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Jeffrey Mitchell, a volunteer firefighter in the suburbs of Baltimore, came across the accident by chance: A car had smashed into a pickup truck loaded with metal pipes. Mitchell tried to help, but he saw at once that he was too late.
The car had rear-ended the truck at high speed, sending a pipe through the windshield and into the chest of the passenger—a young bride returning home from her wedding. There was blood everywhere, staining her white dress crimson.
Mitchell couldn’t get the dead woman out of his mind; the tableau was stuck before his eyes. He tried to tough it out, but after months of suffering, he couldn’t take it anymore. He finally told his brother, a fellow firefighter, about it.
Miraculously, that worked. No more trauma; Mitchell felt free. This dramatic recovery, along with the experiences of fellow first responders, led Mitchell to do some research into recovery from trauma. He eventually concluded that he had stumbled upon a powerful treatment. In 1983, nearly a decade after the car accident, Mitchell wrote an influential paper in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services that transformed his experience into a seven-step practice, which he called critical incident stress debriefing, or CISD. The central idea: People who survive a painful event should express their feelings soon after so the memory isn’t “sealed over” and repressed, which could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.
In recent years, CISD has become exceedingly popular, used by the US Department of Defense, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Israeli army, the United Nations, and the American Red Cross. Each year, more than 30,000 people are trained in the technique. (After the September 11 attacks, 2,000 facilitators descended on New York City.)
Even though PTSD is triggered by a stressful incident, it is really a disease of memory. The problem isn’t the trauma—it’s that the trauma can’t be forgotten. Most memories, and their associated emotions, fade with time. But PTSD memories remain horribly intense, bleeding into the present and ruining the future. So, in theory, the act of sharing those memories is an act of forgetting them.
A typical CISD session lasts about three hours and involves a trained facilitator who encourages people involved to describe the event from their perspective in as much detail as possible. Facilitators are trained to probe deeply and directly, asking questions such as, what was the worst part of the incident for you personally? The underlying assumption is that a way to ease a traumatic memory is to express it.
The problem is, CISD rarely helps—and recent studies show it often makes things worse. In one, burn victims were randomly assigned to receive either CISD or no treatment at all. A year later, those who went through a debriefing were more anxious and depressed and nearly three times as likely to suffer from PTSD. Another trial showed CISD was ineffective at preventing post-traumatic stress in victims of violent crime, and a US Army study of 952 Kosovo peacekeepers found that debriefing did not hasten recovery and led to more alcohol abuse. Psychologists have begun to recommend that the practice be discontinued for disaster survivors. (Mitchell now says that he doesn’t think CISD necessarily helps post-traumatic stress at all, but his early papers on the subject seem clear on the link.)
Mitchell was right about one thing, though. Traumatic, persistent memories are indeed a case of recall gone awry. But as a treatment, CISD misapprehends how memory works. It suggests that the way to get rid of a bad memory, or at a minimum denude it of its negative emotional connotations, is to talk it out. That’s where Mitchell went wrong. It wasn’t his fault, really; this mistaken notion has been around for thousands of years. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, people have imagined memories to be a stable form of information that persists reliably. The metaphors for this persistence have changed over time—Plato compared our recollections to impressions in a wax tablet, and the idea of a biological hard drive is popular today—but the basic model has not. Once a memory is formed, we assume that it will stay the same. This, in fact, is why we trust our recollections. They feel like indelible portraits of the past.
None of this is true. In the past decade, scientists have come to realize that our memories are not inert packets of data and they don’t remain constant. Even though every memory feels like an honest representation, that sense of authenticity is the biggest lie of all.
When CISD fails, it fails because, as scientists have recently learned, the very act of remembering changes the memory itself. New research is showing that every time we recall an event, the structure of that memory in the brain is altered in light of the present moment, warped by our current feelings and knowledge. That’s why pushing to remember a traumatic event so soon after it occurs doesn’t unburden us; it reinforces the fear and stress that are part of the recollection.
This new model of memory isn’t just a theory—neuroscientists actually have a molecular explanation of how and why memories change. In fact, their definition of memory has broadened to encompass not only the cliché cinematic scenes from childhood but also the persisting mental loops of illnesses like PTSD and addiction—and even pain disorders like neuropathy. Unlike most brain research, the field of memory has actually developed simpler explanations. Whenever the brain wants to retain something, it relies on just a handful of chemicals. Even more startling, an equally small family of compounds could turn out to be a universal eraser of history, a pill that we could take whenever we wanted to forget anything.
And researchers have found one of these compounds.
In the very near future, the act of remembering will become a choice.
Chronic procrastinators are riddled with internal conflict. We may talk to ourselves or others about what we are not doing, like “I didn’t get anything done today.” “I can’t focus.” “I need to get this project done already.” We feel as if we are a slave to their brains, not in control of our behaviors and even our minds.
Yes, I’m saying “we” because I’m admitting that I have a problem. But I think I may also have recently stumbled upon an important part of the solution.
Two things that maintain chronicity in psychological or behavioral problems are a) lack of specificity and b) lack of taking responsibility or seeing what’s in your control. Self-deception has been found to require vague language, while an “external locus of control” frames the situation as something we can’t do anything about, therefore it’s not our fault and not our responsibility.
To begin to regain control, one can see past actions clearly using specific language, and then label them as choices. For instance a person could say to themselves, “I chose to browse Facebook for 3 hours this morning.” Simply by labeling an action as a choice to yourself, you can immediately regain an “internal locus of control.” (Note that this might not be a good idea to go around telling others about your choices, especially if they determine your employment status, but being honest with yourself is an important step in changing your behavior in a way they would approve of as well.)
Every moment of every day you are being productive, even if you take 20 minutes to just sit on the couch and do “nothing,” that is a something perhaps called “sitting on the couch letting my mind wander.” You are always producing some result. The question isn’t whether you are doing something or not doing something, but whether you are doing what you want that is serving your needs and moving you closer to your outcomes.
The thing is, we all have multiple wants and needs. Nobody only wants to work or to play, to focus or to wander. At some times we have lots of energy and at other times we are tired. This is normal.
We can imagine these conflicting wants and needs as a board room with multiple people around a big conference table, all trying to make a decision together. How is this group going to make decisions? One way is by consensus, where everybody goes around and says what they want and what they think is best to do, and all parties keep hashing it out until they can all agree on a single course of action. This kind of negotiation leads to group cohesion but can take a long time in some groups, especially if each member is worried that their department’s needs won’t be met. Other groups bring it to a vote. And still other groups make decisions by having a single appointed party be the decision maker who gets all the information they think they need from the various members and then makes the decision. Any of these decision making styles can work well depending on the group and the context.
What chronic procrastinators do though is more like a boss who fails to call the meeting, and therefore doesn’t even make clear decisions, thus dodging responsibility for making any bad decisions and blaming it on others lower down. “Hey, I’m not in control here–those guys screwed it all up. It’s not my fault!” The chronic procrastinator similarly blames lower drives, or even his or her brain for being the one in charge, thus framing the situation as being a victim to forces outside of my control. Even by saying “I procrastinated” instead of “I watched YouTube videos featuring incredibly cute puppies for 90 minutes” is a way of being vague to avoid accepting the consequences of one’s actions.
The first step therefore is to get sufficient available information and take responsibility for decisions, even the decision to allow something or someone else to make the decisions.
You don’t have to be 100% in control of everything to do this (you won’t ever be anyway), you don’t have to have 100% of the information, and you don’t have to only make decisions that all parts of you like in the moment. You just recognize what information and control you actually do have, acknowledge it, and recognize that “if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.”
A chronic procrastinator can begin to transform into a decision-maker who is in control of their life by keeping an inventory of his or her time, saying, “I decided to do that. I fully accept the consequences of my decision.” Instead of saying, “I did nothing all day,” you might say, “I played video games for two and a half hours, then checked Facebook and Twitter for about 40 minutes, then read several blogs for 90 minutes. Then I did about 10 minutes of work on my report.”
Note this language is non-judgmental. Most procrastinators when they are specific about what they actually did are highly judgmental, saying things like “I wasted away 3 hours on Reddit like a freaking idiot. God, what’s wrong with me?!?” Keep your language objective and neutral, purely descriptive. You can also describe how you feel about your decisions. Again, keep it descriptive. For instance, “I decided to play Skyrim for 12 hours today. I feel physically exhausted, my eyes hurt, my body is stiff. I feel worried about my project that is due Monday, and notice that when I think about that, my heart rate becomes elevated.” This clear, specific, objective language provides you with the information to make more intelligent decisions. Thus talking to yourself in this way makes you smarter than someone who talks to themselves in vague language.
Other popular methods for tracking what you actually physically do are to keep a time log (write down what you did during each 15, 30, or 60 minute interval) or to use the Pomodoro Technique or other “time boxing” methods.
So once you get clear about what you actually are doing with your time and see your actions as decisions, what then? Most people when they consider doing something that bring short term gain for long term pain only think about the initial good feelings. They might say to themselves, “Man, I’d so much rather be checking Facebook right now,” or just make a mental picture (often so fast they don’t even notice) of how good it would feel to do so.
What they almost never do is make a mental movie that starts with doing the thing that creates the good feelings and plays out all the way to the unpleasant consequences before deciding. Instead they just play a captivating movie inside that motivates them to do the thing that feels good in the moment. Then they might compare that movie to what they are doing right now and choose the action that feels better. That’s what we call a poor decision-making strategy!
Later they look back with feelings of guilt and regret. But then since the action happened in the past, there’s nothing they can do about it now, yet they feel terrible and want to feel better or avoid feeling bad, so they may indulge again in the thing that feels good now. This is what we call a feedback loop, or a downward spiral.
Hey, could you use this information to motivate yourself differently and make better decisions? You betcha. It could even reverse the loop, creating an upward spiral. While you can’t do anything about the past, you can learn to make better decisions by making mental movies that play out until the logical consequences, thus getting a more accurate feeling about how you’ll feel in the future. This solves the whole problem about hyperbolic discounting and present bias by making the future real now. It’s also what people who don’t procrastinate do automatically.
Here’s how you do it:
Think about a behavior that feels good in the moment but has long-term consequences that you don’t want. Close your eyes and make a mental movie starting with the choice to do the short-term behavior and play a movie that goes out long enough to link that choice up with the natural consequence—that is, until you feel the pain now of what would happen if you made that decision (instead of feeling pain in the form of guilt and regret later when it’s too late to do anything about it). Then think about an alternative behavior that has more desired long-term consequences and make a second mental movie. Again play the movie out all the way until the natural consequences so you can feel what that would feel like if you made that decision. Compare the movies side by side and choose which one you want. You can make as many such movies as you want given however many decisions you want to consider.
That’s it in a nutshell. If you think you’re terrible at visualizing, you’re probably not (everyone dreams vividly every night whether they remember it consciously or not), and in any case it doesn’t really matter because just pretending to visualize usually works just as effectively. So just try “acting as if” you can see it, or even write out the consequences in sensory specific detail as if writing a novel, then read over the stories and decide which one you want.
For best results, practice in advance, when it’s easy. Don’t wait for the moment of temptation when it’s hard. Practice again and again and again until you realize this new decision making strategy is better and you choose it every time.
This is but one strategy that is useful for overcoming chronic procrastination. Although can’t say I’m totally reformed yet, I’ve made huge strides myself in making better decisions (and I was the WORST!), so I believe that you can do it too. I also provide personal change consulting for those who want professional support in making such changes, so feel free to get in touch with me if you’re interested.
the simpsons’ 500th episode airs tonight (8pm est, fox). the latimes placed this achievement in context during an interview with show executive producer al jean:
that’s roughly 200 straight hours of show (minus commercials), stretched over 23 seasons, with hundreds of guest voices from Oscar winners, world leaders, esteemed novelists and notorious international figures. It’s become a billion-dollar industry for the Fox network and made millionaires of its creators.
relive the seasons in the photo gallery below (click on pics for closer looks, also via latimes) and share your favorite memories of the show in the comments.
when it comes to spiritual matters, critical thinking and faith are often put at odds each other where reason is championed by non-believers and faith by believers. in reality though, they are both critical to your walk with god. you need to find the right balance however because leaning too much on one over the other is problematic.
exhibit a: pastor tim prowse. after almost 20 years in the ministry, tim left his church and became an atheist. it was a decision that he struggled with since seminary school when he began to rely more on critical thinking. he shares his experience below in an interview with sam harris:
Can you describe the process by which you lost your belief in the teachings of your Church?
An interesting thing happened while I was studying at East Texas Baptist University: I was told not to read Rudolf Bultmann. I asked myself: Why? What were they protecting me from? I picked up Bultmann’s work, and that decision is the catalyst that ultimately paved the road to today. Throughout my educational journey, which culminated in an Ordination from the United Methodist Church where I’ve served for seventeen years, I’ve continued to ask the question “Why?”
Ironically, it was seminary that inaugurated my leap of unfaith. It was so much easier to believe when living in an uncritical, unquestioning, naïve state. Seminary training with its demands for rigorous and intentional study and reflection coupled with its values of reason and critical inquiry began to undermine my naïveté. I discovered theologians, philosophers and authors I never knew existed. I found their questions stimulating but their answers often unsatisfying. For example, the Bible is rife with vileness evidenced by stories of sexual exploitation, mass murder and arbitrary mayhem. How do we harmonize this fact with the conception of an all-loving, all-knowing God? While many have undertaken to answer this question even in erudite fashion, I found their answers lacking. Once I concluded that the Bible was a thoroughly human product and the God it purports does not exist, other church teachings, such as communion and baptism, unraveled rather quickly. To quote Nietzsche, I was seeing through a different “perspective” – a perspective based on critical thinking, reason and deduction. By honing these skills over time, reason and critical thinking became my primary tools and faith quickly diminished. Ultimately, these tools led to the undoing of my faith rather than the strengthening of it.
It sounds like you lost your faith in the process of becoming a minister—or did you go back and forth for some years? How long did you serve as a minister, and how much of this time was spent riven by doubt?
I didn’t lose faith entirely during the ministerial process, although a simmering struggle between faith and doubt was clearly evident. This simmering would boil occasionally throughout my seventeen-year career, but any vacillations I experienced were easily suppressed, and faith would triumph, albeit, for non-religious reasons. Besides the money, time, and energy I had invested during the process, familial responsibilities deterred any decisions to alter course. These faithful triumphs were ephemeral and I found myself living in constant intellectual and emotional turmoil. By not repudiating my career, I could not escape the feeling I was living a lie. I continued to juggle this stressful dichotomy to the point of being totally miserable. Only recently have I succumbed to the doubt that has always undergirded my faith journey.
After I read your book, The End of Faith, I could no longer suppress my unbelief. Since I’d never felt comfortable in clergy garb and refused to accept a first-century worldview, your book helped me see that religion could no longer be an instrument of meaning in my life. I’m sad to say, Sam, this conclusion did not result in an immediate career change. I didn’t break from the church immediately, but rather feigned belief for two more years.
If you could go back in time and reason with your former self, what could you say that might have broken the spell sooner?
I would tell myself to ask questions, to read the text, to wonder, to explore the nuances, to take seriously my intuition and abilities to debate. I’d tell myself to listen to what is actually being said with critical and reasoning ears. I’d tell myself to substitute “Invisible Friend” for “God” every time I encountered the word and notice how ridiculous the rhetoric sounds from grown-ups. I would challenge myself to be more skeptical, to study science. I’d tell myself to find joy in life – it’s the only one you are going to get – don’t waste a second.
Believers often allege that there is a deep connection between faith and morality. For instance, when I debated Rick Warren, he said that if he did not believe in God, he wouldn’t have any reason to behave ethically. You’ve lived on both sides of the faith continuum. I’m wondering if you felt any associated change in your morality, for better or worse.
I’d be interested to know what behaviors or impulses God is deterring Rick Warren from acting upon. I doubt very seriously if “God’s goodness” evaporated tomorrow, Warren would begin robbing banks, raping children, or murdering his neighbors! These types of statements, while common, are fallacious in my opinion. When Rick Warren uses God as his reason for being good, he is not using God in a general sense. He isn’t referring to Thor, Neptune, or Isis, either.
One can find a few biblical passages that do promote “goodness” to use Rick Warren’s term, but only by cherry picking them and avoiding the numerous passages that are appalling, offensive and destructive.
Since God is nothing more than our creation and projection, any talk of God is our reflection looking back at us. Hence, our morality begins with us anyway. My morality hasn’t changed for the worse since I left the faith. If anything, it is much more honest because I am forced to consider what is really going on in ethical decisions. Family, culture, beliefs and values, genetic tendencies, all play a role in shaping morality, but I’m not arguing an extreme relativism. While I do give credence to certain cultural influences on determining right and wrong, I believe that some issues are universal. Which is why, unless Rick Warren is truly demented, he wouldn’t begin doing heinous acts if his faith evaporated tomorrow, and if he did, it would be more the result of mental illness than lack of faith.
Did you ever discuss your doubts with your fellow clergy or parishioners? Did you encounter other ministers who shared your predicament (some can be found at http://clergyproject.org/)? And what happened when you finally expressed your unbelief to others?
As an active minister, I did not discuss my atheism with colleagues or parishioners. Facing lost wages, housing and benefits, I chose to remain silent. However, I did confide in my wife who provided a level of trust, understanding, and support that proved invaluable. Unfortunately, some ministers do not enjoy mature confidants. Some have lost marriages and partners, friends and family, leaving them with feelings of isolation and abandonment. Hence, many continue living in estrangement, uncertain where to turn or who to trust, waiting for their lives to be completely upended when the truth finally is discovered.
This is why the Clergy Project is so important. It provides an invaluable resource of support for current and former clergy who are atheists. It is a safe and anonymous place to discuss the issues atheist clergy encounter while providing encouragement and support that is genuine and heartfelt. It greatly eases the desperation and uncertainty of where to turn or who to trust! I’ve been a member of the Clergy Project since July 2011, and it prepared me well for the responses to expect from friends and family during my post-clergy conversations. So far, I have not been surprised by the responses I’ve received nor have I lost any significant relationships due to my professed atheism, but time will tell.
It is nice to hear that your exit from the ministry has been comparatively smooth. What will you do next?
Repudiating my ordination and leaving faith behind was much smoother than I had anticipated. Ironically, something I had worked years to accomplish ended in a matter of minutes. When I slid my ordination certificates across a Bob Evan’s tabletop to my District Superintendent, I was greatly relieved. The lie was over. I was free. This freedom does not come without consternation, however.
Fortunately, a dear friend helped my family by offering their second home to rent at a very reasonable price. Another dear friend has procured a sales job for me in her company. While housing and employment have been provided in the short term, long term my future is much more uncertain. Ideally, I’d love to write and lecture on my experiences; especially concerning the negative impacts faith and church have on individuals and societies. I’d love to write a novel.
I do not have visions of grandeur, however. If the rest of my life is spent just being a regular “Joe” that will be fine by me. I have a wonderful family and a few good friends. My heart and mind are at ease. I’m healthier now than I’ve been in years and tomorrow looks bright. For the first time in my life, I’m living. Truly living, Sam.
On my desktop is an image of rap mogul, Jay-Z, and the phrase, “Not a Businessman—a Business, Man.” There’s a great deal aspiring artists can learn from him and his wife, Beyonce, who gave birth to the couple’s first child, Blue Ivy Carter, last month.
According to the National Foundation for the Arts (NEA), over one-third of artists are self-employed, compared to only 10 percent of the rest of the U.S. labor force. In this economic environment, the number of self-employed artists has been increasing, even though BFA and MFA programs gloss over practical business training – if they offer any at all. Yet it’s not enough to create great art; most successful artists also find a way to promote their work. They have to learn how to hustle.
Enter the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). Its mission is to empower artists at critical stages in their creative lives. Mayor Bloomberg and the NYC Economic Development Corporation selected NYFA to administer the Artist as Entrepreneur Bootcamp, which equips artists with the practical skills to help them succeed. The curriculum includes career planning, business plan writing, marketing, financial management, and writing and presentation skills. Many artists have little to no knowledge of these topics.
Katy Rubin, Founding Artistic Director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, participated in a recent NYFA Bootcamp. She learned that business can be creative, too.
“Before Bootcamp, I thought that business was vaguely evil. As an artist, I was required to shun anything business-related. One of the big takeaways from the Bootcamp was that entrepreneurship is in itself an art, an outlet for self-expression and creative thinking, and that I could embrace the tools of business to help myself and other artists.”
As expressive as artists are in their work, many are reluctant to promote themselves. During a conversation with Katy and other Bootcamp participants, we agreed that this had to do with a vulnerability that is even more pronounced in Western culture.
“Our society marginalizes artists,” says Rachel Selekman, one of the recent Bootcamp participants. “In ‘primitive’ cultures, artists, who were often shamans as well, were revered because of their critical contributions to the community.”
I, for one, think that business can learn from the arts. Every business is in need of creative problem-solving, and as Craig Nobbs, another participant, says, “The purpose of art is to make the familiar unfamiliar.” Here’s a list I concocted of hypothetical courses artists could teach to entrepreneurs.
Jay-Z figured out early on that art and commerce depend on each other. “I was forced to be an artist and a CEO from the beginning, so I was forced to be like a businessman because when I was trying to get a record deal, it was so hard to get a record deal on my own that it was either give up or create my own company.”
Aspiring artist-entrepreneurs take note.
by marie-josee salvas via designtaxi.com:
A good friend of mine could be the next Martha Stewart. In fact, let’s call her Martha. Martha loves to cook and does it beautifully. Guests that she entertains for dinner wow at the presentation, rejoice throughout the meal, and are somewhat embarrassed when it’s their turn to invite her over.
Martha is equally talented at home design. Her own home is both harmonious and stylish, and she’s the go-to person for anyone in her group of friends who needs advice on décor.
Having studied fashion, she can also help just about any lady plan a make-over, including hair, make-up or clothing style.
As if her skill set wasn’t complete enough already, she’s also the funniest person I know (and I know a lot of people!).
It’s great to have a friend like Martha around. But it’s a real shame to see her go to the same federal office day after day so she can send emails, make photocopies, stamp paperwork, and align numbers in the right columns.
I recently read the book ‘The Truth About You: Your Secret to Success’ by Marcus Buckingham. If you know anyone like my friend Martha—or maybe you’re like her yourself—consider reading this book.
After years of research, most notably with the Gallup Organization, Buckingham explains that only 2 out of 10 people get to play to their strengths at work most of the time. Yes, there are a lot of ‘Marthas’ out there and to help them out of their misery, Buckingham presents what he calls “truths.” More precisely:
NEW DEFINITION FOR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
“Your strengths are not what you are good at and your weaknesses are not what you are bad at,” he explains as he emphasizes that certain things that we are naturally endowed to do bore us to tears.
Agreed, I am quite good at cleaning, filing, and organizing, but it certainly doesn’t make me feel at my best when I do and I can’t wait to be finished when I start.
‘The Truth About You’ suggests that “a weakness is any activity that leaves you feeling weaker after you do it… a strength—your strengths—are any activity that make you feel strong” (pp. 41-42).
So pay attention to how you feel before, during, and after an activity, he recommends. If you feel drawn to the activity and are looking forward to it before you start; if you are interested, in the zone, and focused during the activity and if you are satisfied with the process after it’s over, chances are it’s a ‘strength’.
To help you discover your strengths, try finishing this sentence: “I feel strong when…”
Buckingham explains that people like Martha live a second-rate version of their own lives. And while they justify their career choices through arguments like “it’s safer” or “I’ll have a great retirement plan,” they put their true personality on hold in the hope of bringing it back at some later point in the future.
The problem is, in the meantime, your motivation, interests, and confidence all suffer. And so when that future you were waiting for finally arrives—if it does—you are most likely no longer ready to tackle it.
Buckingham urges his readers to take on jobs that enable them to do what they enjoy. His tone feels personal; his advice is compelling.
MAKING IT REAL
But people like Martha still have to pay their bills. Leaving her secure position with the government to start a new career for which she may have a ton of aptitude and talent but little concrete experience could impede her ability to make her mortgage payments in the short-term. That’s what’s really holding her and other people in her situation back—nothing else.
Enhancing Buckingham’s advice with a sound financial strategy—like estimating how much income will be reduced in the first few months post-transition and setting money aside to face this new reality—would help his readers to make the move.
Society at large would benefit if more people got a chance to contribute their unique gifts on a daily basis. So now I’d like to turn to you. What advice or strategies would you share with my friend Martha and others in her situation?
this picture embodies what i’m loving about jeremy lin right now. great story on his own, but for this long-suffering knicks fan, he’s helped create a sense of camaraderie, passion and happiness that hasn’t been seen in the garden in years. the legend continued tonight in toronto as he capped off the knicks’ 4th quarter comeback in style.