Men Who May Be Trouble for You: Five Signs of How to Spot Them

How do we know when an attractive person might not be right for us?

Here are some suggestions with visual aids for identifying men to avoid.

1.

The fellow above is up in the air, feet not close to the ground. He believes he possesses many ideas and schemes to make him rich, but few, if any, are realistic.

Such people tend not to take responsibility, instead blaming others for the endless failures of plans whose time never comes. Take special care not to lend these fellows money. The promise of sure-fire success is usually too good to be true.

2.

We live in a world where drugs and alcohol are everywhere. Numerous websites list the signs of alcoholism.

Some alcoholic men are charming, hold down decent jobs, and tell you they can quit at any time. Denial is a hallmark of the condition. Unfortunately, as the old play on words tells us, “Denial is not a river in Egypt.”

The addiction can creep up and overtake life’s every aspect but is challenging to reverse. The ancient Chinese proverb states, “First the man takes the drink, then the drink takes the man.” Women, too.

3.

The sculpture depicts a man who cannot keep his pants on. While a healthy sex life is an evolutionary necessity, I have met ladies who knew the totality of their worth beyond appearance and allure. They also desired respect for their intellect, artistic giftedness, career, sensibility, and kindness.
 
Once past the honeymoon stage, a relationship must include more than the flesh. You might want to find out early whether the gent considers you more than a plaything unless you conceive of that as an acceptable long-term role.

4.

If you wish your male partner to leave you alone and focus on his career, the chap above is the man for you.

Whether he is interested or capable of offering more than a paycheck remains an open question. Nor will the preoccupied gentleman share in the responsibility and joy of parenting his children.

The sculpture is intended to represent any man standing near and viewing it. The nameplate behind the bronze figure in the right corner of the photo features the following poem by Philip Levine:

They said I had a head for business
They said to get ahead
I had to lose my head.
They said be concrete
& I became
concrete.
They said,
go, my son,
multiply,
divide, conquer.
I did my best.

Reading it on site requires a position similar to the one displayed by the incomplete metal man in front of you. The viewer bends over just behind the thing he imitates.

5.

In a well-functioning twosome, we must listen to our lover.

Many people attempt to impress by speaking. More than a few seek to influence another.

Of special value is a rarer person who listens with quiet intensity. Such a one evaluates the moment and what the other needs rather than jumping forward for the next thing he wishes to utter. Slowing the conversation and thinking through what has been said allows him to learn more.

Beware of anyone who talks over (or interrupts you) with regularity. It is a matter of incivility and disrespect in failing to allow you to finish your thought.

Words needn’t collide. In some moments, silence draws us closer. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, understood there were limits to what speech could communicate by itself. His most famous quote was this:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

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The top sculpture photo is called Slight Uncertainty by Michael Trpak. It is located in Prague. The picture below it shows Two Friends Enjoying Their Belgian Beer in 1971, sourced from History Daily. The next figure of the Man Who Can’t Keep His Pants On is by Jean-Louis Corby. It is followed by Corporate Head by Terry Allen, at the Ernst and Young Plaza in Los Angeles. Finally, Le Silence (An Homage to Salvidor Dali). 

On the Ageless Beauty of Women

I have long had the unusual gift of seeing through age — recreating the youthful splendor of the women I know.

We’ve all observed someone who looks vaguely familiar but unidentifiable. We either figure out their identity, or we don’t.

But something odd happens if it is a woman I spot but can’t name, especially someone out of my past. If I observe her long enough, my mind’s eye plays a trick. The decades drop away, and she becomes the young person she was. Her name returns along with her youthful bloom.

My male friends also remain young to me. It is not a failure to notice a receding hairline or changed hair color. Instead, their quality of personhood remains. Seeing them again recreates their essence, their encompassing and lasting nature.

I am not alone in this magic trick. Robert Heinlein, the great science fiction writer, described it before me.

He also understood it better than I, including that some of us experience it more readily in women. Heinlein used the artistry of the sculptor, Auguste Rodin as an example:

As I reflect on Heinlein and Rodin — both great artists as I am not — I will risk a few more words.

I see the grace, the spirit, the kindness, and the sparkle in such ladies. The special ones create an aura of enchantment, and I am taken in.

I am not simply a flatterer if I tell them they are beautiful. They remain lovely to me.

That is all that counts.

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The top image is Gaze – 3, an oil painting by Rajeskharen Parameswaran. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Arguments We Lose Even When We Win

Our differences with people sometimes must be set aside.

When I was younger, I took on several such complicated issues, believing the verbal conflict was worth the effort, especially if the other party was critical of me. Some generated an intensity, overheatedness, and tendency to linger because each side wanted the final word.

Too many carried too high a price except as teaching lessons, but I was slow to learn.

Please understand. My default way of living was to get along with others, show respect, and display diplomacy.

Yet, as I reflect on my life, I realize I sometimes went too far to make a point. I recognize that the cost, even when I won, didn’t equal my emotional pain and the injury I inflicted.

I’m not discounting that some with whom I butted heads were dishonest or wrongheaded. I wasn’t false, but not every skirmish in the name of truth, right, or correctness is worth the clash.

—–

Everyone should learn the meaning of “Pyrrhic Victory.” Here is what Wikipedia tells us:

A Pyrrhic victory is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. Such a victory negates any true sense of achievement or damages long-term progress.

The phrase originates from a quote from Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose triumph against the Romans in the Battle of Asculum in 279 BCE destroyed much of his forces, forcing the end of his campaign.

Anger gets the best of us. When it does, we are not at our best. Moreover, we justify more conflict by all the labor and frustration we’ve endured.

This is called a “Sunk cost.” Wikipedia again comes in handy:

The Sunk cost fallacy has also been called the “Concorde fallacy”: the UK and French governments took their past expenses on the costly supersonic jet as a rationale for continuing the project, as opposed to “cutting their losses”.

In economics and business decision-making, a sunk cost (also known as retrospective cost) is a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered.

In wartime, this means throwing away more lives, contributing to further suffering, and spending money on prolonging what may turn into an endless war. If you long carry a grudge, you risk digging your own grave.

Winning won’t retrieve our honor or the push, pull, and unhappiness of the past. Nor will the dead come back to life.

Concerning personal differences, we need to consider a better way.

Some suggestions may minimize the wrongheadedness of unneeded, unhelpful discord:

  • How much do you value the person with whom you are at odds? Will losing or ending the contact be worth whatever is straining your connection?
  • Any conflict discussion should discuss concerns, not call names or overtalk the individual on the other side of the table.
  • Slow down, take breaks, and cool off. Listen more than you speak. Try to find something you can agree on. Master self-control.
  • Accept that some disagreements are unresolvable. Such is life. Those who hold contrary ideas needn’t be monsters.
  • Hesitate to say, “If I’d been in his situation, I wouldn’t have acted as he did.” Unless you’ve walked in his shoes, you can’t be sure.
  • If the circumstances permit it, express your sensitivity to the other’s feelings, but don’t say, “I know how you feel.”
  • Avoid raising your voice or speeding up your standard rate of expression.
  • Know yourself. Develop quiet confidence leading to self-assurance. Negative opinions about you will become less impactful. Your self-esteem need not require the approval of people who don’t share your views.
  • Practice the art of graceful surrender. If you lead a life of repeated battles, you should first give up the goal of life satisfaction and contentment. Alienating oneself from the human race leaves us in a lonely place.
  • Accept the world as a habitat where a landslide win in a U.S. presidential election includes at least 50 million people who don’t want you.
  • Be careful of becoming the kind of person you hate.
  • You will not obtain vindication or apology from everyone who does you wrong in life. Grieve and come to terms with the inevitable.
  • We do not have control of everything, including the notions of others. Work on what you can control.
  • Take on tasks within your power that don’t turn your stomach and brain inside out.
  • Cultivate humility. Don’t let self-righteousness take you over.

You can do all this and “fight the good fight” on the essential and inescapable conflicts. Even in those cases, we don’t win them all.

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The top image is called “Jealousy,” as created by Tumisu. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Laura Hedien’s Sunset Colors in Late May 2022 follows with her permission. It is a joy to feature her artistry: Laura Hedien Official Website.

How Does Love Change? “What Love Tells Me”

Of all the challenges of defining love, maybe the most significant is how the squirmy word “love” can change its romantic shape and meaning over a lifetime.

Consider it this way: When we are young, the fall into the bewitchment of love feels like a force from outside our universe that claims us and won’t let go. We are occupied — taken over as if by a foreign power.

It carries us everywhere as we pass through time. While the train of life moves forward, the romance whirls, touches, enlarges and plays with us.

We might notice a weightless quality, a lightness to our being if the rapturous madness arises in the bloom of youth.

If the lover departs, we believe we’ve lost an irreplaceable creature without whom we will never be complete. In agony, such broken ones wonder what happened and what they did wrong, hoping for a chance to fix the crumbled attachment. The mood darkens to deep sadness and tears.

===

The largeness of love is too big a topic to address in a short essay. Instead, I’ll concentrate on heterosexual men in love, based on the stories of male patients and friends.

Within this limited group, their voices will focus on initial encounters with endearment and the arc traversed by this fondness from early to late. Simply put, how they and their experience of affection changed over their lifetime.

This information is not something easily shared. Most men don’t want to think or talk about it. In my case, as an “old friend” in both senses, a dedicated listener, and a retired clinical psychologist, I’ve heard more than most.

First, what is a man’s experience of love under 30?

If we break it into parts, several come to mind.

An honest young suitor admits he is led by his body. Call it passion, desire, or lust, but let’s add some other qualities of love after putting this one at the top. The remaining items appear in no particular order:

  • Passion, Desire, or Lust
  • Admiration of the partner
  • The other’s Admiration of You
  • Affection evocative of Poetry (though men live in a world of prose)
  • Care or Concern for the lover’s well-being
  • Respectful or Kind behavior toward the cherished person.
  • Enchantment to a state of Idealization, as in the phrase “love is blind.”
  • Companionship: the wish to share encounters, events, and ideas, the better to enhance their enjoyment
  • Thinking of the loved one when separated
  • The Joy of meetings
  • Displaying Generosity in non-material and material ways
  • Consideration of the beloved’s opinions and thoughts
  • The Expression of Fondness in words
  • Gratitude for the sweetheart’s presence
  • Sharing in the work of keeping a romantic connection and a household functioning well
  • Devotion “in sickness and in health”

Time works its will — in small steps. The body’s capacity and interest in “the sex of things” achieves an incremental decline from its teenage peak.

By middle age and beyond, fatigue, medication side effects, pain, and sleep difficulties often jump into the bedroom and stand between the once indefatigable lovers.

When I asked couples in marital therapy about what first attracted them, the answers became predictable and identical in long-married twosomes:

My wife and I laughed a lot, and my partner was hot.

Twenty years on, neither of these were as present as they once were.

Here is an old joke:

If you put a penny in a jar every time you have intercourse in marriage’s first year and take one out each time after that, you will never empty the jar.

An exaggeration for sure. Yet, in the best marriages, there are changes in the loving tie, less preoccupied with the physical element of attraction.

Or, in still other words, here is a bit of humor offered by a fellow in his early 50s:

I’m not the man I once was, but once — I’m the man I was.

As those words suggest, the decline in male sexual drive and capacity contributes to the relationship change. To the good, one of the possible alterations is surprising and joyous. 

According to those with whom I spoke, when the erotic thirst diminishes enough, it stands aside, revealing the fullness of the person they thought they knew. The man might recognize the importance of characteristics underappreciated before.

His gratitude grows if he simultaneously comes to terms with the inevitable irritations between any two roommates or lovers.

Libido remained alive in those I talked to, but not so much their master, no longer compelling and narrowing their focus to one dominating thing. Their appreciation of the partner depended less on expectations of everlasting beauty.

There was an ease to the togetherness thus produced and a lack of pretense, bravado, and a young person’s sense of being judged or needing to prove himself.

For other men, however, as erotic physicality slips lower in the ranking of what is essential, so does the need for regular female companionship. Since he is no longer so prone to becoming” crazy in love,” he finds romantic partnership less essential to his being.

But let’s end with a return to the lucky ones in love and their fortunate mates.

The transformation of craving is captured in Tobias Wolff’s short story “The Liar.*

The couple’s son asks himself questions about the relationship between his mom and dad:

I wondered if they’d had a good marriage. He admired her and liked to look at her; every night at dinner he had us move the candlesticks slightly to the right or left of center so he could see her down the length of the table.

It pleased him to behold his no-longer-youthful wife. Not pleasing to the world, perhaps, but beautiful to him.

No one else’s opinion mattered.

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*”The Liar” comes from Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories. The second image is from an Engagement Photo Session by Arash Hashemi. The last shot is called Old Couple in Love by Ian MacKenzie. Both come from Wikimedia Commons. The phrase What Love Tells Me was part of the original programmatic title Gustav Mahler gave to the finale of his Symphony #3.

A Path to Understanding Others

In the early days of the internship program at Forest Psychiatric Hospital, I was one of the psychologists who fashioned the training experience for the grad students newly invited to spend a year with us.

I recall suggesting the interns occupy the role of patients on their first day. The staff was told they were graduate trainees but not actual residents. The real patients stayed in the dark.

Everything else proceeded in the usual fashion for new admissions, including entering the facility, rooming with the inpatients overnight, attending group therapy sessions, and eating in the cafeteria.

At the end of 24 hours, the play-acting ended, and the future counselors began the formal part of their experience in a different psychiatric unit, as I recall.

Neither my colleagues nor I recognized the questionable nature of this deception, and ethics committees within universities and hospitals didn’t exist everywhere. I recommended it because I thought it essential for future psychologists to stand in the shoes of those they would be ministering to.

Nothing could compare to the lived experience, or so we believed.

Later, when I received supervision in administering and interpreting neuropsychological tests, I applied the same principle to myself. I asked the senior psychologist first to give me the examination. I wanted to “duplicate” the position of those who I would be evaluating. Only could I thereby create their “first-time” experience before I ever took the “doctor’s role.”

Now jump with me to what allows us, you and me, to understand people who live in circumstances different than ours.

Our automatic attempt to fathom their behavior and thought process — to see into their hearts and heads — comes from the perspective of the sense organs, what we have been told, our inborn nature, and conclusions based on the world we know.

The joys and sorrows our world has brought us, perhaps of a very different kind than they’ve faced, can only be used to approximate or serve as a translator to help us achieve understanding from our limited perspective.

Can we then latch on to the motivations and actions of those whose life experience is unusual to us? I am questioning not only mental health professionals but every one of us. Identifying with others takes an uncommon level of training and introspection.

Sometimes we humans draw the wrong picture of others, piling up distorted figurations like misshapen pancakes.

Our judgments are generally self-serving. We simplify the human experience and don’t wish to blame ourselves. Adverse reactions to those unlike us, those of less status and those who are “different,” are as plentiful as the fruit on a flourishing banana tree.

Herb Childress, in a brilliant book dealing with higher education, wrote about how we dismiss the complicated and unfortunate lives of others while taking on a sense of superiority over them:

There’s a strong hindsight bias that works to confirm one’s own positive traits, whether those traits are skill, talent, hard work, ot persistence.

Moreover, he continues:

But when successful people don’t acknowledge the role that things outside their control have played in their success, they don’t think to create those conditions for others; they imagine that the less fortunate are simply less worthy.*

It is easy and comforting to think the world is a controllable place where people usually get what they deserve and deserve what they get. If individuals dissimilar to “our people” encounter misfortune, we tend to prefer an explanation exempting us from the possibility it will happen to us. We sleep better if we think this way.

In a world fraught with differences, it becomes apparent how far many of us misunderstand the imagined lives others experience.

Do you really think you can get inside of (take your pick) a differently gendered soul situated in an unfamiliar social class, race, native language, or nationality? How about the personalities of those who have known periods of starvation, served in battle, been raped or molested, or beaten? I could go on.

Do you recognize the challenge of grasping the viewpoint, fear, or heartbreak of people who endured wartime, life-threatening disease, poverty, or genocide? Or lived 40 years before your grandparents did or began life 40 years after you, like your grandchildren?

Without knowing it, as a young psychologist, I was already blessed to observe the world within an island of relative safety and the misfortunes I missed.

Why? First, mine was a limited, cloistered encounter with the globe, born in a time of prosperity. My family met the criteria of the period for lower-middle-class. Mom and dad did their best to raise me in a neighborhood with uncommonly good public schools. College education was cheap, scholarships were available to win, and pollution and climate change were not yet on the radar.

The Chicago summer skies almost always displayed a beautiful blue instead of gray. I received a healthy body and a decent brain in the lottery I won from Mother Nature.

Gerry Stein was a white male in a white man’s world before civil rights legislation became national law.


But the limitations of my experience also told against my ability to understand the folks I treated. Apart from my training and the supervision I received, I was innocent of much about life, though my shelves included plenty of books and my ears had heard of terrible turns and tragedies.

Once in a therapy practice, the stories I listened to from the sufferers stood out. They educated me, though not by intention. Story after story, multiple layers of individual memories, thousands of tales and perspectives.

Yet I was still outside of them, away from them, as if peering through binoculars or a telescope. Some of my patients related their early life hardships involving disease and starvation, not anything I’d personally encountered or endured. Their emotions were not mine nor their wisdom, poor judgment, or sheer awful luck.

To better understand our fellow humans, we need to climb into their lives imaginatively, reimagine and extend our imagination beyond stereotypes into a different time, place, body, heart, and brain.

No one will require you to enter the psyche and anatomy of someone traumatized, desperate, horrified or delighted, ecstatic, or entitled. Going that far, the next step requires recognizing your limits of thought and feeling to grasp theirs.

It is essential, then, to create thought experiments, submerging oneself in “the heart of darkness.” It might be a precarious place of less control, more random acts, fewer models of successful coping, having to choose between medication and food, negative judgments, and the difficulty of finding someone trustworthy or understanding.

This is becoming harder to do these days, I would argue. When the USA had a military draft, abled-bodied men from different backgrounds shared the experience of basic training and going to war. Now we let the children of others “volunteer” to fight for us (making for wars we promote or oppose) without any of our “skin in the game.”

Inevitably, the offspring of wealth and education are more likely spared, while those without better job prospects enter combat more often than those who were “born on third base and thought they hit a triple.”

The warriors of whatever class suffer. According to the NY Times, “at least 6,261 veterans died by suicide in 2019,” and “nearly 16% of (those) deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD.”

People at a physical distance from us are easier to misjudge, demonize, or forget and ignore in their pained existence. Indeed, from his contemporary home office, the boss can fire a person he rarely sees by emailing him a virtual pink slip. No one need ever speak to him to say the words.

No muss or fuss, no eye contact, nor an instant given to the essential humanity of the “other” — the soul dismissed both as an equal and an employee. War is also fought at distances of thousands of miles. Drones destroy people like us, operated by people like us seated in front of computers that might as well be video games.

How often do we think about someone in a third-world country making a garment we praise as “beautiful and oh so cheap!” Of course, it is inexpensive because the worker in a dirty, unairconditioned factory receives far less payment than she would in wealthier nations.

Her life is a mystery and misery to us, and we don’t want to hear more. It would be too hard to know. Challenging to consider, harder still on the dressmaker and her children to withstand.

We objectify those invisible to us or make them into cartoons. We think we understand their inner workings when we have no idea. The world becomes impersonal, good or bad, made of fellow humans we make into saints, sinners, or vague aberrations we describe as stupid, lazy, or evil.

They are placed by us into one category, not in a position to straddle the line between worthy and imperfect, as actual beings do, including ourselves.

Once necessary for early man to survive, tribalism makes us quick to judge those who come from a distant place, look different, speak another tongue, and are as wary of us as we are of them. We fail to socialize with them, and our tendency to make them foes first and ask questions later diminishes us all.

It is too easy to think the evils of this world are due only to one group spawned far away who we can keep away. It is easy to think “they” plot against us and lie all day, every day. We degrade ourselves, no matter that some of the “misdeeds” of “those people” are real and some few corrupt.

If I were back in the position of training young adults, I might make another suggestion, more extreme than the one I described earlier.

I’d advise young people at an early stage of political life, law, or the ministry to spend several months living in the neighborhood of groups different from themselves. They’d seek medical care from their doctors, wear the same clothes, and eat the food typical of the location and its people.

Their job would include getting an ordinary job and making friends as newcomers. If these future authority figures took such training, participants might return to their homes with a fresh perception of the “strange place” they’d lived, now aware “they” are not as strange as previously believed.

A “draft” of young women and men into this kind of service to the world would also be a service to them.

I’d hope for a gradual enlargement of civility toward and appreciation of those encountered. It is even possible some of the young adults who ventured to do this might acknowledge that their judgments had been wrong and begin to hesitate to project their traits and biases on people outside of their close acquaintance.

Since this idea isn’t likely to happen soon, what can the rest of us do?

As a start, consider reimagining your parents’ lives before your birth. Talk to them or, if they are gone, interview their living relatives and friends — people who lived in the same place and time.

Assuming you knew your parents and have some memory of them, think and look through their departed hearts, experiences, schooling, and every other aspect of the time before you arrived and the possible impact your new life had on them.

If you are bolder, find someone on the other side of whatever divide you find most troubling these days. Exert the effort to find out their point of view, but only after first becoming friends. Ask questions and try to set aside prejudgments.

Talk less and listen more.

Perhaps someday, there might also be a virtual way for men to spend time carrying a child inside them and going through labor. No joke.

Enlightenment would grow from such an opportunity.

So would hope for ourselves and the future of the world.

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All but Laura Hedien’s photo were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The first image is a Looped MRI Video of a Healthy 13-year Old Female’s Heart Beating. Alith3204 created it. Next is a Green Banana Tree by Rosendahl.

A Pile of Stacked Gold Bars was photographed by Stevebidmead. Laura Hedien’s Chicago River Downtown appears here with her kind permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

A 1919 Newspaper Ad for the Movie “You’re Fired” comes after Ms. Hedien’s work. Last is a shot of Two Blossom-headed Parakeets, a picture taken by Touhid biplop.

Does Your Therapist Laugh with You?

She was a retired woman, a bit hard of hearing but quite pleasant. I saw her Monday afternoons, and she always opened our session by asking me about my weekend. One particular day, I answered this way:

          “Oh, we went to a tapas place.”

           “A topless place!

She shrieked the words, almost hysterical.

Well, eventually, I was able to calm her down. I repeated the problematic word and described the Spanish-style restaurant I’d referred to, not a burlesque show.

Did she ever look at me as she did before the misunderstanding? I sure hope so!

Another question: Is an occasional intentionally humorous quip from your counselor a good idea? What guidance might indicate when and how to use this form of conversation? Not everyone can or should.

Many therapists are serious, reserved, or seriously reserved. They view a “therapeutic distance” as if it is an ethical necessity accompanied by a subtle chill. Others never dismount their professional or “doctor” pedestal.

For those who use a strictly Freudian model, the patient is on a couch from which he cannot see the analyst. Without seeing him, the listener might miss or misinterpret the healer’s clever intent. Since the psychiatrist also remains quietly listening much of the time, he is a bit like the Wizard of Oz, a dignified magician behind a metaphorical screen.

I laughed a lot in my practice, as I hope my writing reveals. While I agree with the need to retain an element of professional detachment for everyone’s sake, I also know humanizing yourself has a place on flat ground. At times, bringing a smile salves a broken heart.

A practitioner’s infrequent levity can lighten the mood. If the client is weeping or relating something uncomfortable is not the moment to attempt this, but some others are.

To insert a giggle, you need to “read” the patient’s emotions and share a comfortable relationship. Thus, the healer must know the sufferer enough to understand when humor will work.

A chuckle should never come at the patient’s expense. Minimizing suffering while it is fresh is also to be avoided.

Making someone laugh is a gift. What’s more, I doubt whether anyone can be instructed in this talent. You have the knack, or you don’t.

My personal physician has it. Years ago, I went to JN with a skin complaint, and he referred me to a dermatologist. The specialist inspected my face and asserted I’d get skin cancer within 10 years.

No hesitation, no other possibilities, no doubts.

Not great news, either.

When I returned to my general practitioner, I reported what the man said. My doc responded, “Did he tell you the date?

I broke up. My internist lightened my worry with those six words. The other guy was wrong, by the way.

Comedians describe comedy as “tragedy plus time.They recognize many overwhelming wounds fade, to be laughed about later, sometimes much later if at all.

Well used, mirth permits people to recognize they remain capable of joy, even if for a second. Future happiness might therefore appear possible despite their current circumstances. When that awareness comes with the right touch of lightheartedness, it needn’t always be explained.

Not every unhappiness benefits from this remedy, but it sometimes opens the possibility of a new attitude toward our passage through life.

Jollity introduces the unspoken awareness that life is full of laughable indignities, near misses, and inevitable bruises that could have been much worse. We ruin our lives by making each one unforgettable and indelible, like covering every inch of ourselves with large and small frowning tattoos, all staring back at us.

We are such frail things at times. Comfort comes from knowing others are in the same club and just as vulnerable. By recognizing the absurdities of existence we fortify ourselves for the uncertain days ahead.

The human form is like a tiny spaceship launched without our permission by the folks called mom and dad. No trustworthy map presents itself. Unexpected comets, meteors, and black holes are dark surprises. Brighter and better ones include a moonlit night with someone you love.

Smiling at the small shocks and the narrow escapes allows relief from a dim view of what lies ahead. We even may learn how to prepare for challenging events by noting the errors of others, as well as our own.

Laugh when you can, including at yourself. Merriment and glee make life worth living as much as heroic accomplishments and the offspring who will speed our genes forward in their own spacecraft.

Our parents do right to send us off with hope, a hug, and a smile. What better way to launch the future?

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The single-cell cartoon is Doctor Visit. Author and source unknown. Next comes Spirit of Civilization from Puck magazine, June 17, 1903, housed in the Library of Congress. Finally, Amazing Laughter, photographed by BMK in the Sculpture Park of Vancouver, Canada. It is the work of Yue Minjun. The last two of these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Erotic Transference in a World of Online Therapy

 
What happened when therapy became virtual at the pandemic’s beginning? Did erotic transference die quietly because of the physical separation of counselor and client? Did the small screen reduce the scope of sexual feelings?
 
Perhaps not, since I read no obituary in the news. Still, it is worth thinking about what has become of the inevitability of desire in the human interaction of some who seek treatment.
 
Erotic transference refers to the patient’s growing sexualized affections for the clinician in talking about her feelings and the significant players in the drama of her life. Parents, caretakers, past lovers, abusers, or others might metaphorically slip into these one-to-one settings unseen, producing an outsized and complicated response to the therapist.
 
The analyst begins to evoke dormant emotions he didn’t create.
 
In the pre-pandemic period, all sorts of detailed cues existed within the office, qualities that might have contributed to the sexualization of the other. The consulting room made these accessible to the client in a way they are not on a computer screen.

A shortlist included the following:

  • A view of the entire face and clothed body, front and back, bottom to top.
  • More noticeable eye contact.
  • Grooming characteristics and their impact on the sensory organs of the observer. Subtle skin tones, makeup, natural bodily scents or odors, perfumes, shampoo emanations, cologne, and pheromone production could encourage sexual arousal.
  • The way the person walked, moved, sat, reached, and shook hands.
  • His attire.
  • An intimate and unvarying background domain, quiet and the same each week.
  • The healthcare professional’s voice was unaffected by the distortion of a computer speaker or headphones.
  • Small facial expressions.
  • An absence of distractions as opposed to a less controlled setting.

Put simply, the office was an environment decorated and modified by the healer, made consistent and safe by him. It included objects little changed in successive sessions. Physical nearness to him was one of those stabled features.

Unintended changes from the old way of doing things should have worked against the emergence of passion in post-COVID treatment relationships. But perhaps there are other considerations:

  • The current unavailability of nearness to a doctor or psychiatric social worker might make them more attractive to some people. Imagine a client whose past experience with parents or lovers included their tendency to push her away or display inconsistency in expressing affection.
  • A new analyst, “out of reach” due to a change in the provision of psychotherapeutic services, could serve unconsciously as another chance to achieve the kind of love she’s searched for, the person “difficult to get.”
  • Unlike the doctor’s office, online contact gives the patient possible control of 50% of the framework for the meeting. Clients set up computers in bedrooms, bathrooms, automobiles, nearby pools, and other locations.
  • Although not all possess the ease of finding privacy, some capacity to arrange the decoration, lighting, and background is more available than prevails in another person’s building.
  • Since travel to and from the psychologist’s location is unnecessary, attire can also be controlled and sexualized.
  • Without the need to leave home, it becomes easier to drink alcohol or use other substances to disinhibit one’s emotions and become more provocative.
  • Many people watch TV and movies on their computers, iPads, and phones. The device thus transforms into a place of “performances.The sexualization of the session exists in a world of potential unreality, encouraging a client’s inclination to take a performative risk.
  • The power of words, an analyst’s kindness, and a level of attention the patient might never have experienced can still serve as potent aphrodisiacs. Remember, love relationships began and survived in the pre-computer age of letter writing.
  • In 2020 pet ownership rose to 70% of American households. Pandemic-driven starvation for physical contact and touch (skin hunger) may explain a part of this phenomenon. It might motivate an increased want for the caress (and more) from someone who appears devoted to your wellbeing.

To sum up, we don’t know the extent to which virtual (online) therapy increases or diminishes erotic transference. Many of the various effects of the pandemic are little studied, leaving anecdotal evidence at best.

We all recognize that humanity would not exist but for sexual appetite. Sex and love endure through wartime, plagues, environmental destruction, and more.

Think of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey. She waited 20 years for her husband’s return when he left to fight in the Trojan War.

The power of another’s gaze, warmth, careful listening, and voice remain available to us, no matter the change in therapeutic format. The enlarged distance from the therapist might even enhance his sense of mystery.

The hope for intimacy and the heartbeat of desire have survived with less assistance.

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The first image is called Sculpture in Paradise by Philip Jackson, located at the center of the cloisters of Chichester Cathedral. The photo is by surreyblonde from Pinterest. Next comes Khao Luang Cave Temple, Phetchaburi, Thailand, sourced from Cheezburger.com/ Finally, Factory Butte, Utah, a 2019 work by Laura Hedien with her permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

How to Become Your Own Best Friend

Who is the person closest to you?

You see him every day, talk to him and about him, sleep with him, clean him up, applaud his successes and analyze his defeats. This individual knows more about you than you will ever know.

Maybe it’s time to make yourself into your own best friend, given all that intimacy.

I’ve listed 30 suggestions to get you started.

  1. Be entertaining company on your own. Inspect your personality and how you view the world compared to others. Seek new ideas, and pass the unaccompanied time with enjoyment. Go places and do things beyond your usual comfort zone, including solo explorations. Perhaps concerts, movies, parks, museums, and tours.  Don’t sit alone in quiet desperation.
  2. Be kind to who you are. Your life emerged without a display case from which to choose the attributes you wanted. You began with raw and imperfect materials of external creation. Improve them as you can, but don’t diminish what you have accomplished. In the words of Epictetus, “...as the (working) material of the carpenter is wood, and that of (a sculptor is) bronze, so the subject matter of the art of living is each person’s own life.
  3. Mistakes are inevitable. Master them. Please take steps to skip over their repetition.
  4. Putting others first must have limits. Decency doesn’t require one to be a human sacrifice. Self-compassion is not selfishness but the foremost necessity of life. You can only be helpful to others if you maintain the strength to do good. Generosity and kindness are not identical to placing yourself last in line. As a Christian colleague told more than one of her clients, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”
  5. Become independent, assertive, and the best available defender of your ground. If another must serve as the guardian of your well-being, safety, and security, your dependency will be like an Achilles heel awaiting its fatal arrow. Be the advocate on your behalf.
  6. Pursue advice, so long as you don’t overdo it. Make sure of your advisors and how much to follow their suggestions.
  7. Look for excellent models. Those you admire might be appropriate, but celebrity should not be a necessary criterion.
  8. Read fine authors, the better to write with clarity and engage with all the great minds of civilization’s past. Recognize a book as a chance to uncover the author’s observations before you dispute them.
  9. Don’t overthink. Delay and avoidance offer no guarantee of improved decision-making. If you wait until you feel right and ready, don’t be surprised when speeding time stares down at you from a passing train, with your opportunity aboard. The next locomotive to the same destination could be canceled. Is there knowledge you must first acquire? Begin then to obtain it instead of waiting for divine intervention.
  10. Do not explain, excuse, or apologize because you believe someone else expects this. Such efforts betray insecurity. Discover when to wait and how to say no.
  11. Do not worry much about what others will say about you privately. They tend to be preoccupied with their foibles, not yours. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “I have wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others...”
  12. Hold yourself to account. Look into the mirror. Do not turn away; instead, make sure to praise strengths and admit flaws.
  13. Allow love and kindness to emanate from your being. Live with both intelligence and an open heart. Those different from you also find existence challenging.
  14. Consider friendship with people unlike you as an opportunity. Hesitate before condemning the unfamiliar ones, those outside of your understanding.
  15. Learn, always learn. You will relearn the same lessons under new conditions with different solutions many times in any life. If you stay unchanged, you will be like a man watching history race by, missing the chance to be enlarged by time, thought, and experience.
  16. Pick your battles. When you swim in a pool of anger, you will drink its pollution, distressed when you could be joyful.
  17. Hold on to old friends. They share knowledge of your youth and lived through the trials and joys of growing up in the same place, at the same time, with the same teachers, and the same challenges. They alone have a personal recall of your parents and “the old neighborhood.”
  18. Misfortune and unhappiness will be overwhelming at times. Most of us eventually return to our usual level of well-being — to our set point.
  19. Contemplate whether you received more pleasure from experiences or things. Material objects tend to lose the boost they give us soon after receiving them. The new car smell fades, and the Christmas toy gets put away. 
  20. When hardship comes, remember how you survived earlier losses and what properties within you enabled you to bounce back.
  21. “But those who forget the past, ignore the present, and fear for the future have a life that is very brief and filled with anxiety...Their very pleasures are fearful and troubled by alarms of different kinds; at the very moment of rejoicing, the anxious thought occurs to them:How long will this last?‘” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life).
  22. You will gain more from those who are learning more. Prioritize people who do not always insist on certainty but approach the world with many questions and are unafraid of complex answers.
  23. Disappointments needn’t always be someone’s fault. Expect ups and downs. Sometimes your frustrations are due to your mistakes. Often they are a function of a world where competition, another person’s trouble, the search for love, and simultaneous demands will pull you and the rest of humanity in directions no one expected, with collisions of your interests and theirs.
  24. Not everyone will love you, nor even like you. Accept that. Living means your heart will break, and you might bruise others’ hearts like a game of dominoes.
  25. You will not accomplish everything, travel everywhere, or “have it all.Practice gratitude for what you possess, displaying generosity to those you care about and even strangers. Make the best choices on matters of importance.
  26. Remember, you are not a “thinking machine,” but your emotions will try to persuade you that you are. As Antonio Damasio reminds us, “We are feeling machines that think.”* Make an effort to recognize this and enlarge the scope of your rationality.
  27. Laugh at the absurdity of the world and yourself.
  28. The world will test you. Then and only then will you know who you are. Fate is a hard teacher. Before your turn comes, be careful who you judge. Knowing yourself has value, not despite but because of the high price of its instruction.
  29. Empty your being of all your power, imagination, and grit. Use it up. To live a full life is to leave it with nothing undone or held back. In so doing, you can look back with satisfaction and a smile.
  30. Finally, Seth Stephens-Davidowtz offers this “data-driven answer to life,” only half-jokingly:Be with your love, on an 80-degree sunny day, overlooking a beautiful body of water, having sex.You can do much worse.

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The photo is A Warm Winter Pool, 2020, by Laura Hedien, with her permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

*Thanks also go to Brewdun for pointing out the Antonio Damasio quotation in No. 26.

An Unwritten Diary

Its title is All His Life. The book’s cover illustrates a beautiful baby boy with garlands hung above the newborn’s crib, topped with a ribbon sewed into and above the fabric.

The 9″ x 12″ object has a satin-like covering, perhaps rayon. For the time, the volume probably wasn’t cheap. A gift, I suspect.

The first printed page offered the following:

All his life
is written here.
In pictured prose
And records clear —
From Infant small
To manly state,
Are told events
Both small and great.

The hardcover was published in 1944, but I came along later.

This particular copy of All His Life was about me.

The pages are yellow now, despite the old plastic bag in which the volume has been housed. I’m not pristine myself.

After naming the doctors who delivered me, the date, and the time, Jeanette Stein wrote her first question to my dad:

Is he cute??

Dad’s answer:

Don’t expect too much at first!!

I guess Milton Stein never got trained as a cheerleader!

The remainder of the 60-page volume is filled with more babies and boys, in colorfully lithographed paintings by Edna Mason Kaula, and space for answers to more printed questions. My mother’s elegant handwriting is featured in each response.

For example, the 11th page lists early visitors to the hospital or our apartment in the Logan Square neighborhood. Many spaces instruct the writer to “paste snapshot here.” Two blank spots are shaped like feet, two others like hands, all awaiting a bit of ink on those body parts for an imprint of my tiny appendages.

Gerald M. Stein’s weight at birth remains readable, written with a fountain pen in the same deep blue used for all the other entries. The mass-market ballpoint variety was new and uncommon.

Then?

Nothing? The last entry listed my height.

No first words, date of an initial carriage ride, or timing of the first smile. No record of when I discovered my hands. Nor can one find evidence of when Gerry began to walk or photos of anyone else, though I have an album including many early childhood pictures.

The publisher’s plan anticipated the growing young man would take over entering information after a while. I didn’t even know my parents received such a present until they died in their 80s, over 20 years ago.

Empty room for entries included friends’ names, hobbies, teachers, favorite subjects, ambitions, and space for “my philosophy,” which makes me laugh. Not the kind of thoughtfulness I possessed as an infant or a young man.

Funny about that in another way, as well. I only began dedicated reading of philosophy at age 65.

There is a blank spot for adult fingerprints. Perhaps someone imagined I’d take up a life of crime! Ah, but the times were more innocent, as evidenced by a place for my social security number, making identity theft easier. That common form of illegality took more years to emerge.

I’m sure my birth overjoyed my parents. Moreover, I quelled my mom’s fears by turning into a good-looking, curly-haired little boy. Well-behaved, too, by all reports.

Why then no additional attention to the book? I imagine my folks had plenty to do, buying the required necessities, doctor’s appointments, teaching me language, and learning how to handle a vulnerable creature. Everything was the first time for them and for me.

Mom told my wife she didn’t understand how to put me into the crib and just dropped me in at first. I hope she bent over a bit. Guidance from her mother couldn’t have been helpful, given grandma’s tendency to criticize.

Still, I would like to know more about my first few years. My children might, too. The time and its history fled like a sandcastle’s erasure by the incoming tide. So are the names of my parents’ youthful friends and distant relatives in the surviving photos stored in the bedroom closet.

Some people look familiar, but not even nicknames or occupations remain, except perhaps in the memory of a few of their descendants. As Goethe expected, names vanish “like sound and smoke.”

Most of us hope to make a mark on the world, something to outlast our lifetime. Children and grandchildren are the only posterity I care much about. That and the continuation of a habitable planet, a republican form of democracy (also called a democratic republic), along with the presence of enough enlightened and committed people to make it so.

As I got older, having achieved more in my life than I imagined (though nothing of grand, historical importance), my ambition slipped away. No major loss. I never persuaded myself of the meaningful value of what the Western World was selling. I didn’t even try.

Beyond what I’ve said, I will add a couple of things you’ll find contradictory and add one more thought as a bonus:

  • I don’t find most well-educated people as rational as they think. And, yes, I include Dr. Stein in this group on occasion.
  • Despite humanity’s irrational pursuits, life can be delightful. I find myself smiling and laughing more than ever.
  • I take myself less seriously, too,

No advice today, just the above observations. Make of these statements as much or as little as you wish. And I should add, try not to carry grudges, but give as much love as you can muster. You will never run out.

Any other way will reduce your well-being and the happiness of those you care about — and those you will care about if you know them.

I guess there was some advice after all.

When Emotions Get the Best of Reason

Part of what makes life challenging has to do with overestimating our self-knowledge. I have many friends with prodigious intellectual qualities, but few whose behavior suggests they understand themselves as well as they think.

Indeed, I’ve been known to fall into the same confusion they do.

People find it far easier to identify the flaws in others than in themselves.

We raise a critical finger at those who vote for the “wrong” candidates, date ill-suited members of their preferred gender, and behave in a mind-boggling fashion.

Less time is spent pointing at the person in the mirror.

Why might that be? The question is complex, but I’ll offer you a simplified answer of significant, if incomplete, merit. It comes from a 17th-century Dutch philosopher who might have passed as a therapist if such a profession existed.

Can you guess his name? Of course not. Baruch Spinoza: 1632 – 1677.

Spinoza attempted a logical proof of our weakness in the face of external events and the disorganizing, confusing moods and temperaments they produced inside of us. Further, he thought our minds are easily fooled by misleading images of the nature of a universe full of things, plants, animals, and people.

Take man’s long-held opinion about the earth’s shape. Look outside, and remember everyone once trusted the absolute flatness of the planet. If you thought otherwise, no one believed you.

We now know better, I hope.

The philosopher points to several causes of our limited ability to think clearly. He considered men undercut by emotions impairing their capacity to reason. Furthermore, the ideas we form by reliance on our senses are inadequately thought out. Most of us become “slaves” to our feelings in Spinoza’s chosen word.

If we think of the world of today, examples come to mind. Many of us favor politicians who excite us to a state of blind trust. When those leaders deny the evidence of well-crafted science, their followers fall in line.

These demagogues make some “feel better” about themselves. They offer someone else to blame for their problems and, like Pied Pipers, take their “believers” toward a cliff they are unaware of.

Intellectual arguments alone don’t carry much power to alter fixed, erroneous thoughts underpinned by strong emotions. In Spinoza’s judgment, no feeling can be countered by “true knowledge” beneficial to well-being unless it carries emotional weight consistent with that truth.

I’m sure you’ve attempted to persuade acquaintances through well-organized reasoning and impressive evidence without success.

Ah, but the situation is not hopeless, indicated our friend Baruch. He believed “the more an emotion is known to us, the more it is within our control.” This argument came from Freud over 300 years later. The same ancient Greek maxim of “know thyself” arrived centuries before.

As Freud also knew, “true knowledge” or insight had to be attached to emotions to change thought and behavior. Once this combination finds its place within an individual, Spinoza tells us the person will no longer be enslaved by his feelings but become a “free man.”

In our own century, psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s research confirms Spinoza’s recognition of our tendency to overvalue our intellectual gifts and discount the role of emotions in our lives.

Another point is worth underlining. The philosopher knew perfect understanding was available to no one. Perfection resided in God, according to the Dutchman, a God of marked differences from the usual definitions. Regardless, Spinoza conceived women and men as capable of improving their realistic awareness of the world as it is instead of being abducted into the bondage he described.

To end this oversimplified essay on a philosophy of significant difficulty, Baruch shows you and me the starting place from which we can improve our knack for steering clear of harmful temptations and desires: from overeating to choosing friends and mates ill-suited to our best interests.

Moreover, he predicted his recommended approach to life would enhance our contentment and reduce the number of misguided goals we seek. He meant those whose pursuit impairs us.

This long-departed man’s writings claim we cannot find fulfillment while dragged by emotions like wild horses off the path of self-empowerment.

First, however, we must accept our limited rationality and imperfect thought instead of assuming we routinely display excellent self-awareness and wisdom about what is to our advantage.

Ready to start?

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The painting of Spinoza is the work of Alexander Roitburd. It is sourced from Wikiart.org.