Bela Bartok’s Simple Philosophy of Life

pouring-light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bela Bartok, 1927

Bela Bartok, 1927

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there a better philosophy of living?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The bottom half of faces, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Music We Love and the Silence We Need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Insecurity Can Be Created and Overcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When a Therapy Patient Dies

She died last year. This lovely woman might be called a survivor, but her story deserves something more personal than slotting her in a category, no matter how fitting.

Call her Cassie. I met her in a psychiatric hospital. Not her first hospitalization, far from her last. A suicide attempt brought us together. The lady already owned a long and troubled history, one as middle-aged as she was. I’m talking about 35 years ago.

Once an amateur gymnast, as a youth she was fit, flexible, and energetic. Early photos captured an innocent Nordic beauty, as well. Just by her presence, Cassie must have been as fair and welcoming as the first birdsong in springtime.

Nothing in the woman I met suggested any of this. Like other sexual abuse victims, pounds became a bubble wrap to discourage those who might otherwise desire or terrorize her in search of chest-beating rapture and savage control. Now gray, her hair lacked its youthful golden hue, and the innocence remembered by the photos had been forgotten by her lined, questioning face.

—–

The hospital stay progressed. Apparent roots of her clinical depression extended to a male-dominated childhood, a bad marriage, and a ne’er do well, alcoholic adult son often in trouble. Cassie’s husband displayed passivity and incomprehension. Divorce followed.

—–

My efforts continued for a year before I received a call from a hysterical woman en route to murder her offspring within the hour.

Cassie didn’t sound like herself. Her voice turned unearthly; her tone transformed into that of an avenger of outsized energy and purpose, not the beaten-down creature I knew. My patient’s memories were disjointed, recent conversations erased. Cassie’s child, who’d been jailed for murder, had been released on a technicality.

Cassie intended personal correction of the law’s failure.

I talked her down, but the episode brought home a diagnosis everyone missed: Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), today called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). I’d long recognized this woman to be dissociative, but here was a new facet. From that day, treatment inched its way toward goals she would achieve many years later: integrating her system of alter-personalities and reaching depression’s end.

—–

In homes such as this courageous individual inhabited, families create a loving self-image. Parents cloak themselves in the garb of religiosity.

Cassie’s father died not long after her updated diagnosis. The news came during another hospital stay. A breakthrough followed when Cassie began to have nightmares of never reported sexual abuse. The death of her abuser freed her from enough of the fear of more violence to allow her to remember and speak of it.

—–

The mother denied any mistreatment. In her daughter’s presence, she met with us and declared her upstanding husband incapable of it. Yet Cassie recalled her mother seeing a glimpse of her father’s molestation and watched her turn away and depart instead of intervening.

The trauma ended after her tenth birthday. The family relocated to a new home in another state. Upon moving in, she immediately asked which room was hers and found a key in the door. She grabbed and hid the key. The world changed.

During one of her hospital stays, I walked with Cassie off-unit, on the facility’s ground floor for a reason lost to time. Nor do I recall what distracted me. By then, however, I trusted her enough to sit in the lobby while I talked with someone at the front desk. My back turned, she disappeared within a minute.

Rushing through the doors, I spotted her about a half-block away, running toward the main street ahead. The chase began.

Knee surgery was not yet in my foreseeable future, and Cassie’s vanished prime gave her no help. Calls to her went unheeded, but I caught the laboring woman by the arm. She put up no fight.

I’d never read the word “racing” on a psychologist’s job description. I’ve become a more careful reader since.

—–

Cassie’s troubled life left her without medical insurance on another occasion. By then, she’d had many visits to the hospital where I met her. I spoke with the facility’s administrator upon her admission. He agreed to forgive all charges for her stay, no matter its length. God bless you, Phil.

For a significant period of my patient’s lengthy treatment, I also worked with an insurance company nurse. She became like a visiting angel, helping to craft the therapy to include multiple weekly sessions beyond the company’s normal policy. Her employer gave permission. This enabled Cassie’s life to escape some of the disruptions caused by her hospital stays.

Hat’s off to those good samaritans, as well.

At some point, Cassie raised the question of God’s role. Once a faithful Catholic, she now accused an all-powerful, all-knowing Deity who witnessed her father forcing himself on her and who permitted this outrage to continue.

I suggested she speak with a priest, a wise and sensitive soul of my acquaintance. He offered her tenderness and asked her to consider the possibility her rage at God could also be understood as an act of prayer. My patient solidified her religious connection and held it until the end of her life.

—–

Though he never again murdered anyone, Cassie’s son continued a mischievous, substance abuser’s life. His mom told him she would cease contact until he’d been sober for a year. Much time passed, but he accomplished this, found steady and honorable employment, married, and produced a family. Cassie embraced this change and welcomed them all into her life with much gratitude.

—–

Cassie’s road to health never included interest in finding new love. She did have many dear friends, modest professional success, sustained work, and several outside interests. She once said perhaps the only way she could share her life with a man would be if he were both uninterested in sex and unable to be sexual. Psychotherapy often has its limits.

—–

This woman was the only person in my practice with whom I maintained contact from the end of treatment almost to her life’s completion. She would send me a holiday card once a year, and I would telephone her soon after. We both enjoyed the reconnection. The last time we spoke her memory was failing with speed. She died a few months later.

My heart was full at the news. This woman was a kind and determined person, not without an edge, but with an unexpected tenacity not evident when we met. All the memories I offer here pushed themselves to the top of my consciousness. It was my great good luck to have known this lady and others like her.

Adieux, Cassie. Here’s hoping you reside in a heaven made for the most remarkable among us.

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The “Please Touch Gently” photo comes from Marduw Quigmire. The Paessaggio sculpture, “A Helping Hand,” was photographed by Safiyyah Scoggins –PVissions1111. Last are “Fungi Located on a Log Near the Forest Floor” by Mfoelk13. All were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Therapeutic Value of Reading

 

If you have been socially-distanced into submission, as many have, you might be reading more than you once did. Have you turned to self-help books, more news articles, history, poetry, novels, or something else?

The decision depends on what your goal is.

Distraction is called for, at least some of the time. Understanding our politics provides another enticement, though “hair on fire” prose of questionable truth won’t find me turning the page. I salute take-home guides to personal problem solving unless they offer you an escape from changing your life by thinking about it alone.

One might categorize writing differently. Sometimes the language of long and short stories is therapeutic in itself. Virginia Woolf’s work comes to mind. Here is a bit from To the Lighthouse:

What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

The author’s reflections and her lovely way of expressing herself make me wish to know more. She takes me outside of my mind and back again to show me the inside. The author transports me. I am caught in the updraft of her sense and spirit.

Books can make one laugh, too, and good-natured humor at almost any moment has value.

For me, however, most of the time, I’m searching for a new idea, a way of thinking from a perspective I passed over. I don’t require a happy ending, just one I find believable.

I want my eyes to widen, an enlargement of my view of the world, my imagination inspired, my humanity extended. Yes, reading offers this help.

Take a quote from the late Christina Crosby, who wrote of her life after a paralyzing accident of endless residual pain:

In order to live on, I must actively forget the person I was. I am no longer what I once was — yet, come to think of it, neither are you. All of us who live on are not what we were, but are becoming, always becoming.

Yes, I want words like these, arranged to communicate insights just beyond my reach until I read them. I want Dr. Crosby’s eloquence and frankness, the greatness of spirit in her fortitude.

In the end, I want to learn more. I seek enlivenment. The way to this destination requires some amount of disquiet. How is discomfort therapeutic, you ask? Remember, psychotherapy creates a tolerable degree of discomfort, as well. We often must strain and extend ourselves to grow.

The literature for which I search might unsettle me. Do you wonder whether we should bring on more distress in the time of COVID-19?

Franz Kafka created my answer over 100 years ago:

I think we ought to read only the kinds of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.

The not yet world-renowned writer was then 20-years-old.

———-

The first painting is A Beauty Reading by Utagawa Kunisada. Next comes The Magdalen Reading by Rogier van der Weyden from the National Gallery, London. The photograph was done by luxfon.com/painting. Third in line is a photo of an Old Man Reading a Newspaper Early in the Morning at Bansantapur, Nepal by Bijay Chaurasia. All of these come from Wikimedia Commons.

The Solitary Task of the Therapy Client

If life is like reading a book, many of us come to therapy when the next page stops us. The white paper rises up and forbids progress.

For the moment, his will triumphs over ours. Forward motion feels beyond our strength.

We set the text aside, but it finds us and opens to the unchanged page, always to this page.

Our nemesis, for so we think of the volume in this way, shows up close by our fear of intimacy or self-assertion. The adversary lurks around the corner whenever we run from a challenge. In the bedroom, the tormentor waits for gloom to inhabit sleep.

The strange companion watches as we make our usual mistakes.

He is the silent manuscript resting on the empty barstool as we try to drink away our woes. You find him sitting beside the distraction of sex with someone we met ten minutes ago.

Infinite patience and stubbornness rank high in his list of qualities. He hangs around, offering us the subtle summons to advance the story.

He knows all the written words that came before. Nor does he tire of watching us repeat them in forms always a bit different, always the same.

It is the tale of our life, the journey so far.

Until we recognize the book as our past path, he will offer us his reminders. Perhaps, if the reader confronts whatever a new chapter might hold, the Monster shall begin to smile.

Wisdom tells him this part of the notebook remains unwritten.

Will the reader acknowledge this? Will he face the creature and perceive that the behemoth is a friend?

Only then might one look back at the title and see “The Autobiography of ___________.” The blank spot awaits a name. The virgin space of parchment offers itself to us.

Shall we take ownership of the only life we have? I mean the unwritten parts.

How many empty pages await, filled with possibility?

Pick up the pen.

Make haste.

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The top image is a 1915 self-portrait of Helene Schjerfbeck from the Finnish National Gallery. The second self-portrait is Egon Schiele’s work taken from the Leopold Museum of Vienna, thanks to Professor Mortel. Both were sourced from Wikimedia.org/

Consolation and Hope in a Challenging Time

On most days, I wouldn’t be quoting President Abraham Lincoln. At a different time, this atheist might not be looking for solace in scripture, though I am often comforted when I do.

Today I’m doing both and offering their consolation to you.

Lincoln, this country’s Civil War President, authorized a day of “national prayer and humiliation” in the midst of that war. His proclamation reads, in part:

I do … designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer. And I do hereby request all the People to abstain, on that day, from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite … in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.

Humiliation fits for this time, too, just after the storming of the Capitol. Fasting fits, as is expected on the annual Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Self-reflection is necessary. Humility and prayer create the appropriate attitude and mood for the occasion.

People are dying. Loneliness overwhelms many, poverty and joblessness terrify, sadness covers the homes and the hearts. Then came the mob.

Humiliation, indeed.

Yet, there is hope.

Lincoln’s leadership continued under even more challenging circumstances.

As the Civil War neared its end, the President offered these lines in closing his Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865. His message was one of reconciliation between opposing sides:

With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Abraham Lincoln knew our job is always to repair the world.

Reverend William Sloane Coffin, 100 years later, knew it, too. He offered this in prayer: 

Lord … Number us, we beseech Thee, in the ranks of those who went forth … longing only for those things for which Thee dost make us long, men for whom the complexity of issues only serves to renew their zeal to deal with them, men who allieviated pain by sharing it, and men who are always willing to risk something big for something good — so may we leave in the world a little more truth, a little more justice, and a little more beauty than would have been there had we not loved the world enough to quarrel with it for what it is not — but still could be. …

————

The top painting is called Woman at Prayer by Harry Wilson Watrous. Next comes The Morning Prayer by Ludwig Deutsch. The final image is the photo of a Nomad Prayer taken in an African desert, sometime between 1931 and 1936. The photographer was Kazimierz Nowak.

William Sloane Coffin’s prayer can be heard near the end of the award-winning radio collage/documentary created by Studs Terkel and Jim Unrath, Born to Live: https://beta.prx.org/stories/118275

Ten Lessons I Learned in 2020

I don’t have resolutions for the New Year, except to savor the tender moments and the beauties of the earth. Let me bathe in the snow and the rain, with the sun, the children, the grandkids, and woman in the moon. I want to take the people for whom I care and hold them close.

I’d put the sunny days and the loved ones in the fridge to preserve them as they are, but their warmth is what I seek.

Our loved ones are precious because they are temporary, as are we all.

Lessons:

1. To succeed in the job of appreciation, I must forget the thought of appreciation and embrace feelings alone.

The past year reminded us of the role of fate, fortune’s game of daily roulette.

2. “Normality” before the pandemic turned out to have been a piece of extraordinary luck. We showed our faces without thought. Kisses and hugs were commonplace. Custom required handshakes, congratulations, a pat on the back. Shoulders to cry on came without risk.

Now the delivery trucks throw heartbreak on our doorstep along with Amazon merchandise. The latter needs to be ordered; the former comes free of charge. The unwanted product cannot be refused, nor the unhappiness returned.

We will survive as our brave forebears did. Each of us is the beneficiary of their courage, wisdom, and ingenuity. No wonder the Chinese venerate ancestors, those survivors of war, famine, poverty, and discrimination.

3. Applaud them. Add the grocery personnel and the ballot counters, the grape pickers, and every person who works in a medical office or hospital, laboring past the time their eyes water and PTSD steals their joy.

4. Attend to the lonely. Do not mistake their quiet for well-being. As a bereaved woman says in Italo Svevo’s As a Man Grows Older, “The dead are dead, and comfort can only come from the living. We may wish it otherwise, but so it is. It is the living who have need of us.”

And we of them.

We’ve made mistakes. So long as we live, we can reach out, be kinder, and recognize our shared destiny as part of humanity’s brotherhood. And while showing forgiveness, don’t forget to forgive yourself.

The Bible, among other sacred books, speaks to our times:

I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.
Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come:
As fish are caught in a cruel net,
or birds are taken in a snare,
so people are trapped by evil times
that fall unexpectedly upon them.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 and 12.

Yet, nets are like the rest of the world: imperfect. Escapes occur. Our parents and those before them found a way. The ingenuity and effort of medical science worked its miracle this year. Hope still has a place.

What else did I learn from 2020?

5. Irrationality is both inevitable and evident in the mirror if I do not turn away. No matter, too many maintain the righteousness of their scrambled power to reason.

6. Recognizing a past decision as “the big mistake of my life” is an easy game to play, an impossible one to win. Yes, there are missed opportunities, words unspoken or misspoken, and lost friendships. But…

7. Remember this: when we look back, we do so from a changed perspective, toward a bygone moment and place in our lives. Wisdom teaches us no one is gifted with visionary prophecy. Forgiveness also extends to the self.

8. The decisions you made before today were those of a younger soul, fitting well or ill for the time and all the conditions preceding them. Learn from the past but don’t obsess over it.

9. I can reflect upon those errors that still, at a considerable distance, appear as errors. If mending is possible I will try.

10. For now, here is what I can do: make the best decisions befitting the time, my loved ones, and the circumstances of the present.

The day is short. I must seize the day before the day ceases. Fate waits for no one. Good or bad, he must be embraced, either to display my appreciation or to wrestle. This much is within my power.

————-

The record cover needs no introduction. I chose it for the title. The photos following it are of uncertain origin. As suggested by the calendar in the first of these, they appear to date from the middle of the twentieth century. The final piece of art comes with this explanation on Wikimedia Commons: “This image represents self-love in diversity. Its purpose is not just to help oneself but others. In order to accept and appreciate others, first we must love and accept ourselves.” The creator is Elawaltmarie.

The Things Unsaid

Wise words come from many places. Whether the pictured quote is Arabic, Chinese, or Mongolian in origin, Ted Chiang rephrased it this way:

Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.*

Since I’m not an archer or a time-traveler, I’ll take a crack at the first of these, the words we say or leave unsaid. Some prove necessary or useful when uttered. Others fall flat, pass unnoticed, or enlarge misunderstandings. Still more cause injury.

In contrast, thoughts upspoken might best remain inside oneself, the better to fade like a penciled note long exposed to the light.

Should at least a few of your unexpressed expressions be released from their internal exile? Could they build you into a person who must be taken into account instead of one whose desires remain unknown or dismissed?

What to do? I offer some less than perfect guidance. Anyone who says he always knows when to speak and when to keep silent is a wiser soul than I.

Become assertive enough to say what is essential.

If you endure persistent fear of harming another, you will converse little or turn expert in conversational trivialities alone. Many who dread causing injury doubt the worth of their opinions and their way with words, expecting rejection of the message or themselves.

Most of us have our own default settings, a baked-in tendency either to say things or keep silent on delicate subjects. Developing the capacity for direct speech shouldn’t be sidestepped in a world of voices ready to cut you off and talk over you. The courage to speak when others hesitate offers the opportunity to develop a commanding presence.

Unless you wish to invite anonymity, you must say to some segment of the world, “Here I am, deal with me.” By doing so, you claim a sense of yourself.

The ability to convey sensitive words face-to-face will, at least, give you a choice of whether and when to verbalize, rather than leaving you capable of silence alone.

Expect to fail.

No one engages in successful communication at every opportunity. Conversations falter more often than we’d like.

Within the past year, a friend told me I was the single person in his life who expressed difficult truths he needed to hear. When I asked his permission to comment on sensitive matters, he encouraged me. A complaint about himself from his work supervisor caused him to ask for my opinion.

The gentle fellow didn’t believe anyone in his group of family, friends, or parishioners would provide a frank answer to the workplace accusation involving his personal hygiene. He wanted to know whether I detected the problem. No one else could be trusted, he said.

“No,” was my response, “I notice nothing offensive.”

I do not doubt either his decency or the gratitude he offered on multiple occasions. Months later, however, I expressed an unrequested piece of advice, mild, I believed, concerning Coronavirus precautions. He became angry, not because of political differences. The relationship fractured though I did not trade barbs, no matter his earlier thanks.

I’m not suggesting on which side right or wrong fell in this formula for unhappiness. My point is these are complex matters, the results of which aren’t always predictable or desirable. Yet humans still must speak.

The danger of holding things in.

The weight of unexpressed emotion grows as our anger, sadness, and injury accumulate, piling up and piercing us like broken slabs of sidewalk. For those who continue to bear this distress, psychological collapse becomes a risk. Costly methods of coping take the pained individual in a destructive direction. These include substance abuse, endless self-distraction, and flight from much potential social contact.

In the worst cases, the silent suffering spills into depression or momentary but outsized rage. Small things tip the balance. Witnesses won’t know about the unmentioned insults leading to explosive dyscontrol.

Ironically, the one who quietly bore the painful injuries gets labeled as “the one with the problem.” When asked why they didn’t speak earlier, such patients told me they “couldn’t find the words” to convince the offending party of his error and injustice. Too many described them as too sensitive.


There are no guarantees with words. No alchemist or sorcerer provides aromatic potions of syllables capable of filling the air with just the right inflection, volume, rhythm, and order of nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Nor can we buy the perfect facial expression with which to deliver those sounds, the ideal amount of eye contact, an untrembling voice, and steadfast self-assurance. Stores sell no commodities to ease our most important and intimate communications, not even mask and costume shops.

One of the finest spontaneous public speakers I ever knew never mastered the art of saying the difficult things I’m describing. Occasional private verbal explosions resulted. Then his words lost the measure and eloquence his formal audiences heard.

Though none of us are at our best when internal passions bubble over, the need to recognize and reduce inappropriate anger is essential.

Self-expression can be more important than achieving understanding.

Some things need disclosure despite unlikely comprehension by the listener. You must stand up for yourself. The most dramatic examples from my practice came when newly decisive and brave abuse survivors confronted their abusers. Their triumph was in overcoming their fear. Whatever the words, their essence was this:

You won’t admit what you did, but you will never do that to me again. I won’t let you.

Conclusion.

Those of us who have forgiving friends or lovers are lucky. We receive acceptance and affection despite our less than stellar moments — the rash “spoken words” that “will not come back” among them. The survival of our relationships depends on our display of the consideration these kind hearts offer, recreating ourselves to become as forgiving as they are.

We live in a season of unusual sadness. Disease statistics tell us future opportunities to communicate with dear ones are not ensured. Endearments must not be postponed. The moment commends us to reach out to the estranged, including some of those we have injured or who have injured us.

Our intimacy and contentment depend on it.

—————

The last two images are the work of Laura Hedien, with her generous permission: https://twitter.com/lhedien

The first is of the Narrows at Zion National Park in December 2020. The second 2020 photo displays a Sunset in New Mexico.

* From The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang. Thanks to Phil Zawa for his introduction to this dazzling short story.