A Question of Values: Matching Our Words and Our Deeds

When I think of the relationship between what we say and what we do, I’m led to creating three lists.

The first includes what you value. Many would include the following:

  • The people you love, including children and grandchildren.
  • Good friends.
  • The country in which one resides.
  • The survival of the planet.
  • A republican form of democracy such as the one described in the Constitution of the United States.
  • God, the highest value if your faith is strong.
  • Kindness to your fellow man.

The above list doesn’t detail every worthwhile principle. I’m assuming you’d create a different set of precepts. I might, too.

The second tabulation should enumerate the actions proving what you just stated as the guidance you use in your life. For example, if you claim to treasure your kids, draw up the best evidence of your behavior in raising them.

This catalog will be longer than the first one because of the descriptions required.

Spend more time creating the third tally than the first two. Take the role of a prosecuting attorney.

Such legal practitioners would attempt to point out the shortcomings in your view of your life. The patterns counter to the doctrines you professed in List #1 will be judged.

All the rationalizations and denials — all the forgotten misdeeds — challenge how you describe yourself by displaying a more objective reality.

If my life were subjected to such a trial, I’d say one thing alone: “Oh, no!”

Imagine someone who declared the importance of love for their kids and grandkids and preserving the world against climate change.

The prosecution might ask:

  • Why don’t you donate to not-for-profit organizations defending against floods, fires, melting glaciers, and global warming?
  • Have you volunteered to work for them?
  • How much of your money is spent on non-essential purchases better used elsewhere?
  • Why don’t you reduce your fossil-fuel footprint by using public transportation or buy an electric or hybrid vehicle instead of the full-gasoline-powered tank you drive?
  • Why do you take frequent vacations in jet airplanes, adding more carbon to the air?
  • Have you given any thought to how the next generations, the ones you love, will fare due to your inaction or action?

OK, enough. You get the idea.

None of us are pure, including me. No one is free of hypocrisy. Who among us matches every deed with his words?

All I’m saying is this: look in the mirror occasionally. Evaluate the difference between the person you believe you are and the one you really are.

I’m not suggesting you are bad, I’m not insisting you should give away all your clothes or begin a starvation diet, but we all need to do better.

You might even feel happier about yourself if you do.

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The top painting is Woman at the Mirror by Georges Braque. It is sourced from WikiArt.org/

A Checklist For Change

Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens)

If you meet someone not seen in 20 years, only to discover he is unchanged, you might ask

Why not? Shouldn’t he have been altered by time and experience?

Unless your old friend has been “on ice” — freeze-dried, flash-frozen, cryogenically preserved — isn’t change a reasonable expectation?

The writer Mark Twain thought so. He saw the long-gone youthful version of himself in need of lots of revision:

Ignorance, intolerance, egotism, self-assertion, opaque perception, dense and pitiful chuckleheadedness — and an almost pathetic unconsciousness of it all, that is what I was at 19 and 20.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as self-observing and motivated to reshape himself as was Twain. According to Edward Young in Love of Fame:

At 30 man suspects himself a fool;
knows it at 40, and reforms his plan;
At 50 chides his infamous delay,
Pushes his prudent purpose to resolve;
In all his magnanimity of thought
Resolves; and re-resolves; then dies the same.

The 19th-century writer Robert Louis Stevenson was less amusing and more scornful on the same subject:

To hold the same views at 40 as we held at 20 is to have been stupefied for a score of years, and take rank, not as a prophet, but as an unteachable brat, well birched (spanked) but none the wiser.

It is as if a ship’s captain should sail to India from the Port of London; and having brought a chart (map) of the Thames (River) on deck at his first setting out, should obstinately use no other for the whole voyage.”

What follows is a short (and incomplete) checklist of areas of personality or behavior that might be expected to alter during adult life.

The Thing You Cannot Do. Let’s start with something different for each person.

Late in her long life, Eleanor Roosevelt was asked what guidance she might give to the people listening to her on the radio. She said,

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

Indeed there is no better or more crucial potential area of change than whatever the “thing” is for you. What is it that is too hard, too scary?

Only you know the answer.

Physical Activity. “Use it or lose it.” T.S Elliot put it in a few more words —

The years between 50 and 70 are the hardest. You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.

Don’t let your bodily capacities go without a fight. Concede only what age requires, not more.

Interests. Do you read only the same types of books, listen only to the same music, engage in the identical hobbies of your youth? Some people keep learning, exploring, and investigating new things. They say that it keeps them young.

Beware of retirement without friendships and other interests to fill your former workday. Those who lack such things are often miserable. One is well advised to diversify one’s investments in activities and people, not just a financial portfolio.

Appearances. Ecclesiastes tells us “all is vanity.” That portion of the Bible reminds us that much of what we value has no real meaning or purpose. Thus, perhaps your attitude toward the “appearance” of things, whether it be a dress or your residence, might be subject to modification as you age.

The wise man or woman recognizes what is worth esteem and dismisses many contrary opinions of others.

Material Things. To continue the point just made, no one gets out alive. In the end, you leave life with as little as you had when you arrived. Nonetheless, some become more covetous, continuing to shop and buy in an apparent effort to outlast their possessions.

In contrast, others care less for “things” and disencumbered themselves, including giving their money away.

Self-Assertion/Anger. One might hope to learn diplomacy, be more direct, enlarge the capacity to stand up for oneself, and reduce sarcasm, not to mention outbursts and a desire for vengeance.

Food. Do you eat only what your mother made for you? Other things might be delicious. Do you dine the same way you did growing up or moderate your appetite and control salt intake?

Time. Most people become more mindful of time’s passage as they age, sensing its increased velocity with less of the race track of time ahead. Robert Southey wrote,

Live as long as you may; the first twenty years are the longest half of your life!.

If this notion doesn’t alter how you use the fleeting moment — cause you to employ it wisely — you are not paying attention to a basic fact of human existence. For example, famous musicians (Artur Schnabel, Carlo Maria Giulini, and Bruno Walter) narrowed their repertoire as they aged. They wished to concentrate on the music most meaningful to them, knowing the day was short.

Sex. Biology and age dictate some changes in this department.

Plato applauded the reduction of passion in older men. He believed they were not as much the plaything of emotions as those in the burst of early manhood. Rationality was thereby increased in his view.

An old joke about intercourse and marriage goes something like this. If you put a penny in a jar for every time you have sex in the first year of a permanent relationship and take one out for every time after that, you will never empty the container!

Money. If you know someone who lived through the “Great Depression,” you may realize traumatic events can generate long-lasting effects. Many of those who survived a decade of 25% unemployment remained very careful about spending.

On the other side are those who spend without regard to the possibility they might need it for a rainy day or their child’s education.

Ambition. Most of what is excellent in the world, and too much of what isn’t, is due to ambition. I’m speaking of blind and belligerent ambition in the latter case.

This quality tends to swallow younger selves, but some of the power-hungry are only chronologically mature, to humanity’s misfortune. Here are thoughts from Colin Davis, a 38-year-old symphony conductor when he offered them:

I think that to so many what happens (as we age) is the death of ambition in the conventional sense. The great driving motor that prods you and exasperates you and brings out the worst qualities in you for about 20 years is beginning to be a bit moth-eaten and tired.

I find that I’m altogether much quieter, I think; I don’t love music any less; but there’s not the excess of energy that I used to spend in enthusiasm and in intoxication (with it). I feel much freer than I’ve ever been in my life.

Friendship. Besides freedom from physical pain and financial instability, little produces mature life satisfaction as much as friendship. Many realize this as they age and come to value fraternity and intimacy more.

Appreciation. Some of us see the downside of life, others the upside. The unlucky may have good reason to be unhappy.

Unhappiness can also be found in how an individual perceives the world. His lived reality may not be much worse than the norm. As the losses pile up later in life, we do well to nourish our sense of gratitude.

Being Like Your Parents. Just about everyone tries to make sure they imitate only their parents’ good characteristics, leaving the rest behind. The act of disencumbering ourselves of this unwanted baggage is the job of a lifetime if one is honest.

Robert Lowell described its difficulty in “Middle Age” from For the Union Dead:

At forty-five,
what next, what next?
At every corner,
I meet my Father,
my age, still alive.

A sobering thought. But then, much depends on cherry-picking the best of your parents.

No time to lose. Or, perhaps you needn’t make haste.

I guess it all hinges on what you think about the need to change.

But trust me, you do need to.

So do we all.

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The top photo is of Mark Twain.

The Benefit of Feeling Gratitude toward People You Never Knew

Here is a question for you:What inventions have most impacted your everyday life?

The thought of this reminded me of the emotional boost received by displaying gratitude. Usually, however, we don’t think of the debt we owe to strangers — those inventors who became historical figures.

The truth is, all of us profit beyond the possibility of knowing or listing every benefactor.

For myself, I’d give a shout-out to Thomas Edison, the fellow who created the “talking machine.Without it, I might not have fallen in love with classical music from listening to recordings at a friend’s house at 16.

There were no musicians in my family, no suggestion of taking up an instrument. My folks owned one small radio for listening to news or sporting events. Yet, because of Edison and my buddy, I lucked out.

Another impactful invention was the practical typewriter and its successor, the word processor. Thus, I must type the names of Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Rob Barnaby, respectively.

Why the machines they created?

The only educational advice I received from my parents, beyond their wish I attend college, came from my dad.

Take typing in high school,” he said, a skill now called keyboarding.

Though I didn’t become a high-speed typist, I used the device to compose published research in psychology, well over two thousand psychological reports, and newspaper articles on music and baseball.
 
As you know, blogs too.
 
 
If you think of who you owe appreciation to and you’re my age, perhaps you shall come up with Jonas Salk, the inventor of the first polio vaccine, and Albert Bruce Sabin, who gave us its replacement, an oral version. I knew people felled by the affliction, an ever-present terror in every community when I was a boy.

We ride highways uncelebrated others built, and unsung legislators voted to fund. The list of things and people who deserve our thanks, some of them living, is an endless one.

Suppose you had strep throat as a child. In that case, you might not recognize that without the 20th century’s arrival of antibiotics, you may have died, along with your children and grandchildren’s possibility of existence. 

We are all, in some fashion, statistical lives at best. Does anyone know Salk or Sabine saved him? Many without the vaccine didn’t get sick. It is hard to be grateful for the avoidance of disaster when millions of others also escaped it.
 
We, too, are just as nameless to our many beneficiaries as those distant or departed benefactors are to us. Nor do most of us know the names of our brave family members of several generations back who worked to enable better lives for those who would succeed them.

We are the ones who didn’t get a disease prevented by the genius and dedication of others. We are the ones who drive cars we weren’t the first to imagine, use recipes of ingenious chefs, and drink clean water — if we are lucky and because we are lucky. 
 
Nor did the videos we enjoy emerge out of the air or the superb images created by the finest photographers and other visual artists. Did you invent the first computer?
 
We are not self-made. Instead, we are the people who too often take for granted all the things done for us even before we arrived on the planet. I mean you no disrespect. I do this, too, and it comes to us without thinking.

The average man in the industrialized world of 1900 lived about 50 years. You will probably live longer because of some of those in the history books.

In a world of too many harms, I hope you find a moment to remind yourself of the other side of the equation — those who helped you without awareness of your presence.

They can do you one more favor now:  think of them and speak to their memory a quiet, “Thank you.
 
———–
 
The two images offered above are courtesy of Laura Hedien, a magnificent and generous artist/photographer: Laura Hedien Official Website.
 
The first is an Arizona Sunset, South of Tucson, in Late July 2020. The second is an Alaska Road Sign, 2021.

The Ups and Downs of Thinking Like a Therapist

Therapists possess a “hidden” talent, but one with a downside. Their peculiar way of looking at the world creates an occupational hazard: the “gift” widens our difference from those whose approach to life is more matter of fact.

This strange flair enabled me to do my work well. My profession included providing written opinions to colleagues who wished to better understand their patient’s psychological status and diagnosis. Others requested my services as an expert witness in civil lawsuits, which developed into a small portion of my practice.

A district court also chose me to help evaluate the State of Illinois Department of Mental Health. Of course, the capability of which I’m speaking served my clients too. Otherwise, I could not have fathomed who they were, why they lived in the manner they did, and how to calm their distress.

The “secret” is in the act of questioning — how a counselor thinks and ponders his excellences, limitations, and mistakes, not just those of others. Now, though retired, I ask myself even more about the information I encounter daily, the people I speak with, and the books I read. Though I no longer search for habitual patterns in the affairs of my clients, the phrase continues to describe my approach to analyzing conduct.

The authors who capture me do more than tell a story. They attempt to leave clues to their timeless vision of mortal creatures individually and in groups.

Like them, this tendency to search for such markers was part of the reason I became a clinical psychologist. We are something like archaeologists of the soul.

Perhaps the first question I wondered about as a boy was, “Why am I me?” That is, why did my sense of self, my emotions, and my internal identity reside within a particular body and not that of, say, my next-door neighbor?

Other than genetic and evolutionary reasons, I never came up with an answer. Nonetheless, this was the first “thoughtful” question of my life.

I hoped to explain the peopled planet to myself. I remain curious. All of you who read me are of interest to me as well.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, from the Bible’s Old Testament, the following line speaks to what I’m addressing, including the act of thinking like a therapist.

“For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”

This takes the reader to some dark places. When you ask lots of questions, you see things about creation you might not be happy to face.

Even so, if you don’t figure out how to see in the darkness, you will block understanding yourself and quite a few of those you meet.

Psychological night vision enables other skills: finding opportunities in troublesome times, spotting pitfalls before you fall into them, admitting weaknesses you ought to master, and discovering a way to assist others and help make the world a better place.

Thus, it is necessary to interrogate yourself since you are the only chap you control.

We all are prone to tendencies quite different from the kind of scrutiny I’m describing. Most of us prefer simple answers and wear metaphorical sunglasses to shield ourselves from mankind’s darkness as much as we can. The way we try to determine if someone — let’s call him Person A — is good or bad provides an example.

Your solution to the dilemma of classifying Person A depends on how you define the sinful/saintly divide and, significantly, under what conditions you think the individual is good or bad. Say, in the cafeteria, in the bedroom, at work, or raising his children.

Since we lack access to much more than what A tells us, what others tell us about him, and receive no 24-hour video surveillance of the poor guy, we usually take the incomplete data we have and assume the bloke displays consistency in every circumstance.

Psychologists recognize this isn’t so.

Few folks want to see the shady side of those about whom they care. And we tend to dismiss kindnesses in those we dislike. Thus, we form simple, unitary opinions: A or B, good or bad. Questioning, for me, attempts to take a deeper look. We are more complicated than any superficial examination reveals.

It is easier to come to judgments about others than reflect upon why they are the way they are and in which situations they are different from their usual manner of self-presentation. As suggested, no one is constant — just one thing — always the same no matter the circumstances.

Still, we mostly get a glimpse of what is obvious.

The Stoic philosophers knew better than the simplifiers. They emphasized that no one achieves awareness of himself until he has been tested, if then. The trials they referred to include various temptations, dangers, moments demanding moral or physical courage, and how we respond to calamity. What you do then, not what you think you would do, defines your character.

In case you wonder, I got a passing grade on a number of these tests and failed others. So I’d like to believe. Ha! But — and I emphasize this — a better judge always must be a lady or gentleman at the head of the courtroom, not the one on trial. We forgive our lapses with disturbing frequency.

Much of the human world lives in a rationalized daydream of moral innocence. People believe they would survive unstained in situations they’ve never encountered and praise their purity without supporting evidence.

On the other hand, determining and criticizing someone else’s compromised or imperfect nature comes easily. Moreover, we do need societal judging, without which there would be full-time chaos.

However much judging is required in the world, one should take care since those who cover the mirrors in their own home almost make a profession of pointing fingers.

The kind of questioning I usually engage in nearly 75 years in the making. I imagine the process will continue to develop. It involves less categorical judgment than previous versions in my three-quarters of a century among all of you and those I knew who came before and left before me.

In describing a life of questions, I’m not recommending the practice as necessary or wise for all. The tendency to do so has chosen me in the God-given nature with which I was thrown into the world and the early life unique to me. I have merely decided to exercise and refine the process.

The skill is also the property of most therapists to an uncommon degree compared to those who make a living in other work. Nor would I recommend it to anyone much younger.

Young people are better off taking life as it comes, enjoying and learning from their initiation into adulthood. To make questions useful, the art of examination must be based on sufficient experience and knowledge of humanity.

We require the many encounters we endure along the way. Surprises and disappointments that only come with “living it” provide essential information and awareness.

Studying from the mountain top or staying on guard, away from the numerous challenges of proceeding through time, leaves one with enormous blind spots. The only way anyone should take on a mountain ought to be on an expedition, if then.

Youth also is a time of passion built into the hormonal flood. While the biological flow can be trouble, it is the source of much joy if you are lucky enough. We discover so much without knowing it as we proceed through the thicket of all the rapid changes in a youthful body.

The “first times” shower and dazzle we poor souls, or should. They come with new schools, new friends, new environments, new loves, and alterations to the world around us.

It is not a time for standing from an objective place outside of and distant from experience, a marginalizing choice. I realize this from having taken such stances early, though fortunately, I decided to enter the fray of existence because I realized I needed to reshape myself.

In his poem “The Archaic Torso of Apollo, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “You must change your life.” You, meaning each of us, in our never-ending response to the internal and external torrent in addition to the river of time’s usually gentler flow.

From the now distanced standpoint of recognizing there is more time behind than ahead, I also increasingly put my ego aside. When trying to investigate something, beginning with the unconscious intention of defending your ideas, you reduce the chance of rearranging beliefs and learning new lessons.

This position requires humility, a stance from which you realize, “I do not know everything, and I’ve not had every sort of life experience.”

I am enlarged by conversations in which I listen to the answers I am getting to my questions and what others ask or tell me. From this perspective, in the best cases, I learn more and am enriched by human contact and knowledge.

When the encounter works, as I hope it does some of the time (whether reading a great novel or speaking with someone who will engage me with fresh notions and reflections), I consider myself lucky and sometimes become a better person. That is, I intend to.

Another way I’ve grown is the result of looking at those occasions when I was unkind.

For a therapist, there is some overlap between performing your vocation and the position you take as a private conversation partner, at least for me. One needs to remember who this person is, their sensitivities, what might prompt their discomfort, etc.

The individual’s reactions also raise the prospect of questioning him (and yourself) about the state of play between the two of you and whether he desires something different from you. The word “play” needs to be taken in two ways. First, as the playing field of life and second, as a space offering the freedom to enjoy the other — with a watchful eye for the emergence of friction or animosity.

For those personal and therapeutic relationships not going well, it is appropriate to consider whether the conceptualization you’ve created of this individual is erroneous.

Did you miss something? What? And how does this insight revise or complete your picture of him? Importantly, does this knowledge lead to changes in your words and actions in the future? You are always doing this in performing your job, less often with friends and acquaintances.

Since retiring, the questions I repeatedly focus on include the larger human dilemma and the pattern of history leading everyone to this moment. I wish to find out what those I’m close to, and the great minds of history think about this remarkable thing on loan to us, which we call life. Also, how they, the living souls I love, understand themselves.

I reflect on my life, look back at a few regrets, and try to adjust to a world and a physical self in flux, moving in the challenging direction we all come to do with age.

An old friend once emphasized the importance of asking “the second question.” Here is another way of describing the process in which I engage. Most people don’t do this. The common spontaneous expression “That makes sense” too often stops the evaluation without considering alternatives. As the old saying tells us, “Common sense isn’t so common.” You might be surprised by what happens if you ask “the second question” or even a few more.

Some people are made uncomfortable by the questioning. Even those more open should not feel like you are putting them on a witness stand of confrontation, indifferent to the tender spots they try to hide. I’d venture very many members of the human race set aside the task of self-reflection, confident they already understand themselves.

An acquaintance of many years recently told me he was free of regret about his life and was at a loss to remember any significant injuries he did to others. I suppose I’d say he hasn’t reflected enough, but he is a happy man.

Perhaps wisdom lies in his approach if the goal of life is happiness instead of self-awareness and becoming the best self one can be. Certainly, we all want the joy.

As to where to discover the wisdom, that’s a question for you, too.

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Above are four examples of Mark Rothko’s work in an art form called Abstract Expressionism. All are untitled, except for names that refer to the colors employed. The top 1963 painting derives from the Smithsonian Institute. Next comes Purple, White, and Red  (1953), then works from 1967 and 1969. The last three can be found in the Art Institute of Chicago.

 

Can You Hear the Loss of Silence?

It was a day in the summer-like early autumn. The morning sun of the backyard sent me an invitation to step outside. Sometimes I meditate there instead of reading. But a “nothing” that was “something” arrested my attention.

Silence.

The once commonplace ambiance startled me. Daytime silence has become a strange occurrence.

Living in Chicago as a child of the ’50s, silence created the background for the first daylight hours. My family lived on a side street in the West Rogers Park area. Talman Avenue led nowhere in particular, nowhere of importance.  Cars parked on either side of the single lane, one-way thoroughfare. Little traffic passed through.

Their movement wasn’t rapid, and horns remained muted most of the time. Bicycles traveled on the sidewalk only, but we didn’t need them to walk to school. Most kids came home from Jamieson elementary school for lunch. Nor did the small shops in the area require automobiles to get to work or visit. Buses did the job your feet didn’t, along with their connections to more distant elevated trains if needed.

Libraries were still, too. We respected the librarian’s unstated role as a pseudo police officer. Conversation didn’t occur unless you needed help to find a book. The dear lady in charge enforced the atmosphere by her presence and the readers’ ingrained discipline. The woman ruled but not as a ruler.

Jet aircraft rarely flew overhead. A plane flight was unusual. I didn’t take one until college, by then on a jet.

Propeller planes moved in discrete slow motion and one at a time, so it seemed. Only skywriters, a dying method of advertising, claimed exceptional attention.

The neighborhood offered modest two-flat residences and newer single-family homes, though not many of these.

Lawnmowers depended on boys and men muscling up to the task of pushing and pulling. Winter in the neighborhood insisted on snow shovels, no plows or blowers.

No one thought these conditions exceptional. It was the way we lived, and nothing about that mode of living changed until after I finished 12th grade, maybe later.

Of course, on the recent day I mentioned, birds engaged in conversations and announcements. No electric or gas-powered mowers did their dirty work of beautification. Trains couldn’t be heard in the distance, though a low-pitched drone of human movement came from a few blocks away and its four-lane street.

Skyscraping jets sped elsewhere, not overhead. I tried not to think about any of this and enjoyed the tranquility while it lasted.

Ah, but the moment disappeared too soon. Employees of multiple lawn services disturbed my reverie, making a simultaneous assault with riding mowers as their weapons. The O’Hare airport flight path altered too, with the up top passenger travel bringing war between the grasscutters and the skywaymen to dominate everyone’s ears.

All this is common in a summertime town 26 miles from Chicago and 18 miles from the airfield. They call it progress.

I left the yard for the quieter inside, an artificial thing but better than the punishment.

I realize more distant places are quieter most of the time. Moving to such spots, of course, brings losses too. Many restaurants, theaters, and museums exist only in imposing cities. The distance from my children, grandchildren, and friends would establish a further cost.

I sometimes think about those much younger than I am, those in a metropolis which never allowed any period of prolonged outdoor quiet except perhaps at night, if they were lucky. Nor did the inhabitants enjoy the once blue and true everyday sky. They don’t know what they missed.

When walking in any heavily trafficked, citified downtown, one notices young people wearing headsets or earbuds. These luxuries keep external noises out by topping them, superimposing voices to outshout twenty-first-century loudness with sounds more pleasing.

I imagine there would be no persuading the youthful ones of what has disappeared, that is, creating my emotional response to a vanished time. One day, however, those kids will make hearing aid manufacturers rich. Then they will know something similar.

For recognition of a change, one must watch and listen for the incremental theft. Like all the things we lose, the loss is informative of the person’s value, environment, opportunity, or freedom one used to have.

Youth and beauty are like that: temporary. What is customary is taken for granted. A shame we must learn this way.

I sometimes wonder if the silence fled with the honeybees, monarch butterflies, and houseflies. Weren’t they supposed to say thank you and shake my hand first? Rudeness, I guess.

Keep your eyes and ears open, then. Life is a precious thing with no guarantee of a second chance. You can think of what I’ve said as a dark perspective, but I hope you focus on what remains in the world, the better to enjoy and save all that is marvelous.

Make the most of all your senses and your possibilities. Keep the world a habitable place, one that offers kindly invitations from the sun, the moon, and the stars; the wind in the trees, and the birds and the bees.

If you decline such invitations, you won’t continue to get invited to their party.

Reclaim the best of the world while disposing of the worst for yourself and others. Maybe that’s the meaning of life.

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All of the photos are those of Laura Hedien, with her generous permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

The first offers Butterflies at the Chicago Botanic Garden in September of 2020. Next comes a photo taken Outside Moab in September 2021. The last picture displays the Slot Canyons Enroute to Lake Powell.

Finding the Balance between Effort and Surrender

Wisdom turns up in unexpected places. Who said, “Life exists somewhere between effort and surrender”?

The legendary and still active 44-year-old quarterback in the National Football League, Tom Brady, might be the most recent.

Many discovered this before him, including Danielle Orner:

Life is a balance between what we can control and what we cannot. I am learning to live between effort and surrender.
I imagine the Buddhists came up with something similar long ago.

How does this apply to therapy?
 


The most distressed of my patients — the joyless ones — inhabited one end or the other. Those who took the effort to an extreme sometimes achieved material or professional success but almost always encountered repeated frustration to obtain it.

Their singular focus also entailed costs for marriage and family.

A number of these, usually men, tackled life as if on the playing field where the domination of the opposition demanded mastery. They viewed problems as a series of obstacles to be overcome to the point of relentlessness. Such individuals were formidable but not easy to live with.

Openness, they believed, revealed weakness.
 
Serenity lay beyond their reach, leading to treatment.
The ones who specialized in surrender gave in to fear out of a lack of confidence and a punishing history. The human beings they encountered fell into the category of potential deliverers of harm, a kind of enemy army. Intimacy and emotional risk lived in the same category.

The safest way of surviving, as they believed, was to trust no one. Pets frequently provided warmth people didn’t.
 
In each of these cases, the counselor’s job is to ask the patient the cost of their favored strategy. If they identify the price, treatment goes forward. A bumpier path lies ahead if the individual has not reflected on the downside.

More than a few continue to defend their preferred choice. They will, perhaps, encounter more emotional pain or disappointment before choosing to make necessary alterations in their style of living. They might require reflection upon why they decided to be the person they are. However, a clear decision might not have occurred since none of us know our motives in every detail.

Many of my clients found their approach to life as children or teens. The solution appeared as the best available choice for the circumstances of the time, place, and people who surrounded them. I’m speaking of parents, relatives, schoolmates, and teachers. Keeping your head down and avoiding attention developed into a necessity for survival.

Time and experience reveal less satisfaction in the course of their lives. To the extent they become aware of the limitations growing out of their existing style, a search begins to remedy their discontent.

The world had changed around them, and the behavioral choices of decades past came to provide less profit and more loss. It was as if the new tires they put on their human vehicle years ago became threadbare.

With enough pain, the motivation to seek a better way ahead emerges.
 
 
But what of the balance between effort and surrender? That idyllic place is a moving target. Always.

I once asked Rick Taft, who managed investments for a living, whether he believed the stock market would rise or fall. “It will fluctuate,” he said.
 
This is true for stocks and most everything else. Just as the weather changes, we retain no promise of health, happiness, wealth, or much else. But if we can stop depending on a smooth life course, we have taken the first step toward emotional balance.
 
Without a single, permanent, satisfying spot between effort and surrender, what then? Here are ten suggestions:
  • Take opportunities where and when they arise. Doors open, but not always more than once.
  • Recognize the only unchanging experience in life is change. You cannot freeze the planet or our bodies in place, as the climate reminds us. Learn to become a tightrope walker on a windy day.
  • You do not have to take every opportunity, but take more than are comfortable if your nature is hesitant. Pull back instead if those instincts tend to push you to jump without looking.
  • Life will unsettle you, as it does to all of us. Resolve to reach for joy in small things, lest the inevitable unfairness of some days wrecks your disposition.
  • No one thinks about you as much as you believe. Others spend too much time with a miniature version of themselves buzzing around their brains. The focus outside of themselves emerges less often, except in moments of outsized feelings like love, hate, and fear. Therefore, don’t worry endlessly about looking foolish and making mistakes, lest you recall embarrassment long after the crowd has moved on.
  • You’ll grow more if you do more and find some exhilaration in daunting moments, balanced or not.
  • Learn to meditate, beginning in a calm and quiet circumstance when possible. Daily practice centered on your breath (as the top video suggests) reduces your chance of being swept away by a stiff breeze or worse.
  • No one figures out their life. Few of us fully display our pain and confusion. Do not be fooled by appearances.
  • If you can find a tender and consoling hand, reach for it. If you see a needy soul, extend your own to them.
  • Smile and laugh. Most of our worries don’t become a reality, and among those that turn out as we feared, a remedy might be found with time and effort.

We live in transit — in a perpetual transition, no matter its static appearance. A man in a train moving at a steady pace has no sense of forward motion except when he looks out the window. An observer outside the train, however, wouldn’t be in doubt about the fellow’s progress.

With the above in mind, think of life as a series of alternatives. The midpoint between them should not always be your target:

    • Sleeping — waking.
    • Seriousness — laughter.
    • Learning — teaching.
    • Following — leading.
    • Being for yourself — being for others.
    • Head — heart.
    • Action — contemplation.
    • With people — alone.
    • Reading — writing.
    • Contemplation — spontaneity.
    • Being in the moment — being conscious of yourself.
    • Looking back — looking forward.
    • Listening — speaking.
    • Getting — spending.
    • Indoors — outdoors.
    • Accumulation of material things — reaching for experiences.
    • Assertion — passivity.
    • Diving in — waiting.

Are you disappointed I have not offered you a simple answer to this puzzle?

Sorry, I am too busy working it out for myself, searching for each day’s new balance!

———-

Beneath the top video are the following images, in order:

  1. An 1891 poster from Wikimedia Commons of Félicia Mallet by Jules Chéret.
  2. Tears of Blood  by Oswaldo Guayasami.
  3. An incredible view of Lake Misurina, Italy, from History Daily.
  4. The Example of One Choice Question, a screenshot simulation from the TV show Are You Smarter Than the Primary School Students? Taiwanese version. The picture’s author is 竹筍弟弟 (talk) from Wikimedia Commons.

    Prolonged Grief Disorder

    The permanent absence of a loved one can seem endless. The mornings are full of mourning and emptiness no amount of OJ or coffee or alcohol can fill.

    If the sadness appears to extend to infinity, therapists have a less poetic task. They must determine whether your extreme unhappiness fits the criteria for Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD). This diagnostic category is new, but the ailment is as old as human history.

    To start, here are some of the symptoms of PGD in the American Psychiatric Association’s September 23, 2021 press release describing the soon-to-be-published complete formulation. A prior draft indicated that at least three of the eight must be present for the diagnosis to apply:

    • Identity disruption (e.g., feeling as though part of oneself has died).
    • Marked sense of disbelief about the death.
    • Avoidance of reminders that the person is dead.
    • Intense emotional pain (e.g., anger, bitterness, sorrow) related to the death.
    • Difficulty moving on with life (e.g., problems engaging with friends, pursuing interests, planning for the future).
    • Emotional numbness.
    • Feeling that life is meaningless.
    • Intense loneliness (i.e., feeling alone or detached from others).

    They also state the following:

    The bereaved individual may experience intense longings for the deceased or preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased, or in children and adolescents, with the circumstances around the death.

    These grief reactions occur most of the day, nearly every day for at least a month. The individual experiences clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

    Moreover, the length of the condition goes beyond cultural norms.

    Experienced therapists know people are not so easy to categorize as labels suggest. Many times counselors encounter individuals with more than one psychological concern. For example, depression might be coupled with substance abuse or PTSD.

    In the case of forms of bereavement, many have questioned the appropriateness of putting an identifying sticker on an almost inevitable experience in life. Our time by itself has created nearly five million deaths from COVID-19 and a much larger number of their loving survivors.

    However, the APA emphasizes that Prolonged Grief Disorder goes farther than the normal grieving observed within one’s community. To the good, the health care field will help you take on your heartache and impairment, whatever name is given to it.

    The APA’s announcement and a publicly available 2020 draft do not mention causes of extended lamentation other than death. A few come to mind.

    We might include those who become caretakers to their radically changed lifelong partners, parents, or children. Transforming accidents, dementia, or lasting vegetative afflictions often create a world of joylessness in those who take on a job for which they did not apply.

    Calamity takes too many faces. Mortals needn’t die to cause dear ones the realization they are no longer interacting with the “same person.”

    While discussions about lengthy sorrows have been ongoing, the APA’s decision to recognize and define PGD can be expected to produce more words and productive research.

    Even now, if you find yourself among those suffering from unrelenting adversity of the kind suggested here, professional consultation is recommended to discover if you fall into the new category.

    Finding the best treatment options for PGD — something distinct from conditions like Major Depressive Disorder or Dysthymia — is a first step in the direction of recovery.

    Click here for an infographic on Prolonged Grief Disorder

    ==========

    The first of two works by the Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamin is called Spring. The second is Project for a Poster. Both of these date from 1956.

    Making Experience New: On Recapturing First Times

    The first time something happens is almost always extraordinary. At least, that is how we remember many early events. History is written upon our innocent, blank canvas with bold, colorful strokes.

    The young one unwraps the world of initial impressions with every sense he owns, but many of these encounters become familiar before the brain inks them into long-term memory.

    Thus, in a sense, some “first times” have already become routine by the time we are a bit older. We can’t remember the fullness of their original impact unless they carried drama, good or bad.

    These thoughts occur in response to a new “first time.” My astonishment is not uncommon among those who, like me, have just had cataract surgery.

    The operation has freshened my capacity to see color, its richness, clarity, depth, and glory.

    I feel as though I lived for years in Plato’s allegorical cave, a man who took shadows for reality. Turning toward the light I’ve missed, the rainbowed world carries enchantment.

    Cataracts created the gradual clouding of vision — a kind of dimness and a blurring of the visual world.

    Like most, my case progressed slowly, without a noticeable change at first, creeping along undercover. Only when the dulling of the sense of sight brought growing practical challenges did it necessitate surgery.

    The next several weeks of recovery should offer additional positive news about my perception. Were you in front of me, I might paraphrase the Big Bad Wolf’s comment to Red Riding Hood: “Ah, how much better it is to see you now, my dear.”

    Of course, this change demands lots of second looks at the world. Not even my wardrobe appears the same!

    Every artwork, natural and human beauty, flower, and aspect of the sun or moon provides either a fresh experience or a second chance at an old one as if it were the first. The opportunity to recreate a series of “beginnings” bowls me over.

    I must emphasize the word “create.” To a degree, each of us creates the view ahead, along with our personal expectation of safety, friendliness, or opportunity in our human encounters. What we glimpse and how we interpret it depends on us, at least in part.

    I do not know how long my amazement will last, but once the surgeon finishes another of these procedures, I will surrender to every sight my hazel orbs permit. Indeed, I’ve begun.

    Since we tend to get used to conditions, lasting impact is never guaranteed. Think of food. You might remember particular unrepeatable restaurant meals.

    The delight in a new taste or marvelous  preparation is hard to recapture. We recall first loves with the same difficulty of finding another similar emotional and sensory wallop.

    I am eager to fill the space between my eyelids with my children and grandkids — their skin tone, complexion, hue, and glowing smiles. Museums await me, as well. Mark Rothko’s work will be a priority destination.

    As the late comedian Norm McDonald said, “The only thing an old man can tell a young man is that it goes fast, real fast, and if you’re not careful, it’s too late.”

    His words remind you and me to recreate ourselves, erase a part of our canvas and renew our eager receptivity to the palette of natural and human brush strokes. To let the world impress itself on us as children do. To become, as Carlo Maria Giulini, the gifted conductor, described himself, “an enemy of routine.”

    If life represents a search, taking in the fullness of the road and its surroundings becomes essential to the journey.

    I am not too late to widen my scope. Indeed, the previous darkness of my eyes and the metaphorical evening of our present moment join to enlarge my gratitude and amazement.

    One caution, though. The next time I meet you, I might make you self-conscious for a second, no matter your gender or age.

    My eyes don’t intend this, nor do they wish to evaluate your appearance. Instead, to drink you in. Don’t worry. My soul-searching career is behind me.

    Like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, I may suggest we share a glass of wine and this toast: “Here’s looking at you, kid.” The person I embrace will be another first time, no matter how long I’ve known you.

    ======================

    The top image is A Sunset in North Dakota captured this June by the magnificent Laura Hedien, with her kind permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

    Next is A Woman in a Room by Pierre Bonnard from Wikiart.org/

    This is followed by Hot Air Balloon and Moon, © Tomas Castelazo,  www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0/

    The final artwork is Mark Rothko’s No. 3/No. 13, Magenta, Black, Green on Orange, also from Wikiart.org/

    A clip from the end of Casablanca with Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart completes the exhibition.

    On Adult Attachment to Children

    There is nothing like the wordless sadness of a beautiful face dear to you. I’m referring to the small, huggable, wide-eyed ones when overtaken by uncertain illness.

    “Mine!” is one of his favorite words, claiming property his bigger brother shows an interest in. The malady, however, offered nothing he wanted to keep.

    The upbeat mood of the smiling, sweet-as-chocolate cherub melts in a few minutes. Energy departs, spirit evaporates, words transmute into inexpressable discomfort. The flush of heat rises, but the body descends.

    The sick two-year-old loses his chatter.

    My youngest grandson does not reach for a hand — doesn’t lead you to a toy, or a place, or try to have you for himself instead of sharing you with his six-year-old brother.

    It must be tough to be a little fellow, hard to make your imperfect utterances understood.

    Now he wants the hugs only a mom and dad can supply — seeks their comfort and embrace, the safety he can’t describe.

    You watch this happen. COVID fertilizes your fear, growing like Jack’s speedy beanstalk. The concern is new, though other epochs had their own dangers — smallpox, polio, plague …

    The moppet slumps into slumber. You depart, but the precious person grips your heart, now shadowed by a cloud.

    The day passes. Your wife’s sleep is fitful.

    The golden boy holds the sorrowful power to instill worry.

    Daughter #2, his mother, sends a message early the next day.

    A long nap, his parents’ knowing, double-duty attention, food, and more sleep sweep the danger away. The tentative all-clear sounds.

    The news makes the sun shine brighter today. The superpowers of small children extend to the stars.

    Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.”

    What the writer didn’t say might have also been spoken about love. We are held fast by our loves, the closest friends, our offspring, and our grandkids, too.

    Those attachments can do far worse to us than the bit of concern we had that day. Much, much worse. Many near misses and joys await. Best not to borrow trouble.

    But this two-year-old deserves credit. His bounce-back brought the sky’s warmest blue. Only the dearest hearts inside you do this. He sprinkles fairy dust and doesn’t even know it.

    ==============

    The first photo dates from 1934 and was published in Modern Screen magazine in 1950. The two-year-old girl is Elizabeth Taylor, with her mother Sara Sothern and brother Howard.

    The second image was taken by Rita Martin and shows an unnamed child in 1912. Both of the photographs were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

    What Family Photos Tell Us

    I’d known since childhood. Mom told me her dad had been hospitalized with the Spanish Flu during World War I. Millions perished worldwide, 675,00 in the USA, not just the old but young adults in their prime.

    Like Leo Fabian.

    Grandpa.

    I didn’t think much about the averted calamity. The event hid behind my eyes while I focused on the world in front of them. Too bad I buried the idea of his medical confinement. I could have asked granddad before his much later, real burial rites.

    Eventually, a new thought pushed up for my consideration. If he’d died, my birth vanished with him. Jeanette Stein emerged in late 1918. Without Leo Fabian, no mom, no marriage between her and Milton Stein, no baby psychologist Gerry, no superman Eddie and champion bodybuilder Jack, my brothers.

    No Sam Fabian, either — my uncle and his three kids. No grandchildren at all.

    Long before my folks passed on, they gave me three large photo portraits. One of them showed Leo and Esther Fabian (my grandmother) with their first child, Aunt Nettie. Like all such images of the time, the posed picture was undated and formal — a no-smiles-permitted, dress-up occasion. These staged likenesses displayed dignity, pride, and status, along with severity.

    My imagination didn’t go far with the story of a family cut short. The brain inside me allowed minimal consideration of the image or its implications.

    Decades ago, I hung the thick wooden frame in my home office and became accustomed to the threesome watching me over my left shoulder. They look at me from 103 years of distance now.

    They were patient from the start, you might say. Waiting for me to discover their undivulged secret.

    At some point, I observed the front of my grandmother’s black skirt rising over her white blouse into a baby bump just below her diaphragm. Seen but not interpreted, not realized as carrying a contradiction in addition to a new life.

    Then it struck home.

    Leo Fabian, the surviving target of the pandemic, fathered a second child before his illness. Esther was pregnant. My mother’s appearance in the family play didn’t depend on her father’s survival.

    The perception of my history swiveled at the knowledge. What would have happened to Esther if she became a widowed mother in 1918 with two preschool children? A woman with limited English and no trade or training to make a living for herself and those young ones?

    Would she have found a way to cross the ocean back to Lithuania? How would the overseas clan have accommodated newcomers amidst the turmoil of the just-ended WWI? If they survived, would all of them then die in the Holocaust some 20 years ahead?

    Might one of her sisters, who also came to America with her, permitted the three to move in? Wait. One of them died young and left her own three children. The widower husband, Harry Kraft, married the remaining unmarried sibling. No guarantees of a safe harbor there.

    Might an orphanage have been the little girls’ fated destiny?

    Or maybe Esther, Nettie, and little Jeanette would have lucked out in an unimagined way.

    None of this is knowable. You might ask, though, why it took me so long to recognize the photographic evidence for what it was.

    In any case, from my perspective, Leo Fabian’s recovery from his illness was essential for mom’s romance with dad, probably even her meeting with him.

    Of course, some of you may believe fortuitous relationships are “meant to be.” It is comforting if life works out as you wish it; more disturbing if a guiding hand sends you in an unwanted direction.

    Many others, the author among them, believe chance plays a big factor in every past, present, and future.

    Or perhaps, along with some quantum physicists, you’ve decided that infinite versions of our lives are being lived at this moment, all simultaneously, all different. No less than Stephen Hawking thought so.

    In the end, no matter what you do with such thoughts, you are immersed in the one world we inhabit (even if it is a dream).

    Best to concentrate on staying afloat.

    A full-time job, for sure.

    ====================

    The first image is my mother, probably not long after her marriage to my dad in 1940.  Then, in succession, my Aunt Nettie when she was still the only child of Leo and Esther, Esther’s baby bump, Esther, and Leo. Other than the top photo, they all come from the early family portrait of the Fabians mentioned in this essay.