What Psychologists Know: Two Resources for Self-Improvement

Therapists are flooded with information, challenging them to “keep up” with recent developments in their profession. It should be no surprise, then, if clients often come unprepared to aid themselves or a loved one in a pressured moment.

Here are some free and helpful resources. The National Register of Health Service Psychologists offers podcasts on various treatment issues. The programs run for about 15 — 40 minutes.

Among the topics available thus far are:

  • reducing chronic pain
  • the impact of stress about climate change
  • racism in therapy
  • treating gambling disorder
  • anorexia
  • male clients in counseling
  • psychological services for firefighters
  • transitioning from in-person to telepsychology
  • autism spectrum disorders
  • weight management

You can find links to these and more topics here:

Podcasts

While the programs are intended for professionals in the field, my sampling of the recordings suggests they have something to offer to intelligent listeners outside of it.

One such example is Dr. Beth Darnall’s podcast on “The Role of Psychology in Treating Chronic Pain.” The Professor includes a discussion of a new treatment not requiring medication.

Empowered Relief” is a brief approach for the approximately 50 million Americans with this condition.

A second series of podcasts features the work of famous Yale Professor Laurie Santos and The Happiness Lab/

Consider this more like an informal, practical talk with your favorite teacher and guests.

Dr. Santos takes “you through the latest scientific research and shares some surprising and inspiring stories that will forever alter the way you think about happiness,” according to the website.

Podcast topics include:

  • improving your relationship to anger
  • forgiveness
  • avoiding burnout
  • embracing sadness in the pursuit of happiness
  • guilt
  • reducing anxiety
  • grieving
  • feed yourself like you’d feed a loved one
  • working your way to happiness
  • a happier Christmas

I hope you find these helpful.

========

The top image is A Helping Hand (Sunset Along the California Coast) by Damian Gadal. It is sourced from Wikimedia.org/

Recapturing the Joy of Childhood

Do you remember back when you were nine years old? How the prospect of turning 10 stood like a skyscraper, a monumental achievement, a towering number in two digits? You — yes, you — transformed into something larger, more important, closer to grown-upness?

For small children, imagination and reality exist on the same level. When you play a soldier, you turn into one. When you put on your Superman outfit, the fake muscles become real, and your thoughts take flight. A princess costume creates enchantment and elegance.

The magic mirror confirms, “You are the fairest of them all.

Playing these parts is unselfconscious, the pleasure joyous, the movements spontaneous. Summers seem endless, and the friends of every day never imagine a future without you.

Mom and dad demonstrate how to do things, read stories leading you to master the skill yourself, and are lovelier, brighter, and stronger than others who use the same pronouns.

The idea of illness never enters. The body housing you heals minor injuries in the time it takes for mom to give you a hug. Chicken soup and kisses serve as unfailing elixirs.

Limitless destiny carries the belief everything is achievable. Life (with the help of parents) offers gifts, birthday celebrations, prepared meals, and treats you like royalty. The guarantee of your guardians’ immortality and your own is never in doubt.


Gradually something happens. Imagination loses some of its footing while reality claims more of the ground. Spontaneity and uninhibited joy no longer arrive with the sunshine. Yet, the far side of childhood needn’t be as challenging as this sounds.

Yes, the magical healing power of mom’s touch has passed into yesterday, but other affections offer compensation.

Once middle-aged, long-standing friends don’t expect you to prove yourself. If you’ve done moderately well in pursuing your goals, achievements don’t insist on so much attention. Aches and pains may not be fun but are just the cost of living, companions reminding you to relish each instant.

Without childrearing responsibilities, more time exists to admire the sky and salute the moonlight. Meanwhile, experience has taught you the value of nature’s poetry and human kindness, evoking your gratitude. If you’ve largely escaped harm’s way, you recognize the life-enhancing necessity of giving something back, as well.

The delight of early life grows out of parental love, the dazzle of “first times,” and mastering the new world. In a sense, it also depends on the ignorance of life’s demanding adult future.

For those on the far side of youth, reclaiming joy requires something different. It asks for knowledge, not naivete: awareness of the inevitable end of things.

Recognizing that truth, all our remaining abilities and opportunities can grow in importance. We have the chance to learn and laugh, treasure precious friends and those we love even more, and savor nature’s beauty anew. They enlarge gratitude in what remains, so much of which was taken for granted before.

Life will never be perfect, but its imperfections provide perspective on what is essential at the day’s end. Chicagoans who remember Studs Terkel’s name will recall his gift of eliciting the best from the thousands he interviewed, the qualities we must seek for ourselves with age.

And, as if to remind us how to live, Studs always signed off his radio program with the words, “Take it easy, but take it.

=====

I am sure many of you have been moved by the human tragedies unfolding in Ukraine. Read more on how you can help Ukraine here.

—–

The sculpture is called Joy by Bruce Garner, located in Ottawa, Canada, as photographed by Jeangagnon. Beneath it is The Joy of Playing Together by Rasheedhrasheed. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Have You Been Morally Lucky?

In the year my wife and I returned to Chicago from my stint as an East Coast college professor, we encountered a surprising November snowfall. I remember heading for work on the morning after the Thursday evening whitening of the autumn world.

We lived in an apartment building located in the city’s Northwest corner. My work-a-day routine was always the same. I drove the half-block west from Summerdale toward a dependable stop sign. It never failed to be on the job.

The speed limit on the perpendicular road ahead was 35 miles an hour. I needed to take care and look for a break in the traffic before making a 90 degree right turn.

The snow said otherwise.

My sedan skidded as I approached the stopping place and knifed forward. No stop, no checking for other cars, just a horrifying bolt into no-man’s land.

Nothing happened, no other vehicles. I reached the opposite side of the thoroughfare feeling hugely lucky. Not only in the conventional sense but “morally lucky.”

What does that mean?

Though I didn’t exceed the required pace as I neared the STOP, the law argues I was going too fast “for conditions.”

Yes, I could have been injured, perhaps killed. Yes, I could have done the same to someone else.

What is less obvious is a hypothetical responsibility. A typical reaction to my story lacks the unfortunate ending to call the thought to mind. No harm, no moral implications. This is as much or as little as we think about it.

But what if my misguided missile shot into the intersection and killed someone? Then, I guarantee you, blame enters the theater. Then, part of the human race says I was irresponsible or careless. “He should have known better.”

I’d not disparage those who judged me in the lethal version of the incident. Indeed, I can’t find any unfairness in finger-wagging at a less than 100% irresponsibility or carelessness on my part. I drove the car, and the license allowing me the privilege demanded I do better.

Please understand, I’m sure no one would think of my behavior in moral terms, good or bad, but for bodily injury to another. Without an accident, the label “lucky” alone applies.

I offer this meditation on an everyday occurrence to reveal two things:

  • Human well-being, positive or negative, turns on incidents like this.
  • The judgment rendered by that same humanity rests on many such accidents or their absence.

But it is even more complicated.

Are you inclined to fault a person born under different conditions than your own who becomes a drug addict, a criminal, or a vagrant? Does the place you and the other land on the first day of life alter your chances of being a “good” person?

Is this not another version of the slippery street and the happenstance of a late-night snowfall? Is this not akin to my ramming someone or entering an empty boulevard?

Most of us applaud the hard work, resilience, or wisdom we possess, pointing to such qualities when explaining our relative “success.”

I encourage everyone to reflect with gratitude on the genetic lottery’s part in predetermined advantageous physical, emotional, and intellectual gifts. Thank God if you choose.

You and I are among the morally lucky some of the time. Who might any of us have become in another setting? With other parents or in a different country?

For myself, on another day, or a minute earlier or later, I might have caused another’s death driving along as I did.

=======

The images are the work of Laura Hedien with her permission: Laura Hedien Official Website. The first is called Metra Train Platform, 8/20. The second is an Alaska Road Sign, 2021.

What Psychologists Know: the Unspoken Reasons for Our Current Anger

The news tells us why we are unhappy. Political media encourage outrage, aiming their daily rants at the “others.”

For many, the big-mouthed assertions “make sense.”

We are missing something bigger than the big-mouths. They are not the entire story.

Granted, in a time of pandemic, discrimination, and outsized electoral hatred, it’s easy to think such conditions are the source of all our rage.

Let’s try a thought experiment. What would life be like if the pandemic ended today, inclusivity improved, everyone made a decent salary, and politics returned to something more civil? I mean, once the euphoria diminished.

We’d still compete for jobs paying more and permitting time with our kids. We’d persist in comparing our happiness to neighbors who want us to believe they “have it together” when they don’t. We’d desire objects we don’t have, vacations for which we have no time, money to dine at exclusive restaurants, or just a tolerable living space.

Mistakes would be made, like marrying “the one” who, at 31 or 51, is one crazy piece of work.

Bosses would still fire and hire us. Our lives would include winning and losing, worrying about what others think of us, and watching our bodies head south for something other than keeping warm for the winter.

We’d lose old friends and win some new ones. Like a dance, the music would fade, but doctor visits increase. The insistence on finding balance, living in the moment, trying yoga, reading the Stoic philosophers, or faithfully executing the newest “five steps to a wonderful life” would define almost everyone as a slacker.

What did I miss?

Death, for one. It’s the world forgetting we were here, which it already accomplishes without breaking a sweat. The peopled planet forgets we laughed and suffered and helped and hurt.

The thrill of reaching the mountain top, assuming we get there, would still require a return to earth to take care of the laundry.

Someone must be blamed, so we displace our anger on others.

——-

As children, some of us heard, “Anyone can be President of the United States” or the Cristiano Ronaldo/Michael Jordan/Babe Ruth of our chosen sport.

The crowd added, “Try hard enough, and it will happen. Never give up. The result is up to you. Every knock is a boost. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

When small towns, farmland, and cattle ranching described the landscape, you could be “a big fish in a small pond.” Everyone knew your name, and everyone had a place. All the folks worshiped in one or two buildings.

Now we are nameless, anonymous, stressed people passing through time on a bullet train. Often a terrific time, I’ll grant you.

But, too many feel invisible and without their version of fairness and respect. They try to “man up” because admitting episodic sadness doesn’t receive much applause. Alcohol and drugs don’t erase discontent.

Who created these conditions? Man did, yes, in response to his attempt to make his way. But we remain overmatched by a world we didn’t ask to enter. Life is quite a challenge.

The famous politician is right. “The game is rigged,” but rigged by the unavoidable circumstances of human life and mortality.

The thought, “no one gets out alive,” is set aside or prayed about by those who hope for a proper afterlife.

You can’t rage much at the Creator without considerable pushback from almost everybody. We lack permission to talk about the ultimate demise until the reaper sharpens his scythe within earshot.

If you do, you become “Debbie Downer,” the young lady who is a buzz kill and rains on otherwise joyous celebrations.

Yes, there is a lot of unfairness. Yes, lots of cheating, at least more than I noticed growing up. Yes, one must attempt to repair the world.

Along the long or short path to the end, consider taking time to deal with what it means to be fully human. I mean a creature in motion on a bumpy treadmill in a direction not on the map.

Learn to dance on the moving stairway, for sure. You might want to deny or distract yourself, and those defenses are necessary. But recognize your frustration is about more than your crappy neighbor who belongs to the opposite political party and plays loud music besides.

Bruises, bumps, and boulders are part of the world into which we’re thrown. You were in a safe, warm spot suspended in a perfect pool, protected from everything, and then mom’s body got unzipped. You didn’t volunteer for the jump, and the nurse didn’t strap on a parachute.

If you accept that, realize the guy next door is terrified and wants to drown out the sound of eternity’s eventual announcement, “It’s time!” No matter that his bucket list is not yet empty, the man becomes a drop in the bucket.

This stopping point and our fundamental aloneness are the most significant things we share. Might it be nicer if we consoled ourselves a bit? We arrived here as soloists without an instrument to play.

A conversation about this imperfect condition might provide relief.

Is a diagnosis always the answer? Is it possible the standard advice about dark thoughts misses something important?

Perhaps we should acknowledge our membership in a class from which we can’t be dismissed until the days are all over.

Maybe anxiety over environmental destruction will wake a few up to face the event, enjoy and save the wonders of the earth, pursue what is worthwhile, and search for love, not weapons: Climate Change Enters the Therapy Room/

Death is baked into our birthday cake. We might do well to accept the inevitable, as the ancient Stoics did, and use the time well. Some exceptional people reminded themselves of that message.

Mozart thought of death every day. Carl Sagan, the legendary scientist, kept a reminder on his bathroom mirror, but shame on you if you mention the “D” word. How many others, including your friends, see the shadow, too?

“Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back.” — Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor.

Among 1000 other things, we need a group hug — one extending across the globe.

And after the hug, the laughter, and tears? Throw off the restraints on your freedom.

Reconsider all the words that bind you. The unconscious voices that make life harder — the assertions we heard from teachers and preachers, parents, and false prophets.

Then embrace the best of them and a few of your own to shape a life so beautiful and true, so generous and brave, it would be worth remembering even if the memory vanishes.

That much is in your hands.

=========

The bottom photo, Sunset in Texas, Late May 2021, is the work of Laura Hedien with her permission: Laura Hedien Official Website

“A Lonely Profession”: Clevenger and Giulini on Conducting

We think of conductors as a bit like ancient potentates, the last trace of sedan-chaired royalty. The reality is different, of course.

An old story is told about Serge Koussevitzky greeting admirers after a concert by the Boston Symphony, the orchestra he led for 25 years. A bejeweled woman stood awestruck before gushing.Oh, thank you, thank you, maestro. You are a God!

Not a person to minimize his talents, Koussevitzky hesitated for a moment before saying, “Well, you know, it’s a big responsibility.

The late Dale Clevenger, internationally esteemed solo horn player of the Chicago Symphony (CSO), also aspired to a conducting career. A man of no small ego, he attempted to extend his commanding presence within the body of his colleagues to a place in front of a similar group.

The brass virtuoso did direct ensembles in many locations. Nevertheless, he didn’t fulfill the dream “to become a respected (and permanent) conductor of a major orchestra anywhere in the world,” as he told the Chicago Tribune in 1986.

While still pursuing that goal, Clevenger consulted the legendary maestro Carlo Maria Giulini (1914 – 2005).

The Italian musician’s association with the CSO began in 1955 and included the period in which he was its first Principal Guest Conductor. Giulini and Clevenger made music together from the first chair horn’s arrival in Chicago in 1966 to the conductor’s last concert leading the group in 1978.

In June 2013, Clevenger told me about their final meeting, two years before Giulini died.

I called one of his sons to arrange an interview with him (at his home in Italy) — to chat with him, talk about old times, and so forth. He was stately, elegant, classy.

We talked about my being a conductor, and he said, ‘Dale, every night after the concert (as part of the orchestra), you can go home to your house, sit down at your table, drink tea, rest, talk to your wife and go to sleep.

‘I go to a hotel room.

Clevenger continued.

There are many comments like that from conductors who admit what they do. It is a lonely profession because when you walk out of the hall, all the lauding words of your greatness, and the audience’s applause and so forth — that’s gone.

The stage is empty. It’s like (the life of) an actor. You are lonely.

World fame, like everything else, has a cost. Chorus members of the Lyric Opera have described witnessing international stars, the mothers of young children back home, getting off computer-assisted video chats with their offspring, then breaking into tears.

Yes, they choose it, but the price isn’t reduced because they own the decision.

I offer this without judgment, for your consideration only. Eminent performers are lucky to have their gifts and the freedom of such choices.

Still, we all play out the values we choose, living with what we gain and what we lose in so doing.

Choose wisely.

=======

The cover photo of Giulini comes from the excellent biography of the conductor by Thomas Saler.

Of Clocks, Weddings, and Getting Cold Feet

It could have happened to you but probably didn’t.

The young man was 28 years old and in love with a 21-year-old beauty. His prospects were not great, but he finally landed a steady job at the Post Office near the end of an economic downturn.

Marriage was now possible; his intended said “yes,” and her parents gave their permission.

The next step was getting a marriage license.

The betrothed pair agreed to meet in downtown Chicago at Marshall Field and Co., now known as Macy’s. That block-long edifice faces State Street on the west, Randolph on the north, and Washington on the south.

The time was set. From “Field’s,” they would make the short walk to City Hall to obtain the legal document.

“We’ll meet under the store clock,” he’d said off-handedly. She quickly agreed.

The day came, and he arrived at the appointed time, right below the clock at Randolph and State as promised.

Only she wasn’t.

What happened? Why the delay? Was she injured?

Perhaps, she got cold feet.

Meanwhile, a lovely woman aged 21 stood at the corner of Washington and State.

She thought to herself, “What became of Milton? He’s so punctual. Where might he be? I’m standing under the clock as we agreed!

You see, a slight misunderstanding occurred. Marshall Field’s had two clocks, one at each State Street corner.

It wasn’t long before one or the other figured things out and walked toward the corner opposite. There was an embrace, a kiss, much relief, and the lovers proceeded a little late. The marriage license in hand, the wedding followed later that year.

Nineteen Forty, in case you’re wondering.

Both the bride and the groom showed up on time and in the right place.

My parents’ wedding.

How easily it could have gone wrong, in which case, you wouldn’t be reading this because I wouldn’t have written it. I’d not have been the product of “a twinkle” in my father’s eye, as he sometimes referred to me.

And my wife couldn’t have married a man who didn’t exist. Our kids and grandkids:poof,” along with my brothers, their children, grandchildren, etc.

Casio W-86 digital watch electroluminescent backlight (i)

Standing alone is hardly unheard of, whether at landmarks, dates, or the alter.

Take the 2005 media circus surrounding Jennifer Carol Wilbanks, who disappeared to avoid wedding bells, later falsely stating (to explain her absence) she had been abducted and sexually assaulted.

The worst tale I ever heard from one of the people involved concerned a “high society” ceremony. Big money, a glorious setting, gifts galore, newspaper photographers, and tons of people.

Everyone came other than the groom, who didn’t call ahead to cancel or apologize. Not by letter, e-mail, phone, or text, and certainly not face-to-face. Not ever.

And then I encountered an internet story of a young man who went through the wedding ceremony, only to startle the assembled crowd of well-wishers upon completion of the union.

He informed them of his intention to get an annulment the next day because of his new wife’s recent sexual escapade with the best man.

Moreover, the groom then whipped out photos to verify his report.

Now some would say, “everything happens for a reason,” and everything turns out well in the end.

I am not one of those people. I believe in accidents, lucky and unlucky, which seem to be randomly distributed despite our effort to avoid adverse events.

As far as happy endings are concerned, they happen, although not everything ends happily.

Still, we must make the best of things.

The humiliated young woman of the “high society” wedding did marry a man who loved her to pieces and showed up on the right day to prove it. They’ve been married forever, glued together in love. Sticky, I guess.

And, it’s hard to argue the fellow who promised annulment would have been better off attached to his temporary spouse.

Let’s hope they both learned something and went on to find happiness elsewhere.

In the end, when you are young, most setbacks are relatively brief, no matter how long the endless time seems.

Of course, whatever children might have emerged from the last two ill-starred matches never came to be.

A good thing? Not a good thing?

Did we miss the next baby Beethoven (who was born of a miserable marriage)?

I can’t say.

All I know for sure is that I’m glad my folks had enough confidence in their love to stick around and that one of them walked down the block in search of the other.

If not for that — well, you know.

======

At the top, one of the two State Street clocks of the old Marshall Field and Co. store in Chicago, now known as Macy’s. The Macy’s photo is by DDima.

The second image is a Casio W-86 wristwatch photographed by Multicherry. Both of the pictures were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When a Therapist Changes His Mind

Some people consider changing their minds as a sign of weakness. It provokes the fear of being criticized, looking stupid, and needing to apologize or ask forgiveness.

Yet every therapist and non-therapist needs modification of himself and his outlook. We must try to learn what we don’t know of the human world and reform our previous beliefs. Bullet-proof ideas, unchangeable in every detail, lead to unchanging actions. As the old saying goes, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.*

More than a few times during my career, I realized my patient and I were stuck. My part included a failed treatment plan and a misunderstanding of my client’s essential qualities, how he thought or felt, and the universe of his suffering.

I established a way of approaching this situation. Of course, researching and discussing the dilemma with experienced and wise clinicians was the first step.

If that failed, however, the fix required more.

I tried for a new conceptualization of my patient.

Imagine a blackboard full of every word or picture available to describe you. Now visualize your counselor. He is responsible for all you see before you, everything he chalked on the white-on-black wall.

He included the way you dress, move, and express yourself. Your history is recorded in the way he heard it. Your own self-reflections and self-knowledge are present, too, as you described them in the office.

The hard surface before you hides the contribution of an invisible sense, as well. The words and pictures sprang from the lens of the healer.

The counselor’s professional and personal life colored his attempt to recognize you for who you are. Add any psychological test results or elements from your medical history. The representation in front of you, no matter how close to capturing the whole of you, is imperfect and incomplete.

I have been this imaginary clinical psychologist. Looking at the blackboard, I thought about the product of my work and erased everything so I might begin the therapeutic project again.

This approach didn’t help everyone, but the piece I missed revealed itself in many cases where I tried to reimagine what I’d overlooked.

Abraham Lincoln said it better during the Civil War when he applied similar thoughts to the job of saving the broken union of individual states:

The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

This way of approaching the world extends elsewhere on a much-reduced scale.

Take reading. Assume you are poring over the pages casually. Instead, engage in a conversation in your head with the book’s author.

Most of us reflexively respond to the characters or ideas we like and the ones we don’t. This manner of proceeding demands little thought. We judge the people, their behavior, and views from the perspective of beliefs we held before we began.

Here is an alternative, the one that grew from my professional frustrations. Begin by wiping your mind free of ingrained opinions and trying to figure out what the author wishes to express. No, you needn’t read his biography to discover this. Understand his message through his words without a leap to judgment.

When done regularly, the practice becomes automatic. Moreover, you will become less prone to immediate acceptance or rejection emerging from the deep freeze of your prior convictions. Perhaps reading will come to enlighten you through a growing capacity to read “closely,” with active searching and questioning as you dig into the material.

Little of this is easy, nor is it the work of a few days. None of us can make himself a whitewashed blank slate or scrape the blackboard of our every thought and feeling. Yet, to my way of thinking, we must try to be open, not constrained by comforting ourselves with unwarranted certainty.

We travel a road to stagnation when we insist our rightness is godlike and beyond reconsideration. To the extent we accept assertions based on questionable evidence handed down from a single person or group of like-minded people, we walk into invisible imprisonment by the false gods of our choosing. The more we convince ourselves of our rationality, closing our minds along the way, the farther we throw off our intellectual apparatus.

Doing so may make us feel wise or justify our anger but at the price of misunderstanding the world as it is.

As Ludwig Wittgenstein said in the preface to his Philosophical Investigations:

I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.

A few of the most delightful and provocative books I’ve encountered so fascinate me, I return to rereadings. The new thoughts they spur sometimes modify my conceptions over time. This approach continues to transform me. I am humbled by recognizing I must change my ideas, redefine the unstable world, and modify what is in my control. That includes changing myself while recognizing what is unchangeable about me.

I know there will never be enough time to learn all that is worth remembering, do all that is worth doing, and repair more than a few bits of our planetary life together.

Still, I must try to hold my arms wide and embrace as much of the world as I can — with love.

==========

All of the photographs come from History Daily. The first University of Pennsylvania Football Player Frank Yablonski Wearing a New Style Helmet in 1932. Next is an image of Bedouin Tents in Morocco. The card game following includes Billy the Kid  (the Young Man in the Top Hat) with His Accomplices in 1877. Finally, Broadway and 53rd Street in New York City in 1928.

Searching for Closure: the Challenge of Loose Ends

Closure is a “sometimes thing,” to use an expression from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Most of us want our uncomfortable emotions gathered and tied, but knots on the human package tend to loosen. Feelings leak out because they are squirmy, slippery parts of every life. Endings find a way not to end whenever they discover a quiet, tender crack through which to wiggle.

Breakups and losses happen to everyone. Usually, one party wants the book to close more than the other.

The latter experiences greater relief than grief. The other carries the heavier burden of pain and seeks an escape or another chance.

Perhaps he enlists distraction, alcohol, drugs, and medication, to no avail. Sometimes therapy, rebound romance, and faith also fail to heal wounds. What then?

Some wait and hope. They want to unend the end, begin the friendship or love anew, hoping the guy or girl realizes the loss. The seeker — the one with more anguish — searches for renewal, not dissolution.

Maybe he hopes his distant dad will finally say, “I love you, and I’m proud of you.For years he pretended the old man’s opinion didn’t matter.

Then the father dies, and the not-so-sunny boy learns the ache didn’t get buried with the man. He relives the pain over conversations remembered or never achieved.

At least, this survivor can grieve to the level of acceptance. Papa shall not come back, so all the solutions belong to the younger man. His situation can be both harder and more straightforward when his late father resides in “a world elsewhere.”

If a friend or lover is a call or email away, the possibility of a reunion may continue no matter the odds.

The long-standing therapeutic approach to bereavement involves expressing feelings — love, hate, sadness, emptiness — all of it. Over time, these should quiet themselves.

Standard techniques to advance the process include writing farewell letters one never sends, “speaking” to the deceased at an actual or ad hoc gravesite, role-playing a conversation with the one you cared about, or burying a note as a symbolic departure.

All these try to turn the abstraction of loss into a material or ritualized object, something you can see, hear or enact.

Some people, however, sustain their preoccupation with the other. Without intent, they train their minds to return to her repeatedly. They watch videos of her, listen to recordings of her voice, read her texts and emails, view photos of the loved one.

Friends, too, do this, not just people with romantic attachments. They remain absorbed in thoughts of estranged companions, replaying the events leading to the rift, analyzing and reanalyzing the why of it all.

Wondering whether there is a way to mend the bond continues the one-sided relationship. If these expenditures of time don’t end, the person engaged in them becomes an enemy of his own healing. His hope prevents a final goodbye and a step that might offer something more attainable.

Some romances can be rekindled, others transformed into friendships, and buddies return for various reasons. When those efforts work, here are some contributing factors:

  • Both individuals remember the best times and still yearn for reattachment, though at least one hasn’t said so.
  • One of the former partners hasn’t made an effort because of fear of rejection or anger.
  • Both members of the couple have changed in the ways necessary to create a more lasting bond.
  • One of the pair has reflected on the mistakes he made. He would welcome the chance to apologize if the other would listen. This could permit as much closure as the singleton requires. If the other reciprocates, an avenue to a fresh beginning may open.
  • The two souls feel incomplete without the other half.
  • No other relationships or responsibilities, especially with a spouse, would be compromised by taking up the old connection.
  • Life events or thoughtful changes have not caused one to recognize the need to maintain distance.

Reconnection can be wonderful if the two once again experience joy. When the attempt fails, it may at least remove hope and set dreams of recommitment aside. The “final” unhappiness might be a necessary step toward letting go. From the bottom, one can only rise.

When I continued to practice, patients sometimes asked what they could do to reclaim a failing or terminated relationship. No single answer works for all, and the counselor who dares to offer a confident prognostication walks unsteady ground. Even so, when my clients reported a long period of unanswered calls, texts, and emails, the unstated message was clear.

This time of year — dark days, pandemic, political and media-fueled rage, heightened anxiety, and more — increases our desire to embrace those we’ve loved and still love. Moreover, reaching out in the holidays might reduce the chance of a rude reply.

Still, not everything in life can be put right. More frequently than you might think, neither person in the split is wrong. Instead, their interests no longer coincide. It can even happen that two hearts are together in their breaking.

Before any new attempt to reattach, ask yourself whether the other is essential to you, recognizing most of us are not. Reflect on past losses, recalling your hard-won buoyancy and resilience.

A recent conversation with a close friend illustrates how hard letting go can be. She wondered …

Does “acceptance” require giving up asking “why”?

GS: I need to know a bit more to understand what you are looking for.

Your response gets to the heart of my question. I am questioning going down the rabbit hole of gathering more and more information. Is it intellectually crippling to turn away from that effort?

GS: Knowing why is not always possible. Neither is turning away easy. Life always has loose ends ...

My friend asked her daughter-in-law the same question. Here was her answer:

I don’t think that it’s human to stop asking questions. Acceptance to me is more about being at peace with whatever answers we get. Acceptance is also being OK with not knowing, with not getting answers.

A wise young woman.

Here’s to a New Year full of wisdom and kindness, enough to repair a world of broken hearts.

======

The top painting is Mt. Fuji from Kishio by Kawase Hasui, 1937, from History Daily. Next in line is the Narrows, Zion National Park, December 2020 by Laura Hedien. Blaue Kegelberg by Gabriele Munter follows, then Tragedy by Franz Kline, 1961. Finally, just below is Northern Lights at the Arctic Circle by Laura Hedien. As with the first photograph, these come with her kind permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

Plans Before Sunset: A Woman Who Says “Yes” to Life

I once met a famous man who said, “We are all in transit.” Just passing through. Best, then, to talk with someone who willingly provided her perspective on the lengthy journey.

As she approaches her 10th decade, this lovely individual offered more than her share of wise guidance just by describing her plans. They do need revision on occasion, don’t they?

Before you hear her voice, let me give you some background.

Catherine Pearlson (CP) was born to the generational expectation of taking your male spouse’s name when married. These days we might perceive it as an automatic first step toward removing one’s identity. Men in the business world trimmed off some more of her selfhood, despite her degree from one of the finest universities in the world. Remember, she lived in the real-life version of TV’s Mad Men moment.

Her dad died early, but CP benefited from a kind stepfather and a sparkling presence, as well as three qualities in equally short supply: resilience, boldness, and wit. She persisted and persists.

Losing friends and loved ones infiltrates any long life, but Ms. P. continued to say yes to the crazy journey each of us encounters, no matter how much time it took to reclaim herself. Her will and self-affirmation survive, despite more than one serious illness from which she rebounded.

Catherine has known the death of one spouse and divorce from another. Here is what she told me:

On Monday, I was at the Senior Center when I noticed a flyer on the wall:

Therapy for Healthy Seniors

It spoke to me.

My ex-husband passed away a few weeks ago, and it took me back to a dark time in my life. The feelings always lurked inside, ready to emerge. They returned me to the birth of my current name and the beginning of my best identity. The yin and the yang.

A few days later I met with the therapist. She radiated kindness as I recounted the familiar stories. The general outlines. She asked about my goals. Here’s what came up after I went home:

  • I want to make peace with myself before I die.
  • I want to accept the people who populate my life for who they are as they reveal themselves to me.
  • I want to spend my time doing things that reflect my vision of my best self. Pretty lofty targets. But I guess that’s what goals are, right?

This charming woman mentioned inventing her name. I asked her for details.

In the aftermath of my divorce from my second husband, I realized I wanted to choose a last name for myself.

If you had asked me at the time, I would have said the desire came from not wanting to go back to my maiden name and certainly not wanting to keep my married name.

Now, in hindsight, I know it primarily came out of a yearning for my own identity, no longer attaching myself only to the role of a wife or mother or my determination to do something creative in the world.

I chose Catherine Pearlson because it sounded like a writer’s name.

Here’s one unexpected thing I learned from doing this: when I told my children, my family, and my friends about my new name, not one of them questioned the decision.

They accepted the alteration straight away. My inner conviction came through to them. This was a significant boost to feeling right about the first step in my new identity.

Upon severance of the marriage, the judge said I could change my name for free as part of the divorce decree. I refused. I counted up my pennies and paid for the name change as an independent action.

My friendship with CP popped up in the last few years. She is a glowing delight, still learning, still finding a way forward even during a pandemic, and still writing, too. I hope her words speak to you as they did to me.

How many people do we meet who are beautiful inside and out, with a dash of wisdom, too?

=======

I have changed the name of “Catherine” to protect her identity. The first image is the Umm al-Fahm Skyline at Sunset by Moataz Egbaria. Next comes Crepuscular Ray Sunset – Telstra Tower, Canberra by Fir0002. Finally, Preparations for the Open-air Concert of the Dülmen Summer at Wiesmann Sports Cars, Dülmen North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany (2018), by Dietmar Rabich. They were all sourced from Wikimedia Commons.org/