Are You Being Used? When Your Social Life is Like Social Work

512px-בין_השמשות._צילום_קארין_בר

The world is divided into “givers and takers” or so we are told. Conventional wisdom advises that being a “giver” is the preferred choice, the moral high ground. Most of us don’t want to be thought of as selfish and non-reciprocal — self-involved. A giver is labeled “good,” an adjective we enjoy applying to ourselves.

Can you be too good? Can you be too giving — to the point of self-harm, to the point of allowing others to “use” you routinely? Is too much emotional generosity the equivalent of effacing your needs? Might it be like standing in a lunch line, affording deference and preference for latecomers to go first, and reaching the front too late for a meal?

If the answer is yes, how might you know whether you are giving too much?

Here are some signs your social life amounts to social work without salary, caring for others to the point of encouraging their misuse of you:

  1. Are you the “one” who listens to problems, the first person your acquaintances contact when upset? By itself, this might simply indicate you are kind and empathic. But disappointment follows when others don’t offer time or compassion for your worries.
  2. Do friends and acquaintances impose on you unreasonably? Do they regularly ask you to drop what you are doing to help them? Do they call late at night over small upsets without regard for your need to get up early the next morning?
  3. Beyond words of thanks, do your friends express gratitude in concrete ways, like sending you a greeting card, flowers, candy, or picking up the check at dinner?
  4. Do you recognize that reciprocity depends on respect? Those who become another’s servant do not command honor. Were fulfilling a master’s requests a guarantee of good treatment, slaves would be the best cared for class in the world.
  5. Do you find yourself disappointed too often when “friends” contact you only in need, not with social invitations once they bounce back from their troubles?
  6. Do you believe your singular value is what you can do for others? Do you doubt your worth beyond the ability to aid or console?
  7. Do too many relationships begin with the other’s effusive gratitude for your kindness, but move to a point where your generosity is taken for granted almost as an entitlement?
  8. Are you exhausted by the demands and requests of those closest to you?
  9. Can you say no when a favor is asked, be it your time, money, or a ready ear?
  10. Do you fear being dumped should you become less available when needed?
  11. Do you find yourself worrying about hurting people when you imagine what might happen if you say no?
  12. Do you hesitate to express strong opinions to your buddies? Are you afraid of rejection or criticism if you disagree?
  13. Are too many of your friends “troubled souls?” Do you associate with an unstable crowd, making it easy to take on the counselor, helper, or social work role?
  14. Do you believe saying no is selfish? Were you told you were selfish growing up?
  15. When feeling unappreciated, do you think perhaps you didn’t do enough to please your friend?
  16. Do you make excuses for the other when you are dismissed or taken for granted? Do you live in the hope he will change?

If you answer yes to a number of these questions, you might lack self-confidence and self-assertion. Another term often used in these types of relationships is dependency. Sometimes “co-dependent” is used instead.

nietzsche_creme

Too many of the earth’s inhabitants see fellow humans as objects, like a wrench or hammer: helpful when needed, but requiring no gratitude or careful treatment when the job is done. The error is allowing yourself to be used as if you were picked from a tool chest, submitting to the role of instrumental object, imagining you must do whatever friends require, twisted or tossed aside as they wish. You have discounted your worth and given them control along with the discretion to grade you by how much you satisfy their wants. Worse yet, you accept the grade assigned. The thought of standing up and setting limits collapses for fear of abandonment.

Nor are you advised to think of yourself as an altruist or akin to a religious martyr in your pursuit of the good. Religious martyrs are put to death against their will by their enemies — on one occasion only, of course. Those who offer themselves up as a less drastic sacrifice for their faux “friends” do so voluntarily and far too often. Sainthood should not be expected to follow.

This habit of relating to people doesn’t vanish by itself. You make a mistake hoping those you love will change instead of realizing you are the one who must do so. If you see yourself here, consider going into psychotherapy. Life is more fulfilling when relationships work both ways. The sooner you address this problem, the more likely your satisfaction will increase. Moreover, you will discover a truth of great import: those who leave (and some do exit when you change) aren’t worthy of your goodness. The cliché is true: you are better off without them.

The top image is called Twilight by Karin Bar. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The bottom image is a t-shirt available at http://www.philosophersguild.com/

Insecurity and Our Preoccupation with Appearances

512px-Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_The_toilet_of_Venus

We try so hard to make a good impression, don’t we? No one enjoys a disapproving audience. We dress well, hide our inner turmoil, and smile. We comb our hair, clean our clothes, and wash pretty often. Why do we care so much about the opinion of onlookers?

The simple answer: because it was historically dangerous to be unattractive, unsuccessful, and unliked; dangerous to survival and damaging to our chances of finding a mate. Most importantly, those historical facts continue to influence how we live today. They have major implications for the type of person we seek in a partner; why we compete in business and games; why loneliness feels so terrible and why personal insecurities are widespread. Let me explain.

Evolutionary psychologists think about us in terms of the qualities that enabled our survival through thousands of years. Of course, our long process of descent from prehistoric ancestors required them to complete two missions: staying alive until sexual maturity and making babies who lived beyond them. Whatever innate preoccupations and skills enabled early humans to meet these two criteria were passed down in their genes as part of the never-ending chain of life, like a relay race in which the baton has now been given to us. The inborn talents or defects of those who didn’t survive didn’t get handed off. Those folks aren’t our ancestors.

Now, you may be saying, OK, but I’m pretty smart and I make my own decisions. I don’t need to be like people who lived in caves and wore animal skins.

Not so fast. Think about anger. It helped our forefathers defend against attack by enemies and hungry carnivores. You live with their capacity to defend yourself. And some of us blow-up at those we love, commit murder, and make war.

Or let’s say you are a guy. Remember back to your childhood when girls were yucky? Then one day you had an erection. I doubt this was a well-reasoned and much-desired gift you put on your Christmas list — unless your parents were more liberal than mine, that is. Not everything you do is a matter of thoughtful choice, unmotivated by Mother Nature.

We are wired to survive and to mate with a member of the opposite sex who is capable of producing and supporting a new life. So whom do we choose? A woman at the dawn of human existence had to be especially concerned with finding a man who could defend her and provide for her when she was pregnant and vulnerable. Evolutionary researchers believe several qualities signaled such ability: physical strength, intelligence, stamina, the capacity to work in groups, leadership, etc. Thus, when a woman is in the market for a man rather than a fling, she is influenced by her ancestors’ inherited tendency to find one who can make a living and create a safe residence. Yes, I know women are no longer uniformly dependent on men, but the ladies’ genes didn’t receive the memo.

512px-Federico_Andreotti_-_The_Persistent_Suitor

What about physical appearance? Women notice handsome men as much as men recognize the beauty of the fair sex. Unlike men, however, who place physical appearance at the top of their wish list, attractiveness is further down her tally of desired attributes in a permanent sexual partner. Why? Again, because of the historic vulnerability of women carrying and bearing their children. A female can only afford to be picky about noble features and hot bodies if she has a choice among men who first can accomplish the things she and her future children will need. Thus, a lady cannot allow the luxury of opting for surface qualities over those more essential to her safety and her child’s well-being.

Men are more likely to be motivated by just one thing: a healthy and fertile appearance (which is correlated with youth and beauty). Nature permits them to indulge themselves because the physical cost of producing a child will be borne by their partner. As the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow said, “There is no such thing as justice — in or out of court.”

Of course, few of us think about these things when we are on the prowl. Remember, too, I am simplifying the story for the sake of brevity.

Now, on to the origins of insecurity. Competition is built into the system. Should you want the most attractive female (the best potential mom in evolutionary terms or the hottest mama in your feverish dreams) you must stand out from the crowd of other men in some way suggestive of your superior ability to be a provider. Thus, men have historically tried to make lots of money (even more than necessary to live), achieve high status, display their excellence in the performance of an activity (business or sports) and impress with their intellect and cleverness. Men size up the competition to get the best of them. Insecurity — the preoccupation with where you stand in the pecking order — necessarily follows.

Females compete for males as well. The cosmetics and fashion industries thrive on the genetically fixed desire to catch the eye of a husband. Again, however, when out shopping you aren’t likely to think, “those jeans will improve my chances of getting my genes into the next generation.” Instead, you say to yourself, “Wow, those jeans look good on me.” Only people like me think of genes, not jeans. And, if you repeat similar questions often enough — what looks good on me, what doesn’t, how do I compare with the others — the insecure background of one’s thought becomes the norm.

Earlier I said it has been historically dangerous to be unattractive, unsuccessful, and unliked. If humans of antique times couldn’t find a sufficiently enterprising and healthy sex partner, that person’s genetic line would end. Those who didn’t make friends found their chances of survival on their own were poor. Thus, whether looking for a mate or a group affiliation to increase their odds (against other tribes, animals, and nature) they needed sensitivity to any word, expression, element of body language, or deed signaling another person’s disinterest, dislike, or disaffection from them; in addition to those indicators communicating they were welcome or pleasing to the crowd. Unfortunately, the ability to determine how they were coming across to others required a preoccupation with other people’s opinions: a recipe for insecurity and self-consciousness. Those who didn’t care how they were being received didn’t hand down their genes successfully.

Lonely_guy,_shadow_as_friend

How does loneliness fit in? A soul contented in his isolation didn’t mate. Women and men satisfied just with the company of their sexual partner reduced their chances of survival compared to couples who had alliances with others. Individuals who were happy when alone, therefore, didn’t pitch their genes forward into the next generation. Men and women discontented when by themselves, however, would have wanted to join up with other creatures. Since group participation increased the chance of surviving, procreating, and raising a child, their unhappiness when separated from humans is a quality we now have: it motivated them to take an action useful to staying alive.

There are other factors beyond evolution influencing you today. Your upbringing, your own life experiences, and the individual set of incidental personality traits nature handed to you. But, back there somewhere is the long reach of the instincts that survived the evolutionary relay race. The ways in which we react, think, and act are more determined by the successful tendencies of our ancestors than (I suspect) most of us consider or believe.

In short, having a mind drawn to thoughts of both friends and strangers comes naturally. Our preoccupation with status and money, even though it can create misery, is a quality that long ago began to improve the chance of survival and is still in us. We operate according to a program written by nature on the men and women who lived here an eternity before we jumped out of mom’s womb.

The aim of evolution was never to make us happy. We can only challenge ourselves to deal with the insecurities and preoccupations it deposited in our genes. Those instincts don’t always work well in a world that, for the most part, is much different and safer than the natural state of man’s life, described by Thomas Hobbes as “nasty, brutish, and short.”

In our search for satisfaction we must grapple with a biology that often makes us discontented and wary, replicating what our ancestors did to live. Understanding this gives us a better chance of remaking ourselves the best we can to suit not their time — but ours.

The top image is Toilette der Venus by Peter Paul Rubens. The second painting is The Persistent Suitor by Frederico Andreotti. The cartoon was created by Welleman and is called Lonely Guy, Shadow as Friend. All come from Wikimedia Commons.

The Lists We Keep and the Meaning of Life

51E68PBGVEL

“Everyone has a list and everyone is on someone’s list.” I heard this from a musician, speaking of himself and his 100 orchestral colleagues. The statement reminded me of the 1971 “Enemies List” kept by President Richard Nixon’s assistant Charles Colson, naming Nixon’s biggest political and public opponents. He even included the movie actor Paul Newman. I suspect, however, those of us who make lists like this don’t actually intend to meddle and damage other lives, as Nixon did by means of Internal Revenue Service audits and the like. Fortunately, the IRS Commissioner Donald C. Alexander refused to do the President’s dirty-work.

Our catalogues of people and things are usually more benign. Here are a few:

  • Shopping lists.
  • To-do lists.
  • Bucket lists. I always wonder about this one. Postponing gratification is useful to get ahead in life, but assumes there will be life ahead, and the kind of health permitting joy in the delayed experiences. Anyone over 50 will tell you not to postpone too many activities. The things of youth belong to their time. Any athlete past his prime can affirm this. Down the road, the bucket springs some leaks and will not hold the treats we put in it.
  • Lists of lovers. I recall a conversation with an old friend and somehow it came up that he’d slept with about 50 women in his long life. He wasn’t bragging, but his production of a number suggests he counted them. In fact, in the opera Don Giovanni (Don Juan) by Mozart, the composer gave us something called “The Catalogue Aria,” sung by his servant Leporello. Here is how it begins:

My dear lady, this is the list
Of the beauties my master has loved,
A list which I have compiled.
Observe, read along with me.

In Italy, six hundred and forty;
In Germany, two hundred and thirty-one;
A hundred in France; in Turkey, ninety-one;
But in Spain already one thousand and three …

I leave it to the reader to come up with the proper (?) response to this.

  • Lists of medications. The tally is created by older people, of necessity, because new specialist physicians need to avoid prescribing drugs likely to produce a dangerous interaction with those already in the system.
  • Lists of jobs (a résumé).
  • Lists of publications. Academics are judged by their number of writings, the excellence of the journals or books in which they appear, and the extent to which their work generates further scholarship from other authors and researchers.
  • “Ten best” lists. News and entertainment media enjoy ranking athletes, movie stars, and places to go. Of course, you can make your own.
  • Lists of employees, those who sign up for a course, etc.
  • A catalogue of life unfairness and injury. Those who routinely recite these (we all know at least one such friend) is someone whose presence can only occasionally be tolerated.
  • A similar list of grudges.
  • A short list of regrets — the big ones. Some of us keep circling our thoughts back to a handful of actions we ought to have done or not done. Interestingly, research suggests men are more likely to kick themselves about the chances they didn’t take with the fair sex (the woman not pursued, the opportunities bypassed), while the ladies reflect on relationships they chose with the wrong men.
  • Lists of things for which we are grateful. Not everyone has a list of this kind, but the benefits can be considerable if you review and remember the items.
  • Mental lists of subjects to talk about on a date. Young men often create these for fear of running out of topics of conversation.
  • The things you can’t do anymore and the parts that hurt. Older folks, without much pressure, can tell you and tell you — and tell you.

Lists tend to fall into categories. Those that are practical and helpful (to-do and grocery), achievement (publications and lovers, the latter if you are a braggart), tales of woe (the times you’ve been dumped and jobs lost), etc.

We probably are better off with fewer lists, other than those involving gratitude or producing a sense of fulfillment. List making, beyond what is necessary, doesn’t get you too engaged in the world in front of you, unless it includes actions you intend and a plan to carry them out. You need a method for your new year’s resolution madness, for sure.

Holding grudges doesn’t make you feel better, while creating a list of conversations topics for a date might. Remember, past a certain indeterminate age, we tend to enjoy telling stories about good old days. The best advice, perhaps, is to experience as many of those days as you can, not only to enjoy them in the moment, but bank them for fond remembrance later.

We often look for a cognitive lightning bolt, an epiphany, or a turning point to change our lives: “If only I do this or try that, then I will be transformed and fulfilled.” Or maybe you say, “These five things are what I need,” as if the check-offs on your list are both necessary and sufficient — a guarantee of happiness. Ah, but perhaps you will think of one more to achieve and then one more still when the last one is done. There is no end to the number of awards to attain, money to bank, and places to see.

I wonder if sometimes we miss the simplest things, forgetting to put them on the paper with the tangible wish list. Our feverish pursuit of goals — intent upon grasping and holding each one we touch — suggests a permanence not present in life. We believe once we grab them they will assuage all discontent. Are we like dazed and thirsty souls in the desert who see an oasis ahead, not recognizing it is a mirage instead?

Meanwhile, those simplest things cost us nothing and bestow what we all want: to live well. Yet they are easily lost in the overheated tumult of life and the mind-numbing routine of the day.

As Jack Palance said to Billy Crystal in the 1991 movie City Slickers, the secret of happiness (if there is one) all comes down to “one thing.”

What is that “one thing?” Watch:

Varieties of Parental Inadequacy: Injury Without Abuse

512px-Tossed_baby_seen_from_below

As the photo suggests, we are vulnerable when little. While we tend to think of physical mistreatment in this connection, damage can be caused without corporal or sexual violence. Injury is also possible in the absence of withering and repetitive verbal attacks. Moreover, an absence of love isn’t always the cause.

What else might constitute inadequate parenting? Here are five categories:

  • A parent’s use of his or her child as a validating object. An insecure parent can look to the tot for affirmation. In effect, the little girl or boy is transformed into a scorekeeper on the adult’s worth. If the kiddy is well-behaved, the caretaker feels better about himself. When the tiny one is distressed, however, the mom or dad becomes rattled. A parent who does not know how to manage his own emotions will attempt to shut down the child’s feelings to reassure himself. A sensitive child — one who is attuned to the parent’s distress — might then develop the habit of scanning the adult for signs of upset. At an unconscious level, he does not wish the emotional collapse of a person essential to his fragile life. Rather than blame the parent and deal with the scary recognition of his shakiness, he is inclined to blame himself. This is often reinforced when admonished that he is doing wrong or “should be a big boy.”

Because of the offspring’s need for the parent’s approval and stability, such a young one tends to sit on his emotions, deadening them. He defines them as inappropriate or bad and perceives himself as a problem. Carried forward into adulthood, people with this upbringing might “fake” their way through life; meanwhile (internally) believing their human desire for comfort is unacceptable. They further assume any affective upset (such as we all suffer) must be kept invisible within the showcase of personal relationships. Fear of doing some undefinable disqualifying thing becomes a pervasive worry. The individual is shadowed by the sense of being “too much” for everyone.

  • Emotional sterility, neglect, and favoritism. I’ve treated the children of parents who did not adequately supervise them, were more emotionally involved with work or community activities than their young one, who were absent on trips of business or pleasure for long and frequent periods, and those who communicated a preference for a sibling or even someone else’s child. All the while there was food and shelter. None of this attends to the kid’s emotional needs, communicates his value, or produces a strong sense of self. It is important to note, however, that in a world of demanding jobs and stagnant wages, the parent may have no choice in the matter of “being there.”
  • Needing the child’s approval. Children need parents with the will power, strength, and motivation to be consistent — hold to limits. A parent lacking resilience or self-confidence is unlikely to take charge when necessary. An elder who is desperate for the offspring’s affection and approval risks allowing his girl or boy to determine the rules, what she is permitted to do, what he is allowed to “have.” Kids are sometimes called “spoiled,” not because the caretaker wishes to instill that quality, but because he is afraid to say “no.” He fears the faucet of the child’s love will be shut. Authority collapses.

512px-Heinz_Traimer_SPÖ_SPOE_WIEN_Wahl_Werbung_Politik

  • Parent/child role reversal. A needy parent can use the youngster as a kind of friend or therapist, confiding depression and loneliness, criticizing the spouse, and offering details of a sex life no offspring wants to hear ever. Such kids sometimes become parental surrogates to their elders, taking on the world to protect the mom or dad from emotional disintegration. I have known children who were required by one parent to retrieve the other from a neighborhood saloon. I have heard tales of youngsters expected to accompany mom on her detective work to discover a cheating spouse. Some youth are assigned the job of asking for the child support, encouraged to mix the parent’s favorite alcoholic beverage, smoke pot with a sire, lie to the other parent, or cover money mismanagement by one of the household heads. The pattern does not necessarily end in childhood. Grown-ups are requested to double-date with a divorced mom or dad with the implied plea to compensate for his woeful social life.
  • Parental illness or loss: Parents running on empty. Child neglect is not always intended. The household head who is ill or out-of-commission cannot give attention to the job of parenting. No emotional reserves exist. The common adaptation of kids in this situation is to become a pseudo-adult. When a parent is laid-low by the loss of a spouse, due either to divorce or death, he or she becomes inadequate to the task of managing the home. Now the child must deal with the loss of two: one literally absent, the other a vaporous shadow of his previous self. Any attempt to grab hold of the apparent parent fails. If this youngster is older than his sibs, ministering to the others becomes his role. A lifetime as an emotional caretaker can follow from the assignment of the job at an early age.

The damage inflicted on children in the cases described is considerable. Yet if the standard of adequate parenting is material well-being or the lack of frank abuse, those young ones might be considered “cared for.” When they enter therapy they are often looking for a way to be healed without indicting their folks. In the absence of attention to the full range of parental behavior, treatment misses the point. Grief cannot be expressed except by identifying the wound. The elders are done no harm in the confines of a therapist’s office no matter what the client says, unless they are physically present.

Some injuries leave no visible marks, but must be healed all the same. Think PTSD. The patient’s hurt is patient, waiting, waiting, waiting. The spirit drains away and needless suffering persists.

The highway of life is long, but not infinite. Midnight does come. Don’t postpone confronting your pain until the carriage turns into a pumpkin.

The top image is called Baby Toss, as captured by Mike. The second image is a 1950 poster for the Austrian Socialist Party. The text reads “Happy Family, happy Vienna — Vote SPOE.” It is the work of Matthaeuswien. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How Life is Like an MRI

User-FastFission-brain

Compacted into 30-minutes, having an MRI is an analogue for living. It took only one half hour in the machine to get a visual impression of my knee. There were no life threatening conditions. Just possible surgery due to wear and tear. Both words, literally.

I lay myself down on a movable platform. Imagine me as a cigar on my back, electronically slid into and out of a narrow, cylindrical enclosure. The magnets, on at all times, made a metallic, heartbeat-like racket; louder and arrhythmic when the machine got excited attempting to get a proper picture of the crucial body part: the kind of sound to make a person believe he was being fed into a meat grinder. I was given ear plugs which never fully killed the noise. The technician reminded me to be still, lest the exercise become worthless.

In the magnetic resonance imaging machine you enter a world of “booming, buzzing confusion,” as William James said. Is that any different from the world outside the hospital? You are on a very short assembly line. On it. Now you know something new: not what a factory worker knows, but the piece of metal or plastic on which he works before the product moves on to the next employee on the line. I had become a thing, objectified, like people we pass every day, unknown to us except by a few details. Just as we are unknown to them.

The cigar was left to mark the time. Nothing to read or notice. I’d been offered headphones and a choice of music, but experience informed me tunes couldn’t compete with the creature swallowing me. If one is a catastrophizing sort, here is a major opportunity to think the worst: “I won’t be able to be still, I’ll screw up the picture and therefore screw up the surgery and therefore screw up my life!” “I’ll sneeze or need to pee.” “One of the technicians will mess up.”

Or, if you prefer, you can take the 30-minutes and contemplate everything else wrong with your life or capable of going wrong. You are in any case, at the mercy of circumstances beyond controlling. Like life, again.

I did, in fact, have a foot cramp while on my back. The right foot, not the one in need of stasis. A few flexes calmed it down.

My left hand held a “panic button.” MRIs sometimes require the patient to live in the tube head-to-toe. I’ve had that done too and if your claustrophobic (I’m not) you need the panic button. The machine mimics how fate acts upon us. There are some things to which one can only submit. Fortunately, I took the event as an opportunity to meditate. Until, at least, I got the idea for this essay and thought about what to write. Make lemonade out of lemons, another life lesson.

Had I been upset, instead of panicking I could have reminded myself the hospital visit would soon be over. This too shall pass. My first time in the tube I remember thinking it might be an experience from which I’d learn something new and interesting. “This isn’t a misfortune, but a part of life.” If I lived a while back I’d have no remedies such as the knee surgery ahead. Psychologists call this “reframing.” Taking a new perspective on your situation.

In the big picture we are kind of like the cigar. On a conveyor belt that sometimes moves forward, sometimes in reverse, and makes no progress much of the time. We are dependent on the kindness of strangers — people like the two competent and kind ladies who took care of me. We move and are moved, not only as a matter of inches, feet, or miles, but in the emotional sense. The experience in the tube, like all experience, is time-limited.

The key, if you can find it in the “booming, buzzing confusion” of the world inside and outside your brain, is sometimes to relax. Control what you can, give in to the rest. Take the people around you for who they are, not objects, but folks made of the same stuff you are. We laugh, we cry, we struggle, and — if paying attention to what is important — we give some love, get some love, and do a little good.

Two out of three is a passing grade.

Enjoy the ride. However long, it is brief. So you better, in the words of Woody Guthrie, “take it easy, but take it.”

The top image is explained by the man whose brain was imaged, FastFission: “Made from an fMRI scan I had done. Goes from the top of my brain straight through to the bottom. That little dot that appears for a second on the upper-left hand side is a vitamin E pill they taped to the side of my head to make sure they didn’t accidentally swap the L-R orientation.” It comes from Wikimedia Commons.

Changing Our Ideas: What Therapy Often Misses

512px-Azerbaijan_bulud_cloud_sun_sunset_gun_gun_batimi_sema_azerbaycan_sua_erken

Life’s complexity forces us to simplify. We use shortcuts to understand the present and predict the future because living would otherwise be impossible. In the time of our ancestors survival depended on determining whether a stranger was friend or foe, whether a situation was safe or dangerous. Those without the right instincts didn’t make quick and useful categorizations, instead drowning in the gene pool. These unfortunates tended to die young. Any offspring produced by them had a poor chance of reaching maturity and having kids of their own. They are not our ancestors.

What does that mean for you and me? We are, after all, the product of generations who survived because of thinking fast.

Like our ancestors, we respond to threat, make decisions to prosper, and categorize in an instant.

This system of decision-making is a blunt instrument, however useful. The shades of gray between good and bad, helpful and hurtful, opportunity and risk are lost. We react to the world more than think about it.

Do your assumptions about life work for you? Not always, I suspect, even if your choices don’t imperil you in the short run. Some conceptual mistakes are so automatic we don’t recognize they are causing us trouble.

Here are several routine, instinctive and ingrained ways of thinking. You probably have heard friends say one or more of these statements. Can you identify yourself in any of them?

  • I avoid looking back. You don’t get anywhere if you do.
  • I never do anything until I’m sure it’s the right decision.
  • My religion is the only true one.
  • All religion is stupid.
  • Atheism is no way to raise a moral child.
  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • Better to be safe than sorry.
  • No risk, no reward.
  • My political party has a monopoly on virtue.
  • All politicians are corrupt.
  • I am entitled to a good life.
  • Material things are worth a lot more than having interesting experiences.
  • A person of principal should never compromise.
  • That won’t happen to me.
  • Things are always happening to me. I have terrible luck.
  • I’m perfectly OK just as I am. I don’t need to change a thing.
  • I succeeded almost entirely due to my own talent and effort.
  • I am rational, not emotional.
  • I’m well-enough informed by watching news and catching stories on the internet.
  • I’m a good person.
  • I’m an excellent driver.
  • Thinking about death is a waste of time.
  • Multi-tasking doesn’t reduce my speed or efficiency.
  • People tend to get what they deserve.
  • When I find love I will be forever happy.
  • When I get to the top I will be fulfilled.
  • Children are the key to happiness.
  • I don’t need any friends.

256px--Don't_Let_That_Big_Idea_Get_Away^_Write_it_Down_on_a_Suggestion_Blank.-_-_NARA_-_514156

Let’s look at just one: I succeeded almost entirely due to my own talent and effort.

I might say that statement is true about my life. The reason I don’t is the following:

I was born in the richest country in the world at a time when education was cheaper than it is today, social mobility greater, and scholarship support more available. I was most fortunate in this accident of timing. Decisions made by my grandparents to leave Eastern Europe set me up for success. Indeed, had they stayed in those countries it is possible they might have died in the course of wars, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, genocide. Their decision to emigrate could have saved their lives and certainly permitted mine.

My lower-middle class parents encouraged education. My father was a good model of a person who lived a decent life. He gave everything he had to avoid a repeat of the economic hardship of the Great Depression. I knew there would be little family money for college so I worked hard. I can remember a few times when I narrowly avoided severe accidents. One day on an elevated-train ride a bullet passed through the car within inches of my head. On another, in graduate school, I got off at the wrong subway stop and walked through a notorious Chicago neighborhood without incident. I received a deferment from military service during the Vietnam War. Trust me, soldiering wasn’t in me. I would not have survived Survivor. I had much support from teachers. Others opened doors for me and I acquired the good sense to walk through them. The mistakes I made were either forgiven or not damaging to my prospects. My wife supported me when the times seemed dark and offered love beyond deserving. Although my parents and their generation are gone, all but one of my closest friends are still living. My children were born healthy.

I have had a lucky life. Yes, I could make the other argument. I will take credit only for cleverness, industry, and for recognizing I needed to change even when I didn’t welcome change. But if I told you I was a self-made man I’d be ignoring all the others whose finger prints are all over whatever good I’ve done in the world.

I’ll leave it to you to calculate what unfortunate consequences follow when a person takes credit for too great a superiority over his fellow citizen. Indeed, we have a few examples in the public square if your imagination fails you.

Regular readers probably expect me now to expand on the other errors of thinking within the list above. I certainly could. I’ve been guilty of several in the catalogue and at least as many off. Nor am I done altering my take on how to approach the act of living.

Assembling enough of the wrong ideas into a life-plan is like building a skyscraper on an earthquake fault line without knowing it. Imagine what happens when the earth starts to move.

The bullet-pointed items are not subtle. Each one is black and white. Some lack evidence or have been disproven. Futility of utility has been demonstrated for a number of the statements. Use them at your own risk. Your insurance salesman will not sell you a policy for poor judgment.

Therapy usually addresses behaviors that aren’t working well, emotions in need of comfort, self-esteem enhancement, grief, and the like. Too few therapists, in my judgment, encourage  evaluation of everyday beliefs that contribute to our own undoing. Perhaps it is because the most urgent matters must be considered first. The patient, however, is in trouble if he leaves therapy with the same worldview with which he entered. Feeling better is not enough.

Simply put, if you are to change you might consider scrutinizing the assumptions you make reflexively. There is always something new to learn about yourself and life.

Was the last sentence blunt, too black and white?

No.

That statement is one of the few things about which I am sure.

The top image is called sky sun sunset cloud creative by Svin4821. The 1940 poster comes from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

In the Land of Those Who Dare Not Speak: A New Year’s Parable

512px-1green_doors_(8180285426)

Imagine you stand in a courtyard, four doors equidistant from you. One leads — you hope — to some version of material prosperity: stacks of crisp greenbacks, luxury, titles, accomplishments. Are they more than you need or what you desperately need?

Behind door number two resides jealousy. Here is the personal storehouse of unfulfilled wishes. A worker stands with a brush. He paints everything with the green of envy. No objects inhabit the place, only the ideas with which you fill your head, catalogued for your review: the kind of marriage of this one, the beauty of that one, the genius and happiness of another. To enter you must speak the language of complaint.

A third portal stands in the shadows: the door of the undeserving. Those who step through believe they lack the right to speak of suffering. They’ve been told their life is good. All their externals are properly arranged. They present the world an outward show of seeming to be what is expected. Acquaintances recognize little else, but the soul knows a deeper truth. Here is a library of unexpressed grief, pages beyond counting. The books are sealed and unread. Like all libraries, no sound is permitted. The residents of this prison open their mouths as if to talk, turn around, expect someone to judge them ungrateful for what they have, and leave the pain unspoken. Theirs is the green of nausea, the self-imposed invalidation of a corked bottle filled with tears not meant to stay inside.

Beyond the final door a barren landscape stretches to the horizon. Everything is brown and gray, like a snowless, unformed winter’s day. You spy something new: tinges of green — a few mini-shoots, the color of possibilities. What could grow there? The things you can’t see, not yet, but just might increase if offered a chance — by you and circumstance.

You recognize something shiny among the shoots: the large shard of a broken mirror. The silvered glass looks back at you. And then you realize you are a thing that might grow, enhance. Still, this place is the hardest, least sure.

Four doors. Which will you choose? Or will you wait, decide not, hesitate?

The photo is call 1green doors by psyberartist. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.