Disarming Your Negative Thoughts: How Meditation Helps

We expect too much of language. People use it to console, laugh, and express love. Phrases manage our relationships and help us make a living. We grab them to persuade and to injure.

Regrettably, our words also damage us. I refer to the private internal self-torture we alone can hear.

One remedy for this problem does not involve the pitiless expressions themselves. Instead, the method helps get us away from the typed black and white creatures inhabiting dictionaries, the ones we utter within our inner sanctum.

Allow me to explain the background first.

In cases of depression and anxiety, the voice inside our head is leaden, crushing. The word contraption called the brain pumps out endless discouragement, self-doubt, potential catastrophe, regret, and self-blame. All in letters of the alphabet, all caps in a giant font.

Some of this is caused by our genetic wiring, some learned. Homo sapiens survived because ancestors could anticipate problems and plan for defense. Communication helped. Thinking ahead and in our head was vital, allowing reflection on the past and learning from personal history, too. We take in criticism as they did, especially when young, to better adapt to conditions, meet inescapable demands, and achieve acceptance by the community.

For the troubled among us in particular, when nothing else occupies our attention, invading armies of words sometimes describe an unfortunate back story, accuse one of inadequacy, and generate fear of the future. The space between the ears is filled with emotionally charged, unsettling sentences. We try to avoid or escape them by occupying our time in productive and joyous activities, embracing love, and engaging in hobbies.

Some use the radio or TV to drown out their self-loathing. Books might distract, video games entertain. Others imbibe alcohol or take drugs. The lucky sleep self-recrimination away, fortunate unless slumber is all they can do.

When work and play are done — often late at night or when we are by ourselves — the loquacious intercranial attack picks up. Try as we do to kick the phrases away, they rebound in our direction. The more our ideas are repeated internally, the more they boomerang, as if connected to a rubber band we can only stretch so far before a snapping return to the original shape, shooting the trouble back at us.

The harsh routine at its worst implies, “Sorry, your lifetime allotment of happiness is used up.”The task for winning the battle for our distressed brain’s attention is to drain the words of their power. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) can do some of that, increasing our ability to talk back to irrational cognitions.

Traditional dynamic psychotherapy, in addition, aims to relieve us of our sense of unworthiness based on mistreatment by parents and other misfortunes. Grief-work is necessary.

As for the rest, all of us benefit from being calmed and relieved of the tendency to give too much desperate meaning to the reflexive thoughts that seem to think themselves into us and against us.

Mindfulness meditation can address this. The usual instruction is to concentrate on your breathing. If you are like me, a few seconds into early meditation sessions a distraction will pull you away from a focus on the breath. Many of the intrusions are benign and random. This is typical and not a bad thing.

Once you recognize what happened you are informed how your mind works. Even more so, if the topic taking your attention off breathing is challenging and you notice this. Maybe it’s anxiety or worry about what is before you, perhaps downing yourself over a comment you made or sadness and anger about what a neighbor said about you.

The new meditator’s job is observing the unpleasantness and then returning attention to his inhalation and exhalation. You don’t flee the interruption, indeed you recognize it without judgment. Meditation experts tell us our value judgments (good/bad, right wrong, pleasant/unpleasant, positive/negative, wise/foolish) make such disruptive notions and feelings more painful than would otherwise be the case.

When everything goes as planned, a practice of daily meditation allows you to accept these thoughts for what they are (just thoughts). Life gets a bit easier. One’s intelligence is pulled away from self-disparagement, concentration improves, and you become calmer. Your head is emptied of incessant involuntary terminology and its tag-along emotions. Words separate from their previous emotional resonance and residue.

In one sense you have grown more observant of your cognitive and affective private life while more distant from it: less trapped and victimized by the historically fraught words. Their grip on you is loosened. A state of liberation follows, along with an experiential realization the punisher inside is not your master any longer: not essential to who you are.

A personal example: I once went to the Emergency Room with unendurable, hours-long pain from a kidney stone. I’d encountered a few such hard but injurious objects before, but never so lasting and punishing. I was given morphine, a narcotic.

Once medicated my body reminded me the affliction was yet there, but I was distanced and detached from the hurt: more accepting of it. I no longer cared. My feelings about the discomfort dissolved. For a meditator who is far enough along, the concepts once capable of hijacking your well-being lose the authority to harm you, though you still sometimes note the same terms in your head. You stop giving them importance, thus robbing them of their “truth” and impact.

Instead, you deem the terms as arguable statements, not indictments of your worth. They rest easier, not allowed to be a part of you, not taken to heart. These perceptions and notions have detached from your identity. The experience is like reading a book or watching a movie about someone else, not you. Separation from such things permits you to see the world and yourself in a more objective fashion.

In effect, the meaningful labels you attached to many of these internal communications lose their sticking ability, as if the “glue” adhering to your self-image dried up. The stickers fall off. The readiness to judge falls away. Room for beauty and fascination take up space once occupied by darkness.

Nor is your decision-making as likely to be influenced by the hyper-emotional thought-generation machine. The enemy within the language has been disarmed. Life can be more in your control, free of the ever-growing clutter of self-inflicted emotions and concepts you’ve been living with. The reprogrammed cerebral cortex is more settled. Moments of serenity are possible.

Do not minimize the amount of work involved in the process. Most people I’ve known who try meditation give up early. They believe they are “bad at it,” bored, or report the assault of troublesome beliefs and worries entering their attempt to quiet the mind makes them worse than before. Others only begin when their suffering is already at a peak rather than when depression or anxiety is not so present. Some find the needed time and discipline of a once-a-day devotion to the endeavor more than they can do.

I can only say that persistence, dedication, and the capacity to wait for delayed gratification are useful in meditation and much else in life. Combined with CBT (including any needed grief-work), the world may open to you in a new and better way.

—–

The first photo is of Cadillac Mountain in Arcadia National Park. Next comes Composition VII by Kandinsky, followed by 72 Seconds Before Actual Sunrise, Southern California, USA by Jessie Eastland from Wikimedia Commons. Finally, The Rayleigh Effect, Seconds Before Sunrise in New Zealand by Moriori, also from Wikimedia Commons.

Some “Super” and Surprising Advice

Though I am not Ask Amy, Carol Hax, or Dear Abby, today I present advice over 100-years-old. Life-changing notions, many think. Below is memorable guidance on how best to live from a man famous for saying, “I am dynamite!”

While lions and tigers and bears don’t menace us anymore, the writer in question claims we face towering psychological challenges without them. The following aphorisms try to scale those heights.

I’ll reveal our secret advisor, N, before this essay’s end.

Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.

We are, according to the author, desperate to be many things to many people. The masses are hypnotized by beliefs learned long ago, beliefs repeated over and over by our parents, relatives, our community, teachers, and religious leaders.

We want to fit in and “succeed” as defined by our nation and neighbors, and rise to the afterlife. This leads to a “herd mentality,” in the words of the wise man.

Winning a mate is dependent on what others think of us and how well we conform to the popular estimate of desirability. As N observes, we wear masks instead of embracing our own inner truth. Thus, he also wrote:

Become what you are.

Put differently, he refers to a potential transformation of ourselves once we throw off the training wheels and invisible guide wires society uses to constrain us. Having accomplished this emancipation (no one else will do it for us) we can be what we should be. Humans are otherwise automatons tricked into believing they are liberated and enlightened.

Let the youthful soul look back on life with the question: what have you truly loved up to now, what has drawn your soul aloft, what has mastered it and at the same time blessed it? Set up these revered objects before you and perhaps their nature and their sequence will give you a law, the fundamental law of your own true self.

When those words are followed, N believed they lead us to discover that which is at our core. The real identity within us can be glimpsed if we possess the courage to break the “group think” of the tribe. Few will have the will power to do it. N insisted only a handful of us will identify and reject the restrictions stamped onto and into us from our beginnings.

Finally,

You repay a teacher badly by becoming merely a pupil.

Here, the German philosopher (I’m giving you a hint as to his identity) defines what he means by a student. N tells us we are pupils not only of the instructors we meet in school, but the received “wisdom” of institutions and authorities, including government, religion, philosophers, and books. We must dispense with whatever part of their thinking doesn’t survive critical analysis.

Our task is to leave behind worn-out doctrines and replace them with our own. Indeed, he hopes the beginner will, by dint of his internal strength, courage, and intellect, create a revolution in his thought. The most extraordinary among us, N imagined, become breakers of norms, inventors of a re-engineered vision of the world and our own place outside of the mainstream. The former novice thereby morphs into a superman (Übermensch).

The creator of these ideas was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), a German philosopher and cultural critic. This groundbreaking thinker had the misfortune not only of an early breakdown but an anti-Semitic sister who misrepresented his work just as it began to gain attention and after he was incapacitated.

While Nietzche rejected the doctrine of Aryan and national German superiority voiced by the reactionary writers of his time, the Nazis caused the further posthumous distortion of claiming him as their philosophical mentor.

His Übermensch was a rare and solitary hero of individualism, not part of any racial white herd who bowed robot-like before a leader, whether religious or governmental. He rejected materialism, capitalism, and outward show. Nietzche’s enlarged man, instead, met life without fear, realizing his personal (not group) potential and finding joy in his short existence, come good fortune or bad.

Shall we develop and live by our own out-of-the-box ideas, rejecting the tribal masses in their lockstep march to a tune other than their own?

Only if we are brave enough, said Nietzsche.

—–

The first two paintings are by Paul Klee: Senecio (1922) and Magic Mirror (1934). They are sourced from Paul Klee.net/ The final image is Friedrich Nietzche (1906) by Edvard Munch, from Wikiart.org/

Is There a Better Path to Happiness?

Most of us wish we were happier at least some of the time. In the West, we pick from a list of goals expected to boost well-being, targets outside ourselves: a better job, a more pleasing mate, and more status; money, too. But if we extend our reach in a different direction, we might find an unexpected road to joy: one demeaned or ignored by much of the human community.

I suggest we start by looking East and backward about 2500 years. An ancient teacher thought mankind’s flourishing required relationships invested in ceremony and ritual, in deference and respect. Here was a far more formal, harmonious way of interacting with others than we observe today.

The way fathers and sons addressed and behaved toward each other, for example, was a matter of custom and civility. Love, in part, was demonstrated by investing ritual deeds with sincerity, not grudging routine. Virtue and benevolence flowered in the performance of patterned actions and words. They became embedded in how people went about their lives, made their living, and honored the family.

What might be a ritual? Utterances and gestures as simple as our handshakes or embraces and expressions when greeting or parting. Somewhat more elaborate customs include how people are seated at a meal, who is served first, and who takes precedence in getting extra food. Use of stately words of address replaces familiar pronouns.

Voices don’t talk over others, but convey honor and recognize a hierarchy of roles. How we dress for dinner matters. So too, all expect the meal to unfold in a relaxed fashion. Our behavior indicates the importance of the event, not something less significant than whatever comes next.

Delight is taken in the simple presence and happiness of loved ones and guests. Think of conversation within appropriate boundaries, not a script.

This might sound unnatural to you in a world where time is money and ceremony reeks of elitism. Before you dismiss the notion, however, consider the growing incivility in our much less formal, modern, Western civilization, where corrosive vulgarity and worse are often excused.

Think, as well, how we skate over opportunities for rich and meaningful social contact with friends and relatives, speeding through meals, checking the iPhone, and treating wait-staff in an indifferent or demeaning fashion. We do so at the risk of diminishing ourselves and triggering a reciprocal lack of kindness, patience, and interest from those we claim to care about.

Confucius, whose Way I am referring to, formalized his guidance during the chaotic and dreadful Warring States period in China. Little happiness was present. People, we are told, were reduced to animals.

Herbert Fingerette put the Confucian view this way:

To become civilized is to establish relationships that are not merely physical, biological, or instinctive: it is to establish human relationships, relationships of an essentially symbolic kind, defined by tradition and convention and rooted in respect and obligation.*

No zero-sum game of winners and losers lives here. Every honorable person has a place.

As Confucius wrote, “Virtue does not exist in isolation; there must be neighbors.”

Many of us, trying hard to get through a challenging day, are not at our best. For those who attempt to follow the Way, however, the danger is in performance done solely out of duty, to signal our goodness, or curry favor.

Were such self-interest and riches enough to guarantee happiness, the USA would be the happiest place on Earth. Instead, it ranks 10th of 40 rated countries in life satisfaction in the 2017 OECD report.

Fingarette adds:

Society is men treating each other as men … according to the obligations and privileges … out of love and loyalty and respect called for by their human relationships.*

In so doing we prioritize the group over the individual. We invest this beautifully choreographed social dance with a gracefulness that offers us grace. Profit, ego, and selfishness are restrained. Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom enlarge.

Our human potential grows, not to become athletes of conventional success, but like those whose humanity, not financial or political triumph, we say we admire the most.

Nor is this an extreme form of self-sacrifice. We are still permitted to make a good and honorable living. We needn’t give away decent clothing and a place to live, but are discouraged from taking license just because we can.

Reciprocity thus increases. Barbarism justified as a necessary means to a desired end meets with shame. We serve as models and thereby bring out the best in those we care about. They are drawn to us.

The elusive notion of happiness resides in the group’s ritualized performance, which, like a theatrical production, is larger and more meaningful than the individual players. In embodying our role, we share the bounty of human contact where all partake.

Can we do better for ourselves and our fellow creatures by striving to be members of an orchestra rather than itinerant soloists?

Confucius believed changing the world starts with what we control, what any single person begins to reflect upon and do.

We can do worse than find out if he was right.

——-

The top photo comes from the Himeji Oshiro Festival, June 26, 2010. It is the work of Corpse Reviver. The Respect Expressway, a hallway sign, was created by rrafson. Finally, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra by Dan Lutz, date unknown. The first two are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; the last, from the Art Institute of Chicago.

*Fingarette, H. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. Prospect Hts., IL: Waveland Press, 1972.

Why Therapists Search for Your “Useful Discomfort”

One of the therapist’s first tasks is to gauge the new patient’s discomfort. If he is drowning, the doctor’s job is like that of a lifeguard, to secure and elevate him straight away. But if he is treading water, head still well above the chance of a big gulp, the inexperienced counselor’s mistake must be bypassed: taking or allowing the sufferer into the swirling downspout of his emotional whirlpool.

Entrance there leads to a subterranean dark place on a high-speed descent. His well-being and stomach for counseling might be left behind.

The depth of psychic trouble will often — and often must — wait. Trust in the relationship and safety come first. Only when some grounding work is done can you best search for a place I’d call “a useful level of discomfort.”*

Useful how? The patient, assuming the distress is not entirely new, waited for some time to come to a professional. The woman or man lived a complicated life, tried self-help books or will power or faith or work or drugs or sex or each of these to better himself. Arrival at the clinic means nothing worked or worked enough.

He needs to move past his sticking point, the concerns he didn’t want to think about, open up about. If he becomes overwhelmed, however — by too much, too soon — a premature end to the office visits is likely. Stopping short of the mucky floor of his emotions is necessary. There is a zone of useful discomfort in a less acute, sustainable place higher up.

The in-session professional senses this, watches for it. Imagine the consulting room divided in half. On one side of an invisible partition sits the counselor. On the other, his client resides in a breathable, transparent fluid. Much movement occurs within the liquid, high and low, serene or agitated or depressed: the entire range of possibilities to which our hearts are subject.

The individual requires acute attention. Where he exists within his emotional space might change a dozen times before the clock suspends his share of the therapist’s face-to-face focus; in the same place or another, up or downriver.

Here is one of the reasons the doctor monitors the elapsing passage of the hour. He must, if he can, retrieve the drifting, disconsolate patient before session’s close; get him to shore. Leaving him with “useful discomfort” is often acceptable. A client who is worse off with regularity as he leaves the building is a guarantee of treatment failure. Health care professionals don’t want those in their care suffering the engagement too much.

The time is and is not the patient’s, though he purchased the visit. He owns that it happens, but the provider’s job is to manage the way it happens. Think of the latter as a traffic cop of sorts, the conductor of the flow of ideas and moods. The doctor reinforces the guard rails, keeping his charge from careening off the tracks, the chasms in his psyche through which he will fall if the session ends in the wrong place.

Those in psychotherapy possess many escape hatches. Full frontal immersion in a place they have avoided will force them to rely upon these old survival techniques and defenses. Only these, not their healer, then signal possible relief. The patient will have returned to the place of his former misery, but be glad because the prescribed ministrations, interpretations, and nudges made him worse.

The lesson of useful discomfort takes you forward, not retreating from life. Much of our flourishing depends on finding a way to tolerate unpleasant situations, not flee them. Resilience and courage incubate here. With experience, the formerly uncomfortable territory becomes less noxious. The circle of life enlarges.

The therapist should not be like a sadist slow-cooking you on a spit. His desire for your useful discomfort is to sustain your capacity for facing your issues without making the offered remedy either a feel-good waste of time or an intolerable ordeal guaranteeing a defeat of the therapeutic project. In effect, he is saying, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, ‘”you are not in Kansas anymore,’ but this is the necessary place for you now. I will do my best to make it manageable.”

Like Dorothy’s “yellow brick road” Odyssey, the effort leads to discovery of the strength inside you. From there, whether home or away, new adventures are possible. You are now the master of your self.

——-

The second image is Ancient Harmony by Paul Klee. *The expression “useful discomfort” is borrowed from a recent article about climate science/

What if We Could Erase Painful Memories?

Why is memory this way? Why isn’t it content to hurt you once? Why must it remind you of all the times you’ve been hurt before?

If this doesn’t sound familiar, you have been asleep for a while.

Our hearts are given as hostage when we love. The kind of love doesn’t matter: children, friends, romance, and more. Our core is at risk when we treasure books and eyes fail, or music and hearing dims, or running and knees collapse.

Think of our loves as on loan from a magical library. This institution specifies no due date for the materials checked out.

Are we fools because the absence of a precise cutoff allows us to believe our possession is secure?

Perhaps someone already grabbed the object of our desire off the shelf. Will waiting help, hoping for the item to be returned?

You say rapture is yours? Then, suddenly, the library police snatch it away. No warning. No time to prepare. Maybe an accident robs you of your mobility or another love of a lover. No aid for this, no higher authority to whom you can appeal.

The officers provide only cruel compensation: a hole inside. The happiness of what remains begins to leak, the substance of life tunneling down the bottomless sink. Food doesn’t taste right, jokes don’t make you laugh, sleep gives no rest.

You climb in and reach for what is moving away. Or lack even the strength to lift you arm, open your hand, and try.

Oh, but shards of the remembrance cut, edges slow to depart.

Where is the repair shop when you need it, something to fill up the hole, smooth the jagged places? A replacement for “one of a kind” now gone? No second hand stores carry it, no reseller offers the missing part. A proprietor says they have something like it. You know they don’t.

What if you could simply forget you’d ever had the precious commodity, as if a surgeon removed an unwanted scar?

The top quote comes from Mem, by Bethany Morrow. The novel deals with some of the implications of memory erasure, also treated in the 2004 movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Outside of fiction, scientists envision a possible future including electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), brain implants, or other methods to treat PTSD by deleting disturbing memories.

The researchers make an assumption: the stinging, sorrowing, traumatic remembrances are distinct, limited, and not integrated with the rest of you. Not all troubling events fit into this tiny package, however.

Stop for a moment.

Would you sign up?

Many questions can be expected to arise if such a tool comes to the hospital nearest you. How would the doctor measure whether a memory is terrible enough and fenced-off enough to qualify for medical vanishing cream? Would the emotion disappear along with the recollection or might one experience the trauma without the reference to what caused it?

How would a forgotten past allow us to learn from our mistakes? Some amount of pain is both inevitable and necessary for human development.

What might such experiential carve-outs do to our humanity? How might we relate to those who remember the event, but didn’t use the medical white-out?

Could the richness of life and our capacity for empathy — our moral growth and resilience — diminish with a too ready instrumental “end (to) the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?”*

If the technique were extended to matters of romantic heartbreak, would the wonder of love vanish too? Might our species turn reckless once assured that losses needn’t last past our next doctor appointment?

Remember, taking something away doesn’t add anything back. Would these scrubbed souls become like white boards without the written names and meanings of the people who were once our “everything?” Does spotlessness await or just mindless?

For now we must weather the bad luck and pack an umbrella. Perhaps go to a therapist or seek the drug dispensers, insurance approved or otherwise. We count on time to pass so we no longer count the time “since” and “after.”

I wish we were guaranteed a puddle remover for the rain and a hole closer for the drain. At least they tend to get smaller.

Gratitude for what abides offers consolation, though hard to summon with speed. New people, new tasks, new beauties beckon. Acceptance, too, is instrumental in healing, another job needy of practice and patience. Religion helps some find solace.

To me, the essential lesson is to live with urgency. Not stay up nights wondering when the librarian will demand the book back. Rather, to be exhausted by bedtime for having embraced the fullness and possibility of the sunlight. If, by evening, the tale of your life is claimed, the desk won’t be piled high with regret.

Your library card might appear battered by then. Look carefully, though, and recognize something else. Good use was made of your time and the invitation to enter a wondrous place called the globe. I mean the bounty offered there: books and relationships, work and sport, nature and laughter and fulfillment from striving to repair the world.

In a place where everything is borrowed and brief, Andrew Marvell’s centuries old advice, To His Coy Mistress, still applies:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

——–

The second image is Erased de Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg.

*Excerpt from the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, Scene I.

The Truth About Sex Frequency and How We Know It

Depending on who you consult, people are either having lots of sex (more than you, by the way) or a significant amount less than they report. Which “truth” shall we believe?

A June 11, 2019 Cosmopolitan story tells us Millennials are blessed in this department — “killing it in the bedroom,” reports Julie Vadnal. There are reasons to hesitate before accepting the conclusions in her article, however.

What people say they do and what they do in reality can be different. Furthermore, her definition of sex covers considerable ground, including “non-penetrative sex, vibrators, porn,” etc.

Is masturbation (solo variety) sex?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s (S-D) 2017 book, Everybody Lies, offers an alternative perspective. His inquiry suggests people lie about many things, and physical intimacy is high on the deception list. Moreover, this research analyst mistrusts surveys, the usual authority on what we know about private acts.

A phone voice or in-person interviewer might not elicit secrets you’d shrink from telling your best friend. A promise of anonymity makes little difference in his view, even online.

Instead, S-D mines information drawn from Google search results. He concludes that the respondents to surveys say they are having more romance than they are.

An example illustrates the point:

Based on 2016 data from straight women who took part in the General Social Survey,* the average female adult has sex 55 times a year. Sixteen percent of the time condoms are worn.

Do the math and you get 1.1 billion rubbers put to the rub per annum.

Before you believe those numbers, consider the following.

Figures from heterosexual males reveal 1.6 billion episodes of latex-type prophylactic employment, about 145% more than the ladies who are their partners!

More doubt about the findings comes from Nielsen, a giant tracker of consumer behavior. Fewer than 600 million condoms are purchased each year. Unless the men and women are making their own contraceptive devices in the basement, both are exaggerating the frequency with which they “do it.”

The General Social Survey used by S-D was repeated last year. Suffice to say, even the GSS indicates the passionate part of many of our lives is on a downhill course. To take one illustration, 51% of 18 to 29-year-olds reported having sex once a week or more in 1996. In 2018 the number was 39%.

Commentators speculate as to the reasons for the decline. Causes might include the reduction in the portion of young adults with live-in lovers and a similar diminution of those with a steady romantic companion.

A smaller percentage of young men with a reliable source of income must also be factored in. The lack of career prospects is presumed to reduce a male’s chances of amorous success.

The overall GSS results are also tipped in the “diminishing copulation” direction by an increase in the proportion of those 60 and older in the population, from 18% in 1996 to 26% in 2018. Though seniors often have a satisfying sex life, Viagra doesn’t transform them into the rabbits of their youth.

Take U.S. adults as a whole and nearly one in four were celibate in the year covered by the last study. Let me repeat: no sex at all for almost 25%.

Stephens-Davidowitz states that grown-up Americans are (surprise!) not happy about the situation.

On Google, “The top complaint about a marriage is not having sex. Searches for ‘sexless marriage’ are three and a half times more common than ‘loveless marriage.'”

Stephens-Davidowitz continues, “Even unmarried couples complain somewhat frequently about not having sex. Searches for ‘sexless relationship’ are second only to ‘abusive relationship.'”

The findings, according to Everybody Lies, suggest more anxiety about love-making than many admit. Our body parts and their size, both too much and too little, haunt us. Other troubling matters unsettle us, as well, not least performance.

From my angle, the preoccupations, inhibitions, and prohibitions likely come from several places. Centuries of religious teaching, fear of disease, and a personal history of self-doubt and rejection can interfere with intimacy.

Add emotional attachment or its absence, the chance and import of pregnancy, and comparisons with movie personalities, models, and X-rated stars. All this and more ratchets up the stakes of getting naked.

Surely the unprecedented level of stress found by the American Psychological Association, greatest among Millennials, enhances no one’s sex life. Life complications and frustrations enter the bedroom on tip-toe, unseen and not discussed. If past events join present and future worries, little space for joy remains.

No therapist can alter the backdrop of our fraught social, work, and political life. Climate change troubles those with lots of time ahead, who should be lustful, more than anyone else. But is the separate worry over muscle tone, shapeliness, execution, and ego justified?

Stephens-Davidowitz comments on this question in passing. The researcher believes there is more forgiveness about the short-falls of bodies, shapes, and sizes than people think. Being in love makes us more forgiving creatures.

Yes, sex is in the air, but love tends to bring out our best selves. For a guy who writes about Big Data and impersonal numbers, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz turns out to be a bit of a sweetie-pie.

_________________________________________________________

The first image is Self-Portrait with White Gown by Egon Schiele. Second comes A Portrait of Madame Sohn by the same painter. The photograph following is Egon Schiele by Josef Anton Trčka.

*”The General Social Survey (GSS) is a project of the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, with principal funding from the National Science Foundation.”

You might also want to look at other sources for this essay, including Stress in America — Charted/, Record High in Americans Not Having Sex/, and The Millennial Sex Recession is Bullsh*t/

When Politics Threatens Your Relationship

Is there anywhere to escape politics? Unless you are stranded on a desert island, maybe not. Times are challenging for those of us on the mainland.

Dr. Jeanne Safer desires to help all homo sapiens chagrined over political disagreements. Friends, lovers, parents, and next-door neighbors are included; anyone who cares to make and maintain a connection with another person.


Early in her book I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics, Safer claims she is “the go-to expert on making a mixed-political relationships flourish.” Bad start. It takes more than self-congratulations to persuade me. Still, the author offers some worthy ideas.

The psychotherapist’s conceptualization of her chosen topic is this: “Our fights are rarely about the overt issues that spark them, especially when they are repetitive and emotionally devastating.”

“The key to lasting change,” she writes, “is realizing that political fights in intimate relationships are not really about politics.” This therapist identifies underlying psychodynamic distress at the conflict’s core: long-standing parental difficulties, sibling rivalry, the desire for recognition and respect, etc. The basic material of traditional forms of psychotherapy.

Should you read the book, you’ll find substantial doses of opinion and an equal amount of advice. For example, here are the kinds of things we are instructed not to do:

  • Drink before beginning any political discussion.
  • Spring unsolicited articles on your spouse as he is eating his breakfast.
  • Make sure to quiz him later about his required reading assignment, the better to guarantee he “gets it.”
  • Lecture your lover with the goal of winning her enlightenment and unending gratitude.
  • Become enraged over small differences in governmental actions. Scream at the woman you love when she fails to be persuaded.
  • Break things your boyfriend cherishes in retaliation.

Dr. Safer recognizes your project is hopeless. As Jonathan Haidt’s research informs us, attempted conversion of those with passionate political and religious beliefs is a fool’s errand in the vast majority of cases.

The reason?

Reason has little to do with those convictions.

According to Haidt, they are more instinctual, unconscious gut reactions than thoughtful, cool-headed, academic research projects. Once established, our brains instantaneously catch-up to the unshakeable sentiment already present, providing justification. We believe our point of view is well-considered and unassailable.

Part of the doctor’s solution is to let go of the fantasy of converting our counterpart to “our side.” Additional recommendations include self-reflection, looking at our contribution to the interpersonal conflict, and determining whether we want to dissolve precious intimacy over the legislative madness of the day. To her, allowing the hope for political agreement to die opens the possibility of reconciliation.

Be warned, the writer is not promising unity of a duet’s electoral decision making. Indeed, she is not aiming for the latter. Rather, she encourages prioritizing what you have together despite abiding discord over public policy.

Jean Safer argues for mutual respect, civility, and sensitivity, as well as sidelining such preoccupations as Supreme Court appointments and gerrymandering. She urges her patients to value honesty, loyalty, and affection, lest they pitch out the friendship baby with the bathwater. Insoluble left and right leanings, from her perspective, topple the straight-up qualities two people might otherwise enjoy. For the author, shared core values that are beyond politics are the ultimate couple-unifying cement.*


The book presents many examples of successful relationship rescue and a few of failure. The counselor trumpets her husband and herself as one of those successes.

While said man, Richard Brookhiser, is a prominent conservative journalist and counterpoint to his wife’s liberal tendencies, she never mentions one attitude they share: their evaluation of Donald Trump.

The major disagreement the pair overcame (abortion) was challenging enough, but I’m guessing like-mindedness regarding the Commander-in-chief improves the chances of satisfying co-existence with a partner.

Here is my summary take on the book’s argument. The psychologist suggests we carve out most disharmonies over governance to the extent necessary for rapport with those dear to us. She thereby appears to assume our current national predicament is not an existential one — rather, an incubator where a mischievous subconscious plays out its unresolved emotional injuries.

I disagree in three respects. First, I suspect many of us would descend into strife over the country’s direction even with less weighty and untidy internal baggage than we carry into conversation.


Second, our politics has morphed into matters the world will dismiss only at its peril. Between threats to the continuation of our democratic republic and life-threatening climate extremes, those who look away from the state of globe risk enablement of grave misfortune and planetary demise.


Granted, Dr. Safer doesn’t suggest constraining political expression and action outside the relationship, but donations to antagonistic causes tend to come out of the identical family savings account. Moreover, tolerating participation in opposing get-out-the-vote activities will take a lot of hard-swallowing if you believe posterity is on the line.


Third, for those hoping to raise children to become honorable and responsible citizens, you will need some virtuoso parenting skills to fence off the divergences between you and your mate as the growing offspring begin to voice their opinions. Parents with young children, but distinct and contrasting world views, are not addressed in Dr. Safer’s book.

The gentlewoman healer provides more optimism than I can about a politically mixed love and friendship future in our unsettling moment in history. I fear the period into which we are marching cannot keep those differences back any more than flood waters menacing low-lying areas of the coastal United States.

Here is the best I can do:

  • Choose your friends and lovers with discernment, not ignoring their outlook in a world where the middle ground is small. I’m not suggesting you shun those with different views, but be mindful that fraternal closeness and marriage can tax even those pairs who vote in unison.
  • As Dr. Safer suggests, work on your unfinished internal disquiet with the intention of making yourself a less difficult person, slower to provocation in and out of political discussions. She lists practical suggestions you and your counterpart can use to defuse your news-driven clashes.
  • Try to recognize people as personalities with individuality, not as members of a disliked or unfamiliar group, simple replaceable parts in the human food chain from which you benefit.
  • Engage those of different ethnicities, gender identification, religion or color without reliance on stereotypes. Talk to them, not at them; with them more than about them. Use their names. Shake hands. Work to see a kindred soul within the faces of political opponents.
  • Give tender devotion to the values binding you to those you love. Life would be boring if everyone thought and acted the same way.

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*There are limits to Dr. Safer’s tolerance and optimism: “You won’t find encouragement to tolerate a mate or a friend or a family member who is a recalcitrant racist, a sexist, or a supporter of Antifa or the Alt-right.”

I received an advanced copy of Dr. Safer’s book courtesy of St. Martin’s Press. My commentary was done without compensation, with the understanding that it might as easily be negative as positive.

The top painting reproduction is Metamorphosis by Joan Miro. The next two are by Paul Klee. In order, they are Ancient Harmony and Angel, Still Groping. The final work is a Study of Hands, by Egon Schiele.