More than 10 years ago, I saw a black and white photograph by Richard Avedon that I still vividly remember. It was taken of a young boy in 1947 in Sicily. He was in the foreground smiling broadly and wearing a suit that was too short in the arms and too tight in the waist.  In the background—softly out of focus—was a tree with a symmetrical oval canopy and a fence that defined the boundary between sky and water. A seemingly bucolic scene unless you looked carefully at the boy.

After starring at it for a while, I realized that the ill-fitting suit probably had little to do with parents who couldn’t afford one that fit properly. Rather, the boy’s body was racked with deformities: a back that appeared to have a hump, emaciated legs, and a chest out of proportion to his body.

In many ways, Avedon’s photograph is analogous to behaviors we don’t understand; whether it’s Serena Williams threatening a line judge, Kanye West’s interrupting the presentation of an award, Representative Joe Wilson heckling the President, or the reactions to a person’s unexpected behaviors following a significant loss.  Visible is a behavioral iceberg that may seem innocuous or understandable. But beneath may be hiding something menacing or tragic.

I’ve witnessed it often in my hospice volunteering: A patient, angry with a daughter he had emotionally abused as a child, who continually invented excuses for not visiting; a nurse, vitriolic that a patient’s sister who had been shunned her whole life by “the family favorite” was short-tempered, and adult children annoyed that their mother, who relied on her husband for all major decisions, became financially rudderless after his death.

Behaviors—especially those we don’t understand—are analogous to the pools of water that collect in marshes following a heavy rain. The water seeps into unseen deep holes that appear deceptively shallow.  Relying on surface appearances places us at risk both in the marsh and in life.

copyright 2009. Stan Goldberg, stangoldbergwriter.com.

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Stan Goldberg

Stan Goldberg is a Professor Emeritus of Communicative Disorders at San Francisco State University. For over 25 years he taught, provided therapy, researched, and published in the area of information processing, loss, and change. Stan has published seven books, written numerous articles and delivered over 100 lectures and workshops throughout the United States, Latin America and Asia. He is currently working on a novel and a book on loss. He also consults on issues of personal, institutional, and corporate change. He has served as an expert legal witness in high-profile court cases and is a consulting editor for Oxford University Press. Stan leads workshops for adults whose lives were suddenly and traumatically changed. He serves at the bedside hospice volunteer in San Francisco for Pathways Home Health Care and Hospice. and is a featured columnist in the Hospice Volunteers of America quarterly magazine. His published magazine articles, essays, poems, and plays have received numerous national and international writing awards. Written with humor and sensitivity, they have appeared in magazines ranging from Psychology Today to Horse and Rider. His latest book is Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life http://lessonsfortheliving.blogspot.com. It’s a memoir of his six years as a bedside hospice volunteer; an experience that taught him to accept his cancer and live fully, no matter how long that might be. He can be contacted at stan@stangoldbergwriter.com. Numerous downloadable articles appear on his website www.stangoldbergwriter.com

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