Have Men Changed? Curing the Culture of Complaint

We live in a culture of complaint, as Robert Hughes first called it in 1993. Maybe a malicious physician transfused the once belittled stereotype of the angry old white men into the national bloodstream. Some younger men now glorify their righteous anger.

It shouldn’t have been surprising to find the written word “unfairness” used 36% more often in 2018 than in 1961.

Raucous whining was not always tolerated when I grew up. Loud expressions of self-pity and bellyaching served as the stock material of situation comedies. Fulminating males like Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden and Carroll O’Conner’s Archie Bunker depicted the stuff of laughter and futility.

A “real” man projected quiet, decisiveness, and courage, enduring disappointment in silence. Pushed far enough, he settled matters with his fists or on the playing field. After a loss, he got up, shook hands, congratulated his opponent, and returned to do better the next day.

This male accepted the rules. Dads of his kind lived next door to everyone in the 1950s and ’60s. They weren’t an easy bunch, however. A few pushed the family around or worse. Some drank to excess but had comrades and friends who believed in shared sacrifice. Shouldering responsibility was taken for granted.

A dark side lived inside them: crushing, unspoken privacy. One had the sense they kept secrets, things about which they harbored shame.

The “real man” role demanded they carry too much weight, but not the kind measured in numbers on a scale. It came from the psychological armor covering their tender parts. The burden of maintaining a livelihood also added poundage. The home was for the spouse to care for in a time of unmentioned gender discrimination.

Their battlefield, they’d been told, was downtown.

These gents did not kick down or suck up, but the toll of all they were and what they weren’t stalked them. Such fellows put their hearts into fulfilling the standard image of manhood. The ticker continued to beat but also beat them down, failing at an alarming rate in a time before statin medication and a healthy diet.

Much has changed. I’ve described a myth, of course, but one that featured select qualities worth admiring. Its white and black quality matched the lack of color in the movies and on TV. Black men, too, aspired to the white man’s model. They understood endurance.

These fathers were solid. Hard at times, yes, but when a broad hand rested on your shoulder, it encouraged and melted you. You wanted to embody it, to create yourself in the mold out of which it emerged.

The best of men still aspire to a modified version of the old fiction. A new gentleman’s design encourages him to show love to his offspring, listen more, and recite fewer solutions. The spouse is a partner saluted in her desire for fulfillment beyond her mother’s old and conventional slot.

Kids today still want certainty and security from their parents, who, if they allow themselves to remember, recall their own place as children once: young people needful of adults to rely upon.

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) acknowledged the challenge: how to persuade your family you will protect them from everything when you aren’t sure you can ensure your own survival.

Bacon believed achieving this required hocus pocus, a magic act of sorts. Guardians hide something, a least for a while:

The joys of parents are secret; and so are their griefs and fears. They cannot utter the one; nor they will not utter the other.

For most, this entails self-deception, burying enough self-doubts to accomplish the charade, both in the competitive workplace and at home.

Perhaps the irate men of today are finding the masquerade more difficult. They return from work without a living wage of the kind their poppas achieved — if they have employment. Many seek a reason for this outside themselves and, it must be admitted, there is no shortage of unfairness to point to.

Our triple troubles of unemployment, inequality, and pandemic enable the defensive closing of too many minds. Certitude takes the place of thoughtful examination. Belief in demigods squeezes out the supreme beings who are neglected once the sabbath is over.

Simplified answers drip from those who would misuse the widespread terror of failing at the basic job of meeting family expenses and caring for one’s kids. Their demagogic rants offer an example their followers imitate.

Francis Bacon recognized this dilemma, too, offering the remedy of mindful inquiry, not unsupported jumps to judgment:

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.

Despite the distracting and desperate circus performance sometimes masquerading as leadership, the modest, neighborly man and woman deserve respect. The world would do well to toast their everyday labor to make an honorable living and a home.

These decent souls put their families ahead of their own needs. They form the ranks of our best public servants, the people who do their jobs with integrity. This group of adults continues to give us reliance on the democratic republic we live in. Their oath of office binds them to serve the Constitution and not loyalty to any person.

Hope and the possibility of trust survive, partly due to the faceless and nameless citizens who do not place their advancement on the auction block.

Most of us recognize the same values and work to instill them in our children: enough fortitude to overcome hardship, enough effort to meet challenges, and enough humanity to comfort our fellowmen.

In the face of disease and want, the words of Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) add to Bacon’s 400 hundred-year-old guidance. Roosevelt was a daughter of privilege who lost both her parents by age 10. A timid and frightened child by her own report, she became a voice against racism and disadvantage. Her life was a triumph over anxiety and the second-place status of women:

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

———————————————————

The painting Freedom from Fear, reproduced above, comes from the Four Freedoms, 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.

As noted on the United Nations website, “First lady of the United States of America from 1933 to 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt (photographed above) was appointed, in 1946, as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly by United States President Harry S. Truman. She served as the first Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights and played an instrumental role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At a time of increasing East-West tensions, Eleanor Roosevelt used her enormous prestige and credibility with both superpowers to steer the drafting process toward its successful completion. In 1968, she was posthumously awarded the United Nations Human Rights Prize.”

As further noted on the UN website, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected and it has been translated into over 500 languages.

Inside the Patient in Therapy: What’s Going On?

We think of therapy as a conversation between two people.

Dig a bit to find the unspoken thoughts and feelings stirring inside the client. What are they? In what order do they arrive? And why can’t some patients recall the discussion even a few minutes later?

Let’s imagine observing a middle point in a hypothetical session.

The client’s inner world, from a photographer’s perspective, might look this way:

Emotions are brewing. Think of beer or a broth. Visualize the internal concoction as a liquid of at least mild temperature and motion. Active ingredients could include anger, embarrassment, calm, feelings about the therapist, confusion, shame, and sexual arousal.

Don’t forget thoughts.

Where do the stew’s components originate?

  • the client’s life history and memories
  • sensitivity to pain or judgment
  • openness
  • the world in which he lives
  • his brain’s capacity to deal with and analyze complex material
  • the genetic makeup with which he was born

The therapist’s tone of voice, confidence, understanding, and guidance of the process play into the other person’s state. The security associated with the office shouldn’t be discounted as a factor, either.

The specialist’s next comment spins from his lips into the air. Perhaps it is a statement, a question, or an interpretation of what came before.

The client’s ears hear the voice, clearly or not, and understand the words as the counselor intended or not. The language now launched lands in the mixture already present.

The woman or man’s experience is a combination of what he perceives outside of himself and its meeting with what is inside.

More is possible. Patients, if they place a high value on the relationship, sometimes ponder how to respond. They wish to say the “right” thing — to be “good.” Self-consciousness in this setting isn’t unusual.

Consider the chance the listener is not listening and has lost focus. Maybe the language and inflection increase or calm any emotional turmoil.

The unconscious plays an undefined role too. Past events may be evoked.

The patient might not be as attentive and emotionally “present” as he was a few seconds before. Confusion sometimes scrambles his consciousness — bodily sensations, as well.

Therapists must be careful not to overwhelm this soul, amplifying his struggle to process the unstable encounter between external and internal events.

In some cases, the individual cannot “stay” with the flow of ideas, memories, visceral changes, and feelings. In this situation, the client often takes a kind of unseen flight from his fraught condition. His action is like putting a part of himself in another room, away from whatever is troublesome: dissociating portions of the momentary experience and “going away” from it.

He remains in the chair or on the couch, but a segment of his awareness, including access to his complete range of emotion and sensation, is elsewhere.

Treatment would fail if this were to occur in each session.

I’ve created an example of one kind of encounter, not typical of everyone’s experience. Many, if not most meetings, are calmer, less stirring, more laid back.

Assuming this did happen, however, the end of the visit might produce amnesia of some of the material discussed during it.

How do counselors prevent this?

  • They take in whatever is in front of them: tone of voice, postural alterations, physical evidence of anxiety. Eye movements, changes in the rate and intensity of speech, facial expressions, perspiration, and tears need to be noticed, as well. These and the patient’s comments concerning comfort or discomfort should enable the doctor to know whether to intervene: reduce the client’s tendency to become overwhelmed or dissociate.
  • Both parties need to converse about how much intense material can be tolerated and how to communicate distress as it occurs.
  • The health care professional can suggest the patient write a summary of the session’s end, perhaps when he returns to the waiting room. Like dreams, the experience or portions of it are not always recalled otherwise.
  • Zoom and comparable virtual treatment platforms include recording options. This permits the client to review a video of the session alone or with the counselor during the next appointment.

A sensitive and competent therapist will inquire about what the patient wishes to talk about and recognize what he might not recall from recent sessions.

His job is not to interrogate. Rather, he desires to be attuned to the person who has entrusted him with the responsibility of his care. He hopes the client will join him in a shared enterprise designed to achieve progress on the treatment path.

Obstacles like suppression or dissociation can prevent mastery over the life challenges that brought the individual to psychotherapy.

Psychotherapists aren’t magicians. We have only words, compassion, and understanding of what is required and when. Words in the right order spoken in the right way are often enough.

———

The first image is Picasso’s The Red Armchair, from 1931. Next comes Classical Head, a sculpture by Elie Nadelman, created in 1909/10. The third figure is featured in Stefan Kaegi’s Uncanny Valley. It is followed by the work of an unknown artist of the Fang culture, a Central African ethnic group. It is thought to date from the mid to late 19th century. Finally comes Sleep Muse, a 1910 sculpture by Brancusi. All but the Kaegi are sourced from the Art Institute of Chicago.

How I Plan to Survive Election Night: November 3, 2020

Two lovely friends asked how my wife and I planned to survive election night. I’m talking about the evening of this coming Tuesday.

Here are several things I’ll do and actions I’ll try to avoid. They take the form of a letter to myself:

Dear Self,

You’ve done your part. You traveled to Wisconsin to register voters. Postcard writing to encourage others to vote was worthwhile too. Peruse your credit card statement to find the names of all the candidates and investigative journalists who received financial support out of your pocket.

Like a fine fisherman, you cast your ballot. Not into the water, of course.

Write another check to a food bank. Here’s one you gave some money to: Greater Chicago Food Depository.

They all need more. Donate as much as you can.

Exercise early. Keep exorcisms for another day!

Time to distract yourself, especially in the waning hours of the big night. Read fiction. Watch situation comedies. Or launch a riviting mini-series and binge-watch. Glad you chose “Queens Gambit,” by the way. Thanks for the recommendation, Joan (the producer’s mom).

Fastening your eyeballs to the TV’s election report or your ears to the radio’s version won’t change the outcome. The power is not in you to jinx it. The result won’t be in your hands once the polls close.

Remember the strategy you used when the Cubs — your team — played Cleveland in the 2016 World Series? Rain delayed the last game in the 7th inning. No one knew how long the precipitation would last. What did you do? The contest was tied, but the hour was late, so you went to bed. You believed someone would set off fireworks if they won. The tiny explosions woke you; you smiled and slumbered on. The patient video recording waited for your attention in the morning.

Don’t drink. Ok, I realize you aren’t a reflexive drinker, but don’t start now. The liquor might knock you out, but a few hours later it’s likely to jolt you awake again.

Meditate. You know how to do this, and you do it every day. Maybe a little more is required.

The sun will rise early each day. Yes, if the bunch you voted against prevail, the climb back to normalcy will be tougher. Even if the gals and guys you’re rooting for win (an outcome you expect), the march forward will still be a challenge. You need to martial strength either way.

No matter the final tallies, no matter when they come, the people you love are there. The people who love you still live. Those departed continue in memories. Books wait for you to read them. Jobs need doing, and help should be given. There are jokes to share, classes to attend, and people to talk with.

Remember to blow the snow off the driveway when it arrives. The moon will keep you company until lengthening days begin to stretch their arms in a welcoming embrace. Sun and summer maintain their steady approach. Count on it.

The world needs healing, but you’ll do what you can, then pass the baton.

You remain a lucky man.

———

The Wikipedia Foundation created the top voting box image. Shizhao transferred the second one from Ukraine Today to English Wikipedia. They were both sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Why We Don’t Always Know Ourselves and Why That’s a Good Thing

Some of my best friends don’t know themselves well. Moreover, there is often value in not knowing. Nonetheless, both those with lots of self-awareness and those without tend to overrate their knowledge of “who they are.”

We humans benefit from believing our march through life is an honorable endeavor. Most of us stop at red lights, let pedestrians cross, and smile when a stranger says hello.

Few take glee in admitting they’ve harmed others, broken rules undercover, and spoken untruth. We prefer to believe we deserve whatever we’ve achieved, rather than attributing our triumphs to cheating.

When a man acts beneath his best, he tends to justify his actions. Sometimes the reason he gives to himself is loyalty. At other times his sense of unfairness justifies employing the identical ruthless tactics the enemy uses against him.

Another category of rationalization includes survival in a competitive world. If you work in a dark-sided corporate or political culture, continued employment might demand persuading yourself, “this is just the way things are done.”

All of us travel through an imperfect world of flawed inhabitants, not an idealistic one. As we grow up, experience reveals the best man doesn’t always win, power and money increase mating opportunities, and who you know sometimes trumps what you know.

The adaptation to conditions “as they are” can evoke less than saintly behavior.

You might wonder why we possess this readiness to violate the messages we hope our kids learn in their religious education. In part, we must credit our resourceful ancestors.

In wartime, periods of scarcity, or episodes of other physical dangers, they used all their know-how and ingenuity to survive. Sometimes deception saved a life, as did theft when their child or tribe confronted famine. Strength, smarts, and strategy, along with viciousness, defeated enemies.

Can you imagine your chances if you lacked any motivation to act in your own interest? Two-thousand years ago, Rabbi Hillel, a Jewish sage, raised this issue and more:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I?

A too accurate peek at our mirror image allows uncomfortable truths concerning ourselves and our beloved social circle.

Every successful marriage, for example, values the spouse for more than what he is. A loss of trust might follow from full recognition of the worst in those around us, forcing a crippling exaggeration of danger.

The magnification of personal defects also creates a frightful sight. Without psychological shielding, the soul is brought to its knees. One’s life might be reinterpreted as a fraud. How could we function in the world without a few of the lies told by ourselves to ourselves?

With a built-in capacity for at least a bit of self-deception, we face away from weaknesses like an unbridled penchant for antagonism or the avoidance of confrontation. Many of us project our shaded motives and dispositions on those different from us in race, religion, or politics.

Blindness to our situation frequently leads to emotional pain and poor choices. When the discomfort becomes considerable, therapists are consulted. The unveiling of revelations, however, must involve a gradual and careful process. The therapist shouldn’t disarm us by obliterating the beliefs on which we lean.

As Marshall Greene wrote in 1997, defenses help “the patient ward off disturbing feelings such as anxiety, anger, disgust, depression, envy, jealousy, guilt and shame.”

Counselors grasp this. Each of them encounters a phenomenon called “resistance in the service of the ego.” The psychologist takes care not to approach the client as though his mind is a walnut requiring a hammer blow to crack it.

The ache of past hurts, as well as the stark and startling acknowledgment of character limitations, can sink the patient before he learns to swim. Clients must float before the internal uncovering strips him of defensive buoyancy and his long-established tool kit of life skills.

The ancient Greek Temple of Apollo included the inscription “Know thyself” in its forecourt. Perhaps the designer should have considered a safer alternative:

“Know thyself (but not too much)”

———

The first image comes from an unknown Google source. The second is the work of Loveteamin. Finally, Barlow in Hiding is the work of Andrew Smith. The last two pictures are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

If you are interested in powerful theatrical representations of families with an uncomfortable relationship with the truth of who they are, you might read or watch Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

When One Person in a Relationship Changes

I discovered the social challenge of moving from one group to another in sixth grade.

First, let me situate myself. I was part of the post-World War II “Baby Boom” generation, a group for which the world was unprepared. Chicago’s school system, like others, discovered children like me flooding the narrow hallways of buildings used by our parents.

Why so many? The youthful soldiers returning from Europe and the Pacific attempted to retrieve lost time along with their young wives. My father’s letters across the ocean spoke to both his desire for my beautiful mother and the offspring they hoped for.

I’d spent the past year and a half in an overcrowded classroom shared with students one semester ahead. When my younger cohort came time for advancement to the level the older kids were completing, our teacher asked me if I wanted to “skip” that term.

Paul Friedman gave me this chance to proceed into seventh grade without finishing sixth. Thanks, Mr. Friedman, wherever you are.

The opportunity sounded fine to my parents and me, in part because I got along well with those a half-step up. The phrase “double promotion” applied to my more than ordinary educational boost.

Over the summer, I continued to hang around with my longtime, same-aged buddies, but Autumn turned out to be different. From the first day of class on Tuesday, September 2, 1958, the alteration, like a temporary shadow hovering over my life, greeted me with a frown.

I saw Lloyd and Roger, my old pals, talking, but when I tried to insert myself into the conversation, they acted aloof. Of course, I didn’t use that word, one absent from my vocabulary, but it described my puzzlement at the unsocial “distance.”

Continuing efforts to recapture our previous camaraderie produced the same result in the next few days. With no choice, those friendships faded as I found a place among my older classmates.

Life offers far more significant but somewhat similar challenges. Beyond moving out of your current neighborhood and going to new schools, think of changes in your profession, status ups and downs, leaping ahead or staying behind in terms of income, etc.

A daunting hurdle occurs when someone dependent on alcohol or drugs ends his addiction. Friends accustomed to joining him in drink or drugs say, “Oh, it’s only one drink” or “Come on, do you think you are better than me?”

If the newly sober fellow continues hanging around with the users, his sobriety is in danger. He has two problems now: abstinence from substances and finding new friends.

A political commentator, Kurt Bardella, describes leaving his occupational affiliation in 2016: the Republican Party. His writing doesn’t provide the most common answer to the question liberals ask, “Why do Republicans still work for Trump.” Rather, he speaks to the 1958 version of Gerry Stein’s experience on the playground. Here’s what happened to him when he left “the team.”

Candidly, I had no idea where my next paycheck was going to come from. I lived off my credit card. Fell into debt. The professional network of Republican operatives, consultants, and lobbyists I had spent a decade of my life in Washington cultivating was now gone.

Bardella no longer fit in. Changing religion might generate the same kind of exclusion. This also reminds me of something my mother uttered more than once as I grew up: “What will people think?”

In Bardella’s case, his professional and relationship community became unavailable to him. No other workplace niche existed for political operatives and conservative spokespersons who, like this man, self-emigrated.

Even such things as happiness and unhappiness can complicate relationships when they are not shared. If you are leaping forward in your career and an old buddy finds your glee overbearing relative to his modest success, one of you might decide he has tolerated enough.

More than a few of my patients worried their friends would grow weary of their degree of misery. They dared not exceed what they believed was an acceptable length and level of unhappiness. While they tended to overestimate the likelihood of rejection, I must admit it was never zero.

One might say the larger the discrepancy in the level of happiness, success, and misery between two friends, the greater the chance of a tear in the social fabric binding them. Part of relationship survival requires walking not too far ahead, nor falling too far behind. Some amount of self-censorship is also needed.

Fitting the pieces of your personal life into the jigsawed spaces of another’s existence isn’t a fully acknowledged human task. The good news is, most of us get at least passing marks.

We are complicated creatures, don’t you agree?

With all the encouragement we receive to be independent and tough enough to take on criticism, there are limits to this commonplace advice.

When my mother asked, “What will people think?” she displayed a wisdom one shouldn’t always ignore.

——-

The two photos are from my time in Minnie Mars Jamieson School. They show my third-grade class followed by my graduating class. I am lucky enough to remain friends with four members of the latter group: Ron, Jim, Steve, and Neil.

No prizes if you can spot me, though I am present in both pictures. Of course, the “High Potentate” of the Zeolites won’t have any trouble. Apologies for the inside joke.

When Politics or Religion Enter the Therapy Session

We all hear stories of political differences breaking families and friendships, setting neighbor against neighbor. Romantic partners recoil upon discovery their partner excuses inhumane and unconscionable policies advocated by elected officials.

Oh, my, who is this person?enters their mind if not their speech.

But what happens to the relationship between a therapist and his patient when religion or politics slips under the door?

We don’t ask about party affiliation when someone requests an appointment. Nor do patients tend to inquire who a potential counselor is voting for, though I fielded occasional questions about my creed before a possible client booked a session.

Therefore a few did not.

Revelations about the client’s convictions are, like his history, something unveiled during the treatment’s course. Counselors try to separate political and religious ideas (indeed, values in general) from their effort to help improve their patient’s life.

Health care practitioners do not treat only those who share our world view or the prospect of a life beyond.

A majority of written records of Christian patients filled-up my locked metal file cabinets. Productive therapeutic relationships with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, atheists, and agnostics made up my practice, as well.

One who wishes to understand a new person intends to learn about his overall background, including the role faith plays, if any. I found religion to be an essential boon to some, the steadying foundation upon which they mounted their life.

I came to recognize a number, however, whose sense of inadequacy appeared tied to church teaching.

Sometimes they had so-called “devout” parents who condemned, abused, or neglected them from an early age. Others described a painful lack of support experienced in their adult faith community. Some felt judged because their reliance upon God alone proved insufficient to surmount their psychological injuries.

In these cases, I asked questions to prompt reflection on the complications of the views and people they were struggling with, as well as their benefits. If they resisted, I worked around the problem and dealt with what was permitted. My approach with the non-religious was similar.

What does this (belief, or behavior, action, or inaction) cost you?

Part of the counselor’s dilemma is this: certain viewpoints and values, scriptural or political, can be like the most important load-bearing walls within a home. To remove or fracture such supports will cause the whole building to buckle if not collapse.

Strong opinions about politics share characteristics with dogmatic religious ones. Unshakable gut reactions often drive those certainties. Reasoning about them is not the job of a helping professional and is fruitless in any case.

While a devoted person might offer a rationale for his choice of church or candidate, Jonathan Haidt’s research underlines the extent to which emotions, not logical thought, precede these convictions. Reason tends to follow long-imbedded, instinctual affiliations, not create them.

The therapeutic process of unwinding self-injurious attachments of this kind is usually more than psychotherapy can or should take on.

Healers must be wary of their own limitations and biases. A danger exists when formidable gaps take up the space between the personal ideals and principles held by their patient and themselves.

Those differences transform the doctor’s singular focus of aiding a fellow human’s quest for a better life. He now risks harming the sufferer by inadvertent indifference, failing empathy, or judgmental statements. Body language and facial expressions, as well, may intrude on the benevolence needed to help.

The individuals we take in our charge depend on our goodwill. No one desires to gaze at narrowed eyes seemingly edged with daggers. Past history has already filled their cup of accumulated unkindness above the “full” mark.

In addition to suicide, the most extreme tendencies our clients bring to us are problems of lawbreaking and a threat to the safety of the community. If we meet a spousal abuser seated in our office, it matters little whether the person claims his denomination or politics justifies his brutality.

A therapist’s responsibilities include protection of life if the patient poses an imminent risk of harm to himself or others, regardless.

I am sure there are people I could not engage in a joint healing project because of my feelings about their beliefs, especially in the current pandemic-infused election leadup. A white supremacist would be just one such example for most counselors.

Perhaps outpatient therapists are fortunate because antisocial extremists tend not to seek our service. By the time they reach the stage of showing force or worse, few unburden their souls to strangers. A therapist is neither a magician nor a divine being. More than ever, he must acknowledge his limits to himself. His job inside those boundaries is difficult enough.

———

The top image is “The Bramante Staircase,” Vatican Museums, as photographed by Andreas Tille. Next comes The Horseshoe Falls, Niagra,” by William England. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Taking Joy in Another’s Misfortune: “Schadenfreude”

The Japanese put it this way: “The misfortunes of others taste like honey.”

Hmm. Not always and not to everyone, but this kind of emotion is something we’ve all observed and experienced. The Germans offer us a single word for it: Schadenfreude.

Two German words are combined. Schaden and Freude meld the idea of another’s harm with joy in the one who watches or discovers the mishap.

Schadenfreude is not connected to the infliction of damage, a condition more aligned with antisocial behavior or sadism. Rather, the pleasure comes to an observer without his having caused it. Most often, the noticed bungle is minor or embarrassing rather than disastrous.

Examples might include someone slipping on a banana peel or a person finishing a speech and bouncing on his bottom because of a shifted chair. Spilling food, zippers unzipped, and bunched up backs of skirts revealing what is below and behind also come to mind. These are innocent enough to the extent they produce no long term harm, however excruciating they can be in the moment.

How about when the unfortunate one contracts a dreaded illness? This moves the amusement from the trivial or morally ambiguous to hatred and a desire to achieve justice or revenge. The happiness received by the witness is a bitter satisfaction, not a passing chuckle.

The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, described a similar attitude, one still closer to a premeditated desire to cause pain. The following appears in his On the Genealogy of Morality/Ecce Homo:

To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle [….] Without cruelty there is no celebration.”

Yikes! Sentiments like this, if traced back far enough, speak to tribalism and the primitive, life-threatening conflicts of our ancestors. Indeed, part of what bonds some of us to our allies is the shared dislike of the “other,” taken to extremes in the form of hatred.

This topic cannot be escaped in the present. The degree to which some will go to foment physical confrontations and demonize those with whom they don’t agree is boundless.

But let’s consider other, less dreadful aspects of obtaining a mood boost from the pratfalls of our compatriots.

Brief levity at misfortunes outside ourselves might serve as an evolutionary safety valve. Each of us encounters his portion of disappointment, rudeness, and perceived unfairness. When an unkind superior dumps a drink on himself, smirking behind our hands can relieve us of a bit of our frustration. We believe he got what he deserved.

Without causing his spill, the scales of justice, at least for the moment, come closer to balance.

Unfortunately, those less than kind will use everyday humiliations they didn’t cause to belittle and mock, at least behind the back of another. Such discomfort can be turned to one’s advantage, boosting personal status by knocking a competitor down. A backstabber climbs over colleagues to advance himself. Again, here is a kind of cynical, acid satisfaction.

Cases like this put us in the arena of the playground bully disguised by the suit and tie he wears to work. The motives explaining his action might include compensation for a sense of inadequacy or envy.

Perhaps another aspect of our laughter comes from the need to make light of the small stuff of life, the near misses, the inevitable bruises that could have been much worse. Physical selves are such frail things. Unrequested comfort comes because others are in the same club and just as vulnerable.

The human form is like a tiny space ship launched without our permission by the folks called mom and dad. No trustworthy map presents itself. Unexpected comets, meteors, and black holes are always capable of surprises.

Smiling at the small shocks and the narrow escapes allow relief from a too dim view of the future. We even may learn how to prepare for those cosmic events by noting the errors of others, as well as our own.

A fun moment enjoyed with friends or colleagues, despite the temporary expense of the “the unlucky one,” steers our ship past worry about the vulnerability and mortality that are our lot.

Laugh when you can, including at yourself. Merriment and glee make life worth living as much as accomplishment and offspring who will speed our genes ahead in their own spacecraft.

Our parents do right to send us off with hope, a hug, and a smile. What better way to launch the future?

———

The top photo is Harold Lloyd, from his 1920 silent film High and Dizzy. The other image is a 3d digital illustration of a person with a smug face by Dawn Hudson. These are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Peace of Mind in a Moment of Catastrophic Thoughts

If the political-pandemical moment has lit your hair on fire, I offer a suggestion. Get into the shower. But since I can’t personally help with this remedy, let me provide some calming words.

We must begin here: many people fear the worst outcome in the U.S. election come November.

Some ask me for my opinion, my prediction, my reassurance.

I tell them I have enough trust in the good sense of the majority of my fellow-citizens to save the democratic republic. Hope and experience sustain me. I do what a concerned citizen can do. I will vote and, until events are past, take modest political action via the phone, the mail, and contributions to candidates I support.

These thoughts and efforts, however, do not dominate my time or my life.

Yes, potential chaos and catastrophe loom, but few souls profit by submerging themselves in disastrous scenarios. They are instead immobilized if not drowned by the self-imposed punishment those imaginings bring.

The keyword is potential. A difficult or unmanageable result is not an accomplished fact. Better results, I believe, are likely.

My patients sometimes benefited when I asked them what challenges they’d survived in the past. By reviewing their personal history of hardship, they often recognized their capacity to endure and surmount misfortune.

We are the descendants of those who did so again and again for thousands of years.

Another question fashioned perspective: how many times did you dread an event that did not occur?

Most catastrophes are surprising. The legal arm of those desiring to preserve our democracy is as prepared as it can be. The citizenry makes itself ready to register and cast ballots.

Meanwhile, the best scientists and educators in the world are working to create vaccines, treatments, and policies to enable a return to a life we recognize.

All are challenged to find equanimity even in easy times. The religious do well to read their scripture.

I continue to meditate daily, enjoy classic fiction, and study Mahayana Buddhism, a recent interest. Distraction comes by watching comedy and baseball. Friends, children, and grandchildren give me joy. Loved ones touch my heart.

There is value in fact-based news sources, but not those I find redundant. Our front lawn features a sign encouraging the presidential preference my wife and I commend to our neighbors.

Pleasure exists in on-line art, including the gorgeous photos of Laura Hedien featured in this post. Early morning walks invigorate me. A short weight-lifting routine is an old discipline made new.

My evening dessert menu doesn’t include politics. Nightmares receive no invitation into my bedroom.

If catastrophe happens up ahead, that will be soon enough for me. Then we will react and work to improve what fate brings. But I emphasize, I expect a bumpy ride, not one into the abyss.

Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, offered these words 2000 years ago:

But those who forget the past, ignore the present, and fear for the future have a life that is brief and filled with anxiety. … Their very pleasures are fearful and troubled by alarms of different kinds; (even) at the moment of rejoicing, the anxious thought occurs to them: “How long will this last?”

Shakespeare wrote the following in Julius Caesar:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

I am no hero, but I take comfort in such wisdom.

And in you, dear reader.

———

The photos of Laura Hedien included here (with her permission) are The Chicago River as Seen in Downtown Chicago and Clouds Over a Mountain Range in Southern, Arizona (2020): Laura Hedien Official Website

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.

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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.