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

Are you the person you used to be?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honest–dishonest
Compassionate–indifferent

Leader–follower

Courageous–timid

Loyal–treacherous

Responsible–unreliable


Hard-working–lazy

Independent–dependent

Selfish–generous

Considerate–thoughtless

Self-confident–insecure

Humble–arrogant

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

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

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

Experience and chosen adaptations also remade opinions and behavior.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————–

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Strategy to Reduce Your Unhappiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happier, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

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

What I Have Learned Lately: Signs of Maturity

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

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

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

———

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

Prisoners of the Male Gaze: The Complications of Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——-

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

Should You Trust Your Gut?

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

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

Whoa.

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

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

PRO TRUST:

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

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

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

MAYBE, MAYBE NOT:

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

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

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

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

THE CONCLUSION:

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

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

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

  • an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable

  • an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is lots of research on this, too!

——————–

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

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

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

*Conditions for Intuitive Expertise: A Failure to Disagree

Surviving in a Moment of Helplessness and Closed Doors

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

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

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

The world is overweight with pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They also serve who only stand and wait.

—–

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

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

The Proper Attitude for the Moment

Few would argue the upside-down nature of the world. People ask me two questions:

How are you doing?

Will you help me understand what’s going on?

The second query reflects their desire to comprehend why people are behaving the way they are: masks or no masks, safety or freedom, vilifying folks who don’t agree with you, etc.

I’ll leave the answer to this for another time.

As to the first question, my younger grandson has the right idea. He is lucky in his possession of two loving parents, a (so far) affectionate older brother, and the appropriate attitude for our time.

His take on life is best reflected in one verbal and one nonverbal form of communication.

The verbal one is “Uh-oh,” which he offers with the perfect degree of clarity, inflection, and facial expression.

Put crudely, he recognizes we are in deep crapola.

His behavioral, nonverbal vantage point is evident from the picture above. I’m told he often takes this posture, though the photo is of a one-year-old girl. He is her age.

If the world is upside-down, so he appears to say, look between your legs with your eyes below your chin, and you’ve made it right-side up.

Were he 35-years-old or more, I think he’d make a terrific President. OK, an adult performing the stunt would shock people but, I think we are getting used to shocking strangeness in top-of-the food chain elected officials.

He’d fit right in and offer leadership by example superior to that which we often get.

Sometimes you have to laugh–all of us at every opportunity.

How I Discovered Girls

They’d been invisible before. Girls, I mean. Then something out of this world happened.

I began to notice them.

Females.

Aliens from another planet, yes, but charming ones previously distinguished only by dress and laughable athletic ability.

Now — not until now — did we all see each other for the first time, them and us.

We’d been told this might happen and viewed TV programs in which the strange awareness descended, like fairy dust, upon fictional young men. The event itself, however, existed somewhere in an absurd and distant future beyond contemplation.

All the pedestrian maidens became beguiling at once. They possessed an unfamiliar, magnetic quality absent the day before. Their presence mattered.

I can pinpoint the moment the world changed for me. It occurred in fifth grade at Minnie Mars Jamieson School, a bizarre name even in the ’50s.

Many of our teachers, antique past imagining and unmarried, betrayed no hint of sexuality. Curious, I asked my father how I came to be.

I planted the seed.

That’s a quote.

My brain buzzed. Dad’s farming background must have been a family secret.

The beginning of a real answer arrived in class when I discovered my eyes drawn to legs. Not any pair of lower limbs, but the appendages of Sharon M.

A day earlier I held an attitude of indifference to their attachment to a female body. They helped those creatures move, nothing more. The skirt-covered supports propped them up and hung down under their chairs as a necessary accessory for their feet, I supposed, if I considered the question at all.

Legs now sent other signals. Moreover, to my astonishment, I managed to decode the message without a magical incantation or a foreign language translator.

Sharon presented me with other fresh features if you count a cheeky gleam to which I was now awake. Nature endowed her with wavy, thick brown hair, an all-season, creamy almond complexion, and symmetrical, softly pleasing facial turns and twinkles that distinguished her from her friends.

When I looked (and I spent more time looking), my eyes perceived colors not present in the muddy, gray, khaki world of boys.

Sherry, a nickname she preferred, brought me turquoise, baby blue, and bisque. The angular, rectangled, straight-lined male domain remained arid, sandpapered, and dusty in contrast.

How did I come to understand she also fancied me? Were notes passed in the classroom? Did one of her buddies whisper, “Sharon likes you?” In any case, we recognized we wanted to connect.

My girlfriend told jokes, too. She delivered the first at a party thrown by Mary Lynn D. Soon enough we began a kissing game called “Spin the Bottle.”

I’m told this entertainment has lost favor since the ’80s, so here are a few details. All the players sat around in a circle. When your turn came, a soft drink bottle placed in the middle of the ring was spun until it pointed to a lass.

The two of you went into something approximating an oversized closet or spare room to kiss. Sherry tried to create the mood once we got there:

Gerry, do you know the most beautiful girl in the world is deaf?

No.

What did you say?

I believe Sherry took the lead in much of our time “going steady.”

One afternoon we went to a movie together, chaperoned by my mother, who sat a small distance away. Friendly fingers soon encroached upon my head and ran themselves through my hair. Yes, I once own hair rated first-class, may each strand rest in peace.

After the date ended, mom made some comment to me about Sharon and her “aggressiveness.”

Another time I went to my girlfriend’s house to receive dancing instructions from her and, rather more, from her older sister.

I’d guess Sherry soaked up whatever she grasped about dating etiquette from watching this sibling entertain young men in the family living room.

Just a hunch.

My female-preoccupied interest hibernated for a few years, something Freud called the latency period, in which you are believed to forget any suggestion of being a sexual being. Some guys are so skilled at the misremembering process they begin to behave like they arose from chickens, hatched from an egg.

Fast forward to the last couple of years at Mather High School. Now, these mating matters become significant.

Friends brave enough asked each other how to talk to the fair sex. The blind leading the blind.

We also discussed sign language. How did a dating newbie detect a 16 or 17-year old’s interest? I realized later your pursuit of someone on the distaff team was often sufficient to direct her surveillance your way.

The girls, many of them, marked the time, eyeballing their land-line residential telephones, waiting, wishing, and hoping for them to ring. When they didn’t, the young women wondered, “What’s wrong with me?”

They disclosed their covert shame years later, long after graduation.

All genders carried invisible membership cards in a secret society of hidden insecurities. We suppressed the self-doubts so well, each of us had no idea we belonged to the same club or that such a clique bound us together.

Personal uncertainty was evident on the occasion of my first call for a date.

The sole family phone resided in our kitchen. In the sixties, at least in my working-class neighborhood, two phones would have been an uncommon luxury. No internet nor iPhone yet existed, and my across-the-alley neighbor Jerry and I had long since abandoned two-tin-cans and a long string to communicate.

I wanted to launch into the dating pool after school. My target, the tall, slender, blond CB, would be home. An exceptional student, I figured she’d be studying.

The phone stared at me. Trying to be the hard guy, I glared back. Some amount of time elapsed. Maybe five minutes or 15, perhaps much more. The clock time mattered not, eternity would have been shorter.

The staring contest continued until I admitted defeat.

Much later, I understood this as an early lesson in the importance of “getting things over and getting over things.” Though I didn’t then own the insight to explain myself to myself, there was no need to endure the suffering more hesitation would have inflicted.

Man up, do the hard thing and be done with it. Let go of the misery you create. I still believe this.

The conversation wasn’t long, and CB said yes.

My place on the manhood ladder moved one rung up.

Funny to remember the anguish. Those kinds of contacts and much else became a pleasure beyond pleasure.

I must have puzzled all this out because I managed to produce two children with one of the pretty females I met later.

No masterful advice on the subject shall I offer you. If you enter the game, you find your way. Persistence tends to work most of the time. No matter your doubts, you can partake of blissful beauty, fireworks, and melding with another’s generous heart.

How do I know this?

A stork didn’t deliver you to your parents. Your mother didn’t lay eggs, either.

You come from one female and one male who implanted the seed.

My goodness, dad was right!

_____

The above images, in order: 1. Portrait of Silvia Kohler by Egon Schiele. 2. Photo of Sharbat Gula, an Afghan teen, that appeared on the cover of National Geographic Magazine in June, 1985. 3. Peter Behrens’s The Kiss. 4. An undated photo called School Cafeteria, from the Adolph B. Rice Studios via the Library of Virginia. 5. Two Sisters (On the Terrace) by Renoir, from the Art Institute of Chicago. 6. The First Whisper of Love by John Douglas Miller, from the Art Institute of Chicago. 7. The Author at age 16 or 17, photographed by Steve Henikoff.

Signs of People-pleasing: When You’d Really Prefer to Say “No”

A question lingers like a floating bubble in the space between you and a friend.

He asked you to do something you don’t want to do. Maybe he urged you to attend a party or eat at a restaurant or help move furniture to his new apartment.

Part of you wants to reach out and swat the invitation away. Part of you fears what would happen if you did.

Yet saying “no” is one of the most liberating skills you can acquire.

Otherwise, your life and everything within it is reachable by the creature above, one you call a friend. What is yours — including your time, money, schedule, and personal choices — is his.

If the dilemma sounds familiar, you might be a person who extends himself for others — a lot. Indeed, the extent of your extension feels like your arm is made of rubber.

A recent New York Times article lists several signs of “people-pleasing:” It’s OK Not to Please Everyone.

Here are five of those pointers in paraphrased form:

  • A tendency to offer help even when you’re burned out.
  • Making immediate apologies for incidental problems you didn’t cause.
  • You believe you are responsible for the moods of those about whom you care.
  • You encounter guilt, worry, or anxiety when you don’t meet the expectations created for you.
  • Conflict avoidance: an attempt to side-step or give-in because of alarm over angering someone else.

The New York Times list is not exhaustive, so I’ve added a few:

  • A penchant for ignoring your discomfort: saying “yes” when “no” would be the authentic answer.
  • A movie of you would display excessive smiling as you attempt to create a pleasant persona, thus invalidating your actual state of body and mind.
  • You offer multiple excuses when trying to circumvent an invitation or request.
  • Unanswered prayers for permission to skate past the friend’s solicitation leave you helpless.
  • An inclination comes over you to enlist a companion, parent, or lover to say “no” for you.
  • Many days feature you enduring both the sensation of pressure to be what you are not and the inability to withstand the stress.

  • An impulse occurs to delay your answer to a counterpart’s entreaty in the hope the matter will be forgotten.
  • You cannot strike down the habit of kicking yourself after you agree to do a task you now wish to flee.
  • On the occasions you avoid the commitment, you pray for forgiveness from the buddy.
  • You believe “goodness” is never failing to “be there” for the other. The definition is both wrong and impossible to accomplish.
  • A sense of relief descends like a balm when an acquaintance cancels plans you agreed to.
  • You furnish unsolicited favors, in particular, if you believe you’ve been a disappointment to someone whose attention you covet.
  • You buy gifts to win the respect of the individual who matters to you.

What are we talking about? You inhabit the role of a “pleaser” who renders service as if employed as a servant.

Feelings of insecurity fuel your self-effacing behavior, undervaluing the talent and personality that makes you engaging and lovable.

You also display a misunderstanding of what you owe the rest of humanity and what is owed you. Your notion of obligation is inflated and determined by those who find you useful.

The problem, unless you change, gains you little, but rather:

  1. More, not fewer requests because your reliable responsiveness reinforces the petitioner.
  2. Endless reactiveness to the prods and pulls of your social circle leave you empty, unable to care for yourself. A chronic low mood and possible depression may follow.
  3. Your actions get you less than you hoped for from those to whom you are over-generous with your time. Rather than producing profuse praise, your exertions become entitlements. Moreover, any guarantee of reciprocation when you need help exists as a fantasy alone.
  4. Your repeated denial of desires meaningful to you creates a state in which you receive limited respect. The world views you as the rare self-effacing creature without any personal cravings or needs.
  5. Public statements asserting your joy in “helping” diminish the very acts you perform. The willingness to do what the other asks informs him he needn’t value those labors either.
  6. You hesitate to test whether this man will continue to keep you near if you quit the self-created job of gopher. Perhaps he would, but the risk of finding out terrifies you.

To the extent COVID-19 keeps you indoors, you might have a reprieve from the typical inundation of calls for favors. With the opening of society before conditions are safe, the pressure to perform your usual array of circus tricks may increase.

The stakes of going along with what friends want shall then include your health.

Should you recognize someone who looks like you in this people-pleasing portrait, professional assistance is available. While people-pleasing isn’t a formal diagnostic category, I’d encourage you to request a therapist who understands the concern.

A counselor who is skilled at delivering acceptance and mindfulness-based treatment, such as ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), deserves your consideration. Empirically validated interventions offer you increased assurance of benefit from a psychotherapeutic journey.

Living as a hostage to self-interested others is in your power to overcome. The choice to be useful is not the same as being used.

Fulfillment arrives when you experience the freedom not to.

In contrast, having to do what is distasteful because you fear rejection is a kind of ritual of sacrifice. Those who love you do not wish you such unhappiness.

Friends who tally your worth in the hours of uncompensated labor you supply may be lost as you change. Successful treatment, however, allows you a greater balance between give-and-take within your social connections.

The choice is yours.

—–

The first image is the Logo of the National Reconnaissance Office. The second object is an Ethiopian Stop Sign modified by Fry1989. Finally comes a Thumbs Down Sign, the work of KaiO.Ried. All three were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When Someone Says, “Others Have It Worse!”

People say you make more of your problem than you should. You know their names.

They use a variety of expressions:

  • Get over it!
  • Man up!
  • Don’t be a baby!
  • It’s not so bad!
  • Buck up!
  • Others have it worse!
  • Be a man!
  • You need to tap your will power!
  • I’ve gotten over worse myself!

Your critic implies pain is a competition. If you gain the gold or silver medal, your hurt is justifiable to them. The rest of humanity, you included, ought to recover. Soon.

There are always those who score higher on the calamity scale, but their misfortune is irrelevant to your condition.

You are not a rubber ball, ready for a quick rebound. Even spheroids deflate or lose elasticity.

Many of those who utter such phrases claim they mean to be encouraging. Maybe they also throw in the expression, “You are feeling sorry for yourself.”

Self-care requires self-soothing. Grant your afflicted soul sympathy, not censure.

The friends who judge can be impatient. They suggest you’ve been down too long. A stopwatch does not enable recovery. Slip-ups and relapses happen. A hostile world can grind away, predicaments pile up and add to one’s adversity.

As Hamlet’s Uncle said to his wife,

When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.

It isn’t unusual for the other to offer examples of those who found a way to thrive after a catastrophe. All praise to such extraordinary people, I say. Yet comparisons like these are a bit like standing you next to Michael Jordan and demanding you play basketball on his level.

Oh yeah, sorry, I forget you are 5’2″ and 45 years old. My mistake.

Sometimes the man indicting you points to an incredible story of bravery or loss, someone who survived mass murder or genocide. In effect, he tells you, “If he cleared the hurdles, why can’t you?”

Such an acquaintance neglects to mention all those who didn’t survive or triumph, the ones whose stories we never read or hear, many of them dead.

The fellow’s implication is that you are unnecessarily weak when you should be tough and resilient. Perhaps he thinks you bear the stamp of moral failure, a lack of character. The bloke shadows you with shame.

Whatever his motive, he provides nothing of value with words like this and much for which he might deserve blame.

I’m assuming you are making an effort. I hope you recognize your shortcomings.

It is in your interest to make the changes you need. If you are 600 lbs. and you believe a diet of soft drinks and pizza are the royal road to weight loss, the other might be alert to an issue you would be wise to address.

Frustration comes with the job of observing somebody you care about fall short. The fellow pointing his finger may be well-intentioned and clumsy with language. Recall whatever kindnesses he offers you or contributed previously.

Your task awaits: heal. Time passes, challenges persist, try again. Give yourself patience and love. Find the proper remedy with professional help.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 of the Hebrew Bible recognizes not all hardship is deserved:

Yet another thing I observed under the sun is that races aren’t won by the swift or battles by the strong, and food doesn’t go to the wise or wealth to the intelligent or favor to the experts; rather, time and chance rule them all.

Uncontrollable events may befall you, but no law compels you to be still and wait for them. Our human race is capable of creation and accomplishment. Search for a fruitful path to your own agency.

The adventure of existence continues with or without your participation. The old baseball cliche reminds us: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes the games are rained out.

For quite a few people, just surviving in the period of a pandemic is a heroic achievement. Give yourself credit.

Dissent and criticism, judgment, and shame are everpresent. Listening to disapproval remains a choice.

Walk away if possible, dismiss accusers if conditions permit, assert your worth if this is in you. Not every accusation requires a rebuttal. Again, counseling can provide assistance.

Action awaits, even if you are not now ready. Prepare as you can. Please remember what Chicago’s legendary Studs Terkel used to say:

“Take it easy but take it.”

———————–

The first image is a Frown of Disapproval authored by Me. The second is the Frown photo of Rebecca Partington. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.