Breaking the Heart of One You Love

My mother said some memorable things. “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?” was among her greatest hits. Another was borrowed from Groucho Marx: in the middle of a less than scintillating party, she might utter, “I had a wonderful time, but this wasn’t it.” Quietly, of course.

Mrs. Stein proclaimed one habitual belief I never quite understood: “Regret is a painkiller for fools.” I gather she was being dismissive of those who looked back in sadness. Though I never took the statement to heart, I regret little about my lucky life. One old sorrow sticks with me, however.

Breaking the heart of a loved one is never harder than when the one is seven-years-old.

“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend) said he isn’t.”

I had learned long before this, the importance of being honest.

I looked at Jorie, but perhaps didn’t recognize just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.

What I valued, however, was her trust in me. Before I answered, I decided I ought not break her trust.

“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”

I can still envision her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.

This was not the last time I caused pain to someone I love, but was the first time I remember doing so to any child of mine.

Welcome to the real world, honey; the place where things aren’t always as they seem or as we would like them to be. A place where hard reality trumps fantasy; a place where someone who “loves you to pieces” breaks your heart into pieces.

That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead to save this little person from the pain of a message amenable to postponement.

Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was a Socratic dialogue possible — a perfect sequence of questions leading her to the same truth without hurting her so much?

A change of the subject, perhaps, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?

Or, should I have lied? “Of course Santa exists, Sweetie.” And then left her open to potential ridicule of friends, as well as some doubts about whether her dad was trustworthy.

Janet Landman, in her book, Regret: the Persistence of the Possible, likens regret to the dilemma of coming to a fork in the road and making a choice. You walk down the chosen path for a while, before you realize your selection isn’t quite as good as you hoped. “I probably should have gone the other way.”

No matter which road you chose, “the persistence of the possible” is present. Nothing in life is perfect, but in your imagination the alternative remains idealized. Only in your mind – in the world of abstraction and fantasy – does perfection reside: the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect result, the perfect performance of whatever kind.

And, for me, the perfect answer to a simple question.

Sometimes in life no ideal solution is available, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. We never know the alternative from lived experience, nor return to the moment; because, as Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” With the passage of time, the river changed and so have you.

No, you cannot un-ring the bell. No do-overs when it comes to the knowledge of whether Santa is real.

We must live with the inevitable heartbreaks when they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain whether a different road would have made all the difference or none at all.

One can only accept the terms life allows. The metaphorical contract we sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at birth grants no escape clause from hard knocks. Not, at least, while life goes on.

I still wish I could have protected Jorie from the terrible knowledge I delivered on the near-Christmas day; not just about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think back, it isn’t knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, but from the pain of life itself.

Such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also be compensated by beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.

Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.

The good news?

Our love abides.

———————-

The second image is of a Young Ashaninka Girl in an Apiwtxa Village, Acre State, Brazil. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons and the work of Pedro Franca/Ministry of Culture. This post is a reworking of one I wrote several years ago.

Halloween and the Road to Temptation

Seen Around Lincoln Center - Day 2 - Spring 2012 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

I was recently asked about the craziest thing I ever did. My answer? “Therapists aren’t known for being crazy.” Truth is, I couldn’t come up with much, but will acknowledge near-craziness a few times.

You might not think Halloween would provide the opportunity. Perhaps, then, you never went “trick-or-treating” for UNICEF. I did with my buddy Steve Henikoff in seventh grade, age 12.

The adventure began with an earnest and philanthropic gesture. Or only an excuse to go out on Halloween without the embarrassment of being too old for costumes. We heard about the possibility of a higher Halloween calling than accumulating piles of candy and looking like original sin.

UNICEF is the United Nations Children’s Fund, originally created as the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund in 1946 to offer urgently needed healthcare and food to kids in countries turned inside out in World War II. An estimable enterprise still today.

Well, we wanted to do something fun. Noble, too? As noble as lower middle-class 12-year-old boys were capable of at the time. We sent away for the proper identifying materials and began a house-to-house pilgrimage as civilians. Never having done this before, we didn’t predict what kind of response might come from the adults who answered the door with candy in their hands. Well, except for “Get off my lawn!” old guys.

The UNICEF Halloween campaign started quietly in 1950, and was unknown to lots of the folks we met. Some people didn’t believe our explanation and challenged our honesty, despite our fresh-faced innocence. Others gave us coins. So it went, for as many hours as we stayed out. I remember the weather being a bit damp, but we didn’t quit because of rain or cold. My dad worked for the U.S. Post Office, so I knew what it meant to make the appointed rounds regardless of conditions.

Our charitable haul for the evening came to about $12. By today’s valuation we had 100 greenbacks. Think of giving two 12-year-olds with empty pockets $100. My younger brothers Ed and Jack were getting 10-cents for putting a just-ejected tooth under the pillow at night in those days. Thanks to the decades old ravages of the Great Depression on my folks, money remained a hard, heavy matter for them, much like the change we carried.

Temptation, friends, on a day devoted to child’s play, had paid me and Steve a visit.

These two young boys, cloistered in a safe neighborhood, watched over by decent parents, found themselves at a crossroads of sorts.

No one would know if we kept the money or held-back a high percentage and gave a small amount to UNICEF. In a certain sense, no one cared. The only consequence would be internal. What might we think of ourselves?

No one lives a temptation-free life. Money is an ever-present lure for some people, even those who have plenty. Lying comes in handy, as TV dramas demonstrate along with the shameless, fallen state of professional and governmental ethics. Sex? What can I say? The more illicit, the more inviting. But Steve and I didn’t grasp our adult future. Life was real, not abstract, we weren’t old enough to get sexy with anyone, and the coins were speaking to us.

The two buddies conversed briefly. Very briefly. It wasn’t in our DNA to do anything but what we did. In a certain sense, there was no choice. We were just being ourselves.

The dimes and quarters and nickels – every cent – went to UNICEF and those needy kids.

In another life what might have happened? What if I had 100 lives? I can’t say I wouldn’t visit so-called iniquity more often in at least one of them, just for the joy ride, the pitch-black thrill. We don’t get the chance, do we, unless reincarnation is real? Then, we are told, the wages of becoming your evil twin aren’t pleasant.

We usually keep our dark side in the shade, not acknowledging how much we’ve already lived there, making our self-image more virtuous than we deserve.

You say you don’t?

Then you are tormented.

But, imagine a slightly older version of yours truly on that ancient Halloween night and a same-aged Heidi Klum as my trick-or-treat date, encouraging me to keep the money and holding me tight. Ah, the flesh is weak.

Would Heidi then, like Socrates, have been accused of “corrupting the youth” of Talman Avenue, West Rogers Park, Chicago? Socrates faced a jury of a few hundred Athenian citizens, all men. Acquittal before such an audience would have been the only possible verdict for the “trick or treat” hottie. As for me, so long as Heidi was nearby, I’d have been – shall we say – preoccupied; categorizing the theft as an anomaly, rationalizing as needed. We do it all the time, the better to live with ourselves.

Hey, I was a young teenage male. Give me a break. Remember, it didn’t happen.

Temptation can often be avoided – at the risk of overregulating your life. Think USA VP Mike Pence, who won’t go to dinner with a woman unless his wife is beside him with a gun trained on his privates, thus simultaneously guaranteeing his fidelity and supporting the National Rifle Association.

Others resist if they can. Resisting temptation is a bit like trying to stand straight-up and recite the Boy Scout Oath at the top of a perfect toboggan run on a cold winter’s day with the wind at your back. You are – whether you realize it or not – about to slide a long, slippery, perhaps injurious distance.

Life is probably more fun and more fraught if you don’t avoid or resist all the time and don’t think too much about who you are. When is creative risk-taking the road to a bad end? When is the straight-and-narrow the slow lane to a muted life?

If one evaluates one’s choices, much depends on when we take the measure: at the point the gambler wins his pot of gold or after he loses big-time? In youth, middle-age, or the end-of-the-line?

Still, when the tolling bell reminds us to change our lives, I don’t think it is encouraging a future in bank robbery.

I guess I was lucky never to meet Heidi Klum as a teen, who was born after Steve and I labored our single night for UNICEF.

Or, maybe, the luck would have been in meeting her.

There is always someone or something, in the domain where you are most vulnerable, that can make you want to do something crazy and enticing: becoming other than your usual self. A kind of moral Achilles heel or an invitation to freedom, depending on how you imagine it and the elasticity of your virtue.

Wanting and doing, however, are different things.

If imagination were action, we’d all be in jail.

The top two images come from UNICEF. Heidi Klum, pictured in the first one, was the 2011 Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF Ambassador.

Can You Be Too Beautiful? When Sex Gets in the Way of Love

We live in a world of appearances and surface qualities, relentlessly sold, as if only beauty matters. But what of the wreckage that comes in the package when “the package” – the outer wrapping of a gifted female form – blinds the male observer to what is inside?

A few words, then, about the desire to be “known” as more than a “hot chick,” but for the soul and the idea at your core: the craving for understanding that women, in particular, find elusive in their male partners.

Men are built to be struck dumb by beauty, females to blind them, in order to procreate little duplicates and extend our mutual genetic life in the form of offspring. At some point in civilization’s course, we learned to reign in the lust and wait a bit, the better to determine whether physical attraction can combine with compatibility, protection, and parenting. But there is tension between the urge for touch and the restraint of such desire. So the human world has always been.

Good parents, especially parents of daughters, worry about the sex thing in their growing children. My wife and I did, for sure.

One of our little lovelies was unusually sense-sensitive. She craved affectionate touch from us, skin on skin. Not as though my wife and I held back. We couldn’t get enough of holding and kissing our children, just as we fondle our grandson at every opportunity today. Our tiny lady found special joy and comfort in the “skinny” of things, as she and we came to refer to it.

Well, to the good, she didn’t become a wild-woman, as we occasionally feared might happen. Our two daughters had different natures, and we tried to respond with what each one required, not a “one-size-fits all” approach.

In my clinical practice I treated a number of women who resembled my daughter’s wish for the skinny. Some of them came by this characteristic because they’d been deprived of loving touch when young. Others, however, perhaps had my little one’s nature, desirous of physical affection more than most, sense-oriented in their genetic template. I listened to stories from females who found being held more satisfying than sex. Young and older women, both.

The early stage of dating coincides with the early stage of physical maturity. If love is blind, it is blindest when the body parts spring into action, especially the part belonging to the man. Can a young fellow understand his girlfriend when he hardly grasps life at all and hormones are flooding his brain? Not well. But, perhaps the young woman hasn’t yet discovered what a precious thing it is to be precious, treasured for reasons other than her youthful glow.

What happens then? The female gets older, but not yet old, wonders if a “good man” exists – just one – capable of understanding and sexuality; less self-love and more of a kind that recognizes the unique qualities beyond “curb appeal.” “Me, not her!” she seems to say, referring to her appearance as if it had a life of its own. “Want me not only in the bedroom: the other me is important, too.”

Some of those I’m talking about fall in love with their therapists. Beyond the traditional Freudian transference, why might that be?

Could it be because his job is to get underneath the skin, beyond the skin? And, because he is forbidden to touch? He communicates in words, words alone. He thinks about you, listens to you, analyzes you, looks into your eyes, abides with you, cradles your being (not your body) when you most need a comforting embrace.

Moreover, often a counselor is older, less driven by his own sexuality. He is not so captured by his hormones and your fetching vision. He can radiate, for all these reasons, a more fatherly presence, at least the kind of father you might have wanted if your own fell short. The best dads cherish their children of both genders, recognize the human being inside, and speak the words conveying this knowledge.

We need, all of us need, to ache for love, the ache before touch, the ache that cannot grow when want is satisfied early and often. Romance is fueled by magic, imagination, and language; physical reality can get in the way. Not that romance doesn’t crave fulfillment, but lofty affection needs time to brew, age a little before you drink.

Does this sound quaint, the musings of a man raised in a less sexually free atmosphere than we live in today? I plead guilty. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Analogues similar to the doctor/patient growth of love do exist: in bygone days, when people separated by distance wrote love letters. My dad and mom were newly married when he went to war. The ardency of his well-traveled words can be read here: Love Letters.

Is this not what you want? I sometimes wonder, in our current environment, if a man’s discovery of a woman at the most genuine level is preempted by too much, too soon. In my dad’s day, sex was more a question of whether than when. Now, consummation is expected early and almost disqualifying if one or the other wants to wait very long. But these are general statements and may not apply to you at all. My apologies.

Some women should be treasured for their intellect, kindness, and talent; for their revolt and their surrender; for their self; but settle for financial security or sex or just someone to blunt the dull edge of loneliness. These women should have their hands kissed, but the bargain doesn’t always include tenderness. Stupefied by their own stupidity, men can be blind to what they too are missing.

In the last few years, I’ve come to the point of cherishing my long-time friends, something similar to what I think a woman wants from her mate. I have begun to tell them, men and women both, what makes them special to me. To express my gratitude for their being and for being in my life.

We need to age a little to find this gratitude for the things so long taken for granted. And maybe some of us (men too) need to lose 20% of our charm so the opposite sex will be less dazzled and see farther, less physically attractive to be loved for who we are. Might we need to look middle-aged and recognize our mortality before the whole of us can take precedence over body parts and hair and symmetry and the other handiwork of the sculptor who made us? Not our fault, but still …

I could be way off, as I said. I am a married man who has received more love than I deserve and listened to intimate stories in the office, too. I can’t know by experience what any of you, dear female readers, understand from the inside. But, before you dump my words into the dumpster, consider this. This is what I think you want, in a poem of W.B. Yeats. The kind of love he had for a woman who spurned him:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Maude Gonne, the woman for whom Yeats carried a torch well-beyond the writing of this verse, did not get the fullness of his love because she jilted him. His was an abiding affection even when she was no longer the beauty of her youth.

But then, the question is, do you want this sort of love?

You already know what I think.

—————-

The top photo is A Beautiful Female Mannequin, by epsos.de. The second image is a Boston photo of Jules Aarons. Next comes Beautiful Female Avatar from Second Life, the work of Jin Zan. The iconic American Girl in Italy by Ruth Orkin follows. Finally, a painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo entitled Flora. All the female images except for the Orkin photo are sourced from Wikimedia Commons and, quite intentionally, none of them are real women (with the exception of the Orkin photo), since the essay is about believing “the package” is the real thing.

Patients Who Haunt the Therapist

It’s almost Halloween. Time to talk of a patient who haunts me.

I put her in the category of Greek tragedy. After you do therapy for a while, you get a sense of a singular place called “Grim Future;” and a person, admirable in many ways, whose tragic flaw will take her there. Usually, you only witness the first few acts of the drama.

But you are certain, even though the data say therapists are flawed predictors.

These are the patients with whom you are powerless. Not a good thing for a peculiar profession, one hoping to prevent disaster, enable happiness.

She was a university student. Her parents actually did the leg-work to find a therapist to “fix” her. I came recommended, though an odd choice for a family steeped in “hellfire and brimstone” faith, the folks who strangle nearby innocents with certainty of the right and wrong of everything. Their rigidity frightened me, people who sat so tightly wound in my office I thought they might vaporize. Hisssssssssssssssss!

I’d be seeing the daughter, however, I said to myself. I told them she would be my patient, not they; once I evaluated her and assuming I believed good might be done. I “would not, could not” (as Dr. Seuss says) report back to them; short of imminent risk of self-harm or danger to someone else. They seemed to agree.

She walked in and springtime came with her. A silvery thing, she lit the room, though I cannot explain how. A “presence.” Therapists take in everything or try to.

This young woman was tall, perhaps 5’10” and willowy; black hair against porcelain skin, a pleasant face. Her complexion was so fair I could almost see through her. Someone else had, I suspected, and seen there was no will in her to resist much of anything.

She was not the most expressive person I ever treated, more sadly placid. Not serene, but the kind of calm derived from having the fight drained from you. Almost weary. Her parents had sucked the life out of her. Think vampires. The wind would take her where it chose. Right now she had youth and beauty, but as they say about the short careers in the National Football League (NFL), the three initials really mean “not for long.” Of course, I didn’t understand all this immediately.

Her parents wanted her to follow some “serious,” academic track. She was a dancer. They wanted her earthbound. She wished to leap. Bad combination.

Many of us try to get the love we couldn’t get at home, don’t we, at least for a while? My patient was looking for such affection. Her folks didn’t like her boyfriend: he was not a member of their suburban, uppity class, and worse (to them) freighted with a minority heritage. But before you feel too sympathetic toward him, you must learn more.

I discovered he had introduced her to cocaine, which he also used: a drug, for her, like a key for her internal lock. There she found release, relief, and ecstasy. There, she was no longer anyone’s hostage. But, of course, she’d simply gone from being her parents’ chattel to that of the boyfriend and the drug.

Treatment didn’t go on for long. The job of freeing a person from parental dominance or a lover’s grip must wait if simply getting through the day is difficult.  I explored addiction treatment with her. I don’t recall if she began or not, but her interest was only dutiful. Soon enough her parents discovered her use and blamed me for not telling them. Therapy ended.

The character of Alfieri, in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, says the following:

There are times when you want to spread an alarm, but nothing has happened. I knew, I knew then and there – I could have finished the whole story that afternoon. It wasn’t as though there was a mystery to unravel, I could see every step coming, step after step, like a dark figure walking down a hall toward a certain door. I knew where (she) was heading for, and I knew where (she) was going to end. And I sat here many afternoons asking myself why, being an intelligent man, I was so powerless to stop it. And I even went to a certain old lady in the neighborhood, a very wise old woman, and I told her, and she only nodded and said, ‘Pray for (her) …’

The cynics say counselors are only interested in money, making a fine living off the pain of others. Well, some few are, but most of us want the best for everyone, not just our patients. We are rewarded by human contact and flourishing.

Yes, we cannot help without a therapeutic distance. The invisible boundary doesn’t inoculate us all the time. People we know, in and out of therapy, get inside. It happens to us as to you. We are not sculpted from stone.

Halloween is an odd day to be thinking of prayer, but apt perhaps. This year, when you tuck your candy-buzzed child into bed, and after all your treats have been gobbled up by greedy little monsters, sit back and rest and be grateful if no ghosts haunt you. Then, if you have a picture of this fragile creature because my story was well-told, pray for the (now, no longer young) woman, if she lives.

And for your counselor. This, from an ex-therapist who doesn’t believe in God.

The top painting is Marie, by Peder Severin Krøyer. The second image is The Ghost, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When Being a Therapist Means Saying You are Sorry

We all try to understand people. Counselors and personality experts use formal systems for the job. The therapist begins with lists of human characteristics, a bit like a Chinese menu – beef, chicken, pork. If you fall into one column or another, you are given the name at the top. Not fish or fowl, but introvert, extrovert, narcissist, schizophrenic, etc.

These systems all tend to put people into a box they fit imperfectly. We therefore add other words as qualifiers to make the label more precise. Kind of like saying a person is not merely “tall,” but “muscular,” or “slender” or also has “a winning smile.” Still, they are all generalizations and even the one with the dazzling teeth isn’t grinning all the time.

Our boxes are not made of corrugated cardboard or wood. They come from knowledge and experience, imagination and instinct. Without using them to “place” every person we meet, we’d be like small children, unable to make sense of people, neither responsive to their needs nor capable of securing our own.

On occasion the categorization strategies don’t come close to making the human world comprehensible. Not all labeled people and their motives are well-captured by name tags. They are more complex. Those individuals don’t quite think the way we do or feel the way we do, making our comprehension of their nature harder to achieve. Our effort at understanding another, too often based on how our own minds work (or we think they work) can fail. Therapists share this experience of failure with everyone else. Less often, we hope.

I’ve met only a few unique people in my life despite having more in-depth human encounters than most. These few burst any categories in which we place them. Usually, however, the boxes work well-enough or better. Indeed, many times they are spot-on.

Everyone outside the doctor’s office, however, is at risk of resorting to stereotypical, pejorative labels, condemning those who are different because they don’t understand them. The labeled crate becomes a confinement of accusation and punishment. Look around: nationalists of all countries transforming races and religions and different national groups into imagined monsters.

It makes the world less scary to do this. Life is simplified into one pile of good people and one pile of evil people. The individual doing the sorting is never in the evil stack.

Being a therapist means you must be humble and open to those who can be difficult to categorize and sometimes, just plain difficult. If you are over-matched by the task of grasping and managing the therapeutic relationship, maybe you should make a referral from the start. Usually, however, you don’t realize your understanding is flawed for a while. By then a referral will not be simple. No matter the desire to do good by the patient, your rejection is likely to sting or devastate. The client came to you for repair and you made him worse.

Some counselors will keep the same box and keep using their failed understanding to treat the person. Some try to jam the client’s body into a differently labeled container and still treat him, even when box #2 doesn’t work either. Most will try to learn more, be humble, and look for a right-sized carton or no box at all until things are clearer. None of these tacks is sure-fire, but I favored the last one when I was in practice, often with the help of a personality test.

The therapist in all such situations confronts his own limitations. He needs modesty before he can achieve mastery. He needs to acknowledge his errors. He needs to figure out what is best for the patient while keeping his brain from exploding a little from the frustration and the fear he won’t be able to handle things.

Not all of us can do this in therapy or in life, and no one does it all the time with those for whom we care and those we care about.

If you’ve read the black on white scribblings I seem to endlessly produce (to my own astonishment) you know I don’t offer too many simple answers. Like you, I keep trying to understand this thing called life that appears so simple on the surface and no one ever fully gets right.

Life is a squirmy creature. You believe she is in your grasp and one second later she wriggles away. You think you are the master of yourself until your lack of mastery can’t be ignored. People don’t fit into a carton, and life – of all things – oozes and leaps and bumps against any enclosure we attempt to put it in.

Our boxes, as essential as they are, can injure people around us and limit our own understanding: understanding of the complexities of our fellow-man and our ability to be understanding, comforting, and kind.

The irony is that our use of boxes puts us in a box, too.

The moral of this story is to acknowledge the artificiality of labeled cartons and know they are also needed to get through the day. And then, perhaps, drink a glass of wine and accept the universe as it is.

No wonder religious faith is so appealing. The idea of “giving control over” to a benign, all-powerful, all-knowing being is consoling for those who can. For others, myself included, the wine will have to do. And tomorrow you will find me, not at a wine bar again, but back at repairing and enlarging my boxes, fashioning some new ones perhaps, trying to make them work as well as they can.

To be our own best selves, therapists or not, at some point we awaken to the guidance so easy for every one of us to forget.

Each box should be labeled “Handle with Care.”


The top photo is called Box Loading and is the work of Surya Prekash, S.A. The second image features U.S. Troops Surrounded by Holiday Mail during World War II, ca 1944. It comes from the Smithsonian Institution. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Should Therapy Be Forever Introspective?

                                                                                                                          And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to Blossom.

This poem, long attributed to Anaïs Nin, but more recently to Elizabeth Appell, unwittingly touches on a therapeutic problem:

What if the person “tight in a bud” is captured by the safety of a therapeutic process: too long within the bud, not beyond its green wrapper reaching toward the light?

Does therapy sometimes risk cocooning the patient too long, uncovering and uncovering and uncovering depths of feelings and insights at the expense of progress in the world outside of the therapist’s office? Put differently, if “the unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates tells us, is the overexamined life unlived?

I am accustomed to self-reflection both inside my head and in my practice, but I think we do have to acknowledge each side of the question. We need self-awareness, but the place where it resides is sticky, full of creatures who grab us and hold us fast. At least, they try to.

Life is something of a leap, a challenge: a reach for love, learning, helping others, and fulfilling the “becoming” still unrevealed in us. The world offers us differing models, from arrogant, thoughtless, unreflecting leaders who are, nonetheless, men of action; to those of us whose exploration is more inward, but may be confined by that inwardness.

We are offered fictional and mythological models, too. These are all people of action. When they go underground to visit dead souls, as they do in Dante’s Inferno and Homer’s The Odyssey, they are struck by how out-of-place they feel. They must, inevitably, return to the world of the living.

One version of hell on earth is an endless preoccupation with grave feelings and haunted days; consumed with envy of those who live with abandon. How ironic that some of the externally risk-averse accept a familiar hell in a box. As Nietzsche wrote in Also Sprach Zarathustra, “Verily I do not want to be like the ropemakers: they drag out their threads and always walk backwards.”

I helped many untangle themselves from the grip of dead or distant childhood abusers. I learned, too, by examining my own history from an over-the-shoulder perspective. We must be careful, however, to avoid an endless backward look; especially if one already has an inward bent. Walking backwards will then be the only direction available.

Action, usually taking the form of work, is an antidote for brooding. Passive distraction such as video watching is not the answer. The mind is like a device attached to rubber band: unless engaged (or retrained by a serious meditation practice) we are subject to the pull of the elastic, snapping back to troublesome preoccupations and general discontent.

Insight comes not only from focusing on the past, but experience in the present. You will never resolve everything in your history. You can resolve enough to free yourself – enough to act. Sometimes therapy does require years. Know, however, what your goal is. Consider a move toward it at the earliest appropriate time even if the bulk of your therapeutic process is still dealing with yesterday’s wounds. Work with your therapist to fashion a path down and in as needed – yes – but also identify and step into the road up and out.

A good therapist can be your guide in both places. A more limited one may lead a fine tour of Rembrandt, the seventeenth-century Dutch painter, but ignore the glories of contemporary art.

Each one is a worthy escort, properly placed and timed.

Don’t stay in either gallery longer than you have to.

The top photo is Grand Central Station – (1957) by Brassai. Next comes Alberto Baumann’s Introspection (2003) and then Rembrandt’s Man in a Golden Helmet (1669). All are sourced from Wikiarts.org.

When Life Laughs at You

The details are a problem. Spare yourself the details. No good comes from the details.

Except, perhaps, when they help you free-up your life and recognize the grand experiment offered all of us: the opportunity to remake ourselves by caring less about those same selves.

OK. You’re still reading? You really want to know the details?

Here they are.

I am in the middle of the crusty stage. Never heard the phrase? Here is the proper placement of this particular life plateau:

  • Youth
  • Middle age
  • Crusty stage
  • Old age

The crustiness is not the kind in a good piece of French bread. The temporary condition finds your face dry, red, and raw: the expected side-effect of a dermatologist’s handiwork to keep the skin on top of its game. Not cosmetic, but medical. A good outcome is predicted. I’ll be out of the crusty stage soon.

The story improves from here, although I must relate a few more details.

Better yet, I’m going to tell you what I learned by passing through this small period of discomfort; and what you might learn, too.

The procedure left my face painful, slightly swollen, and itchy for some days: a bit mask-like. The treated skin gradually flaked off and the rosy, sunburned toastiness faded. Lots of moisturizer and other unguents made my presence shiny. I was a beacon of reflected light in the half-dark.

I considered exposing you to a picture of myself in, what I can only call, the “full crusty.” I may be shameless, but I decided not to inflict this on you. Should you be grateful, just send a donation to your favorite charity.

The question was, while I was fully into this fullness – unable to put a good face on things, Halloween-ready two months too soon – “What am I going to do with my visage?” Several possibilities presented themselves. I could …

  • hide, kind of like The Elephant Man.
  • curse the hearing-impaired, indifferent gods.
  • concentrate on the pain of the first couple of days.
  • observe it.
  • obsess about the slowness of the healing process.
  • petition the authorities to make Halloween earlier, in which case I’d be able to save on a costume.
  • shroud the mirrors in my home.
  • focus on how I was getting better and better.
  • ignore the condition and occupy my mind elsewhere.
  • count myself grateful compared to those worse off.
  • worry what others might think if they saw me.

I could learn from it.

Notice how many ways we can make ourselves miserable. Instead, I decided to treat my face as the subject of an experiment.

The first two days offered restrictions: stay out of the sun lest I become some version of Dracula in the daylight. On Day Four, however, my kids, son-in-law, and  grandson visited. The adults were slightly unsettled, the two-year-old took my appearance in stride. I was still grandpa.

Day Five offered the real experimental possibility. My semi-annual dental exam gave me the chance to create some high-pitched screaming in public (not mine). Then I needed to pick up new glasses, where the patrons at Lenscrafters would scan me through their own fresh pair and surely say, “This can’t be right. I liked my vision better before. Refund please!”

In the event, only the dental assistant noticed, the dentist and office staff treating me as they always do. This either means that my regular appearance was already brutal, or they absorbed the big picture of me being me, kind of like my grandson. I vote for the second possibility.

Next stop was to pick up my glasses. Again, no crowds ran shrieking into the parking lot once I stepped into the mall. No fists were raised, no refunds requested. The experiment ended much as I expected: attention was not paid. If my countenance had grabbed some eyes? No matter. Well, OK, being chased by a shouting, torch-bearing mob would have been trouble. Fortunately, the Boy Scout in me brought earplugs.

“Always prepared” or “Be prepared,” the Boy Scout Motto

Buddhists talk of “non-self.” No soul. Nothing permanent. They state that a belief in a “self” is one of the causes of suffering. This turns the “Me, me, me” of the West’s competitive juggernaut on its head.

I could have said this turns the view of what is important in life on its face. If you have no face, no self, you have no face to lose.

Western philosophy and people like Martin Heidegger put the problem differently: we are beings for whom “being” is a question. If we think about our being, including the impression we make, self-awareness is a challenge, something our animal friends are free of.

We are far too preoccupied with our “selves.” Some say self-awareness is a disease. Or can be.

Worried about others laughing at you?

Life will laugh at you. The universe will laugh at you. Count on it.

Laugh back.

Take it from a man in the crusty stage of life.

The top photo, Breads, is the work of fir0002 at flagstaffotos.com.au/ The second image is called Two Papier-mache Masks in the NYC Village Halloween Parade, authorized for posting on Wikimedia Commons by parade director Jeanne Fleming. The 1916 German scouting manual, “Allzeit bereit,” was made available to Wikimedia Commons by Mediatus.