Flat Affect

I used to think the land
had something to say to us,
back when wildflowers
would come right up to your hand
as if they were tame.

Sooner or later, I thought,
the wind would begin to make sense
if I listened hard
and took notes religiously.
That was spring.

Now I’m not so sure:
the cloudless sky has a flat affect
and the fields plowed down after harvest
seem so expressionless,
keeping their own counsel.

This afternoon, nut tree leaves
blow across them
as if autumn had written us a long letter,
changed its mind,
and tore it into little scraps.
~Don Thompson October

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson

We’re in a time of seasonal abundance but our emotions are spent from containment through lock-down, shelter-in, social distancing, zoom-in and zoom-out.

As I meet with my patients via a televisit, I try to read their faces and find that along with the flatness of our screens, our emotions are flat too. My usual gentle humor to lighten things up becomes pointless – it is hard to elicit smiles these days. On the other hand, there no longer is a need for abundant tissues for tearful conversations because no one will weep on screen. There may be a hint of emotion in a catch in a voice, but I have yet to see anyone actually cry in two months of telehealth conversations. That would be too vulnerable – somehow being on camera suggests we need to put the actor-mask on, be expression-less, strong and invulnerable. And somehow my patient knows I can’t reach out as I would in an exam room, literally and verbally, to reassure them I’m present and listening. I’m not really present on a screen even though I’m listening.

And while out in society, we must literally hide ourselves behind a mask that conceals our smiles as well as our grim-faced frowns.

So our social and clinical interactions are as flat as the screens they play out on.

We need some unchecked tears about now, as well as endless belly laughs. Perhaps there will be a reawakening to the range of emotions we have taken for granted before finding ourselves in this time of restraint and restriction.

As we reintegrate and reunite, slowly, carefully and compassionately, let us re-experience in 3-D what we have been missing in our virtual meetings: tears that accompany joyous reunion as well as the lament of all we’re lost during this time.

Please pass the tissues.

As a Pasture



Allow children to make mistakes
and to joyfully strive for improvement.
Children love laughter,
running about,
and playing tricks.
If your own life
is like a graveyard to you,
leave children free to see it as a pasture.
~Janusz Korczak




Lenten Reflection–In the End, It’s All One

photo by Josh Scholten

Even in laughter the heart may ache, and rejoicing may end in grief.
Proverbs 14:13

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Luke 6:21

Laugh till you weep. Weep till there’s nothing left but to laugh at your weeping. In the end it’s all one.
Frederick Buechner

I work in a place where there are kleenex tissue boxes everywhere you turn. On any given day hundreds of tissues cover sneezes and coughs and blow over 120 runny noses. That is reason enough, but they are essential for those tender and vulnerable moments when eyes start to well up and overflow, and the tears start to stream. There is nothing more helpless than crying and having it leak and puddle all around you with nothing to catch the stream. Handing someone a tissue is one of my most nurturing acts. My standard line is a variation of Buechner’s quote: “sometimes our feelings are so overwhelmed we aren’t sure whether to laugh or cry, so we end up doing both–just let it flow.” It almost always gets a smile and chuckle even from the biggest toughest guy who is sobbing his heart out over a lost love or his parents’ divorce, or the confirmed cry baby who has been designated the “town crier” by her roommates because she can’t not cry at every little thing.

I know something about this personally as I’m an easy crier as well, though these days it is primarily my family who is aware of it. In fact, it has become a contest to see how early on Christmas Day will Mom start to cry. Certain movies will always trigger my tears. Even certain commercials–remember those old Kodak commercials with the song “Turn Around”? And especially the whistled version of Greensleeves for the old “Lassie” show. Gets me every time.

Our joy and sorrow become so intertwined in our hearts and minds that we actually dwell inside both at once. That is the essence of Lent–the Bright Sadness of our long journey through His pain and suffering to find that His death–our death–has been transformed to eternal life.

Laugh through the tears and cry through the giggles. In the end, it’s all one.