Taking Exception to Exceptionalism

Recently, my wife and I spent some time with two foreign exchange students. These courageous and adventurous students take a year of their young life to immerse themselves in a new culture. My wife and I have hosted several short and long term exchange students and we have experienced the rich exchange of culture firsthand from these remarkable young people.

In the midst of the conversation with these two students, a theme became evident. There was a feeling that Americans aren't very interested in learning about these student's home cultures. There is a sense that, after all, the USA is simply the best and anything else is "less than". As a result, there is little desire to explore and learn from other ways of understanding the world. Their observations were not in any way complaining or demeaning, just a statement about what they had experienced. I was very saddened to hear this.

When Ronald Reagan used the "shining city upon the hill" concept to describe this country, it was interpreted by many to mean that we have attained that position in the world, that it was our rightful place. American exceptionalism became a point of pride; we are a beacon of light for the rest of the world to follow.  To be that shining city, that guiding light, is an ongoing process, not one that is ever completely attained. The best light you can have is the one reflected on you when shining your light on someone else. We all know people who seem to make everyone around them better; these people seek to be interested, not interesting. We gravitate towards people like that- their bright light is a result of their interest in others. 

Exceptionalism can take many forms, both personal and professional. The field of massage therapy, like every other discipline, is also susceptible to this attitude. I have certainly been guilty of this more often than I would like to admit. Some lessons last forever, some lessons take forever. 

Years ago I was speaking with a world-class musician who happened to mention that he is not a fan of the music of Gustav Mahler. Almost immediately, he added, "I am sure that is because I just don't know enough about his music to be interested." I never forgot his statement, especially coming from someone of his caliber. In the years following, I too have noticed that those things that do not interest me are the ones I know the least about. Once I have some insight, I find much to explore. 

With regard to massage therapy, there are scores of approaches to massage therapy. Those that have been with us for years must have some value to have lasted so long. It seems as though there is a place for everything, but real wisdom is knowing what to use when and why. What often gets us into conflict is the idea that <fill in the blank> approach is best, and applicable in every case. It is the "I have a fabulous answer and I hope it matches your question" model. 

From my perspective, more respect and curiosity could only help us be better therapists (and better people). The more deeply we understand others, the more deeply we understand ourselves. My first visceral experience of this happened in 1992 while on a Rotary exchange to Japan. It was my first time out of the country and my Japanese hosts had many questions about American culture. In the beginning, I had little to say. After all, if you grow up in a house that is red, and everything around you is also red, how can you explain the color red? After two weeks or so, I was much more articulate about American culture because I could contrast it with my growing understanding of Japanese culture. Thus, my appreciation for my American heritage actually grew, in direct relationship to my deep respect for Japanese culture and how it differed from my own upbringing. There are aspects of Japanese culture that have stayed with me ever since, laying on the backdrop of my American heritage. 

I recognize that there is a bit of irony here, since I teach (and live and breathe) a very specific approach- Precision Neuromuscular Therapy (PNMT). My passion for this approach should not be interpreted to mean that everything else is "less than". Over the years, it has become abundantly clear that PNMT isn't for everyone. Not every therapist resonates with the problem solving and technical aspects of PNMT. The technical demands don't make PNMT better, they just utilize a different skill set. If a specific approach does not resonate with the therapist, clinical results will be hard to attain. We do best for the client when we practice what we do best. That means each of us must recognize our strengths and identify our weaknesses. As the years go by, I want to be clearer and clearer about what conditions we excel at addressing and perhaps more importantly, identify what conditions we address poorly so we can direct the client to a more appropriate therapist or approach. 

The myriad of approaches to bodywork create a rich palette from which to choose. The key is picking the right approach, for the right reason and at the right time. The better we are at that, the better we can serve those who come to see us. 

You Never Know

When I first opened my practice in Champaign in 1982, I spent a lot of time waiting for the phone to ring. I had relocated to this new city and was trying to build a practice, but times were very lean to say the least. In those first few months, I was enormously appreciative of the few regular clients who supported me. One of them, (I'll call her E), was so encouraging to me and buoyed me when times were difficult. This was never in an overt way, just a word of encouragement or a kind gesture when my faith in the future of my massage therapy dream was in doubt. 

E and I actually talked very little. Her sessions were done in silence; I just focused on creating a wonderful relaxing session for her. We exchanged pleasantries before and after the session but I knew next to nothing about her life, other than a sense that she was a prominent person in the community. Being very young and new to the community, I had no knowledge of her actual societal place; I guess I assumed that by the regal way she carried herself. I only knew E as a wonderful lady in her late 70's who exuded class and graciousness. She visited my office for probably more than two years before she passed away. I was saddened when she passed; I always looked forward to seeing her and it was an honor to do so. 

Several years later, I happened to be talking with a friend of hers, who was now my client as well. Somehow, E's name came up in a conversation. I remarked to this person how much I appreciated E's support and kindness and how much I looked forward to seeing her each week. "She probably looked forward to seeing you more," was this woman's reply. I thought it was just a polite compliment until she enlightened me.

"Did you know anything about her situation? Perhaps you were unaware that her husband suffered from what we now know is Alzheimer's disease. Back then, we didn't have a name for it and no one knew much about it. E's husband was a very prominent leader in this community and he completely lost his mental faculties. E was very embarrassed about this and thus became socially isolated, trying to keep her husband in the house so he would not wander off or do something to injure himself or others. She was actually a prisoner in her magnificent home. A group of us friends would take turns watching her husband so that once a week, she could come see you an have an hour of peace. You will probably never know how much that meant to her. We certainly did." 

What a stunner. I had no idea the struggle that E was going through and with all that she found a way to encourage a young person to pursue his dream. 

You never know what burdens anyone is bearing. You just never know. At times I have observed a new client in my waiting room who isn't exactly the picture of positivity. Bringing them into my treatment room and hearing their story, I am amazed that they are even functioning at all. With the pain and struggle they face each day, just getting up and tackling each day is a victory. I don't know how they do it, and many of them do it with a sense of grace and kindness in the midst of tremendous chaos and tragedy. Had I not heard their story during my interview with them, I would have never known.

At the office the other day, a man was asking if one of my staff could see him in a chair, not a table. I happened to be near the front desk at the time and asked him why this was important to him. I mentioned that for some people, lying face down creates more back pain, so my staff is very comfortable treating people in the side-lying position. Is that why he asked? He replied that it wasn't back pain that caused him difficulty, then hesitated for a second. "I have stage four cancer, which has metastasized to my abdomen," he replied. As I came around the counter to greet him, his distended abdomen made the situation obvious. "We will do everything we can to help you," I answered. "Whatever it takes to make you comfortable."

In the seminar context, I remember a therapist taking one of my seminars who was looking singularly uninspired on the second day of the training. I wondered why he spent money on the training if he was unwilling to put forth any enthusiasm for learning. In talking with him, he revealed that he had left the seminar the night before and worked the night shift until 6 am. He slept for ninety minutes and was back in class. In reality, he sacrificed far more than any of us attend the seminar, it just didn't look like it. You never know.  

What prompted this train of thought? Three days ago, a friend of mine took her own life. This person was always a ray of sunshine and a source of inspiration to many. She was however, struggling with bouts of depression that most of us who knew her were unaware of. She only showed us kindness, compassion, and always a celebration of the creative spirit. I never knew the inner struggles that haunted her. The same is true for everyone we meet. Each person deserves our best and a genuine offer to meet them where they are with care, concern, and respect. 

In the Zulu culture in Africa, the traditional greeting is the word Sawubona.  It means, "I see you". This greeting means I see the totality of you- your personality, your humanity, your struggles and successes, everything that is you. It isn't a flippant "How are you?" as we so often do, often rather disingenuously. I see you in all that you are. 

To practice Sawubona in our personal and professional life is a worthy aspiration. Maybe it would help us meet each other in a more genuine and connected way. 

You never know; you just never know.