Joy: Neighbors, Regulation, Intergenerational Transmission

After some crazy (for us) storms and the roughest winter drought-parched California has seen in a while, spring seems to be arriving. Sun! It is a source of great joy and energy for me. Piles of bunched daffodils on sale in the grocery store are almost free. I buy them by the fistfuls and put them all over the house. My husband calls them his “happy flowers.” I put a huge bouquet in his office, and it keeps him smiling all day. I love flowers and have always made sure to keep flowers in my office. As far as I am concerned, they are as essential in psychotherapy as the Kleenex and the ever-present clock. I am grateful that I can feel myself well up with joy in the face of beauty: that nature, music, color, and words make me happy. It has not always been easy for me to take pleasure in, to feel it.

I remember when I first started doing neurofeedback in 2009. Exclaiming, “I feel calmer and happier, calmer and happier, and things don’t bother me!” was my incredulous refrain as I did more and more of it. And I added, “A world without fear is a different place! The opposite of fear is joy.” Fear and hyper-arousal inhabiting the body act as a pulsing obstacle, a barrier to joy. Neurofeedback and all those years of dogged slogging therapy of all different kinds have opened the channel for joy to flow. My office is filled with light, and I have the good fortune of being able to see it now – not all the time, of course, but most of the time. Now, when beauty brings me to tears, they are more likely to be tears of awe than longing. What a blessing. 

A flashbulb memory recently sprang up. It was 1988; I was in the little kitchen of my apartment in Santa Cruz, doing some chores and listening to the radio. A song came on that I had never heard before, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” was the bouncy refrain. The beat was calypso-like and lively. It was hard not to smile and bounce along with its wacky rhythmic wisdom. Those were some rocky times in my life. I thought, “Oh, were it so easy!” Don’t worry, be happy? How do you do that?”

Fast forward to 2023. The other night I was out to dinner with my best friend. I have the good fortune to have a best friend who dates back even further than the remembered song! We get together once a month, which is another blessing I appreciate even more now the pandemic has allowed us to resume the long-standing ritual. I was harried, coming off a rather brutal workday, then traffic and parking. It took me a while to settle down once I finally landed in the restaurant with her. This was a restaurant I had been to before, and I had made friends with the waiter. As I often do with new friends, I had given him some cheese. The waiter rhapsodized about my cheese, which I always love, and I was basking in that. I did not notice the people at the table beside us.

When the neighboring table got up to leave, the man in their group said to me, “You are the cheesemaker!” I said yes, surprised that he knew. Apparently, the waiter had told him I make cheese. He was an interesting-looking man. We chatted briefly, shook hands, and they left. When the group was outside, the waiter said to me, “Do you know who that is?” “No!” I replied. “Bobby McFerrin!” He said. I ran outside to shake his hand again, regretting that I had not recognized him. When I got home, I googled him and got a 1988 YouTube video of Bobby McFerrin singing the delightful song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” Both he and I are much older now. I listened to it about five times, thinking, what a different world it is since the last time I heard it. 

I told my husband I had met Bobby McFerrin at the restaurant, and he said, “Oh, he sings a cappella, doesn’t he?” I didn’t know for sure, so I played a series of YouTube videos and saw his amazing diversity of sound and voice. In some cases, his sound was so diverse that it was indistinguishable as a cappella. He “played the snare drum on [his] chest” as the only accompaniment. In one piece, there was an instrument, another man playing the double bass. Bobby motioned to him to move to the keyboard. “I’ll sing the bass,” he said, and while his companion played the keyboard, Bobby, with his voice, replicated the precise deep rhythmic sounds of the double bass part. I wondered, what kind of person could write and sing like that? And could laughingly say, “Don’t worry, be happy…”? So, in my customary way, I watched a few interviews.

 I am grateful that I can feel myself well up with joy in the face of beauty: that nature, music, color, and words make me happy. It has not always been easy for me to take pleasure in, to feel it.

Regulation

Bobby’s childhood home was a bastion of music. In 1955, when he was five, Bobby’s father became the first African American singer to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and later in the New York City Opera. His mother was also a vocalist. Their home was perennially filled with music and song, and music was also a healer. 

As Bobby said, “When I was sick, my mother would give me two things. She’d give me some medicine for the aches and pains, and music for my spirit… Music has the incredible power to rearrange your insides.” The gentle, reliable, and melodic presence of both parents created a platform, a nervous system tuned and able to not worry and be happy. Bobby always loved music and sound, but he also deeply loved quiet. As a teen and young adult, he was powerfully drawn to monastic life and nearly chose that. The music, however, won out. And I believe we are all the better for it.

The quiet, the music, the precedence over other things, the play, the love: Bobby’s kids, it appears, grew up in an ambiance and matrix, a field where one can experience joy, not sweat the small stuff, one can not worry and be happy, and not have to spend decades in therapy to get there.

Intergenerational Transmission

I learned that one member of the party at the neighboring table was Bobby’s wife of 48 years. However, for me, the most striking and moving part of one interview was when Bobby talked about having their own three children. “You can’t have children without that affecting everything that happens to you!” He sang to them “in the belly,” and he and his wife went to concerts when she was pregnant. “They heard a lot of music before they even came out.” But what grabbed me most of all was when he said, “I wanted to be home all the time. I hated missing out on everything… they change so much in a week, in a day. I wanted to be home, all the time, read stories, be the ‘tickle monster…’ change my voice to be the different characters.” He wanted to be home, to be present with them, see them grow and change, become little people. So different from my dad and the parents of so many of my clients – absent in so many ways, for many kinds of reasons. The quiet, the music, the precedence over other things, the play, the love: Bobby’s kids, it appears, grew up in an ambiance and matrix, a field where one can experience joy, not sweat the small stuff, one can not worry and be happy, and not have to spend decades in therapy to get there. What an inspiration!

I am not a parent. To be honest, I was afraid that intergenerational transmission would seep into and haunt my next generation. I feared I could not do better. I now believe that the hard work of regulation, what the attachment researchers call “earned secure attachment,” the regulation one achieves through one’s persistent healing effort, can also be intergenerationally transmitted. We can, in fact, change the gene pool. Bobby’s music and his example are a gift to us all. Thanks Bobby! I am going to see if I can find him so I can give him some cheese!

Todays song:

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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