An old Groucho Marx joke tells us, “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.” Indeed, we often find ourselves hoping for an acceptance hard to come by, from just the right one; from a group or person who recognizes we are special: special in terms of our best qualities on our best day. The “other” uncovers us and discovers us as we’d like to be seen. When the connection clicks, we discover he has the characteristics we desire, as well.
Yes, we want a fitting kind of recognition: the key to our lock. True, we pursue enough money to live comfortably. Respect is sought for our good work, too. But lots of people accomplish those goals, even receive applause, yet don’t obtain understanding of their best inner self, the self they want to be appreciated.
Isaiah Berlin touches on this in Two Concepts of Liberty:
What I may seek to avoid is simply being ignored, patronized, or despised, or being taken too much for granted, in short, not being treated as an individual, having my uniqueness insufficiently recognized, being classed as a member of some featureless amalgam, a statistical unit without identifiable, specifically human features and purposes of my own.
We want acknowledgement from the proper person or group: a mate, our family; a religious community, perhaps. I must underline, man wants to be recognized in a particular way. Thus, if seen as “the handsome guy” or “the hot chick,” he may yet lack fulfillment when such a quality masks what is underneath.
I’d venture most of us wish to hear, “You are the one. You are the essential one” (for me or our group or our work), depending on the identification we are yearning for. I have encountered people with admirable lives, who perhaps never knew what was missing until such recognition came to them. If it came.
Recent research implies that the individuals we seek in friendship or love may be predetermined in some portion. Dr. Carolyn Parkinson, a UCLA cognitive scientist, described the possible “chemistry” enabling closeness in the New York Times article below:
Our research suggests that friends might be similar in how they pay attention to and process the world around them. That shared processing could make people click more easily and have the sort of seamless social interaction that can feel so rewarding.
Is this what some mean when they refer to a relationship as beshert (meant to be)?
Life can be thought of as an insecurity making machine. Among the young, ever-present photo-phones and internet bullies guarantee it. In the distant world of villages and small groups your place in society was not so hard to create, competition not so feverish. Your name was known and you might have been the sole local craftsman with a particular skill or the only medical doctor. There was value in being a big fish in a medium-sized pond. You were a solo-proprietor of your small business, a cottage industry, or the family farm, not today’s wage slave. The modern world makes almost all of us anonymous.
Aging, too, can reduce one’s sense of value. Beyond a certain span, women and men must work harder to hold their place. The body gives in to inertia, gravity, and fatigue. Defined features and figures blur, distractions challenge, flagging energy requires an extra cup of coffee.
But the lack of recognition is more generally present than in any one societal sector. Here is how Vincent van Gogh put the dilemma in an 1880 letter to his brother Theo:
Many a man has a bonfire in his heart and nobody comes to warm himself at it. The passers-by notice only a little smoke from the chimney, and go their way. …
No wonder the modern world also is fertile ground for demagogues who appeal to a portion of those with little sense of distinction, but much displacement. Many struggle for existence and dignity. In some cases machines replaced their labor. Life diminishes them. If a political figure conveys that he sees them, hears them, and understands them, they feel connected, enhanced. Even those leaders who might be better able to improve their lives can appear less attractive.
The former leader enlarges their sense of themselves. He resonates.
A man or woman does not simply want to own things, he wants the respect and acknowledgement offered in another’s measure of his value and stature. Indeed, the last 100 years demonstrate that many will sacrifice even their freedom for the worth conferred by a man or a movement in which the beleaguered soul believes he is important.
What can one do to find this kind of recognition?
Do not hide. Show the best of yourself. Step forward. Join, do not retreat.
You never know, even to your last day, when someone might comprehend and esteem you as significant in the world. The smoke signals from van Gogh’s bonfire may finally be noticed and read by others who value the message.
Which makes me think of my late friend, Mel Nudelman. Mel was an old friend in both senses of the phrase — I’d known him since the 1970s. At age 87 he was devasted by the loss of his wife of 50 years. To his credit, he fought through and grieved his broken heart, even making a new girlfriend! And so, Mel lived as he always did: learning, taking classes, counseling others, being with his children and grandchildren, offering friendship to young and old; ever curious about politics, music, sports, medicine, and the world. All this until death came in his 90s.
Put differently, Mel was open to life and whatever it would reveal to him; whatever it would reveal to others about him. He had something to offer the world and was recognized.
My advice then, to you and to myself, is to keep learning and keep being open to “possibility,” including the possibility there are things yet unseen, unexpected, or unacknowledged to enlighten us (and enlighten others about us) if only we keep our eyes open, our hearts open, and our guard down (at least some of the time).
If we keep looking, perhaps the right one yet will look back.
The top image is called Fall in Love. It is sourced from http://www.larsen-twins.dk via Wikimedia Commons. It should be noted, however, that the link does not lead to an active site. If anyone has such a link for Larsen Twins Orchids, I be grateful. The van Gogh Self Portrait with Straw Hat dates from 1887.
Dear Dr. Stein: Thank you, as always. The Larsentwins website is finding nothing, alas. Best – TS
Thank you. Yes, you are right. This is, indeed, the attribution requested on the Wikimedia Commons website. I’ll see if I can find a proper link.
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What if a person simply wants other people to leave him/her alone and stop bothering him/her?
What if a person feels that everything is being blamed on him/her regardless of whose fault each of the problems really is?
To this hypothetical question, Joseph, I’d wonder if perhaps the person is so discouraged by his past history of being misunderstood or rejected that he has given up on the hope of fulfilling human contact. His position would then be one of pushing others away, since he only anticipates frustration from them. Moreover, unless he lives outside the human community (say, on a desert island) he is going to have that frustration going forward. I’d hope he can find some compensating benefits to life in other things, lest he become depressed.
I liked your tie-in to our society’s leaders…very astute.
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Thank you, jb. I can’t prove my observation is accurate. That said, the political left has been asking the question about the voting patterns of some on the right for a long time. We often hear them say some of those on the right are stupid or are bigots, answers that I don’t find completely satisfying, even if it captures some part of the truth some of the time. Anyway, perhaps I’ve added something to the discussion. My guess is that the question has many answers.
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Wonderful article, which I’m about to reblog on ~burning woman~ blog. When I engage the topic of living life to the full through the practice of compassion, much of the above comes to mind. While the compassionate does not proceed with the the idea of recognition which to us is basically irrelevant, yet there is that wonderful sense of fulfilment that only open-hearted interaction with one’s community can give.
Burning Woman! What a name! Glad this touched you and thanks very much for reblogging it.
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Reblogged this on ~Burning Woman~ and commented:
This article by Dr. Gerald Stein, well, I could not properly introduce it as it is, in itself, an introduction to what I’d call ‘the fulfilled life’. Enjoy this wonderful read.
Excellent post, as usual. One that I needed to read today. 🙂
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I must quote : ‘we pursue enough money to make life comfortable ‘ Some seem to never have enough !
I believe all men and women should fit into this neat character picture but must ask how can we fit in Donald Trump maybe he is seeking recognition about qualities that are distasteful to billions of others. Perhaps many are not ready to seek inner satisfaction it would surely apply to the billions of poor who live on $2 per day. No doubt birds of a feather flock together so maybe we must stay in the comfort of our flock or tribe.
Agreed about the money statement, Kersten, especially in the USA, where we having been trying to “keep up with the Joneses” since before I was born. Mr. Trump’s appeal is a more complex thing. For some, he seems to be a secular messiah, for others a false one. Most of our responses to issues of religion and politics are driven by emotion, so that would be the place I’d start in any attempt to understand.
Overflowing with honesty and wisdom of life’s lessons. The quote from Vincent van Gogh says its all about the human condition.
Thank you, Rosaliene. Of course, van Gogh was a man estranged and knew well that of which he wrote. I’ve sometimes thought that marginalized souls, if they are talented enough, often are the greatest artists. The very perspective they have of the world — seeing things as others don’t — both marginalizes them and permits them the particular “vision” needed to create unique art.
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