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 its use in 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.

—–

*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.

Learning Who You Are

We reveal ourselves to ourselves by our actions more than our words. That is, if we choose to observe. Not all of us do and none of us look all the time. Instead, we disguise ourselves to ourselves, perhaps as much or more than we do with others.

Maya Angelou said, “When someone (else) shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Yet we often fail to accept the behavioral evidence of our essence. The reality is there, waiting in plain sight, waiting as long as we take.

A dream summoned such a truth-telling college moment not thought of in decades. My grandson’s recent fascination with battling dinosaurs served as a backdrop, too; the kind of metaphorical identification a man my age discovers in those extinct beasts.

Evanston, Illinois, around 1967.

My buddy Alan invited me to join him at a friend’s apartment. Alan knew M fairly well. The latter would create the circumstances for revelation.

He lived in a modest abode typical of university students. Unmatched furniture, well-worn area rugs, a clean but not spotless space. M, himself, was more imposing: perhaps six-feet-tall, strapping arms hanging from broad chest and shoulders. Overall an impression of hearty, radiating physical strength, but also apparent good cheer.

The clock did not threaten. No school the next day. The three of us laughed a lot and we drank. This small group formed a rough triangle sitting on the floor a few feet from each other.

I do not recall what brought me M’s displeasure. An idle comment? No matter, he was pissed. The M of robust build. The M who overmatched me by maybe 40 lbs. of muscle and loads of menacing intensity.

The formerly amiable fellow wanted my apology, demanded it.

I tried to explain what I meant by the unfortunate utterance, misaligned with the meaning M took from my words.

M insisted again, fueled by his liberal ingestion of alcohol, he more than me.

I repeated the attempt to find the right nuance, the right cover; terms reflective of what I intended, not what he understood from my language. Back and forth, back and forth we went.

M warned of the cost of my continued failure to give him satisfaction. My teeth were now in danger of disassembly, rearrangement, and extraction by a non-licensed dentist of sorts — who was out of sorts. A man whose fisted hands resembled mallet heads, like crude surgical instruments powered by entwined steel cables extending from his shoulders.

Now you recognize why my grandson’s recent fascination with smashing toy dinosaurs together evoked this memory.

Being a reasonable young man, knowing myself no match for M in brawn and recklessness, you might imagine I capitulated: gave him the confession he stipulated in whatever words the bloke preferred.

You’d think so.

I didn’t.

I could tell you my intransigence was a matter of pure principle, since I want to think myself a principled person.

I could say I was brave, but a lofty philosophical stance and courage don’t explain my noncompliance.

Rather, I couldn’t do what he asked. It wasn’t in me.

This is the way I am made. I take no extravagant credit for it most of the time. It’s kind of similar to being almost 5’9″ — my height then and now — an unchangeable thing. Like the length of my human fabric, the behavior was fixed. I wasn’t made to apologize for a statement I didn’t regret.

If my child’s life were at risk, I’d have been flexible. My children were then not even a twinkle in my eye.

Fighting for a principle over nothing of importance is, I might argue, foolish. Masochistic, too. No careful reasoning prepared me for the moment, nor did time permit.

Longtime friends witnessed many changes in me, qualities I worked to alter, insecurities and fears among them. Not everything is amenable to transformation, however. In fairness, I never wished to lose the capacity just described once I found it. While this peculiar talent can manifest in the ill-advised form presented here, it appealed enough to my self-concept to retain it, consistent with who I wanted to be.

Thus, in a situation recommending a different way of being I revealed to myself who I was. But two other players took part in the drama, don’t forget. They also disclosed themselves, one in a manner far more commendable than anything I did or didn’t do.

Let’s go first to my antagonist, M. The host betrayed himself as a belligerent drunk. To fact-check this, a few days ago I talked with Alan (my companion in this adventure) and Harmon, someone who knew M longer than Alan; also a precious old friend to me, but not present at the drink-a-thon. By graduation neither one wanted anything to do with M because of his growing addiction and the anger it stoked.

On to Alan. The final member of our ill-matched triumvirate showed an admirable quality as rare as it was necessary to me.

As M’s rage moved toward climax, Alan said something to him designed to stay the impending explosion.

Alan was not M’s physical equal. Though the tallest fellow in the room, my friend is slight and unathletic; a man at home with books and Bach, not fist fights.

The back and forth shifted in Alan’s direction. At some point one of them hit the other, on the shoulder I’m guessing since I can no longer remember, and the other returned the blow.

To my surprise and relief the rising column of red in M’s eyes, like a thermometer’s mercury, started to fall. We left soon after, with all our body parts still attached. I’m pretty sure I thanked Alan as I drove him back to his place, but did so again this week. M could have dismantled him instead of me.

This comrade of more than 50-years told me he recalled feeling responsible for putting me in the situation. Not everyone risks his own body as he did.

Alan revealed himself.

Had my ally not intervened, whatever number of teeth I put under my pillow at day’s end would not have earned compensation from the Tooth Fairy.

She, I’m sure, doesn’t reward anyone of college age who should have known better.

——-

The top reproduction is Paul Klee’s The Bounds of Intellect. The next three are Egon Schiele’s Self-portrait (1916), the Seated Boy, and his Self-portrait in a Shirt. Finally, Paul Klee’s Battle Scene from the Comic, Fantastic Opera, “The Seafarer” and Joan Miro’s The Escape Ladder.

Surviving the Small Stuff with the Help of Joan Miró

Since major losses are unavoidable, what can we control? Perhaps our reaction to the small stuff, the daily indignities and frustrations: the inevitable bruising in a crowded, high-speed, super-tech world preoccupied with itself.

Enlarge the meaning of those events and you will sink to the point of drowning.

You needn’t.

Maybe Joan Miró can help.

I was on the wet way to the Museum of Modern Art. Spirit-sucking morning weather was not predicted. No mention of violently chilly rain, driven in horizontal body blows by the air. The leering wind lifted skirts, groping for female skin. People halted at the lip of the 57th St. subway exit to avoid the deluge, lest umbrellas turn inside out.

An annoyance only, I thought or tried to think. I’ll soon be at the Miró exhibition.

Poor planning. Spain waited for me.

An entire country, to my surprise, was on Spring Break. Every Spaniard (so it seemed) left home to see the work of their Catalan/Spanish countryman, Joan (pronounced Juan) Miró. The 54th street lobby, the size of a high vaulted, grand church nave, impersonated a forest of bodies: little bodies held by big bodies, vigorous and infirm torsos, people in your way and you in theirs. The ticket-issuers were past the horizon.

I considered whether the art would be worth the travail, hidden behind the mob of which I was a part. Instead I pushed on, avoided the block-long coat-check line, and chanced no one would steal my umbrella from the unguarded stand on the wall.

The slow-mo mass inched when it could, grew when it couldn’t. My elevator made its tardy human deposit on the third floor, revealing a new throng already there. One stepped around traffic in front and beyond the drawings and paintings. Chatter above and a drone below. Periscopes were not for sale. 

But then Miró appeared!

Not the artist himself, dead since 1983. I’d not known much about him. Unfamiliar art must be encountered with an open mind. To achieve an aesthetic connection one must engage the maker. A passive viewer, waiting for a painter to do something to him, is unprepared.

Miró’s work is hallucinatory, not of this world, outside the real. Hitch a ride with him and he focuses you elsewhere, on escape, one of his personal preoccupations.

The lump of bodies no longer mattered much. The Catalan and I engaged in unheard dialogue. “Look here,” he whispered. “I’ll part the sea of souls between us.”

Even Alexander — he of the “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day” — might have enjoyed it.

Here is advice, offered in the hope you will manage with grace most of the frustrating, sub-catastrophic times ahead.

  1. Fill your lungs to unwind the coiled spring inside you.
  2. Do not require perfection of life in any circumstance, except perhaps surgery. People cough when the music is still, highways suffer congestion when you are late, and any queue you choose will be the wrong one. Reframe your situation. The Buddah would suggest these obstacles offer you an opportunity to learn patience, for which gratitude (not resentment) is an appropriate response. Your choice.
  3. Remember, you are not alone. All in the legion of Miró’s admirers were at the mercy of themselves and each other. Though well-behaved, they doubtless wanted a solo turn in front of the art as much as I. Many had crossed the ocean for it.
  4. Save your indignation, disappointment, and sadness for bigger things. The life-wrenching, knee-buckling, terrifying battalions led by an indifferent Fate will visit soon enough. Small disturbances would escape your biographer’s attention. Make your life larger than such incidents.
  5. Be open to possibility: the delightful surprises, the beauty in the everyday, the small kindnesses others bestow upon you or you on them. In the course of my time at the museum I chatted with a couple of uniformed attendants who protect the collection, deal with emergencies, and give directions. They are people, too — challenged to keep a silent presence while performing their invisible work. A blind John Milton saw enough to know, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Do not think I am never maddened or impatient, unhappy with the conditions in which I find myself. But I try to effect change where I can, welcome the possible, and accept what is not.

Life offers many opportunities to make ourselves better and take in the loveliness still present in the world. Do not miss your Miró-moments, whenever they come.

—–

The Miró paintings begin with Persons Haunted by a Bird (1938), The Green Moon (1972), The Birth of the World (1925), and Painting (1950). The second image was one I took on the day in question, on Broadway near 57th St., New York.

On Human Inconsistency, Hypocrisy, and a Touch of Genius

We think of ourselves and others in simple words and categories: good/bad, outgoing/bashful, assertive/passive, and so forth. Friends are offered halos until we are sad or angry enough to be done with them, and then the devil’s pitchfork becomes a part of the vision we recreate.

Not always, but often.

We are not all one thing or another. Consistency is more self-delusion than a reality. A close inspection suggests carve-outs, areas of our life where we are perhaps better or worse than our “imagined self:the way we like to think of ourselves or the way we can’t help but think of ourselves.

These are boxes and compartments of our unconscious making, to a degree. The parts we like are visible to our internal eye. More dubious sections live behind partitions.

Were the various zones fenced off by fixed lines with clear borders, we’d manage them with less trouble. The blurry, fuzzy, porous demarcations are scarier for us. We sense the leakage of our darker truths, harder to rationalize, harder to live with.

Life would be more fraught if we kept asking the question, “Who am I?Then we would be near relatives of the Wicked Queen in Snow White , who asked instead, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?I’m told her therapist suggested she stick with the first pleasing answer and put the looking glass away.

All of us are hypocrites at times, but call others by the name. When was the last time someone told you, “Yes, I am a hypocrite. I said one thing and did another” — or “I believed one idea yesterday, but acted today as if I didn’t because, well, uh ... ”

Too often the changes are opportunistic, impulsive, or driven by fear. An admirable new direction requires the never-easy task of soul-searching, not a backflip.

Want a dramatic example of human inconsistency? If you are acquainted with Holocaust literature, you know some of the children of war criminals claim the apparent contradiction of having kind parents. Take Edda Göring, who died in December, 2018. She was Hermann Göring’s daughter, the man who headed the Third Reich’s Luftwaffe (air force), and a potential successor to Adolf Hitler.

Here is what Edda said about her dad:

I loved him very much, and it was obvious how much he loved me. My only memories of him are such loving ones. I cannot see him any other way.

Were this lady alone as an example of faith in a corrupt father, we might doubt the possibility. Again, people are self-contradictory. Perhaps Göring’s brutality stopped at the door of their home. He could have separated his villainous inhumanity from his private life.

Who among us, if well-treated by mom and dad, would believe he is the offspring of monsters?

Can anyone bear full self-awareness? Defenses, rationalizations, and mind-tricks must be acquired. Those drowning in self-criticism live in floundering guilt. They struggle to advance, to adapt, to be anything but transfixed by an accusatory finger before their face. The digit is theirs, at least by the time they are adults.

One of the hardest lessons in the social world is this: we must accept people whole — other than the abusers and unrepentant users — or become forever disappointed or resentful. Yes, humans can change, but it is easy to expect or demand too much.

Within our confusing and confused bipedal race, a handful of creatures display a genius of which inconsistency is an essential component. Their elements don’t appear to fit together, but the ensuing unpredictability itself produces fascination. When combined with an untroubled, occasional defiance of convention, their acquaintance causes diamantine delight.

They exist at the intersection of innocence and adventure, vulnerability and bravery. Four-way stops signs are not always observed in this spot. No wonder you wonder how they can survive at all.

Like Vincent van Gogh, you might call them intensifiers of experience and emotion, mimicking his search for a more yellow yellow, a more blue blue, a greener green. Life becomes like a canvass, filled without aid of paint or brush, textured as compared to the flatness many of us exhibit.

Such unparalleled spirits live to their fullest in moments both spontaneous and unselfconscious. Immersion in the present, however, comes at a cost. The world is encountered more through intuition and feeling than among those who lead with thought. Mindfulness of possible danger is given up in the embrace of the now.

Such precious artists of living should take care not to die for their art. Each one is the sole representative of an endangered species, missing even in Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings.

Few understand them. Perhaps no one can, including the specimen himself. Indeed, if one greets you, you’ll blink before letting their light in again, the better to make sure no hallucination stands at a handshake’s distance.

Don’t mention the meeting to anyone, by the way. Like a unicorn or UFO sighting, no one will believe your report. Keep quiet and consider yourself lucky for the encounter.

If you are looking for consistency in passersby, here’s some advice. Stop looking. It isn’t there. Watch the sky instead for flying things or search the ocean for the life that swims. No complexity will be found in our winged, finned, and four-legged neighbors. You can live with them unperturbed.

Back here in the peopled world, little chance exists of finding individuals who are wholly integrated, top to bottom.

But the inconsistencies make life interesting, don’t they? Here’s to our contradictions. Let’s join van Gogh’s Drinkers, just above; the baby, too.

Salute!

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The second and third paintings are by van Gogh: Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle and The Bedroom. The next image is Picasso’s Man with a Pipe. Finally, three more from van Gogh: The Poet’s Garden, The Drinkers, and Red Vineyards at Arles. All of these come from the Art Institute of Chicago with the exception of the last, which derives from Wikiart.org.