passes I had only heard about. Once I had experienced them, they became etched in my mind like a deep engraving carved deep into some medium. I can envision those mountain passes still to this day. And it’s an experience I want to have again.

The Unknown

Part of the fun of a bucket list is the unknown. I had no idea what I would experience on that train ride from Durango to Silverton. As importantly, I had no idea what other things I would encounter on my drive up to Durango. Driving Highway 84 from Texas through New Mexico on into Colorado provided some vistas I’ve never forgotten. I still drive over to Santa Fe now and then, and the two-lane stretch of Highway 84 north out of Fort Sumner into the capital still captures my soul. It never gets old. Seeing the Rockies when entering Colorado and following the path on Highway 160 up through Pagosa Springs into Durango is a mesmerizing drive to say the least. The same overwhelming experience of nature flooded over me again when I flew into Missoula, Montana, rented a car, and drove up to Kalispell and Glacier National Park. The first time my eyes set gazing on Flathead Lake was an encounter that will be forever cast on my neurons. A similar experience occurred when I drove out of Boston out to Cape Cod. So I long for those unknown discoveries that are cached in any bucket list event I might want to check off. It’s not the checking off that matters, but it’s all that goes into getting something done that I never figured on when I first made the plans to do something. I’m not sure about everyone else, but aren’t those unknown discoveries we make, and the unplanned experiences we encounter the stuff that life is made of? Like so many things in life, a bucket list may be about the journey rather than checking something off.

Traveling

Obviously the theme above entails traveling, and such excursions appear to make up many individuals’ bucket lists. More journeys are definitely on my bucket list. One such trip is to Scotland at the end of this summer. I’ve already experienced Italy and Sicily. There are a couple of road trips here in the North America that I have my eyes set on that I believe will open up some new vistas and unknown experiences. The first, and one I’ve thought about sometime, is the Transcontinental Train Ride across Canada. It’s a fifteen-day tour that takes one from Ontario to Vancouver, and that’s through the Canadian Rockies. The second is a road trip from Austin through New Mexico, and into Arizona up to Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. Along the way is the Petrified Forest. And then yes, there’s Winslow Arizona where I plan to stand on a corner, hoping to see a beautiful woman in a black pick-up Ford. (Just kidding about the last part. Or perhaps not J.) Many times life includes plans, experiences, and stepping into the unknown that makes living all that much more full. Such experiences can be planned only to a certain degree. Those experiences we don’t expect are the ones that knock our shorts off. And that’s all worth the effort.

Skill Development

As much as specific experiences like traveling, my bucket list entails some skill building I want to accomplish. After working a career for over thirty years, involving forty plus hours per week, there are some other talents I would like to develop. No doubt I will reach only the amateur level regarding these skills, but they entail some talents that I think I would enjoy adding to my repertoire. Some people want to learn to fly-fish, sail a boat, skydive, or obtain their pilot licenses. My list contains at least three things that will take some time to develop: nature photography, writing, and picking up another language. My writing is already being developed, but I want to take it to another level. Nature photography is going to require some classes and a lot of practice, which Austin, Texas can provide, as well as neighboring New Mexico. Learning a language is a skill-set that I’m in the process of working out. Skill development is personal development, and all kinds of experiences can lead to such development. And living is development if the effort is made. Likewise, these developmental goals will no doubt take me into some interesting unknown areas of life.

Conclusion

So what are bucket lists all about? Checking things off? I don’t think so. Reckoning with our finitude? I don’t believe that’s the case either, though it may play a part. Like anything we’ve pursued in life, bucket lists are about our living and carving out the kind of lives we hope to live. So if someone asks, why have a bucket list? The best answer is why not? From my perspective, there’s a spiritual element to pursuing yet to done and unknown experiences. Life affords us experiences, planned or unknown. We are afforded opportunities we can either embrace or shun. Though our travels and journeys into creating a more fulfilling life can to some extent be planned, it is those unknowns that come by stepping out on that plan that can really shape our experiences of the world and others. God’s creation is something to explore, as fully as one desires to do so. And it’s the unknown experiences that we come to know that many times appear to stick with us.

 

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/June 14th, 2018

GENERAL ESSAY

Game Plan

Introduction

Having recently entered the Septuagenarian crowd, I have begun to contemplate, (after all, that’s the name of this website), about how this blog is going to keep me occupied going forward for the next uncertain number of years. To be honest, I’ve been more concerned about the direction I want to take the various topics I hope to write about here. Soon, this blog is coming upon its fifth birthday. Simultaneously I want to broaden its coverage, yet also take it to some deeper levels. In thinking about how that can be done, I have concluded that Hanna Arendt has it right when she addresses the human condition. That’s always something worth contemplating. More to the point, I really want to explore some areas that I think will be both interesting and fun for me to pursue, whether or not they’re related to counseling in any way. This also means that the direction in which I’ll take this blog will shape some things I look forward to reading over the next several years. I have formulated my interests along these lines: mindmeaning-makingthought/actionhumility/finitude, and worldview. In one way or another, I have touched on these themes or topics over the nearly five years I’ve maintained this blog. My thinking now is to give some thought to these areas with a more concerted effort. This month’s blog gives a little teaser for each theme, laying some groundwork for what is to come.

Mind

Because I’ve worked as a counselor and professor of counseling for a number of years, obviously various conceptualizations of the mind interest me. I’m not sure that we’ll ever nail the coffin shut on what all contributes to human nature and exactly what mind is. Such a vast territory to explore, however, is exactly what makes this question a fun undertaking. So what is mind? Some exciting work is taking place now in the fields of cognitive science and neuroscience; in neither of which do I come close to being an expert. But no doubt over the next several years, we will watch these fields explode and expand our understanding of human nature. Over the centuries the mind has proven to be a magnet drawing the surmising efforts of philosophers, scientists, and other researchers and writers to entertain how they might explain it. Although the newest kids on the block are cognitive scientists and neuroscientists, for my purposes, I will draw on historical as well as contemporary approaches to the understanding of the mind.

Meaning-Making

From the time I read Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, I’ve been interested in the notion that human beings are meaning-making creatures. From a counselor’s perspective I’ve seen how people struggle with the lack of meaning and purpose in their lives. The day-to-day struggle of seeking to make meaning of our particular lot in life is one of the truly existential battles that we encounter. How and why we make meaning in our circumstances are interesting questions. What is human fulfillment? What tells individuals that they are living life in such a fulfilling way that gives them meaning and purpose. As Os Guinness puts it, individuals have a calling that is somehow unique to them alone. How do we go about coming to grips with what our individual callings are all about? Was I called in some sense to be a counselor? A professor? An educator? Are there many paths we can take that would lead to a fulfilling life, or do we as individuals have one set path we should find and follow? And then, addressing the work that Frankl did, following his internment in Nazi concentration camps, how do we make meaning of the difficult struggles, pains, and heartaches we face in life? Although we will not find a necessarily assuaging answer in all situations, we appear to be creatures that ask why we experience the things we do. This has been called the why-ness of being human.

Thought/Action

I think if you ask people what is one of the toughest battles they face in carving out a day-to-day fulfilling life, many times they will say it boils down to how they assess the way in which their actions align with their beliefs and values. We say we believe something, and then supposedly our actions follow suit. Many times, however, we note how our actions appear willy-nilly in terms of what we claim to believe. What do my actions out there in life say about what I truly believe? Such assessments challenge us to explore what we believe and value. To align our actions with our beliefs can bring a sense of fulfillment that we are living life on the terms we have set out for ourselves. Philosophers and theologians have explored this notion for millennia. The quest to understand how we align our beliefs and actions so as to live out what we claim to believe and value is a quest worth much reflection.

Humility/Finitude

Though many philosophers have stated this, I first remember the statement impacting me through my readings of Karl Popper. In his autobiography, he stated that what we don’t know is infinitely greater than what we do know. So going forward with these thematic interests, one of the things I hope happens is to simply raise more questions. There are good reasons that these themes have been explored and written about for thousands of years. Add to this the reality that whatever we’re pursuing, we have a finite amount of time to get it done. From my Christian perspective our finitude is ever before us, and humility is something to embrace due to our need of grace. The excitement around pursuing these themes and topics revolves around the notion that we are treading where angels fear to tread in areas that have been explored, discussed, and waxed eloquently over for millennia. We may want to pound the final spike in the railroad tie called answers, but these themes represent a journey that has been and will be ongoing for finite and humble minds.

Worldview

The Christian writer, James Sire, authored a work more than three decades ago that has impacted me since my first reading of it – The Universe Next Door. The book explored how the world and our lives in it are understood from a variety of perspectives spreading from East to West, perspectives that we call worldviews. What is a worldview? How is a worldview shaped? Are we totally so enclosed by our culture that culture totally defines the worldview we each of us will hold? Can we legitimately alter, change, and even revolutionize our worldview? Much has been written about worldviews to which I will not come close to adding, but it is an area that I think fits beneath the overarching theme of mind. How do we construct our worldviews, and how do various experiences lead to our changing them, anywhere from tweaking them to radically altering them? A personal journey worth taking is to become aware of our personal worldview. Only then, can we begin to consciously critique how we perceive and act in the world.

Conclusion

Obviously, the areas of mind, meaning-making, thought/action, humility/finitude, and worldview overlap and intersect in countless ways. No one would proffer, as far as I know, that these areas are totally separate and discreet modes of explaining existence. My starting point, for now, is that I understand mind as an overarching umbrella, beneath which the other four areas are filed for exploration. In one way or another they all speak to an understanding of the mind of the human being. Also, in one way or another, these areas address the human condition. As a Christian, I will bring my own worldview to bear on these future discussions. I have set out on this task, not to necessarily revolutionize any thought in these areas. I don’t believe I possess enough gray matter for such a task. But I set out on this journey to have fun, fun, fun, as the Beach Boys once sang. They are entertaining and interesting areas to explore and discuss. Hence, over the next few months on this blog, what I have set out here will be my game plan. It will most likely change. So get over it. (Just kidding.) I’m sure I’ll exit the game at times and come back to it later. But these ideas give some old codger like myself something to think about and knock around given that the autumn and winter of my life hangs in the air.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/May 14th, 2018

GENERAL ESSAY

Bringing in the Sheaves

Introduction

When people reflect upon accomplishing goals, living in a way that’s fruitful, and creating a meaningful life, what often comes up regarding such pursuits is the notion of developing habits that in the long run help individuals achieve such milestones in their journeys. James Sire’s book, Habits of Mind, addresses the kind of habits required to pursue what he recognizes for himself as a calling to the intellectual life as a Christian. He describes what he designates as the intellectual virtues and the intellectual disciplines.

What I want to discuss in this blog article is more of a general and wider frame of reference regarding how people might think about and then pursue their paths toward what they hope to be a well-lived life. What I’ve recognized in working with clients over the years, as well as in myself, is the human tendency to want to expend the least amount of effort as possible to obtain what one hopes to achieve. Though that’s not all a bad thing – such a mindset has led to the development of technologies that allow us to accomplish more in less time – this inherent tendency can also lead to some bad habits. In talking with people about the notion of moving from A to B, what I see is that they want to be at B without having to do the nitty-gritty work it takes to cross that nether land between A and B. They simply want to be there – now. Whether it is educational institutions, businesses of all sizes, or sports training, one critical comment that appears to be a common denominator from those who head up these institutions is that people deplore delayed gratification. The old adage, you reap what you sow, is still an uncomfortable reflection for many of us. Indeed, it can be a scary proposition for more than a few people out there. Sowing well leads to wisdom, but it’s done through consistency and in time. Unfortunately, most definitions one reads about wisdom appear to equate it with learning, knowledge, and erudition. But I believe the Biblical books of the Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes get it right when they speak of wisdom being the application of learning and knowledge to the living of life in ways that lead to fulfillment.

So what are some general habits of the mind we can develop that will help us sow for the kind of harvest we hope to bring home?

Honing Your Craft

My mom worked as a nurse for over thirty years. She wanted to be the best nurse she could possibly become. That attitude led her to work in the emergency rooms of hospitals for most of her career. She said working in such a setting made her not only stay on top of her knowledge and skills, but it also showed her she needed to constantly hone her skills. Are you an accountant? Do you write code? Are you a chef? Do you own and run a business? Anyone knows that these types of work call for constantly staying on top of your skills, whether it requires dealing with accounting law, keeping up to snuff with computer programming languages, or knowing the market for a particular business. In fact honing one’s skills is requirement for a good work ethic for any type of work. Musicians, painters, writers, and other types of artists know this all too well. And it is true for any work we pursue, even that job that might be a stepping stone to somewhere else. Learn to do it well and right.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers, proffers the 10K rule. Gladwell believes one must pour ten thousand hours into developing a skill to achieve what he calls  greatness. Both Gladwell and Cal New Port, who authored So Good They Can’t Ignore You, emphasized that developing skills is not merely putting in the time, but it’s also about how one puts in the time. Practice and practicing well is the key. And good practice requires feedback mechanisms to let you know how well you’re doing at something and whether or not you’re getting better at it. Whether one is going after greatness, or just simply trying to be good at what one pursues, the idea of constantly developing one’s skills and efficiency will serve a person throughout life. Whatever you are doing, whether it’s in the pursuit of a particular career, or whether it’s that first gig you land, learning and continually developing the skills it takes to do what you do is a key to fulfilling work, be it a career or hobby. It’s a simple mindset that if something is to be done, do it well. This habit of mind will put you in good stead throughout your life.

A Stitch In Time

The notion of being slow at something is not necessarily one that’s high on people’s list. Slowness brings about images of someone who can’t manage things. We’re into speed these days, quickness and getting somewhere first. I’m not anti-competition at all, and there is nothing wrong with getting to a mark before others. The notion, however, of slow but steady progress doesn’t describe lethargy; it describes patience, consistency, and sticktoitiveness. This takes us back to the notion of delayed gratification. There is no doubt that we want to get places in a hurry, and that includes reaching our goals. But skills and good work do not develop overnight. Sometime back, I decided I wanted to pick up on my study of Koine Greek, the common ancient Greek in which the Bible was written, as well as other ancient letters and treatises. I got so far and then I quit. Recently I’ve picked it back up again. But the first time I decided to revisit this study was late 2007 or early 2008. That was ten years ago. I don’t even like to think about how well I might be doing in this language if I had stayed consistent with it. Moreover, the first time I began my study in Greek was over thirty-five years ago. I for sure don’t want to think about what I might be doing with the language had I remained consistent at it all these years. If I truly wanted to develop the skill, such passage of time is called a waste. And there’s no reason to shy away from that assessment because I do wish I had been more consistent with my study.

A patient hand speaks not only to consistency, but also to the idea of delayed gratification. Think about moving from A to B again. B looks great, a wonderful place to be standing, and a place that requires a magnificent set of skills. But there’s no leaping over the ground that lies between A and B. A lot of people want to be at B, but they don’t want to walk the ground between A and B, the nitty-gritty, nasty work called taking your time to develop and build your knowledge, skills, and wisdom. When you think of the notion that individuals want to be viewed and known as really good at what they do, but they don’t want to take the time to make it so, then you can readily see that we’re getting into some immature thinking here. I’ve been there; I’ve done it. Many good things in life come about only in time. It’s a hard lesson to learn many times, but learning it creates a habit of mind that will keep you working steady and consistent toward whatever it is you might want to achieve.

He Who Hesitates . . .

Curiosity may have killed the cat; but hesitation lost the rat.

Starting on your journey toward a fulfilling life requires some amount of planning. Good planning is wise. It can save you that stitch in time. But another phenomenon I recognize in working with people over the years is what I call the freeze zone. People looking to take risks naturally want to know if the risks they take are going to pay off in some way. There are two types of action (or inaction), however, whereby people become stuck in the starting gate with the possibility of never starting their journey.

First, people can plan, but then they plan, and they plan, and again they plan some more. One is reminded of the old adage about getting all your ducks in a row before stepping out onto a venture. Though planning and getting things in order are definitely good and wise things to do, there’s a point where one has to say – it’s time to step out. There’s no way to line up every duck, no way to know every contingency, and no way to perfectly predict how everything is going to pan out. This may sound the exact opposite of the need for patience I discussed above, but it’s not. Patience comes once you’re on your journey. But you have to begin the journey. Yes, planning takes time also. It can especially be time well spent. But in taking on a life journey, no one can own the picture frame that portrays and spells out the beginning from the end. The over planner who spends an inordinate amount of time lining up all his ducks is simply evidencing a fear and aversion to risks.

Second, and closely tied to the first, I’ve witnessed the tendency of individuals to pull on others for a guarantee. Someone tell me (promise me, guarantee me) that everything is going to work out all right. The pull can be very strong, especially if it’s a good friend or a family member. Without said guarantee, some people will simply not step out and take the risk. It’s a fool’s play if you offer people any inkling of guarantee. First of all, you don’t know any more than they do how things will turn out. And secondly, if you’ve comforted someone with any level of a guarantee, guess who is going to get the blame if things fold? Encourage them, yes. But don’t offer a guarantee. The best one can do is plan wisely, do the research, get feedback on how realistic the venture is, act accordingly, and step out there. Plan, but don’t hesitate too long.

There’s a difference between stepping out after wise planning and simply throwing caution to the wind without an idea of a plan. One skill to hone for certain in pursuing a fulfilling life is wise planning. But the starting gun has to fire. And don’t call on others to promise you what they can’t possibly offer. It’s a habit of mind that will allow you to get out of the starting gates with some solid direction, which is much better than no direction at all.

Conclusion

There are many other habits of mind that one can develop in pursuing a life of fulfillment. Reading and reflecting on Sire’s intellectual virtues and intellectual disciplines is a good starting point.

Embracing your own freedom of choice and responsibility is another habit of mind to get into. In so doing, when things get tough, and there are some down times and sink holes, you’ll be less likely to play the blame game.

A tendency we have as human beings is to deceive ourselves. Self-deception can be a deadly trap into which to fall. First, self-deception is somewhat out of our awareness at times. On one level we know we’re not being honest with ourselves, but on another level, we’re suppressing the fact that there are things we need to know and do, but we’re not doing them, and we’re not obtaining the necessary knowledge we need for a smoother ride. Pursuing a fulfilling life is not an easy ride in the first place, so there’s no reason to make it rougher than it is.

Feedback from others is a good way to combat self-deception. But not just any feedback will do. Get it from people whom you trust, people you know who will be honest with you, and people who are skilled in those areas where you want to be skilled.

The challenging but truthful adage is always before us. If you want to bring in the sheaves of a well-planted and ripe harvest, you must embrace the truth that you reap what you sow.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/April 14th, 2018

GENERAL ESSAY

The Power of Words

Words, words, between the lines of age

Neal Young

Introduction

Words are powerful things. They can build, heal, or destroy a relationship. They can cure a hurting soul, or they can sicken someone bringing them as low as they might possibly reach. They can bind, they can separate, they can strengthen, or they can cut one to the quick so that it feels one’s soul is letting out blood. As powerful as words are, as creative as human beings can be with them, what they do not do is create reality itself. That is not to say that their power in any way should be diminished or discounted. Indeed, their power allows us to get in touch with the reality of living that we must confront every day of our lives. They reflect and accent one’s love for another. They do not create that love, but they sure can celebrate it in beautiful ways. They accent and disclose one’s hatred, but words flow from hate; they do not create it. Love, hatred, personal and interpersonal pain and ecstasy are what humans show and do. The power of words used in beautiful and passionate ways, especially by those who are skilled at using them, reflect the multitude of human experiences we undergo. It’s always a magnificent experience to read those who can use them so majestically. In fact, from my own belief system, I strongly believe that the power with which human beings utilize words emerges for the Imago Dei stamped on human and natural existence. Therein, lies their power whose source is the Word.

Words and Thought

I enjoy reading poetry. I neither claim nor desire to be a critic, so I’m not sure what an expert in reading poetry is all about. I simply know that there are those poets and poems that I stumble across and find interesting, enjoyable, and thought provoking. For me such discoveries are quite by accident. Have you ever come across some words that the way they’re put together strike a chord in you that just makes you think about things? You find yourself pondering those words again and again, particularly how they speak to your experience of things, what they may describe, or what emotions they bring up in you. I want to talk about that experience in this blog. There will be a couple of passages from some poems I’ve been reading that I will discuss authored by a poet I came across whom I enjoy and spend time reading, both his poetry and his essays on writing poetry. But more to the point, I want to talk about the experience of the ways that words can impact us, sending us off on journeys in the mind that we may not have travelled if we hadn’t come across some specific writings.

Words are powerful things that can carry joy, humor, pain, and a host of other experiences. They can also paint a picture and carve a trail of thought that we use to trace out the meaning of things. I’m sure that some poetic passages lead us to think about things that the author never intended. Perhaps the author simply intended to make us think about whatever. Nonetheless, I enjoy the experience of coming across a passage, or even a line of a writing, that sticks with me and carries me on a journey within my own thoughts. Having been a therapist for the last twenty or so years, I think poetry can grant us some insights into human struggle and existence. I know that sounds odd in these days of empirically validated treatments and insurance panels, but a lot of the fight that clients are carrying on when they enter therapy are the ones that make up what Hannah Arendt called the human condition. Whether or not they need medication or some other sophisticated treatment, the struggles that make up life are there to be faced. I think artists in general, and writers and poets in particular, have ways of giving us a peek into human experience through words they use that reflect on this reality we call living.

William Stafford (1914-1993)

William Stafford is one of my favorite poets whom I’ve come across since I’ve become interested in reading poetry in recent years. Again, I’m neither a critic nor an expert on poetry. All I can say is that when I first read Traveling Through the Dark I was hooked and have since picked up several of Stafford’s compilations of poems along with a couple of his collections of essays where he talks about writing and working with students who want to become poets. He was Native American, and in World War II, he took the position of a conscientious objector. For those who like credentials, he was Oregon’s Poet Laureate in 1975. I’m not going to get into an explication of any particular poem as though I’m doing a class assignment. I’m simply going to offer a couple of lines from two of his poems that have struck me in a way that led me to reflect on things. I’ll ask you, if you so wish, to reflect on them for yourself as well.

In a poem titled, Reporting Back, Stafford ends the poem with a couplet:

Is there a way to walk that living has obscured?/(Our feet are trying to remember some path we are walking toward.) Both lines are meaningful to me, but it’s this last line in particular that he put in parentheses that I want to talk about.

In a poem titled, Vocation, Stafford describes a scene (real or not, who knows?) where he is standing between his parents and hearing his dad give this charge to him that makes up the last line of the poem:

Your job is to find what the world is trying to be.” I find these lines from these two poems to be powerful ones, particularly relating to such questions as: why am I here? Has life given me something specific to carry out? Or what is my personal calling?

Of course, a few lines from Stafford’s writings don’t do him justice, so before getting into my discussion, I want to say that I would strongly encourage anyone who likes poetry to delve into reading his works, both poetry and prose to see what you think. A few words about his life will shed some light on Stafford, the man.

As a conscientious objector, Stafford, for all practical purposes, was sentenced to working in Civilian Public Service camps, consisting of forestry an soil conservation in the states of Arkansas, California, and Illinois. For this work he earned a wage of $2.50 per month. His career as a poet began late, relatively speaking, at the age of forty-six. His first publication of poetry, Traveling Through the Dark, came out in 1963, for which he won the National Book Award for Poetry. He cites William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson as major influences on his style. His work has been compared to Robert Frost. In 1975, Stafford was named Poet Laureate of Oregon. For a number of years he taught poetry and creative writing at Lewis and Clark College. He retired his teaching position there in 1990. Robert Bly was a close friend and collaborated with Stafford on some writing projects. In 1992 Stafford won The Western States Book Award for lifetime achievement in poetry. Stafford’s style is conversational, his poems typically short, and he focuses much of the time on the earthy details of a specific setting. Working in the public service camps, he developed the habit of getting up early in the morning, writing poems before the beginning of the workday. He felt he needed the solitude for writing in those early morning hours before the sun rose. He continued this work habit for the rest of his life. In one interview, he described his life as a writer in the following manner:

I keep following this sort of hidden river of my life, you know. Whatever the topic or impulse which comes, I follow it along trustingly. And I don’t have any sense of its coming to a kind of crescendo, or of its petering out either. It is just going steadily along.

Reporting Back

At different levels and with various intensities, we all set goals for our lives. We seek to establish some values by which we live out our lives. Some of us may think harder than others about the achievements we hope to accomplish. Whatever those goals, hopes, and aspirations we possess may entail, life has a way of throwing obstacles in our way. If those barriers to where we’re trying to head become too large and difficult, we can lose sight of our original goals and hopes for our lives. No doubt, life’s vagaries can help us clarify things and hone our thoughts in how we’re going about life. Other times, we can completely lose our vision while we’re tracking all that it takes to merely navigate the circumstances that surround us. We suddenly realize that we’ve been trudging through the world with blinders on. In a sudden clarifying moment, we may ask the question: how did I get off track? Simply through living, the way we wanted to walk – shape our lives – has become obscured. Something in our mind and body tells us that the way I’m going now is not the way I intended to go. We find ourselves standing before the universe trying to remember the path we hoped to carve out for ourselves. I think it’s interesting that Stafford says, .  .  . trying to remember some path we are walking toward. It’s not necessarily just some specific goal we’re shooting for, but a path we feel we’re supposed to be on. Perhaps a path indicates some journey we hope to take; it’s the way we want to live. While our journey will entail goals, accomplishments, and achievements, a path moreover entails a way of living, that is how we want to live. Stafford may be speaking to the values we hold, as much as the goals we accomplish. He was a witness for this idea in the way he lived, choosing public service labor for four years at $2.50 per month rather than serving in the war. His relatively late age at becoming a published poet indicates that Stafford found that way to walk and the path toward which he was walking. Some have reported that Stafford wrote some twenty-thousand poems, of which only about three-thousand were published. He maintained a diary into which he wrote daily, penning thousands of poems. Whether we are a writer, some other kind of artist, or whether we’re pursuing some other kind of work, I believe the path mentioned in the poem is less about our specific vocation, and more about how we go about living out our calling. I also believe that the question that Stafford poses in this poem is not one that we ask ourselves only once. It may be a question that is indeed a daily recollection as to where we’re heading and how we’re getting there. In the midst of any accomplishments I may achieve, any goals I may obtain, or any aspirations to which I aspire to reach, the resounding question is – Am I living how I want to live? It’s a constant daily struggle of awareness to keep in mind – to remember – that path we are walking toward. For Stafford it was a hidden river that he followed along trustingly. It carried him to the writing of thousands of poems, of which only a small percentage he sought to publish.

Vocation

What is the world trying to be? Stafford sought out that question through various ways, not the least of which included his writing. There’s a take on life that holds that each of us as individuals have a specific calling we must find and embrace if we are to discover what the world is about. Others view the notion of calling in more general terms whereby one’s calling can be filled out in numerous ways. In this latter view, one’s calling is more about how one wants to live his or her life. I see these lines taken from the two poems cited as having similar takes on life. First, trying to comprehend what the world is trying to be is a difficult enough task, even when one is aware of what he is trying to do. But what we call the world has a way of knocking us about. We can become consumed by worldly things in a way that obscures how we truly want to live our lives. We can get caught up in the countless rat races that life and human interaction afford us. The world can do things to us that we weren’t expecting. Then it becomes our task to work through what happened to us. In doing so, we develop the ability to stand back from the world and observe it, even while we are still caught up in it. This ability to observe and develop our awareness allows us to question what events and circumstances are all about. People across the world are engaged in some kind of struggle to understand, to comprehend, and simply to stay alive. There’s a reality out there (not a popular notion these days) which we all must confront. There are ways in navigating that reality that are better than others if we want to live genuine and fruitful lives – another unpopular notion. We can take on the task of trying to find out what the world is trying to be or not. We can take on that challenge through our own personal calling and in our individual ways. Of course, we can move through life not giving a damn one way or the other. That’s a way of walking as well. But does lack of awareness have consequences? I believe it does. Does avoiding rather than taking on what life throws at us have consequences? I believe it does. In a postmodern age where rhetoric trumps reason, we are beginning to see those consequences. I believe the calling to be aware of how one wants to live is one of the most important challenges that face us. What is the world trying to be? How are people choosing to live? And what are the consequences of those choices?

Conclusion

Is the discussion that I offered here on Stafford’s writing what he had in mind for these two poems? I have no earthly idea. Stafford appeared to experience the consequences of living in alignment with his views as a conscientious objector. He also appears to be one who followed out that hidden river of his life. On the last day of his life, Willian Stafford rose early as he had developed the habit of doing in the Public Service camps, and wrote his last poem titled, Are You Mr. William Stafford? Some people call the poem prophetic. One of the lines in the poem has Stafford’s mother speaking where she says, You don’t have to prove anything. Just be ready for what God sends. There are a lot of good things that can be said about William Stafford if one chooses to know them through reading him and reading about him. One thing can be said for sure. Stafford was called to be a writer. And he lived out that calling to the end.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/March 14th, 2018

GENERAL ESSAY