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.

The Need for Escape

The sense of being trapped may be a universal experience. Think of the small child who tries to wrestle out of his parent’s protective arms. The teen who hates curfew. The high school grad who can’t wait to leave home.

Other examples come to mind:

  • The suffocating boyfriend from whom you must free yourself.
  • The hated boss.
  • The stifling career.
  • The moribund marriage.
  • A restrictive religion and its too many rules.

Why are we so offended by the stickiness of things, of being like a fly on flypaper? Why do fences shout “Jump”? What is it about walls that beg us to climb, even as recreation?

  • Our ancient ancestors, the hunters and gatherers, needed to keep moving to find food and shelter. They profited by sensing and staying away from those animals and humans who menaced them. We inherited their survival tendencies. The complacent and trusting souls who acted otherwise and perished didn’t pass on their genes.
  • The instinctive man inside of us habituates quickly: he gets used to things, becomes restless, gets bored. Dissatisfaction is built into our nature, the better to thrive and survive. Were we satisfied by a single meal, with no recurring hunger, we’d starve. If sex so “blissed-out” cave-dwellers after one or two couplings, you and I would not exist.
  • The passage of time creates urgency. We don’t lead infinite lives. Want to be an Olympic star? Don’t wait until 30 to start practicing. The desire for love, too, means you must dive into the swim while your sparkle still can catch the eye of another aquatic creature.

The grass always being greener, where to? When? The five-year-old doesn’t run away because he can’t make a life on his own. The abused spouse with the ground-to-bits self-image holds her hopeless spot for fear worse awaits her elsewhere. The dissatisfied employee stays put in an economic depression. We all know out-of-love couples who remain married for the children, the worry of being vilified by co-religionists, and the thought of owning one dollar, where they used to count two.

We sometimes stay when we should escape and leave when we should hesitate. I’ve done both. How do you tell whether flight is best or portends even worse? A few things to consider:

  • Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman states, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”
  • Psychologists remind us that experiences, not things, have more lasting value internally and are more positively remembered than buying one more material object.
  • We cannot escape ourselves entirely. One’s innate temperament makes a significant contribution to happiness.
  • What we choose to focus on and whether we set impossible goals also factor into our sense of satisfaction. These are within our control. The long-term practice of mindfulness meditation has been associated with happiness, as well.
  • Research suggests Midwesterners who believe life will be better in California simply because of the weather tend to discover fair weather, like almost everything else, gets absorbed into the background. Not only climate, of course, is subject to habituation: think money, a new car, and today’s Christmas toy – the new delight turned stale; closeted before the weather warms. In the absence of other factors that might sustain a sense of well-being, we return to our set point, a basic and more or less enduring emotional state.
  • A richer neighbor will always be a happiness-wrecker if $$ are the measure you crave. Above $75,000 per year, your moment-to-moment, experienced well-being doesn’t improve much.
  • On the other hand, more money does tend to increase life satisfaction: your opinion of your life when you stop and think about it. And, up to about $75,000 yearly income, moment-to-moment happiness does increase.
  • Ask yourself what is your default tendency. If you tend to change jobs quickly, for example, then the next question becomes, how is that working? If you are prone to stasis when dissatisfied, the same question must be answered.
  • Are other lives involved in your decision? Maybe moving to a new house is best for you, but will it work for the spouse and kids?
  • Try to predict how you will feel about your choice in five months or five years. We tend to be poor at “affective forecasting,” the ability to gauge the emotional consequences of our actions. Still, an attempt is required.
  • A 2017 paper by Blanchflower and Oswald suggests we reach a low point to our happiness in midlife (around the early 50s). Thereafter, in general, we rebound – major life change or not.
  • You will do better to know where you are going, than just the situation from which you flee.
  • Those prone to anxiety and worry tend to exaggerate the danger of taking a risk. Judgment is questionable when angry. If you can, wait for a cool moment to make a decision.
  • Who are you? What are your values? How do these translate into life as it is lived?
  • Is there more than one way to achieve the result you want?
  • You might ask yourself whether your internal life requires attention. The externals – other people, your job, your living conditions – are less in your control.
  • If you expect utter and permanent transformation following your leap from a stuck place – well – you could be expecting too much. Remember, though, nothing in life is permanent and one can do worse than reach for the beguiling flowers still in bloom.

One last thought: we get no free lunch. Staying and going – except in extreme circumstances where life depends on it – each have a cost. Sometimes the decision is easy, often we struggle. Some doors remain open a while, others close with a rush. None of us get this right every time. Indeed, even knowing whether there is a “right” road can be challenging, since we only know with certainty the chosen path, while the other avenue lives in an idealized state within our imagination.

We’ve all read stories about the courage of people real or imagined, and the fixedness and quiet desperation of others. Those lives may provide guidance, but making choices presents a challenge unless you are an inveterate risk-taker or so frozen in place that no heat wave can de-ice and free you.

We each have only this one life. Try not to die with too many regrets.

The top image is the Vatican Museum Staircase as photographed by Andreas Tille. Next is James Jowers’s L.E. Side. These were sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Finally comes a Space Escape Grunge Sign, created by Nicolas Raymond and available from: www.freestock.ca

How Self-consciousness Misleads Us: The “Rock” Guitar Story

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/76/Guitarist_girl.jpg/256px-Guitarist_girl.jpg

Everyone will know. Everyone will know how you embarrassed yourself. Friends and strangers, both. They will see the perspiration and hear the stammering. Your face shall transform into a tomato-like ball of redness. It might as well get sold at a fruit market.

Yes, someone will make a video, too, making you an international laughing-stock. Forever.

We fear the worst and fear takes us over. We become hostage to worry. We crawl inside the fear and are devoured. Fear surrounds us, breathes into us, and binds us. We are trapped.

Only it’s not true. We’ve all lived moments like the one in the story I’m about relay. Not identical to this event, but just as excruciating and permanent, we thought. Not so bad after all, I hasten to say.

“Rock” was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. A remarkable scholar, a shining academic star. Black wavy hair already flecked with gray — he made an impression. He was gifted with words on paper and with words he spoke. “Rock,” a nickname belying a less than chiseled physique, would come to win two awards for teaching at another prestigious university. Rich Adelstein, his real name, remains one of the few people who is eloquent without a script.

Playing the guitar, however, is something else. Always was. And music is what his friends asked him to make at their wedding. “Just for a few minutes; anything you want. You’ll be a star!”

How could Rock say no? He chose a Bach transcription, not more than three minutes long.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/37/Amanda_Fran%C3%A7ozo_At_The_Runner_Sports_Fragment.jpg

The day came. A torrid day in a sweltering summer. Rock knew the piece by heart, had played it many times in the privacy of his apartment. There, Bach was effortless, fluent. But at a wedding, in front of lots of people?

You sweat the anticipation. You count the time. The sands of the hourglass push down and the hands of the hooded hangman place the noose. Tightening, tightening. There is no escape. Your expected participation is public knowledge. You can’t claim illness without betraying cowardice, conscience, and comrades.

The moment arrived. Rock sat in the chair in front of perhaps 200 wedding-well-wishers. His fingers, unlike his voice, were not the part of himself he trusted.

The perspiration began even before the first note. More notes, more perspiration. Our boy’s arm pits oozed. His winter-weight, flannel suit – the only one he owned – was soaking through. The sweat came in waves, like the kind that sweep you off your feet and carry you out to sea. The guitarist’s mind was overwrought with the terror of public humiliation. His brain buzzed. The shining brilliance of Rock’s head, always full of ideas, was now brilliant and shining for an uncustomary reason. My friend was barely above water, caught in a whirlpool, capsizing in a feverish river of illuminated perspiration and panic.

Rock’s fingers moved on their own, to the good. They were, however, getting harder to motivate. “A little while longer. If I can go on for a little while longer,” he said to himself. His digits seemed to get larger, like plump sausages; unbendable, heavy. Stiffening. And then, the unimaginable: his fingers went on strike. The unreliable labor force stopped laboring.

True, a single moment of silence was not inappropriate. But a moment is not 15-seconds, or 30-seconds, or a minute. Time transformed, became timeless. Rock stared at the stationary digits.

No vibration. Eternity. Strain. Second upon second upon second. How many?

Finally, the music began to sound. By sheer force of will the piece was finished.

The audience applauded. No shouts or cheers. Surely everyone knew. How could they miss a suit doubling as swim wear? Surely they were talking about him, giggling about Rock, feeling sorry. Surely people would remember.

A reception followed. The man of words had no words to describe his mortification. Yet, no one looked at him more than anyone else. No comment on his dampness. A few even told him they enjoyed the performance. Not a soul asked “What happened?” or “Are you OK? We worried about you.”

A woman appeared. Middle-aged. A stranger, well-dressed, with a cultured, intellectual aura.

“Oh, God,” Rock thought.

“I really enjoyed your performance,” she said with enthusiasm. “The dramatic pause, in particular!”

She wasn’t kidding. The disqualifying paralysis – the moment of ruin – was to her the creative highlight.

Life went on: a life of accomplishment, good works, and recognition. An admirable life, untouched by momentary catastrophe. Indeed, a catastrophe in one place alone: the mind.

Most of us have had some version of this experience. And survived. People usually notice less than we think. Most disasters are temporary. Even when the audience does recognize a difficult situation, they tend to forget. The event is replaced by another, newer story. We are much more concerned with our own lives than the lives of others. Thus, our daily tasks, relationships, victories, failures, deadlines, and distractions allow little room for concentration on another’s momentary discomfort.

A few rules for the next time you have a “Rock” Guitar experience:

  1. Remember, “This too shall pass.”
  2. Your internal emotions and what others detect are not the same. You probably don’t look or sound as bad as you think.
  3. Don’t proclaim your inexperience, nervousness, or troubled state. Do not cue the audience to search for problems they would otherwise likely miss. Do not apologize afterward.
  4. However bad the day, you will soon be yesterday’s news, replaced by some other event. More probable still, the crowd’s preoccupation returns to what we all spend most of our time thinking about: ourselves.
  5. Remind yourself that you are not unique. Even professional athletes drop baseballs in front of 50,000 people in the stands and millions watching on TV.

Not convinced you will live to fight another day? That your bad moment will go unnoticed or be forgotten? Then I am forced to tell you about the most inappropriate, politically incorrect, embarrassing experience of my life. This is a story you can’t top. No one ever has: Generosity and Kindness: A Story of Political Incorrectness.

The top image is called  Guitarist Little Girl (Dorothy Takacz) — Budapest, Hungary by Takkk. The second photo is entitled Drops of Sweat by Bibikoff. Next comes Finish Line by Thomas Sørenes. The final image is a photo of Musician Third Class Gabriel Brown, at the Jerudong International School, 2011. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This post is a revision of an earlier essay publish on this site.

The Return of Pandora and “The Age of Anxiety”

Feeling anxious? Lots of people are, not least since January. The American Psychological Association (APA) reports the following:

Between August 2016 and January 2017, the overall average reported stress level of Americans rose … according to (an) APA survey. This represents the first significant increase in the 10 years since the Stress in America survey began. At the same time, more Americans said they experienced physical and emotional symptoms of stress in the prior month, health symptoms that the APA warns could have long-term consequences.

Correlation is never a guarantee of causation, but what major event might have occurred in this period to contribute to our new “Age of Anxiety?” I needn’t tell you. Therapists of my acquaintance report hearing the politically charged worries in their offices.

Which brings me to Pandora. One version of the Greek myth tells us she was an uncommonly attractive figure, gifted in many ways; indeed, created by Zeus, the #1 god, to be the wife of Epimetheus. In her new home, however, she discovered a container or box. Curiosity got the best of her, she flipped the lid, and out flew all the tribulations and ills that continue to plague us.

Our forefathers, fathers, and mothers managed to rebox some of those ills, though the task took them much time and sacrifice. Think World War II. Now the lid is off again, unleashed by Pandora’s new stunt-double, a golden-haired male.

The APA offers some advice to those of us inflicted with the post-election epidemic of anxiety:

“If the 24-hour news cycle is causing you stress, limit your media consumption,” said Katherine Nordal, (President of the APA). “Read enough to stay informed but then plan activities that give you a regular break from the issues and the stress they might cause. And remember to take care of yourself and pay attention to other areas of your life.”

Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

For those who can tolerate stress, action (in this case political) is always recommended. No good comes from becoming a passive victim of circumstance. Before jumping in, however, you might want to learn what a “practical” writer said about challenging political conditions. A place to do so is at hand.

Here is an opportunity to meet a man variously described as evil, amoral, or patriotic: Niccolo Machiavelli. No, not the other guy.

The University of Chicago’s Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults will be presenting several free sample class discussions in which you can participate (in Northbrook, Oak Park, and downtown Chicago).

Online, too, for those in faraway places or who find getting out to the conversations impossible. The discussion topic is Machiavelli’s The Prince. Specifically, Chapter VIII: Of Those Who Through Wickedness Attain to the Principate.

Knowledge can be an antidote to fear. Do you have the courage to take a hard look at the world? Buddhists recognize the importance of seeing life as it is, not as a creation of your imagination or hope. Machiavelli was no Buddhist, but was clear-sighted about the conditions in which he lived and the people in power. He will not elevate your being, but may enlighten you as to the state of the state: the state we are in.

Machiavelli and Pandora are back. This time they just wear nicer clothes.

The top painting is Pandora by Arthur Rackham. The one below it is Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Comes after Grieving? The Challenge of Saying “Yes” to Life

A formal, sarcastic, middle-aged woman, she was not an especially promising therapy candidate. Though very bright, one of her problems was her penchant for closing doors. She needed escape from the confined space of her life, but when possibilities arose, “no” was her usual answer. Even if no joy resided within her narrow neighborhood of known places, the dismissed opportunities existed outside her psychological comfort zone. Instead, she went to work, dutifully visited her adult children, saw her siblings on holidays, and spent lots of time reading and doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku, at which she was adept. Her life was safe, her job secure, her unhappiness guaranteed.

The lady thought she had all the answers, but her sadness suggested otherwise. Widowed for some time, her muted grief could be traced to guilt over failing an abusive husband, not his absent kindness. Until the grieving was completed, however, no manner of persuasion convinced her she was now free. Her fortress against hurt from others – a shelter of  fixed routine, avoided chances, and minimized risk – was self-created.

A luxury room in hell is still in a place you won’t like.

Some therapy clients feel as though the past has stained them indelibly, made them unacceptable. Or that they are tainted, marked “beyond repair” soon after birth. They believe unacceptability pervades everything they are, everything they touch. My patient was such a one.

The therapist faces many challenges here. He must, of course, win the trust of someone untrusting, accept the sarcasm and negativity, understand the part “attitude” plays in defending the individual, and realize the presence of an injured soul under the porcupine spines. A grieving process will take the time it takes, until past losses recede and guilt is shed, the stain less visible. At some point the patient must begin to reenter the world or, perhaps, enter for the first time.

A scary thing.

Life is like a book we write in indelible ink. We can’t erase the past, even though some imagine the ink is still wet and marks everything they touch with words written far back: words like bad, selfish, mean, stupid, and unattractive. Those who think this way believe the pejoratives live inside of them. They attribute superhuman powers to new acquaintances. People will, they are sure, quickly read the words through the transparency of face and body.

The book, however, has many blank pages left. The virgin parchment remains to be filled in, as pristine for you as for another. What will you write? Yes, you possess a history, but how much of it must you endlessly reread and then repeat and recopy on the unfilled paper? How much of the book’s future story must tell the same tale only with different people?

The empty spaces ahead are untainted, pure. If you keep looking back, you will keep getting the wet ink on your fingers, your forearms, your future. The new leaves will be smudged. Thus, the lady with whom I began this story anticipated an unsatisfying, injurious path, closed the gate to it, and only accomplished a reliving of her past in places offering no novel possibilities.

She needed a change of clothes, a shower, even a fresh start at work or new friends; maybe without her siblings or with a changed attitude toward them.

If you are like this patient, too quick to say “that won’t work or “I can’t do that,” well, as the wry aphorism tells us, “If you do what you’ve done, you’ll get what you’ve gotten.”

The art of therapy is, in part, the art of managing the client’s transition from shedding the past to his trying out a new version of himself: a kind of gradual debut of a person partially transformed. Some of the transformation happens in the working through of past injuries, but much develops, too, in taking on the world again. There is danger if you ignore your history, but an equal amount if you don’t venture out.

Each of us carries some version of the book of our life’s saga. For those least fortunate, the incomplete autobiography is heavy, filled with the weight of tragedy. Others own a lighter volume, but not free of disappointments, mistakes, and the harm nature or fate or other people have inflicted.

The past is a place for reluctant therapeutic visits or fond memories. In the middle of life, however, many blank pages still need filling.

The patient I mentioned eventually ventured out of those phases – those pages – already read and reread, lived and relived. She entered the world of the living again, where history is made. She noticed anew a man she’d known for a few years, someone who admired her from a distance. My client took the risk of taking him seriously, instead of treating him with her standard defense: a witty, but sarcastic distancing.

If any of us are to find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we must first leave the house in search of it. We remake ourselves, in part, by taking tentative steps, not by waiting until we are fully changed. Change is in the action. Change is never finished, always moving, forever incomplete.

Perhaps it is too much to say my client found her innocence again, but in a way she did, and the joy of a second first love. She and her admirer married.

Life does not always permit a happy ending, nor do we get to write our whole story free of fate jostling our hand as we move the stylus.

Still, the blank pages beckon.

The top photo is called, Afraid of Water, by Jaka Ostrovršnik

How to Assert Yourself: A Guide to Dealing with Unfulfilled Promises

The knob fell off my hotel room door. The room had the wrong number of beds, the mattress sagged, the shower would have made an Eskimo’s teeth chatter, and the restaurant included pieces of glass and wire in the food. A nearby hospital demanded payment for an expensive test they improperly submitted to my insurance company.

OK, not all events were on the same day or in the same place, but these unpleasantries happened over a period of years at a variety of locations.

They were opportunities to become assertive and I became pretty good at taking on poor service and unfulfilled promises.

I had not always been adept, however.

I did not deal with such matters from strength as a young man, but I learned by doing. We don’t become confident waiting for the emergence of the ability to assert ourselves, we become confident by asserting ourselves. We get better gradually. That said, this particular kind of “training” isn’t fun.

In all the cases described – and more – I received compensation, usually enough to satisfy me.

I’ll share some thoughts on the potential trepidation of this type of challenge, as well as what I learned about the best way to succeed in dealing with these difficulties.

ATTITUDE (YOURS):

  • You are paying for a service. You are entitled to the service for which you are paying. The company is not doing you a favor by providing it. Indeed, you have been inconvenienced by needing to prompt the vendor to fulfill his obligation to you.
  • Think of your relationship with the provider (the merchant or hotel or restaurant) as if it were a written contract: they do something for you and you pay them for what they do.
  • You are providing the owner or CEO with valuable information: what is wrong with his business. Consultants earn high fees telling ailing companies about their mistakes. Some of the organizations to whom you complain will, indeed, be grateful for the information provided. Example: a restaurant that is over salting the food needs to know its patrons don’t like it or will soon have empty tables .
  • Self-assertion doesn’t make you a bad person. Requiring things be put right shows self-respect. You can be a good man or woman and also stand up for yourself.
  • Be direct, but civil. Don’t lose your temper, but speak unequivocally. Your tone should convey seriousness. Phrases like “I think” and “I’m pretty sure” undercut your complaint.
  • The person who you are talking to is not always the one who failed to provide adequate service. Be direct and strong in dealing with him, nonetheless. Consider saying, “I realize this is not your doing, but I am unhappy with your company’s failure to _____.”
  • If you admit error when the failure is not yours, your argument will not succeed.

BE PREPARED:

  • Read any signed contract with care. Even if the document suggests the service was not unconditionally guaranteed, websites and sales staff often convey the sense that the service will be provided, thereby implying an assurance or promise. Read the website and come prepared to quote from it, if necessary.
  • Try to manage the issue face-to-face, if possible. It is easier to be told “no” if you use email or phone.
  • Write down what you want to say. You can even read from your notes or script, though it is best to look at the representative most of the time.
  • Your written material should include the dates and times when events went wrong, the names of those with whom you spoke, whatever they said, etc. These details convey veracity (truthfulness) even if one cannot prove what happened.

MEETING WITH A CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE OR MANAGER:

  • Make and keep eye contact. My adult children call this, “the Stein Stare.” You needn’t display the controlled ferocity and x-ray vision my kids seem to imply in this “tribute” (a sort of family joke, both exaggerated and true), but people do take me seriously when I want them to.
  • Introduce yourself by name and, if possible, shake the agent’s hand firmly. You are attempting to establish a relationship, convey civility, and demonstrate the importance of the matter. Looking down most of the time will not help your case.
  • Since you may be speaking to a person with little authority, ask him to follow through on reaching a “decider” and request follow-up concerning the company’s intentions with regard to your complaint. Ask when you should expect to hear back and whether notice will come in writing or by phone.
  • If you don’t get satisfaction, request the attention of someone still-higher in the chain of command. A Vice President of Customer Satisfaction or similar individual stands on the top rung. You can find his name on the company website.
  • At some point you may need to ask for what you want. For example, a poorly cooked dish should be sent back to the kitchen and prepared to your liking or removed from the bill. A hotel problem might require you to request a room change, a reduced rate, or both. In hotels I’ve received a free day, a free meal, free parking, etc. Sometimes you will be offered a form of compensation without asking, but be prepared whether to accept the proposition or ask for more. Don’t say, “that’s OK,” unless you mean it.
  • Be persistent. Multiple contacts are often required. It took me six-months to get a hospital to submit a corrected insurance claim. I spoke with a nurse, a doctor, obtained the proper procedure code for the test that had been performed, wrote emails, and made regular telephone follow-ups with the hospital’s billing department.

A FEW OTHER CONSIDERATIONS:

  • You needn’t always make an issue of things. Pick your fights. The world is imperfect and you can drive yourself batty demanding justice at every turn. Some problems are best allowed to pass unchallenged.
  • Be aware of what your “default” tendency is when it comes to the kind of assertion described here. Some of us demand perfection as customers and enjoy fighting. Some are meek, prone to cowering in the face of anyone in authority. Others are easy-going and accept life’s occasional disappointments with a good-nature and plenty of tolerance.
  • If you are prone to fighting you might need to ask why. If you are avoidant of anything portending conflict, confrontation, or disappointment, you risk transforming yourself into the world’s doormat. Think about who you wish to be and how much emotion you are willing to spend in obtaining the service you expected or compensation for a failure or delay.
  • Most service providers hope to satisfy you, want your return business, and look forward to word-of-mouth advertising from you.
  • The vendor dislikes negative publicity. It is sometimes necessary to let the company know of your intention to tweet or blog your story to others if you aren’t satisfied.
  • If you do make such a threat, recognize this is the only “arrow” in your quiver. Once you have used it and tweeted your unhappiness to the world, your leverage with the vendor is gone. If at all possible, keep any such actions in reserve unless negotiations reach a dead-end

FINAL THOUGHTS: 

  • Consider all that I’ve said as free advice, with the usual warning: no guarantees and you get what you paid for it.
  • You will feel better about yourself if you challenge some of the personal injustices life offers and stand up to those who might take advantage of you, whether intentionally or due to incompetence or negligence.
  • What you prove to yourself is more important than proving anything to others. Knowing you can face difficult situations is worth the unpleasantness required to obtain such knowledge. You won’t always get what you want, but you will build an internal psychic muscle. Like the proverbial 99-pound weakling who enlarges his body by lifting weights, your newly found internal strength will be worth the hours spent in the gym of life.

The top image is A Snowball Fight in China by 大雄鹰. The second photo is a Giant Snowball, Oxford by Kamyar Adl. The final painting is Three Lawyers in Conference by Honoré Daumier. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Taoist Farmer and a Patient’s Search for Answers

Part of the human dilemma is the trap of unhelpful, but habitual ways of thinking. Cognitive behavior therapists call them thinking errors or cognitive distortions. On occasion you probably have made one or more such wrong-headed mental turns into an emotional sink hole. Catastrophization is an example: predicting the worst possible outcome you can imagine happening to you, sure the expected calamity will finish you off, even when there are many less dire potential futures and most bad results are temporary. But other mental traps wait for us, ones not so commonly found in a therapist’s lexicon. Good/bad, right/wrong, lucky/unlucky are not as clear as we think.

Take the old story of the Taoist farmer.

There was a farmer whose horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, “Maybe.” And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg.

Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, “Maybe.” The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, “Maybe.”*

As with any parable, multiple interpretations exist. Sometimes apparent bad fortune – like a broken relationship – leads to someone who is a better match. Being fired from a job can be a step toward a better one, even fuel your search and foster your growth. This is not to suggest all tragedies are the yellow brick road to Oz. Yet, we tend to recover, even if recovery can be lengthy, fraught, and incomplete. Then again, luck depends on when you take a measure of your situation. The farmer believed there was still time ahead, and the present moment represented a temporary vantage point: another evaluation down the road might change the assessment of his life.

One alternative way to think about this story is to recognize the problem of “keeping score.” We look around and ask, am I getting ahead or falling behind? In the West, the so-called First World of capitalism, we are trained in ladder-climbing, money counting, and concern with the opinions of others. A bit crazy-making, since someone else always owns “more,” and we are inclined to compare “up” rather than “down.” Put another way, we measure ourselves against those better off rather than those less fortunate. We also tend – after a moment of delight – to take for granted the Christmas toy for which we waited a year. Great honors don’t seem so great after the award ceremony is over.

Is there another way?

A Buddhist (or a Stoic philosopher) might tell you to become less attached to all things in the world: status, property, money; even relationships and health. Put differently, to give up clinging and craving, while practicing loving kindness and steadfast integrity. The more attachment, the more you will lose, so they say. Such an existence – preoccupied with getting and spending and fear of losing (and regret over what is already lost) – is a guarantee of suffering.

Yet another view is this one: maybe life is not a matter of assigning a grade to what we think or do, but to be experienced with little evaluation: passed through, lived. To be in the swim, not outside the pool, watching and afraid of the shock of the cold water if we should jump in. Not asking whether our stroke is beautiful enough, our pace fast enough, the distance traveled far enough.

To this way of thinking, failure and rejection are normal parts of life. They indicate we are still trying; necessary parts, too, because resilience grows from the knowledge you can come back from defeat.

Perhaps winning the game is not as important as playing the game. Perchance the world is to be tasted: different cuisines and flavors, not just chocolate and vanilla. If so, a person would experience many colors, sizes, possibilities. Engage in multiple careers. Know lots of people. Have your heart broken and sewn up and torn again and stitched until the twine itself breaks. And to read and discuss all the worthy books, play all the sublime music, climb walls until your muscles and tendons hurt. No, even past the time they hurt, adapting to the hurt. Not an either/or existence but “all-in.”

Or, is life properly understood to be perplexing and without a “solution”? If so, any belief in your own secret formula is misguided: your solution is, at best, temporary. You are not only fooling yourself, but missing the point. Which is? That the pursuit of happiness is more a journey than an arrival. That when traveling to the airport we should always go to “departures” instead of “arrivals” because we are forever “taking off” for whatever is next and never reach a static endpoint while alive.

Left to you is the creation of a personal meaning, not to be found in a book or a place of worship or from a mentor, whole and flawless; unless, that is, you are among those for whom the answer is unquestioning faith and an ultimate, unworldly reward.

Still another path: one is told the most satisfying existence requires living for bigger things than ourselves, including the future of the planet, our children, and the lives of others. We are warned not to count on or crave a posthumous glory. Unless someone else is doing the scoring, the record book will be lost along with our names, in a fast-fading blue ink on a yellowing parchment. Or, as Arthur Miller suggested, on a block of melting ice.

Is human existence perhaps a multifaceted combination of tragedy, joy, inevitability, necessity, laughter, devotion, confusion, sacrifice, and the way things are until, too soon, they aren’t?

Having written all of the above, I fear my message – the answer without an answer to conceptualizing life – is unsatisfying. I’m not even satisfied. I have given you no certainty, nothing definite. Some of you will reject the inconclusivity. I won’t hold it against you.

To my way of thinking, therapy cannot provide “the answer” either. The counselor instead offers a remedy for specifics. He can help reduce or eliminate your anxiety or depression or some other malady in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. No text-book or training, however, offers a step-by-step solution to dealing with the human condition. I’m sorry about that, really.

We do what we can.

I offer this consolation to you, nonetheless:

No matter what we look like, no matter how happy or sad we are (or seem to be) for the moment – calm or stressed, wise or foolish – we are all in this porridge together. Sometimes we swim within a tasty bowl – “just right,” as Goldilocks said – though not for every meal and every appetite. Look around you and see all the swimmers. Tiny like us, precious like us. They come in all strengths and varieties, but they will not always be there.

No wonder we search for love.

*Source: Tao: The Watercourse Way, by Alan Watts. The first image below the youtube video is Ilja Richter rehearsing for his play Altweibersommer in Munich. The next photo is the work of SuzannePerry.enoughofit7. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.