When One Person in a Relationship Changes

I discovered the social challenge of moving from one group to another in sixth grade.

First, let me situate myself. I was part of the post-World War II “Baby Boom” generation, a group for which the world was unprepared. Chicago’s school system, like others, discovered children like me flooding the narrow hallways of buildings used by our parents.

Why so many? The youthful soldiers returning from Europe and the Pacific attempted to retrieve lost time along with their young wives. My father’s letters across the ocean spoke to both his desire for my beautiful mother and the offspring they hoped for.

I’d spent the past year and a half in an overcrowded classroom shared with students one semester ahead. When my younger cohort came time for advancement to the level the older kids were completing, our teacher asked me if I wanted to “skip” that term.

Paul Friedman gave me this chance to proceed into seventh grade without finishing sixth. Thanks, Mr. Friedman, wherever you are.

The opportunity sounded fine to my parents and me, in part because I got along well with those a half-step up. The phrase “double promotion” applied to my more than ordinary educational boost.

Over the summer, I continued to hang around with my longtime, same-aged buddies, but Autumn turned out to be different. From the first day of class on Tuesday, September 2, 1958, the alteration, like a temporary shadow hovering over my life, greeted me with a frown.

I saw Lloyd and Roger, my old pals, talking, but when I tried to insert myself into the conversation, they acted aloof. Of course, I didn’t use that word, one absent from my vocabulary, but it described my puzzlement at the unsocial “distance.”

Continuing efforts to recapture our previous camaraderie produced the same result in the next few days. With no choice, those friendships faded as I found a place among my older classmates.

Life offers far more significant but somewhat similar challenges. Beyond moving out of your current neighborhood and going to new schools, think of changes in your profession, status ups and downs, leaping ahead or staying behind in terms of income, etc.

A daunting hurdle occurs when someone dependent on alcohol or drugs ends his addiction. Friends accustomed to joining him in drink or drugs say, “Oh, it’s only one drink” or “Come on, do you think you are better than me?”

If the newly sober fellow continues hanging around with the users, his sobriety is in danger. He has two problems now: abstinence from substances and finding new friends.

A political commentator, Kurt Bardella, describes leaving his occupational affiliation in 2016: the Republican Party. His writing doesn’t provide the most common answer to the question liberals ask, “Why do Republicans still work for Trump.” Rather, he speaks to the 1958 version of Gerry Stein’s experience on the playground. Here’s what happened to him when he left “the team.”

Candidly, I had no idea where my next paycheck was going to come from. I lived off my credit card. Fell into debt. The professional network of Republican operatives, consultants, and lobbyists I had spent a decade of my life in Washington cultivating was now gone.

Bardella no longer fit in. Changing religion might generate the same kind of exclusion. This also reminds me of something my mother uttered more than once as I grew up: “What will people think?”

In Bardella’s case, his professional and relationship community became unavailable to him. No other workplace niche existed for political operatives and conservative spokespersons who, like this man, self-emigrated.

Even such things as happiness and unhappiness can complicate relationships when they are not shared. If you are leaping forward in your career and an old buddy finds your glee overbearing relative to his modest success, one of you might decide he has tolerated enough.

More than a few of my patients worried their friends would grow weary of their degree of misery. They dared not exceed what they believed was an acceptable length and level of unhappiness. While they tended to overestimate the likelihood of rejection, I must admit it was never zero.

One might say the larger the discrepancy in the level of happiness, success, and misery between two friends, the greater the chance of a tear in the social fabric binding them. Part of relationship survival requires walking not too far ahead, nor falling too far behind. Some amount of self-censorship is also needed.

Fitting the pieces of your personal life into the jigsawed spaces of another’s existence isn’t a fully acknowledged human task. The good news is, most of us get at least passing marks.

We are complicated creatures, don’t you agree?

With all the encouragement we receive to be independent and tough enough to take on criticism, there are limits to this commonplace advice.

When my mother asked, “What will people think?” she displayed a wisdom one shouldn’t always ignore.

——-

The two photos are from my time in Minnie Mars Jamieson School. They show my third-grade class followed by my graduating class. I am lucky enough to remain friends with four members of the latter group: Ron, Jim, Steve, and Neil.

No prizes if you can spot me, though I am present in both pictures. Of course, the “High Potentate” of the Zeolites won’t have any trouble. Apologies for the inside joke.

When Politics or Religion Enter the Therapy Session

We all hear stories of political differences breaking families and friendships, setting neighbor against neighbor. Romantic partners recoil upon discovery their partner excuses inhumane and unconscionable policies advocated by elected officials.

Oh, my, who is this person?enters their mind if not their speech.

But what happens to the relationship between a therapist and his patient when religion or politics slips under the door?

We don’t ask about party affiliation when someone requests an appointment. Nor do patients tend to inquire who a potential counselor is voting for, though I fielded occasional questions about my creed before a possible client booked a session.

Therefore a few did not.

Revelations about the client’s convictions are, like his history, something unveiled during the treatment’s course. Counselors try to separate political and religious ideas (indeed, values in general) from their effort to help improve their patient’s life.

Health care practitioners do not treat only those who share our world view or the prospect of a life beyond.

A majority of written records of Christian patients filled-up my locked metal file cabinets. Productive therapeutic relationships with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, atheists, and agnostics made up my practice, as well.

One who wishes to understand a new person intends to learn about his overall background, including the role faith plays, if any. I found religion to be an essential boon to some, the steadying foundation upon which they mounted their life.

I came to recognize a number, however, whose sense of inadequacy appeared tied to church teaching.

Sometimes they had so-called “devout” parents who condemned, abused, or neglected them from an early age. Others described a painful lack of support experienced in their adult faith community. Some felt judged because their reliance upon God alone proved insufficient to surmount their psychological injuries.

In these cases, I asked questions to prompt reflection on the complications of the views and people they were struggling with, as well as their benefits. If they resisted, I worked around the problem and dealt with what was permitted. My approach with the non-religious was similar.

What does this (belief, or behavior, action, or inaction) cost you?

Part of the counselor’s dilemma is this: certain viewpoints and values, scriptural or political, can be like the most important load-bearing walls within a home. To remove or fracture such supports will cause the whole building to buckle if not collapse.

Strong opinions about politics share characteristics with dogmatic religious ones. Unshakable gut reactions often drive those certainties. Reasoning about them is not the job of a helping professional and is fruitless in any case.

While a devoted person might offer a rationale for his choice of church or candidate, Jonathan Haidt’s research underlines the extent to which emotions, not logical thought, precede these convictions. Reason tends to follow long-imbedded, instinctual affiliations, not create them.

The therapeutic process of unwinding self-injurious attachments of this kind is usually more than psychotherapy can or should take on.

Healers must be wary of their own limitations and biases. A danger exists when formidable gaps take up the space between the personal ideals and principles held by their patient and themselves.

Those differences transform the doctor’s singular focus of aiding a fellow human’s quest for a better life. He now risks harming the sufferer by inadvertent indifference, failing empathy, or judgmental statements. Body language and facial expressions, as well, may intrude on the benevolence needed to help.

The individuals we take in our charge depend on our goodwill. No one desires to gaze at narrowed eyes seemingly edged with daggers. Past history has already filled their cup of accumulated unkindness above the “full” mark.

In addition to suicide, the most extreme tendencies our clients bring to us are problems of lawbreaking and a threat to the safety of the community. If we meet a spousal abuser seated in our office, it matters little whether the person claims his denomination or politics justifies his brutality.

A therapist’s responsibilities include protection of life if the patient poses an imminent risk of harm to himself or others, regardless.

I am sure there are people I could not engage in a joint healing project because of my feelings about their beliefs, especially in the current pandemic-infused election leadup. A white supremacist would be just one such example for most counselors.

Perhaps outpatient therapists are fortunate because antisocial extremists tend not to seek our service. By the time they reach the stage of showing force or worse, few unburden their souls to strangers. A therapist is neither a magician nor a divine being. More than ever, he must acknowledge his limits to himself. His job inside those boundaries is difficult enough.

———

The top image is “The Bramante Staircase,” Vatican Museums, as photographed by Andreas Tille. Next comes The Horseshoe Falls, Niagra,” by William England. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Taking Joy in Another’s Misfortune: “Schadenfreude”

The Japanese put it this way: “The misfortunes of others taste like honey.”

Hmm. Not always and not to everyone, but this kind of emotion is something we’ve all observed and experienced. The Germans offer us a single word for it: Schadenfreude.

Two German words are combined. Schaden and Freude meld the idea of another’s harm with joy in the one who watches or discovers the mishap.

Schadenfreude is not connected to the infliction of damage, a condition more aligned with antisocial behavior or sadism. Rather, the pleasure comes to an observer without his having caused it. Most often, the noticed bungle is minor or embarrassing rather than disastrous.

Examples might include someone slipping on a banana peel or a person finishing a speech and bouncing on his bottom because of a shifted chair. Spilling food, zippers unzipped, and bunched up backs of skirts revealing what is below and behind also come to mind. These are innocent enough to the extent they produce no long term harm, however excruciating they can be in the moment.

How about when the unfortunate one contracts a dreaded illness? This moves the amusement from the trivial or morally ambiguous to hatred and a desire to achieve justice or revenge. The happiness received by the witness is a bitter satisfaction, not a passing chuckle.

The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, described a similar attitude, one still closer to a premeditated desire to cause pain. The following appears in his On the Genealogy of Morality/Ecce Homo:

To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle [….] Without cruelty there is no celebration.”

Yikes! Sentiments like this, if traced back far enough, speak to tribalism and the primitive, life-threatening conflicts of our ancestors. Indeed, part of what bonds some of us to our allies is the shared dislike of the “other,” taken to extremes in the form of hatred.

This topic cannot be escaped in the present. The degree to which some will go to foment physical confrontations and demonize those with whom they don’t agree is boundless.

But let’s consider other, less dreadful aspects of obtaining a mood boost from the pratfalls of our compatriots.

Brief levity at misfortunes outside ourselves might serve as an evolutionary safety valve. Each of us encounters his portion of disappointment, rudeness, and perceived unfairness. When an unkind superior dumps a drink on himself, smirking behind our hands can relieve us of a bit of our frustration. We believe he got what he deserved.

Without causing his spill, the scales of justice, at least for the moment, come closer to balance.

Unfortunately, those less than kind will use everyday humiliations they didn’t cause to belittle and mock, at least behind the back of another. Such discomfort can be turned to one’s advantage, boosting personal status by knocking a competitor down. A backstabber climbs over colleagues to advance himself. Again, here is a kind of cynical, acid satisfaction.

Cases like this put us in the arena of the playground bully disguised by the suit and tie he wears to work. The motives explaining his action might include compensation for a sense of inadequacy or envy.

Perhaps another aspect of our laughter comes from the need to make light of the small stuff of life, the near misses, the inevitable bruises that could have been much worse. Physical selves are such frail things. Unrequested comfort comes because others are in the same club and just as vulnerable.

The human form is like a tiny space ship launched without our permission by the folks called mom and dad. No trustworthy map presents itself. Unexpected comets, meteors, and black holes are always capable of surprises.

Smiling at the small shocks and the narrow escapes allow relief from a too dim view of the future. We even may learn how to prepare for those cosmic events by noting the errors of others, as well as our own.

A fun moment enjoyed with friends or colleagues, despite the temporary expense of the “the unlucky one,” steers our ship past worry about the vulnerability and mortality that are our lot.

Laugh when you can, including at yourself. Merriment and glee make life worth living as much as accomplishment and offspring who will speed our genes ahead 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?

———

The top photo is Harold Lloyd, from his 1920 silent film High and Dizzy. The other image is a 3d digital illustration of a person with a smug face by Dawn Hudson. These are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Peace of Mind in a Moment of Catastrophic Thoughts

If the political-pandemical moment has lit your hair on fire, I offer a suggestion. Get into the shower. But since I can’t personally help with this remedy, let me provide some calming words.

We must begin here: many people fear the worst outcome in the U.S. election come November.

Some ask me for my opinion, my prediction, my reassurance.

I tell them I have enough trust in the good sense of the majority of my fellow-citizens to save the democratic republic. Hope and experience sustain me. I do what a concerned citizen can do. I will vote and, until events are past, take modest political action via the phone, the mail, and contributions to candidates I support.

These thoughts and efforts, however, do not dominate my time or my life.

Yes, potential chaos and catastrophe loom, but few souls profit by submerging themselves in disastrous scenarios. They are instead immobilized if not drowned by the self-imposed punishment those imaginings bring.

The keyword is potential. A difficult or unmanageable result is not an accomplished fact. Better results, I believe, are likely.

My patients sometimes benefited when I asked them what challenges they’d survived in the past. By reviewing their personal history of hardship, they often recognized their capacity to endure and surmount misfortune.

We are the descendants of those who did so again and again for thousands of years.

Another question fashioned perspective: how many times did you dread an event that did not occur?

Most catastrophes are surprising. The legal arm of those desiring to preserve our democracy is as prepared as it can be. The citizenry makes itself ready to register and cast ballots.

Meanwhile, the best scientists and educators in the world are working to create vaccines, treatments, and policies to enable a return to a life we recognize.

All are challenged to find equanimity even in easy times. The religious do well to read their scripture.

I continue to meditate daily, enjoy classic fiction, and study Mahayana Buddhism, a recent interest. Distraction comes by watching comedy and baseball. Friends, children, and grandchildren give me joy. Loved ones touch my heart.

There is value in fact-based news sources, but not those I find redundant. Our front lawn features a sign encouraging the presidential preference my wife and I commend to our neighbors.

Pleasure exists in on-line art, including the gorgeous photos of Laura Hedien featured in this post. Early morning walks invigorate me. A short weight-lifting routine is an old discipline made new.

My evening dessert menu doesn’t include politics. Nightmares receive no invitation into my bedroom.

If catastrophe happens up ahead, that will be soon enough for me. Then we will react and work to improve what fate brings. But I emphasize, I expect a bumpy ride, not one into the abyss.

Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, offered these words 2000 years ago:

But those who forget the past, ignore the present, and fear for the future have a life that is brief and filled with anxiety. … Their very pleasures are fearful and troubled by alarms of different kinds; (even) at the moment of rejoicing, the anxious thought occurs to them: “How long will this last?”

Shakespeare wrote the following in Julius Caesar:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

I am no hero, but I take comfort in such wisdom.

And in you, dear reader.

———

The photos of Laura Hedien included here (with her permission) are The Chicago River as Seen in Downtown Chicago and Clouds Over a Mountain Range in Southern, Arizona (2020): Laura Hedien Official Website

Are You Still Yourself? Passing Through Life as a New Self

Are you the person you used to be?

To the extent each of us possesses a continuous memory of one “self” with one body, we think of ourselves as the same “Joe.”


I’m talking about the guy who broke his arm in eighth grade, found Algebra challenging, went to the Senior Prom with Julia, dumped Marilyn, mooned after his first love for years, and became a superb computer programmer. The bloke played team sports before he damaged his ankle, had three kids, got fired, was unemployed for six months, cheated on his wife, is estranged from his oldest boy (who he once loved to pieces), and has migraines.

Most days, Joseph wishes he took fewer meds, but loves watching sports on TV, enjoys playing cards, suffers from arthritis and nurses regrets his mom didn’t live longer. He thinks of himself as financially secure, doesn’t worry much, but can’t run anymore, and wishes he’d not alienated some friends. His second marriage is excellent. Our hypothetical buddy went through a bout of depression when he was 45.

Despite being pissed-off he’s lost two inches in height, he quite likes himself, though he didn’t until he was 50. Whenever he is asked, he complains about walking behind a pot-belly and running out of breath too often, things unknown until the last 20 years.

He was an atheist until he wasn’t. No one understands the change and he can’t explain it either.

Are we speaking of one “self” and only one?

Richard Posner, the public intellectual, scholar, and judge, asked an interesting question about identity. What if we send a young man to prison for a serious crime, but he reforms himself and becomes an admirable human being during his lifetime confinement?

Are we still punishing the criminal (not a wiser, kinder creature) 40 years after he did wrong?

The offender’s name is unchanged. The historical record marks him as the identical person who got his inmate ID number on his first day of incarceration. But his personality might have been altered by rehabilitation, reflection, experience, study, or faith.

One way of analyzing such questions would be to consider a list of character traits. For example, are you now the person you were at, say, 25, concerning the following traits? Compare yourself to the earlier incarnation, whose name you share.*

Honest–dishonest
Compassionate–indifferent

Leader–follower

Courageous–timid

Loyal–treacherous

Responsible–unreliable


Hard-working–lazy

Independent–dependent

Selfish–generous

Considerate–thoughtless

Self-confident–insecure

Humble–arrogant

You might give the same list to a friend (or an ex-friend) and discover a different evaluation of who you now are or who you used to be.

There are reasons for mistrust of your self-perceptions and self-evaluations. A 2006 research paper by Rubin and Bernstein** finds that past 25 we underestimate our subjective sense of our age: we feel younger by about 20%. Therefore, if you are 50, your subjective sense of your age stands at about 40 (if you are like most others).

Yet, do you remain the person you’ve always been? Your body and brain have aged, perhaps reaching a steady prime, perchance past it. Maybe schooling enhanced your talents, diet recreated the fleshly covering you live in, surgeries made you new or, didn’t retrieve as much of “you” as you hoped.

Experience and chosen adaptations also remade opinions and behavior.

Then comes the question, what might you have forgotten that past selves knew? There is no way to know unless you employed a private cameraman who recorded all those actions and ideas now behind you. Yet part of your past can be useful if the recollections remain in the closet of your mind.

Lodging in the cerebral lock box are past accomplishments and failures, the recollection of gains and lost loved ones, and revisions to your appearance by artificial or natural means.

Time’s alterations of insides and outsides are tricky. You cope with them if you are aware of them. The old friend who walks past you without recognition informs you of the possibility you aren’t. To him, your current face could just as well be a disguise.

Each of us is affected by the revised way the world treats us. Changes in the world explain a portion of its response. Some of it also is the result of our reshaped personal and anatomical condition. Bosses, friends, and acquaintances respond to today’s gray hair, not yesterday’s black locks. In turn, we react to humanity’s fresh take on us.

I wrote, “If you are aware of them.” I repeat myself. If you don’t recognize who is the current “you,” much of what you “do” with life will be done for the shadow of your present existence, the historical personage always a step behind when you face the sun. The guy who went by your name is dead, in a sense. He is the old you.

Maybe your predecessor’s choices fit well for your newly “improved” version of him. If not, your faulty belief in who were and what you’ve become is a problem.

The moment is right to reconsider your makeup. Start by imaging the man of today as the shadow’s heir, the person to whom he passed the torch of his life in the relay race our successive selves are running. Reevaluate who you are today. Take stock of the whole of you as if for the first time.

From this vantage point, the track still presents some ground beyond your current place. Consider it an invitation. Even with a walker, you can progress. You may or may not offer any gratitude toward the fellow from whom you took the baton. Who doesn’t leave a smaller or larger mess? Yet he gave you a chance to continue the job of recreation.

Near or far, the distance before you is often hard to estimate. Perhaps several more varieties with your name are ahead. They are not fully formed. The sculptor who will create the next one can be no one other than you.

—————–

*There are numerous lists of personality characteristics on line. This one is adapted from a portion of one found at https://www.teachervision.com/writing/character-traits/

**Rubin, D. C., and Berntsen, D. (2006). People over forty feel 20% younger than their age: subjective age across the lifespan. Psychon. Bull. Rev. 13, 776–780. doi: 10.3758/BF03193996

If you found this of interest, you might enjoy the following:

Do You Know Who You Are? A Meditation on Identity, Mid-life Crisis, and Change/

How Well Do You Know Yourself? An Answer in Ten Minutes or Less/

The bottom image captures two runners in the ISTAF School Relay Race, September 1, 2019. The author is Martin Rulsch. His photo was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

One Strategy to Reduce Your Unhappiness

Is it possible those who harm us might, after a passage of time, appear to be people who helped us learn something important?

Is it possible their very same cruel act enabled our growth and happiness?

I appreciate what I’m suggesting sounds odd, unusual, even crazy. Consider, however, a view based on a Buddhist text called The Vimalakirti Sutra. Its ancient wisdom offers those keen observations about the best way to live.

Imagine you are driving down a superhighway at high speed. Another driver cuts you off, raising your rage and your blood pressure. Not the first time.

Perhaps you swear and lean on the horn. Maybe you race to overtake the “evil” one, hoping to cut him off as well. Retaliation has taken hostage of all cooler thoughts.

Such animal vengeance is dangerous, both to you, the incident’s instigator, and other innocent drivers and their passengers. This time, however — this time — you tame your scorching animosity, internal disarray, and recklessness. This time you learn.

You recognize yourself in the other driver’s careless or mindless behavior: “I shall not become the thing I hate.” You no longer discount the possibility you — now — not the other man, inhabit the potential to create mayhem or death. You begin to transform the anger and impulsivity long a part of how you react to frustration.

The success in mending your problem contributes to an ironic insight: the man who almost maimed you did you a “favor.” Without him, your change may never have happened. It might also have occurred much later, after creating more sadness, fear, or hurt in others, as well as the suffering within.

Waiting in line offers a similar example of how we cause ourselves agony. The queue is long. You have other tasks to perform. Why is the clerk so chatty, so slow?

The blockhead is inefficient. Doesn’t the man realize time is slipping away? He ought to call someone to help with the flood of people!

Viewpoints like this grind the insides and ruin your day, but approaching them in a more Buddhist fashion achieves a better result. Ofttimes therapists counsel patients to “reframe” their distressing experiences — to envision them from an alternative perspective.

Tell yourself the unwanted wait is an opportunity to enhance patience. Consider the episode in a bigger picture. Will catastrophe occur if you spend more time than expected standing still? Use the moments to accomplish something else. Chat with the person in front of or behind you. Plan the week in your head.

Indeed, the unwitting agent behind the desk can be viewed as your benefactor: the one who helps you become more tolerant.

Happier, too.

If you are prone to holding grudges, changing your mindset reduces obsessive ideas about life’s unfairness. Perhaps, too, the world begins to appear more benign.

I’m not saying everything happens for a reason, but not all grievances lead without remedy to long-term misery. The “teachers” needn’t have intended kindness, but occasional gratitude toward them takes you a step nearer to a more fulfilling life.

Yes, some hurts are so grievous their perpetrators need to be brought to justice. Counselors are experts in aiding one’s mourning process when sizeable damage occurs.

A proverb often attributed to Buddhism tells us, “When the pupil is ready, the Master will appear.” Another formulation uses the word teacher for master, with the same meaning: someone who gives us wise guidance.

The one who harmed you might be the Master in disguise.

Either way, our job is to open ourselves to unexpected enlightenment. Overcoming the worst of the torments on life’s menu remains our responsibility, no matter the pain’s origin.

Unless we make something better of at least some of the misfortunes beyond our control, they will make us their plaything.

Hardship invites us to redefine it by the actions we take. When the dark invitation arrives, we do well to open it to find its hidden light.

—–

The top image is called Enlightenment by Peter Buirlakov. The sculpture photo is A Helping Hand by Forest Runner. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What I Have Learned Lately: Signs of Maturity

Precisely 11 years and three days ago, I published a post called Signs of Maturity: What Does It Mean to Grow Up? I was new to the blogosphere then. The essay attracted some attention, but I wonder now, what might I have missed? Do I still agree with what I wrote over a decade ago? What do I think today?

Indeed, my vision of maturity has altered a bit. Please read on for some old thoughts and a few new ones on the subject:

Signs of Maturity: What Does It Mean to Grow Up?

———

The photograph above is the work on Laura Hedien, with her kind permission: Arizona Sunset, S. of Tucson, Late July, 2020.

Prisoners of the Male Gaze: The Complications of Beauty

Beauty confers a sense of self. Associated words include youthful, vigorous, alive, sensual, fertile, attractive, and more. Don’t forget the capacity to draw the gaze of others.

The splendor of these lucky ones seems to spin the steering wheel behind our eyes toward them. This is the first quality to register on the observer, the one preceding all other human characteristics. In the old days, the watcher called such a creature “a looker.

Every internal talent informs the male of its presence later, if at all. The problem for the gorgeous one is whether anyone pays attention to all those extras. She might be brilliant, tender, empathic, funny, technically adept, generous, strong, persistent, hard-working, athletically-gifted, brave, and more.

Even when she is, the shadow cast by her physical features can make her wonder: does anyone know or care what is inside “the package” or do they just want the outside?

The gift of the allure of the flesh is double-edged. If the lovely one believes she has nothing else to win credit and attention, she is more likely to be grateful for what is offered. The world praises her for what strikes the eyes, and, for a while, little else is required.

But for anyone who is more than what can be photographed or painted, she cannot be aware of the extent of her dependence on (and imprisonment within) the pretty picture she presents.

While beauty lasted, many of my female patients couldn’t be sure whether the deepest level of their qualities broke through their dazzle. Reassurance from their lover or a friend or a therapist didn’t help. If they were beautiful but unlucky in love, they wondered the cause. For some, the passage of time and the specter of fading loveliness represented an enemy.

Visible aging afforded the only way to discover if the audience cared for more than an exquisite profile. Who wanted that?

De Mura: Wisdom or Nobility. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Wikimedia Commons

A counselor works with snapshots taken days apart. Most often clients enter our field of vision once every week or two.

More obvious natural changes are recognized by those lacking such regular access. Longer periods between sightings are greater: several months or years.

Even so, sometimes I observed the youthful bloom vanish in a space smaller than one cycle of the earth around the sun. For others the gift never disappeared within the period of meetings continuing for a number of years.

Those who embraced the transformation fared best. The evidence of the passing years extended more opportunity to be valued for the human attributes they’d worked for, the entirety of their true self. Here was their essence in total, not the decorations and the frosting on top.

The few facial lines magnified the intelligence and wisdom of their appearance. The externals now told me a different story:

I know some things about the world. I am more than I used to be, not less.

For the most admirable of them, this was not an insurmountable loss. My memory of their initial impression on me blended with the current aspects of their presence.

They retained elements of their younger incarnation but added to them. Their enhanced humanity was obtained from roads they visited, the knowledge and values fashioned by experience, and the endurance now traced in the skin-deep marking of time’s hand.

My long paramount concern about the personalities of these aging but ageless beauties furnished me a perspective that made the diminution of some peripherals beside the point. From the start, I beheld all their revelations and the courage evident in so doing. Perhaps, too, the gradual decline in my own hormone-driven chemical mix made a difference.
The whole of them was, as in the best of the remainder of humanity, flawed but extraordinary.

For those who never enjoyed the mixed blessing of head-turning angelic charm, the news, I thought, was positive as well.

For a number, their physicality now met the comely ones somewhere near the middle when it came to the world’s attentional focus. These ladies were not less remarkable and had to contend in a different manner with the never bountiful male gaze.

The finest of all these women, survivors of the man’s world into which they were born, created something more than the earlier version of themselves. If the pleasing and the plain now had the confidence to be indifferent to swiveling heads or their absence, I imagine they might have taken the stage to say,

Here I am. If you wish to accept me for who I am, not what I am, welcome. For the rest of you, your attention is not required. Go in peace.

——-

The top photo is a Nine-year-old boy’s face, Margarita Island, Venezuela, by Wilfredor.

Should You Trust Your Gut?

Trust your gut, they say. This is commonplace advice, sometimes even offered by therapists. I ask you, though, dear reader, to consider the world. Should those who are trusting their intuition, their instincts, their fervor-driven sense of righteousness continue to “trust their gut?”

I get the idea — the intention — of those who believe wisdom is discoverable in the body, its sensations, and instinctive tendencies. They think you may be in danger of working against yourself, not honoring your personal truth. You have dismissed or discounted something within to which you should be listening.

Whoa.

The data on the subject suggests hesitation. Not that you will always be wrong when relying on your feelings, nor right if you evaluate possible future action in a more analytic, rational way. Rather, the “gut” provides worthwhile direction in some situations, while in others better guidance leads to questioning its message.

Before we go deeper, let’s summarize both sides of the argument.

PRO TRUST:

Each of us is the product of the long evolutionary chronicle of our ancestors. The qualities helpful to their survival and procreation are wired inside of us, their descendants. Necessity often demanded quick decisions with few comparable memories upon which to tap. Our existence as 21st-century humans proves the excellence of many of their actions.

We all possess an internal sense of ourselves unknowable beyond the boundary of our skin. This personal state is informative. We need to honor its wisdom.

In many instances, we have no books to consult, no time to find scientific scholarship applicable to the present decision confronting us. Besides, abstract ideas can’t tell us if we should date person X, try to make friends with individual Y, or talk back to parent Z.

MAYBE, MAYBE NOT:

Few of us avoid mistakes in judgment. For instance, our first impression of a bright or attractive acquaintance often causes us to believe he is also superior in other, unseen ways. Only time and additional contact reveal the truth. A swift, positive, global opinion is called a “halo effect.”

The choices made at a “feeling level” discount how emotions can lead us astray. Think of the occasions when love, anger, revenge, or fear has led to worsening your troubles.

Homo sapiens are poor affective forecasters. The research of Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues demonstrates a tendency to underestimate our emotional resilience and durability when imagining our reaction to life’s disappointments. Put another way, we are lousy at deep-seated, unthinking predications of our well-being in the months and years ahead.

The divorce rate supports the same notion; so do the common, but erroneous, expectations of a wonderful life following a giant lottery award. The optimistic assumption of a large, lasting boost of happiness delivered by children over the course of the time they live with us is generally incorrect, as well.

THE CONCLUSION:

The simplest answer on trusting your gut, your feelings, or your instincts is this: the matter depends on the quality and quantity of your previous exposure to situations like the one in which you find yourself.

Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein* looked at how and what experts learned while practicing their profession. The “gift” or “sixth-sense” required years of particularized employment in the field.

As the first author wrote in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, two conditions are necessary for acquiring the skill endowing people with this kind of savvy:

  • an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable

  • an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice

Gary Klein described how this applies to firefighting commanders. How do they know, he wondered, what decisions to make on the spot without comparing options in a systematic and time-consuming fashion?

They could draw on the repertoire of patterns they had compiled during more than a decade of both real and virtual experience to identify a plausible option, which they considered first.

They evaluated this option by mentally simulating it to see if it would work in the situation they were facing…. If the course of action seemed appropriate, they would implement it. If it had shortcomings, they would modify it.

If they could not easily modify it, they would turn to the next most plausible option and run through the same procedure until an acceptable course of action was found.

Master chess players have this capacity — this intuition — to size up a chessboard in mid-game, almost at once. Anesthesiologists do, too. The regularity, orderliness and limited nature of the countless cases they have encountered provided the prompt feedback on their performance needed to “become” intuitive.

The outcome of the contest or the surgery graded their choices straight away.

What does this tell us about our own ability to come up with instinctive, “felt” decisions in everyday life?

Much hinges on what our exposure has been to the kind of circumstances offering immediate success or failure from which to learn. We lack the thousands upon thousands of contests played by a grandmaster or the uncounted number of patients over decades of training and work as an anesthesiologist.

Such examples of expert, rapid grasp of the essential features of an event pertains to the part of human experience governed by clear cut guidelines or rules. The physician makes use of his remembered storehouse of biological, physiological, and chemical science. The Chessmaster retrieves his internal archive of permitted movements of the chess pieces and the results of past strategies he and others employed.

Human relationships, in contrast, have more variables, unknowable psychological dynamics, no access to what another person is thinking or sensing in the moment, or a complete history of his life. They are not orderly.

A political pundit or a stockbroker faces a task every bit as daunting and unpredictable. Kahneman says any claim from them of extraordinary intuition is “self-delusional at best, sometimes worse.”

Having said this, I doubt you shall give up on your hunches. Remember, though, the information you receive about the adequacy or error of your choice of friends and lovers, for example, often is delayed and equivocal.

Some people are good to be around one-on-one and not in a group, trustworthy in fulfilling our routine expectations but not all, pleasant in the short run but not for long.

Most of us are permitted but a slice of time with individuals we believe we know well. Full understanding might take years of both talk and observation, however. Their secrets and private behavior leave us ignorant of their darker corners.

In summary, I’d suggest you hesitate when you are told to “trust your gut.” Other than those moments when delay is impossible, many problems give you the luxury of getting advice, reflecting on patterns of comparable past encounters, and recalling your own default tendencies.

The latter might include your basic optimism or pessimism, inclination to approach or avoid, extraversion or introversion, toughness or vulnerability, etc.

You might consider alternative interpretations of what you confront and estimate the potential benefits and costs of imagined ways of dealing with whatever is ahead. Don’t forget to ask yourself what mood you are in and whether you are hungry! The influence of temporary states such as these might be significant.

If it makes you feel any better, well-trained counselors with untold hours of experience shouldn’t always “trust their gut” either.

There is lots of research on this, too!

——————–

The painting, Freedom from Fear, derives from Wikimedia Commons and is described this way:

The Four Freedoms is a series of four 1943 oil paintings by the American artist Norman Rockwell. The paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—are each approximately 45.75 inches (116.2 cm) × 35.5 inches (90 cm), and are now in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The four freedoms refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union address in which he identified essential human rights that should be universally protected. The theme was incorporated into the Atlantic Charter, and became part of the charter of the United Nations. The paintings were reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post over four consecutive weeks in 1943, alongside essays by prominent thinkers of the day.

Following that image I’ve placed a photo taken by Staff Sargent Craig Cisek of the U.S. Air Force. It shows a firefighter spraying water during a simulated C-130 Hercules plane crash. The image is also sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

*Conditions for Intuitive Expertise: A Failure to Disagree

Surviving in a Moment of Helplessness and Closed Doors

Before I present an unconventional way for you to think of your value, I must acknowledge your pain. I imagine your circumstances may be far worse than my own.

Those like myself are fortunate. My immediate loved ones don’t suffer coronavirus (fingers crossed), I am in no financial distress, and we enjoy continuing nearness to each other in our small bubble.

For every other pampered hostage to the pandemic/recession, however, heartbreak abounds. According to the CDC, over 40% of U.S. adults surveyed in late June “reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition.” If all the world’s disquiet could be piled up in blocks of cement, it would reach higher than Mt. Everest.**

The world is overweight with pain.

We commonly define ourselves in terms of what we can “do.” Making a living often confers dignity. Status matters to those who make comparisons. Union with hands, cheeks, lips, and bodies have fueled desire for as long as man has been man.

How then does one hold oneself together when money is short, pride in social standing absent, health is imperiled, and touch means staying in touch rather than touching?

You are, in fact, already taking action of extraordinary worth.

First, you are surviving. For reasons you understand about yourself, you retain a portion of hope or a sense of responsibility for those closest.

Contrast your mortal state to that of a god for a moment. In the West, we think of any deity as an eternal being who is all-powerful and all-knowing.

This leaves humanity the possibility of displaying qualities absent in an invincible and omniscient entity who can’t die.

Think about danger. Bravery is possible because we are at risk of physical or emotional harm. The ever-present chance of adversity constructs the platform to display courage.

Man’s creaturely situation requires the choice to endure and persist. Misfortune happens, and its visit is not always brief. The Stoic philosophers believed this allowed each person to demonstrate “greatness of soul” by withstanding “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as Hamlet described his own tribulation.

To the extent hope is an idea, you have created it. Moreover, my guess is you are amid (or can recall) such woes as Shakespeare put into Hamlet’s life. You know the experience of bearing what appears unbearable, including depression. If you did not, you wouldn’t now be reading this.

Your survival at this moment is a tribute to your character and worthy of applause. I offer you mine. If, with time, you can do more, then do so. Enlarged strength is the residue of a series of small actions.

For now, remember the last eight words from the sightless John Milton’s poem, “On His Blindness:

They also serve who only stand and wait.

—–

The top image is Meeting on the Beach: Mermaid by Edvard Munch, sourced from the Munch Museum. The second is Hope II by Gustav Klimt, sourced from Wikiart.org/

**Perhaps the most distressing finding in the CDC bulletin is this: “The percentage of respondents who reported having seriously considered suicide in the 30 days before completing the survey (10.7%) was significantly higher among respondents aged 18–24 years (25.5%), minority racial/ethnic groups (Hispanic respondents [18.6%], non-Hispanic black [black] respondents [15.1%]), self-reported unpaid care-givers for adults§ (30.7%), and essential workers (21.7%).”