Holding Hope Lightly

Things happen. The old joke tells us, “If you want to hear laughter, tell God your plans.” Whatever the cause of your disappointment, you will not get everything you want.

Your future depends on what you do then — what attitude you take to the downturns of life.

Buddhists say, “Live the life you have, not the one you want.If you aim for stardom in the National Basketball Association, but Mother Nature and your ancestors’ genes allow you 5’5′ (1.65 meters) of height, the life you want is above you, beyond your short reach.

A wonderful lifetime might still be yours, but it won’t be in the arms of your first love career.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger said beings are “thrown into life.Moreover, we emerge in circumstances we didn’t choose; lucky, unlucky, or a mixture. Skin color, nationality, the care we receive growing up, our inborn body and brain all greet us from the start.

Over time, no matter those who love us, oversee or mistreat us, we are left to give control of our lives to others or take responsibility for ourselves.

What choice do we have? What does responsibility even mean?

Every individual decides whether to take a direction set by someone else (an advisor, parent, protector, or Divinity). If he accepts the necessity of following that route, he will find limitations imposed on his choices and behavior.

For example:

  • Go to church on Sunday?Yes.
  • Take the name of the Lord in vain?No.

But, as many have noted, there is no certainty of the authority behind those answers. If we accept them, we trust both the guide and his or her guidance. We take them on faith. The world of worshipful belief offers over 200 varieties of Christianity in the USA alone and an estimated variety of more than 4000 religions worldwide.

Instead, Heidegger advises, we can give our actions importance and weight from within ourselves.

The job entails examining the world of things and people, including our history and that of the world. We must behold life’s wonders and risks to find our own human and moral internal grounding for the beliefs and behaviors we create.

We can provide reasons for shaping our own life without an answer to the question of what external to us might ground our being. No absolute knowledge is possible, the philosopher states, of how we came to be, why we came to be, or what necessitates the continuation of our being and planet and all its other current and future inhabitants.

The boundaries we impose will be of our own making, knowing when to stand firm and when to give in, when to go first and when to wait, when to say yes and when to say no.

Whatever we decide, we will obtain mixed results.

Unlike the practical, industrious piglet of the “Three Little Pigs” fable, we humans discover that the effort required to build our security is sometimes inadequate to unpredictable whirlwind events blowing our houses down.

Nonetheless, we can hope our mindset will allow joy in the precious moments without demanding life to behave itself and be what it cannot. Grief and the best of times stand beside each other in all but the luckiest and unluckiest lives.

Potential insecurity follows from the freedom and responsibility of grounding ourselves without a religious belief system. Choosing one’s own path omits the comfort attainable by people of abiding faith in an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving Deity. Religion can also be a buffer against mortality and enable a sense of support in periods of misfortune.

Either way, we make our selection and, if we are sympathetic to the array of other life forms present and ahead, consider more than our own happiness. Responsibility doesn’t mean doing anything we want. We must adjust our stance as our living of life informs us of what we require, what we love, and our duties to others and the world.

The psychologist Robert Wright reported attending a meditation retreat for several days. Little opportunity for conversation occurred. Rather, undertaking individual mediation was the focus, with occasional consultations from an experienced guide.

Wright has written and spoken about struggling to achieve a satisfying practice of this art. However, to his delight, he achieved a transcendent experience in the midst of a long meditation session, a sense of benign well-being and relief from the burden of life, something beyond his imagination.


Soon after, he told his advisor what happened. Our professor of psychology received an answer both sobering and enlightening.That’s fine, but don’t get too attached to it.

In saying this, his mentor reminded him that too much desire, too much “wanting,” would contribute to suffering. Nothing lasts, and the transcendental moment might not return.

What then?

In an ever-changing world, in an ever-changing body and mind, we are in transit. More joy may be available if we hold our hopes lightly: keep the shortness of our days in the back of our minds and our eyes on the possibilities of the moment we are in.

Cheers to the happiest possible life, my friends.

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Letting Go is the name of the first image, the work of gnuckx. Next comes A Sunrise Over the Virgin River by Laura Hedien. A Semblance of Hope, a photo of Jojo Lacerona, follows. Laura Hedien’s March 2021 image of a Utah Sunrise completes the array after the Three Little Pigs video.

The first and third of these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Laura Hedien’s work can be found at https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/ She has given me her kind permission to use the photographs displayed here.

Are There Basic Laws of Human Stupidity?

A fascinating new book took 43 years to receive its first widespread publication in its original language. Why should you care? Because the belated arrival confirms the machine of the world doesn’t operate well. A logical, predictable planet under wise management is the one we want.

Carlo Cipolla offers us a sort-of-comic essay called The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.

Is it playful? Yes.

Is it serious? Yes.

Is it enlightening? Yes, again.

Moreover, at 74 pages, the slender volume is worth the slim slice of time and money to find out yourself. No extra calories, either, so discovering the five rules won’t blow your diet.

Here are the laws our friendly adviser asserts, with a few edits and comments to ease your understanding:

  1. Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person. The author Carlo Cipolla means you will find the same percentage of the stupid everywhere. They inhabit all jobs in all societies, all races and genders, and all education levels.
  3. The Golden Basic Law. A stupid person is (someone) who causes (harm) to another person or group while himself (gaining nothing) or even possibly (hurting himself).
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person. A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

Cipolla’s description of stupidity concerns the ill-timed actions of the souls he describes, a kind of bizarre giftedness for catastrophe creation. They lack self-awareness of their talent for messing things up for those who don’t recognize their toxicity and flee.

These creatures use their strange, malign, unintended capacity to cause misspent energy, squandered time, spoiled appetites, perplexity, unhappiness, physical distress, and lost wages and property. Misery floats in their wake. This unknowing band carries habits similar to people Joseph Epstein refers to as Chaos Merchants.

Here is a personal example. My wife was driving to an unfamiliar Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia around 1974. We were attending a professional conference. Several bright attendees we just met were with us.

One bloke insisted he knew the way. He exuded absolute confidence. We were moving at speed when he insisted the time demanded we make a left turn. A moment later, we were facing four lanes of oncoming traffic.

This well-educated guy embodied stupidity.

Think about the people you’ve dated, married, befriended, and worked beside or for. I’m sure many were conventionally bright. I imagine you believed your continuing acquaintances harmless.

Cipolla would suggest some were stupid (by his definition), and the world is more dysfunctional for their being here. He might have entitled his volume The Inconvenient, Unpredictable Doings of Preposterous People.

The book attempts to differentiate its target from the helpless, the corrupt (bandits), and the intelligent. The author also tells us how some in this crowd arrived in positions of power.

Possible explanations include being born into a higher class or caste, entry to an advantaged and protected religious order where male authorities have lacked oversite, and elections. His opinion of the political misguidedness of his targets echoes the words of H.L Menken:

On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

What can you do about the danger? Since many of us defend against senselessness by reasoning with others or maneuvering around them, the author instead tries to persuade us that success and safety require us to keep a distance.

He quotes the German poet Friedrich Schiller, who wrote, “Against stupidity, even the gods fight in vain.”

I would add this. Most people of reasonable intelligence make mistakes in managing the totality of humanity. First, we think of ourselves as more rational than we are. Second, we judge others and predict their actions without adequate skill whenever we base our expectations on sober consistency and astute instincts they do not possess.

Our tendency to ignore so much of what we learn also comes into play. And they, the dangerous ones, often appear innocent and well-meaning. We want to give people second chances and desire the same from them.

Nor do we wish to live in fear of disasters brought by members of our species who, we believe, don’t roam the earth with distinctive hats announcing their presence. (Oops, we could be wrong).

As the 4th Basic Law reminds us:

Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.

There are reasons to doubt the author’s contentions. He was an economist, not a psychologist, and doesn’t present data to support his ideas. Yet, in my judgment, he is devilishly wise and has hit upon something of importance.

Here is my recommendation. You might get a laugh and a new perspective on the human condition if you take on his writing. At worst, you’ll be out a few dollars and a miniature amount of time you won’t get back.

Read the book. With luck, you’ll come away with a little wisdom and a smile.

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The second photo comes from a Tax March, San Francisco, CA, on April 15, 2017. The final image is called Naughty Carrot Wearing a Dunce Cap, November 13, 2019. In order, the creators of these two visuals are Punk Toad and Schmidti333. The source was Wikimedia.com/

Does Love Die of Boredom? Some Unexpected Advice

As the stream of time moves us on, most of us hope to find a comfortable way to manage. Few beg for more of the turbulence of early years, a period fraught with insecurity and internal confusion. “Who am I — who do I want to be?” — is a question we’d rather not ask. Psychological and physical ease is the goal.

Yet, do we risk a life of deadening routine? Do we hold too fast to one version of our identity past the point our partner finds us dull? Even the beautiful and smart can be unlucky in love.

Who might we consult to make ourselves forever interesting to the one we care for?

How about someone who ended one of his most famous works with the words, “You must change your life.”

Rainer Maria Rilke died at 51 in 1926. In his half-century, he gained an unconventional perspective on love and keeping it fresh. He thirsted for experiences, wishing to absorb the world with new eyes as if he were seeing his surroundings — human and natural — for the first time.

The poet often praises those who make perception into an activity, not the automatic, passive accumulation of sights, sounds, and smells entering our awareness without effort. He wants it to be alive, not rendered invisible by his failure to recognize more than customary appearances.

In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, insightful observation requires intention: an attempt to make the familiar unfamiliar, nor turn from what troubles us when we look and listen closely.

Here is an example from the title character Brigge:

There are many people, but even more faces, since everyone has several. There are people who wear a face for years, and of course it wears away, gets dirty, cracks in the creases, stretches like gloves you’ve worn whilst traveling.

Rilke’s words push us to take a new look at the next face we behold. He implies more exists behind faces than we thought. The portrayal of Brigge discloses a young man attentive to subtlety and nuance, the qualities arrayed before him available to his sight: the sensory world we find unremarkable without the effort to inspect it.

Now imagine yourself attached to someone like Rilke, woman or man, who transforms part of the experiences you take for granted.

At age 27, Rilke received a letter from a 19-year-old, with whom he continued a prolonged but occasional correspondence. The younger man, a military student named Franz Kappus, sought advice on his own literary efforts.

The compilation of Rainer Maria’s side of the exchange appears in his Letters to a Young Poet.

In the eighth of his 10 communications, dated August 12, 1904, Rilke addresses the reasons he believed sweethearts became boring.

For it is not only indolence that causes human relationships to be repeated from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before any new, inconceivable experience, which we don’t think we can deal with.

Note, Rilke doesn’t say one of the lovers is boring. He says tedium grows out of hesitation to take on new inward and outward adventures. He continues:

But only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.

For if we imagine this being of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. In this way they have a certain security.

The above passage suggests courage is the inoculation preventing the death of intimacy. Moreover, Rilke believes it will foster not only closeness but also Kappus’s self-discovery. In eaves-dropping on a century-old private exchange, we are allowed to ask if we too remain in “a corner of (our) room” out of a desire for security and safety.

The older man’s message continues to explore this idea:

And yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells.

We, however, are not prisoners.

Later, both Kappus and we are told why we ought to flee our self-imposed confinement and embrace the wider world.

If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them.

And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.

How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses.

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

The dragons might also be thought of as personal shortcomings hidden by the masks we wear — the truth we hide from others and ourselves. The writer suggests we take the role of a sculptor of our individual humanity, forever adapting, shaping, and experimenting with an identity which new circumstances, aging, and personal history demand we change.

Rilke asks us to begin self-examination, to stand erect and naked before the sunlit mirror, and declare, “This is who I am.” The static life, he might tell us, is a missed opportunity. He applauds those who wish to know more — endlessly.

The whole of humanity will never take Rilke’s advice. Not everyone accepts life’s unexpressed invitation to discover who they are and create who they strive to be. I suspect the man is speaking of rare creatures among us.

Perhaps they would be the metaphorical tightrope walkers and fire-eaters, and those to whom love or justice or freedom are worth everything they possess — everything they must endure for the chance to achieve them.

In our challenging mortal world, Rilke recommends we mull over unnecessary boundaries and barricades built for self-protection, some of which cost us the fulfillment we say we want.

Since the clock on our duration keeps its steady pace toward the ends of things, we do well to live with a tempered urgency to be more, notice more, and do more.

And if we are lucky and his suggestions are correct, win and maintain a lasting love.

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The quotations from Letters to a Young Poet are a part of one long paragraph. I’ve broken the sentences up to better clarify your understanding and my commentary.

The first painting is August Macke’s 1914 Tightrope Walker. The second is Tightrope Walkers,1944, by Remedios Varo. Finally comes Giorgio de Chirico’s 1926 The Two Masks. All of these come from Wikiart.org/

When God Wrote a Symphony

God can do anything.

At least the All-powerful One who created the universe and all the living things in it.

But, on a remarkable day, the Almighty got bored. “I’ve done everything,” he said to himself. “What might I yet do to enhance the world?”

Thus came the idea of a new, mammoth orchestral composition–a piece in three long movements on the largest possible scale. “And so it was.”

The next morning every person on the planet, no matter their age or place, awoke with sheet music and the musical instrument required.

They’d shared a dream overnight, instructing them to practice their portion each day with the newfound talent instilled by The Timeless Being.

In six months, they now knew, God would lead the premiere.

Ah, but we creatures aren’t perfect, are we? Otherwise, why did the Lord drown his people in The Flood? All but Noah, his family, and an ark full of pairs, that is.

Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t come out well, either.

Indeed, one little man in the Deity’s band was already troubled. A diminutive tailor named Thomas read through the score, distressed to discover he had a solo. A star turn in front of the whole world. A cymbal crash, no less. His would be the climactic moment of the entire piece, the capping culmination, its ending excellence.

The clothier, you must understand, preferred the shadows to the stage, avoiding attention his entire life. He worried about bringing his cymbals together a moment too soon, a beat too late, making his noise too loud or soft, or bumping into a fellow percussionist.

Thomas doubted everything about himself. He always had. On this occasion, however, he’d not only be letting himself and humanity down but The Big Guy. Or Woman. Or whatever gender description is appropriate for the Immortal.

What might happen? Would the Supreme Being submerge the earth a second time? The responsibility squeezed Thomas’s heart. He couldn’t sleep, didn’t eat, and lost weight. “God, help me!” pleaded Tom.

No answer came.

The day began. All the living world instantly arrived at an enormous space in Africa. Humankind found itself onstage, surrounded by the rest, in the water, trees, open lands, air, and hills.

After the ensemble tuned, the Maker stepped off his golden chariot and took the podium. The music commenced.

The first movement took eight years to play, but even Thomas thought the celestial tones beautiful beyond imagination. It enchanted the universe of listeners, too, even the man in the moon. Still, as time passed, this musician’s timorous anticipation grew.

After a brief pause, the Lord’s downbeat launched the second section, seven-years in length. The flawless symphonic sounds soared even beyond the loveliness of what had preceded it. Birds froze in mid-flight, transfixed. The giraffes and hippos, the alligators, too, found their eyes glistening. All the collective hearts conjoined, every living creature in synch.

Except for our buddy, of course.

By the beginning of the symphony’s third part, the single suffering soul was beside himself. The cymbal crash lay 10 years ahead. He wrung his hands, wiped his brow, and began to shake.

The decade passed. At last, the moment!

God turned in the cymbalist’s direction, providing the cue. Thomas lifted the metal plates, and then…

Everyone heard the clatter. But it was the sound of Tom dropping the cymbals, not putting the intended final punctuation to the Divinity’s glorious score, 25 years of perfection since the heavenly baton first moved.

The Deity lowered his arms, the performers froze, and the world held its breath. Thomas looked down, but the Immortal One raised the tailor’s head and opened his humiliated, terror-struck eyes to meet his own.

The gaze, as Tom experienced it, felt as though it went on for eternity. In clock time, however, perhaps just a few seconds elapsed.

The composing Creator composed himself and turned to behold the philharmonic altogether.

And he said the only thing a great, eternal musician would say.

“From the top!”

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The first design is Frontiepiece K, The Ancient of Days, to William Blake’s 1794 work Europe a Prophecy. The next image is God Speed! by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, sourced from wikiart.org. Shiva as the Lord of the Dance is the last artwork, created in India. It dates from the 10th or 11th century, now part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Collection.

The Therapeutic Value of Remembering “Things”

 

I sometimes wonder what things — stored or discarded objects — might offer clues about who we are and how we got this way? Some carry secrets we’ve forgotten and epiphanies yet to be disclosed.

I was watching my oldest grandson color a month or so back. It’s been a long time since I colored with my kids themselves. The scent, and sight, and size of his Crayola box brought to mind an age six experience of my own.

The teacher must have asked my classmates and me to bring home a supply list on the new academic year’s first day, the Tuesday after Labor Day. I doubt the paper said more than the words “one box of Crayolas.”

My mom probably didn’t give it much thought, other than to fulfill the requirements and not pay more than necessary. The ghosts of her own haunted youth doubtless accompanied her to the store.

Each student took his bag of necessaries to our classroom at Jamieson School and unloaded them when told to. But this simple job was to be something beyond routine.

Once we lifted the tops, my eight-crayon cohort shrunk like small buildings encircled by the many multi-colored, peaked towers bursting upwards from the desks surrounding me. I sensed everyone else lugged the largest case to school — forty-eight crayons worth.

That was the first day I encountered a personal sense of “less than.” Not the box, but I felt “less than” the other kids.

Please understand, no comments or comparisons issued from the mouths of others, nor any judgmental glances. My brain interpreted the sign-language communicated by all the well-supplied boxes.

Such coloring tools carry a powerful aroma. You might ask yourself about scents that continue to remind you of childhood, as well. Alfalfa and cedar come to mind.

The cedar infusion of air came from a wooden toy chest. I can’t attach alfalfa to anything precise. Perhaps the plants grew in one of the many empty lots around our home, places long since filled in by brick and mortar construction. Both smells bring pleasure even now.

I played in those unbuilt spaces: baseball, softball, marbles, hiding, racing, and digging in the dirt for ancient coins or arrowheads. Layers of clay were common as one probed.

If you wish to know more about your roots, poke among the items yet surviving in family vaults and attics. Find old photos and inspect the background articles: the furniture, wall decorations, gadgets, and more. Perhaps their unending patience awaits your notice.

My grandmother also left me with a “thing” whenever she kissed me on the cheek. Each show of affection ended quickly, but her lips’ outsized wetness lingered until I located a towel. I liked her but didn’t enjoy being submerged in the middle of the living room.

What other recollections might return with these? Memories tend to bump into each other, a bit like a line of dominoes when the first is tipped over.

By the time I finished eighth grade in 1960, I observed something else. In my neighborhood, a number of the parents kept a complete, multi-volume encyclopedia at home. I saw those owned by friends, some new and expensive, others not quite so recent.

Ours came from the late 1930s and looked like it had been through an economic depression and conflict, though its arrival in the stores was a bit ahead of World War II. I suspect the set got purchased second-hand a while after my birth.

The volumes were well-worn. Their hard use conveyed the sense of hard times. I only realized this within the last month.

The yellowing pages carried the mindset of my home. From a psychological standpoint, my parents and, therefore, my brothers and I lived in the shadow of a vanished time.

For all the humor the family shared, we inhabited a psychology sprung from a period when bad things happened. My folks’ lived-history stoked fear of their recurrence.

Other objects in the home revealed the same mentality, as did my folks’ conversations. Indeed, if Fate deposited our shelves with a brand new, high-end collection of similar books, the volumes probably would have stuck around for no more than a few weeks. Then, realizing they didn’t fit, the entire 26, from A through Z, could only have grown legs and fled while we slept.

They didn’t belong.

I already knew the truth such things represented but never recognized these hardcovers contributed to the atmosphere.

Yet, we soon got a new set. Jewel, a nearby grocery, advertised a 99 cent special. The letter A began the weekly march through the alphabet and closer to a complete edition. I heard about the ad on TV, and my folks obliged my desire.

Thereby, perhaps, the family took a small step into to more benign present. To the good, the books never departed.

I’d not recommend looking back to everyone, but therapists would be remiss in doing otherwise. History and the processing of its legacy are a part of our work. Not to learn about the past’s impact on your own life, including new insights into the present, recommends finding a different career.

Distant recollections come to me on their own, though not with regularity or unwanted frequency. I’m comfortable with them, and, as the encyclopedia memory tells me, they occur at odd angles, provide new perspectives, and sometimes enlighten me. As time has passed, these recollections also carry more sweetness and humor than ever; enlarged gratitude, too.

As we move along in life, we occupy the successive ages our parents reached before us. Understanding anyone older only accomplishes partial knowledge, whether one is a counselor or not. As I gain more of the age my father and mother achieved, I sometimes learn more about them — and myself.

My parents, gone now for 20 years, still teach me.

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The first photo is of my parents before my dad was shipped overseas during WWII. The last image is of the young author.

Life Worn You Down? Simple Suggestions to Lift Yourself

A new press release from the American Psychological Association offers a boost: small-steps (see them below) to enhance your life now and as the world opens up again. It also describes our pandemically worn down, stressed, and challenged state, even as vaccines promise relief.

There is no shame in buckling. COVID-19 and the upside-down world of work and unemployment stagger many.

Yet, improving your well-being and health might not need a mountain climb remedy:

  1. Move. Dance, walk, jog, run a treadmill, ride a bike. Aerobic exercise is associated with mood enhancement, better sleep, and lower blood pressure.
  2. Do something nice for someone else. Call people by their names, including anyone with a name tag. Smile at them.
  3. Give a little money away. If you find even a tiny amount of disposable currency in your pocket, buy a stranger a cup of coffee or a donut. Don’t treat people like furniture. Your goodwill might make their day and tends to improve your mood, as well.
  4. Tell the people you love what they mean to you. Friends, family, and anyone who opens the door for you.

Sleep disturbance, emotionally-driven eating, and high stress require no apology. Here is the promised place to start getting control back from the APA:

How to identify unhealthy habits, change behavior and manage weight

Identify unhealthy habits 

  • Take note of when you are overeating, making poor food choices, or drinking alcohol: What time of the day is it? Did something stressful happen? Are you bored? Answering these kinds of questions can help you determine if your habits aren’t healthy. 
  • Pay attention to how you feel after a certain activity.
  • For instance, drinking might make you feel better in the moment but worse the day after. If you notice this is happening, try substituting this behavior with another activity that doesn’t make you feel worse later.

Change behavior

  • Make the goals you set for yourself specific and attainable. For instance, if you’re trying to drink less during the pandemic, determine a specific number of days and drinks by which you want to limit your alcohol consumption.
  • Find an accountability buddy. Telling a close friend or family member about your goals can help you stay on track, and they can check on your progress.

Manage weight

  • If you are feeling stressed and are gaining weight, instead of trying to lose weight, start by trying to maintain your weight by not overeating and staying active. This can help you develop healthy eating habits.
  • To maintain weight or stop yourself from losing weight, establish a routine for eating three meals a day — either by setting the alarm to signal mealtimes or blocking off time in your calendar. If trying to decide what to eat feels overwhelming, repeating the same breakfast and lunch every day can help build a routine.
  • If you can’t get outside, go for a walk inside. Plan a route through your home that lets you take about 25 steps and take this route while you’re in a meeting, catching up with a friend on the phone, or taking a 5-minute break during your workday.

As we emerge from our bunkers, don’t be surprised if some of the unmasked folks appear a little older at first. That awareness is a blessing. Perhaps our recognition of each life’s temporary condition will remind us to display more kindness and live with enhanced urgency.

When hugs and kisses become possible, the tears may surprise you. Smiles, holding hands, and long embraces. Over and over.

A cheek’s caress, a firm handshake — sex, too — ravenous, generous, and grateful.

Who knows what the future holds?

Make it yours with each new day.

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Here is a link to the APA update on stress in America: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2021/one-year-pandemic-stress/

The first photograph displays the northern lights in Coldfoot, Alaska, 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle. This is a recent example of the splendid artistry of Laura Hedien, with her permission: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/

The second image is Miró’s Characters on a Red Background, 1949. Finally, a picture of Life photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt and a reporter/companion celebrating V-J Day in New York City on August 14, 1945.

Bela Bartok’s Simple Philosophy of Life

pouring-light

The conventional question about optimism is whether you see your glass as half-empty or half-full. But let’s look at the same cup differently.

Let’s think of the object as the container of all your capabilities. All your physical skills. All your creative talents and human endowments.

Now turn to the goblet again. Ask not if the glass appears half-empty or half-full of those gifts, but perhaps a more important question:

What will you do with them? What will you do with whatever is inside?

Here is how one person approached the task: Bela Bartok, the 20th-century Hungarian classical composer. He was 64 when he died in 1945, still full of ideas to be put to music paper, not given the life to express them and further enrich us.

The genius regretted it, saying on his death-bed, he had hoped to exit the world with an “empty trunk.” The man might as easily have referred to an empty glass or locker.

His musical being, occupied by what he could yet compose had he “world enough and time,” was still overflowing. The European emigre sought to expend everything on the job of life. Spill the suitcase out. Unpack the riches within.

Since he was born with nothing, Bartok believed he should leave with nothing. He saw this as his obligation to himself and his fellow-man: to share whatever “good” or goods he possessed, to reveal the talents nature bestowed upon him and those he developed.

Bela Bartok, 1927

Bela Bartok, 1927

Creative people often feel chosen. Some consider their craft a “calling” impossible to ignore. They write or perform, not only as a livelihood. Indeed, more than a few sustain their artistic aspirations even though they can’t make a living doing it.

Bartok himself was about to be evicted from his New York City apartment at the time of his death. These people persist out of an “inner necessity.” They cannot do otherwise.

Bartok’s notion is no different than the sports heroes who try to “leave everything on the field,” giving their entire capability to the game. And, while most of us are not inspirational leaders, geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate the most admirable of them: to reach for all we are permitted, work hard, and face challenges instead of running away.

By this standard, a full life would include loving our friends and family passionately and well, seeking always to enrich our knowledge and understanding; and bestow the world with whatever we have to reform it, and us, into something better — to make all our possibilities real, as Bartok hoped.

To choose such a life rejects dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” These seekers refuse self-protectiveness — the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced, the life of “might have been, if only…”

The master wrote one of his greatest works, the Concerto for Orchestra, while fighting the leukemia killing him.

The rest of us can’t claim the same excuse if we slip away with some part of the best of ourselves held back — at least not yet. Why? Because we enjoy the gift of time.

For some of us, the goal of life seems to be filling our luggage with as many things as possible. Things external. For Bartok, the mission was to empty it of the things internal. Many are torn between the two –- a life of consumption or a life of creation. There is a choice.

To Bartok, the playing field of life awaited his best efforts. His regrets reflected his desire to have done more, not consumed more.

Is there a better philosophy of living?

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This post is a reworking of one I published almost eight years ago. The subject of the top photo is a lamp designed by Yeongwoo Kim called Pouring Light.

“What Am I Without It?” When Opportunities Follow Loss

 

They say we don’t know the value of a thing until it’s gone. If so, everyone on the planet has learned something during the pandemic.

Do you remember your last kiss or hug or handshake? We aren’t often told, “Hey, I wanted to mention, this is the last time, at least for a while.” How rude of Mr. Covid not to announce us.

For a portion of our fellow men, having a job and a place to live is newly uncertain. The future of recess on the playground and the source of the next meal leave question marks.

We miss smiles not blurred behind an electronic scrim on Zoom, the twinkle of another eye, a hand on a friend’s shoulder, and a meeting with his eyes.

The bottom half of faces, too.

If the deprivation we suffer illuminates our values, perhaps we will live a rearranged, reimagined life just ahead. One hopes the knowledge of “what is important” sticks with us.

Ours is to search for the joy we so miss, the balance stolen by the virus, the buoyant activities and interactions that made previous hard times endurable; the reliance, worship, and community encounters broken up and swept away like browned leaves in the wind.

At other times some decided to volunteer for losses. Peter Serkin, the recently deceased pianist, set music aside in his early 20s to travel. He ceased both practicing and performing to “find out who I am without it.” The artist returned to concert life and an extraordinary career informed by what he discovered during his self-imposed separation from his instrument.

Religions ask us to give something up, a loss imposed if you are a doctrinaire believer. Certain foods become forbidden. Your self-denial tells you how much your faith means to you, or perhaps how much you fear divine judgment.

Your devotion and comfort in the Deity grow from saying “no.” Saying “yes” to a moral code outside of church gives its own meaning, as well.

Time is a commodity we all lose all the time. Some careers stand frozen in place. Athletes don’t get their physical prime back. Young people need formative social experiences and pleasures that cannot be retrieved with ease from behind.

The philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he is not the same man.” The speeding passage of the seasons always requires our choice of one activity over another, one person over another. We might ask, how much time will I trade for how much money?

We are forever deciding where to focus attention, enduring stress to find the next job, risking a question in the hope of a particular answer, daily saying hello and goodbye. No wonder the Hebrew word “shalom” signifies both of those common words.

We are, if we are self-aware, frequently finding ourselves. A person who recognizes himself as changing and changeable knows he must remodel himself. Even without awareness of this necessity, he will be altered by time and events.

The first of the Ancient Greek Delphic maxims was “Know Thyself.” Most don’t, but even if they do, they ought to ask later, “Am I still the man I was? Who am I now? Do I want to be a different person living a different life differently?”

As the planet reopens, we will discover a new world, one with fresh dangers and novel opportunities. Indeed, our place in it, the place for us before COVID-19, may not be suitable after. To the good, we are still capable of becoming.

What you lose changes you. Though we come to expect it, the ache from the departure of a loved one remains tender for as long as it takes for the breeze to wear it away. Hearts are full of irreplaceable people, some alive in “a world elsewhere,” others muted shadows.*

Perchance a grand adventure awaits in the recovered and recovering times. Think of yourself as a sculptor or a portrait painter creating your own likeness.

Yours is the only hand that shapes and shades what is essential, knowing what you alone comprehend. Chance or fortune will fiddle with you, but you needn’t accept every bit of the fate they deliver.

You have a part to play if you can locate it. You haven’t, you say? Keep looking for the role to which you aspire. Life can break you, but it also carries surprise and wonder.

Late in his life, my dad often studied the cement a few steps beyond as he walked, perhaps reviving a habit begun in the Great Depression. He found pocket change, paper currency, and once a fancy watch. I’d not recommend the practice, but you won’t find anything unless you seek it.

First, tape over the hurt spots and find the hunter within.

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*The three quoted words come from Shakespeare’s play “Coriolanus,” Act III, Scene III.

The top painting is “With an Umbrella,” 1939, by Paul Klee. The final photograph is “Arizona Sunset,” late July, 2020, S. of Tucson by Laura Hedien, with the kind permission of Ms. Hedien: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/

The Music We Love and the Silence We Need

Do we enhance our appreciation of music by listening to more of it?

The need for silence goes back in time. Man evolved in a world of natural sound and soundlessness. Big cities and machines brought the screech of the elevated train against metal tracks, the rumble from underground subways, and the shout required to be heard above both.

When the conductor Simon Rattle was new to the compositions of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Rattle’s mentor Berthold Goldschmidt said to him, “Will you please remember what the phrase “ohne hast” (without haste) means in a time when there were no automobiles.Nor the sounds from such motor cars, he might have added.

Amplified sound became like floor-to-ceiling audio wallpaper over the course of the twentieth century. Civilization capitulated to its growth.

At first, Western society sought realistic prerecorded melodies. Who among us realized we would pay for this miracle, not just in money spent on phonographs, discs, and streaming services?

Convenience and ubiquity leached away some of the thrills of performances created in our presence. The novel sense of a special occasion diminished. The sonorities we loved became routine.

For music to produce its intended effect, the airborne notes must grow out of silence.

Carlo Maria Giulini, another maestro who mentored Simon Rattle, compared his musical conception to perspective in visual art. This artist wanted “air and space” around the sound to set it in relief from other sounds, just as a painter renders foreground against a background. The painter’s or musician’s hand can produce a third dimension’s magic.

Music now enters us through tired and overused ears. To create impact, performers are tempted to make it louder than in quieter times. More people brought bigger halls. The volume of sound enlarged.

One can speculate about a time-transported Beethoven’s reaction to the intrusion of machinery. Think of the brook he tried to evoke in the second movement of his “Pastoral Symphony.Of course, we can still find streams in the countryside, but we can’t guarantee a chainsaw won’t intrude on the birdsong taking place nearby.

The listener of today is jaded. Television, movies, elevator music, and computers outflank him. Nor does he want to be free of them. Some of us remember the quality of everyday life before stereo recordings. Later, an electronic hum from residential gadgets joined us within moments of relative stillness. Home appliances “speak” to us now.

How often would a music lover 100 years ago have heard a Mozart Concerto in a modest-sized hall? Now we can listen to the same creation more in a week or two than was possible in a lifetime. One needn’t even leave the car or public transportation he takes to work.

I admit music has given me much joy. I’m a veteran concert-goer and recording collector. Yet, I also understand something has been lost.

International concerts in 2021 would have included the tail-end of a world-wide observance of the 250 anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 1770. A wise and necessary idea?

Long before a pandemic aborted the plans to laud the birthday boy, the legendary conductor Otto Klemperer thought otherwise. Musical America published an interview with him in 1927 in commemoration of the composer’s death 100 years before:

If you ask me the best way to celebrate his centenary, I will tell you it is not to play him for a year. He is played too much. Everyone plays Beethoven and no one wishes to hear the (people) who write today. Beethoven has become a business for the box office.

Well, Klemperer got his wish and then some, albeit a little late. Oscar Wilde reminds us, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.

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The first image includes a selection of silhouettes of Gustav Mahler created by Otto Bohler (1847-1913) in 1899.  The photograph of Carlo Maria Giulini is from the cover of Thomas Saler’s superb biography of the conductor, Serving Genius. Finally, a photo of Otto Klemperer, part of the collection of The Library of Congress.

How Insecurity Can Be Created and Overcome

The absence of self-confidence is easily misunderstood. A 400-pound bag of feathery old criticisms, easy to brush off one at a time, still weighs 400 pounds. Small additions to the weight seem insignificant. Their accumulation can break a child’s soul.

The psyche is porous. If your guardians show sufficient disrespect for your shoes or judgment or the way you play soccer (football), unless they target one of those categories alone, the words can be channeled into an overall belief in personal inadequacy. Adequate counterbalancing opinions received from people who carry equal weight to the boy or girl are rare.

This is not the lone way insecurity is created, but all therapists are familiar with this one.

Think of internal emotions as a system of waterways. If there are many such comments in multiple channels, the rain becomes rivulets; the rivulets become brooks, then streams, then rivers. Each of these gush into a lake of a person’s being extending from heart to head.

At worst, the fluid sense of self is poisoned in a general way, not sectionalized. The doubts flow out in the individual’s hesitation, avoidance, uncertainty, action, or inaction in the same generalized fashion. Or they are disguised beneath external charm or boldness — a masked man who performs well in public but remains unknown and unhappy in private.

The “objective” viewpoints of outsiders and latecomers to your life carry less importance than those upon whom your existence depends. Their messages trickle in but can be swamped by the major tributaries to your psychological state.

For a while, at least, it is more comforting to view your guardians as knowledgeable and powerful protectors than to believe nothing will win their approval. No swarm of adults offers alternative homes. By agreeing with your label as “the problem,” hope stays alive: the dream you will change something about yourself to persuade the parents of your worth.

Would you dare to conclude your caretakers are cruel or crazy instead? No escape is then conceivable. All other grown-ups are strangers, not benefactors of equal power and wisdom, or so you believe. They don’t know you as well as blood relatives. The love you want is from mom and day, not a counterfeit substitute.

If the growing youth counters parental condemnation by stating, “They like me” — referring to teachers or neighbors or employers — he often hears, “That’s great, but if they spent more time with you, they wouldn’t.”

The child unconsciously persuades himself he still has agency — he can prove himself. Thereby he is not helpless. This continues until many teens realize the parent holds significant responsibility. Yet, the tattooed, imprinted sense of disqualification lives on. Now the not-quite-so-young person has two selves: the one who remains the flawed object his folks described and the one who is something different and better.

The youth’s task is to disentangle the various messages and take the risks necessary to find a less complicated passage to accomplishment and love. Far too many never begin or stop along the way. A great number fail to recognize any therapeutic burden to take on.

Another thought. Almost every story can be topped by tales more desperate. How does one know whether and how to convey ancient personal injuries? Does one make too much of them or too little? Does the troubled soul possess justification to say anything at all?

Holocaust survivors usually didn’t share their calamity until the end of their lives, if at all. After the war, they observed all the pain around them of infinite shapes, sizes, and intensities, whether one was Jewish or not. They carried guilt for having lived when so many others died.

The task of making a life “after” didn’t offer the luxury of emotional space to “process” their experience and affliction. No name had yet been given to the events they endured. The word “holocaust” referred to fire or nuclear war alone. Nor had the concept of Post Trauma Stress Disorder (PTSD) entered the mental health lexicon.

These people didn’t believe they would be believed. Even if they were, no outsider retained the capacity to “understand.” No one had the imagination to conceive of what they’d lived through.

When the victims thought about what happened, it seemed like a visit to a world beyond conjuring or hallucination. Who could fathom a years-long abduction from earth to another planet, followed by a psyche-destroying ransom impossible to repay and a later return to an unpeopled, remembered world in ashes?

Patients in psychotherapy often face something similar but on a scale more modest and not so strange. How can they claim the right to talk about their lives? Others survived comparable misfortune with less damage, they reason.

Feel-good stories in the media emphasize personal triumphs. Happy endings are always needed. Hope must triumph over hopelessness if one is to progress. Moreover, such hopefulness helps us achieve things we might not attempt otherwise.

In some communities, garden variety misfortunes are well-known. The list includes corporal punishment, dads who drink too much, parents who argue too much, ethnic or religious or racial enmities, and financial problems. Men must learn to “be a man ” without complaint.

Why make a big deal about it? The New Testament tells us, “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28). A handful of Christians tell a church-goer who is not healed he has failed the implicit test of faith in such biblical passages. Indicting the Deity would be sacrilege, as well.

Since life must go on and making a living and raising a family takes priority, ugly recitation of dead history offers no appeal. The demands of the present and future argue against the idea of a backward turn.

An additional complication exists if there are brothers or sisters. Two factors play into the potential client’s dilemma and reverberate if he chooses to seek psychotherapy.

First, he might have received different levels of attention, affection, and respect from his parents than they did. If so, his history is not theirs, perhaps by a large degree. Second, almost by definition, if he “sees” the family maelstrom for what it is, he may possess a double-edged gift of perception unavailable to anyone else in the household.

Put differently, the distribution of psychological defenses among close relatives can offer siblings the metaphorical blinders he lacks. His vision is too bright, too acute for him to ignore what is happening in his home. Moreover, to the degree he exposes heinous parental acts like sexual abuse, the remaining family members frequently deny his truth and disavow him. The clan stands together, declaring him troubled and worthy of contempt.

Fortunately, the therapist’s job doesn’t require sharing the patient’s many-faceted distress. Such a task is impossible in any case. The doctor and patient should be grateful for this because anything different would leave the treater and the treated unable to assist each other, both struggling within the same debilitating emotional space. The counselor can afford to be touched and sympathetic but not afflicted by the identical disabling wound.

Beyond sympathy, he must validate the client’s report and extend a metaphorical comforting hand — to abide with him while he grieves. The healer does his best to stand guard. A kind of psychological resuscitation shall be attempted.

The healer hopes his serious concern for the sufferer will make an impression. His offer of time and thought to the multiple losses, humiliations, and complications all serve to acknowledge the person’s story. The counselor’s words, posture, eye contact, and tone of voice all communicate the value of the subject’s being.

Perhaps for the first time, the client accepts the credibility of an authority who believes he deserves a chance at fulfillment (even if he does not). The therapist lights a torch, held at a distance, a symbolic flame. It represents the possibility the patient will one day lift the lamp by himself and step into a dimly visible path to something better.

The therapist’s respect, arcane knowledge, and kindness can make the psychologist something of a parental substitute. The patient’s growing attachment allows the doctor to become the carrier of a positive message acceptable to the client, offering a less damning interpretation of why he failed to achieve parental love.

Now, at last, is a countervailing, affirming judgment the patient is ready to consider, one he is not impatient to disqualify. The process encourages the client to believe in his own capacity to set aside the burden (not the memory) of the identity his parents imposed on him.

The therapeutic contact also opens the door to validation from the world of other people and events. In the best case, he receives sufficient acceptance and approval to internalize a different vision of himself. The most important applause becomes his own.

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The first portrait is of Constance Talmadge, 1921, taken by Lumiere. The Missing Painting is the work of En-cas-soleil. Finally comes a Self-portrait of Utz Rothe. The author is recorded as W. Helwig. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.