Confused by Friends, Family, and Neighbors? Why is the World so Messy?

When I think back to my Chicago Public School education, only two answers existed for the many questions presented to us. One was right, the other wrong.

No, I suppose it wasn’t quite so simple. I had to find the one right answer. All the rest were wrong.

It is evident today that even my five-year-old grandson has opinions, and an astonishing number of us choose to believe a select group of those who deliver opinions. Unlike my elementary school, our country doesn’t agree on the question of what’s right and what’s wrong.

What shall we do with this condition of our equally human lives together? We are assailed by so many who offer a certainty not shared by other voices. They and we live in unshared tents of true belief.

First, dear reader, I don’t want you to accept automatically what I’m about to offer you. I don’t want you to receive my ideas without asking yourself about them. If you don’t step back and consider whether I’m wrong, I shall become another of those supposed authorities who might mislead you by accident or the intention to deceive.

Let’s get back to what I learned early in life.

My sliver of religious education encountered authorities similar to the secular ones employed by the city, in this case having to do with alleged truth about our obligations to a creator and fellow mortals.

Depending on one’s religion, one received God’s all-knowing words, some etched into long-unavailable stone tablets. So the believers believed.

Friends told me about the Catholic churches of the time. Bible reading was discouraged. The priest would inform you of all you needed. Accepting his pronouncements was expected.

The various authorities delivered top-down stature and insistence. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t dare ask who or what is in the boat or where the vessel is docked.

You could ask questions in these centers of learning, but I didn’t ask many early on—most who did attempted to understand what the teacher or the text said, not challenge the instructor.

Parents also authored a version of the law: the rules of the home and how to behave outside. Again, follow the drill. If you don’t, no thrill.

If the city elders put a sign on the Chicago block containing Jamieson School — the gigantic mortar and brick edifice I attended through the eighth grade, it would have read:

WANT TO FAIL? ASK QUESTIONS!

Somehow I got a doctorate. I made a jump of several years here. Hope you are still with me.

What was going on then? What is going on today?

The average American has not been encouraged to ask queries of himself. Not well-considered, thoughtful ones, at least. For example, when the teacher told us about slavery, the telling including a few uncomplicated explanations of how and why.

Almost no instructor asked students, what else? Might there have been other causes, more or fewer?

We could have been asked, “What do you think was going on in the minds of the slaveholders? What motivated them? If you were a slave, how would you have felt?”

Many of the slaveholders claimed adherence to high-minded religious principles. How did these “masters” combine the vision of a loving God with their treatment of men they considered property?

What does this tell us about the ability of some folks to hold contradictions in their minds? Do you think the plantation owners resolved those contradictory beliefs and actions? How? Do such contradictions present themselves in today’s world? Do they live inside you?

What would you have done if you were the son of a mom and dad who kept slaves? Can you be sure without having lived in that moment, in an identical place and time?

Well, you can imagine. If I taught such a class to young people in certain places today, I’d be terminated along with this agenda.

To my benefit, I was a curious kid, one who led a one-person in-home questioning of my family’s life on Talman Avenue.

Whatever the cause, most of us should harbor lots of questions about the world we live in. An endless number. In particular, those without easy answers

Even before we start, however, we must begin by observing more of the world. Socrates, Martin Heidegger, and other philosophers said a typical person sleepwalks his way through life. We see without awareness. We hear without listening.

We peek at life through a tiny lens — as if through the small end of a funnel. We walk down the street peering into phones, examining texts, tweets, headlines, and emails fed to us by those opinionated others I mentioned before. Taking selfies along the way, as well. Everything gets blurry.

Meanwhile, if you challenge yourself to absorb everything else, you might see without a funnel. Notice the road. Why is it closed off? Perhaps you would wonder who decided this? Who benefits? Who doesn’t? How are the asphalt and labor paid for?
 
You’d see homeless people instead of walking past them as we tend to do with discarded furniture, recognizing the humanity in them described in Sabbath sermons. Do these creatures cause problems? How? What do they need? What is your responsibility? Where do they sleep?
 
Recognize the weathered skin of those too long in the sun. Were they born to other homeless people? Did medical bills lead to the loss of proper shelter? Was prescribed medication a stepping stone to addiction?
 
You’d see trees and insects. In some locals, few flies, bees, and butterflies live. Was it always this way? What explains their reduction in numbers? What happens when these beings are in short supply? Are there human consequences due to their diminished number?
 
Do you know population growth is slowing in many countries? This started before the pandemic. Is it a good thing or not? Why are people having fewer babies? How significant a factor is a living wage to the decision to have a child?
 
If you take another intellectual step, immigration policy enters your conversation with yourself. Pro or con? More newcomers would increase the number of inhabitants and produce more children. Helpful for business or not?

I hope you recognize how many issues like this are interconnected with other observations you might make as you widen your eyes to consume what is in front and around you. Prepare yourself for one question leading to another. The experience can be both unsettling and exciting.


We are interlinked to things, bugs, bridges, people, the folks harvesting our crops, the guy who collects our garbage, the environment, the people who build businesses, the men and women working three jobs of necessity, and the police.

We are attached to entities like us who toil in never heard of villages or cities, absent from dusty maps. Some are decent, some indecent, some would give you the shoes they use to walk, and others would steal yours and laugh about it.
 
Socrates, Parmenides, and Heraclitus all observed their neighbors’ failure to open themselves to the world, wonder about it, and raise internal inquiries instead of accepting the opinions of those thought to be more learned or wise. They believed this the natural state of humanity.
 
Why? Why do we hear but don’t listen? Why do we step forward through the day, the places, and the living things without “seeing” them?
 
Why don’t we reflect upon what we perceive of this magnificent, baffling, racing life and begin more questioning rather than reflexively buying into so-called authorities, assuming they are right?
 
The philosophers I mentioned suggested explanations like this one:

We want simple answers. Quick conclusions making us feel better are preferred, whether they help us feel secure, confident, and adequate or project blame for hard times on others instead of ourselves.

If a person admits he doesn’t understand something by asking a question, he risks self-doubt. If this man is unsure around associates, he may appear foolish.

Uncertainty experienced within our complicated lives provokes anxiety for many. Confused, shaky members of the group can be cast out or lose status. Rejecting the accepted ideas of the tribe breaches the unstated rules of membership.

The world is a demanding, competitive place, where few own the luxury of time. It is one where fairness and prosperity are not guaranteed. Making a living, finding a mate, achieving a safe place to live, and raising decent and healthy children can’t be assumed.
 
Better, many believe, not to overthink what others don’t ask about, thus avoiding worry. Last, we cannot escape the grim reaper: death. We will die, as will everyone we know or will know, those dearest to us included—another troublesome topic to be set aside instinctively.
 
Few have the courage to look at the most pressing conditions of existence in the face, nor the person seen in their mirror. Thus, only the strongest can take on the surroundings in one swallow that includes everything — the beautiful and the awful together.
 
Small bites of the least unsettling bits of it come naturally to the human condition. No, don’t ask too many troublesome questions without comforting, fortifying answers. When in doubt, trust your friends and maybe the people they trust. If you take a widemouthed gulp of the whole world, you might drown.
 
Ah, but the same philosophers also believed there is an upside here. If you are brave enough to perceive everything as it is and engage in questions on a large scale, you will become a more excellent person. You may then alter your life’s path and the history of those around you.

This kind of courage, curiosity, and wonder offers engagement with whatever exists ahead. The well-being you want for those you love and the world’s future requires people such as you shall thereby become.


The possibility of discovering the best possible version of yourself remains down this road. I hope you seek it.

==========

The first image is the Yukon River, Dalton Highway, Alaska by Laura Hedien, with her kind permission. Next comes Oswaldo Guayasamin’s Waiting. Finally, a Buddhist Lama, 1913, sourced from History Daily.

Does Love Die of Boredom? Some Unexpected Advice

As the stream of time moves us on, most of us hope to find a comfortable way to manage. Few beg for more of the turbulence of early years, a period fraught with insecurity and internal confusion. “Who am I — who do I want to be?” — is a question we’d rather not ask. Psychological and physical ease is the goal.

Yet, do we risk a life of deadening routine? Do we hold too fast to one version of our identity past the point our partner finds us dull? Even the beautiful and smart can be unlucky in love.

Who might we consult to make ourselves forever interesting to the one we care for?

How about someone who ended one of his most famous works with the words, “You must change your life.”

Rainer Maria Rilke died at 51 in 1926. In his half-century, he gained an unconventional perspective on love and keeping it fresh. He thirsted for experiences, wishing to absorb the world with new eyes as if he were seeing his surroundings — human and natural — for the first time.

The poet often praises those who make perception into an activity, not the automatic, passive accumulation of sights, sounds, and smells entering our awareness without effort. He wants it to be alive, not rendered invisible by his failure to recognize more than customary appearances.

In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, insightful observation requires intention: an attempt to make the familiar unfamiliar, nor turn from what troubles us when we look and listen closely.

Here is an example from the title character Brigge:

There are many people, but even more faces, since everyone has several. There are people who wear a face for years, and of course it wears away, gets dirty, cracks in the creases, stretches like gloves you’ve worn whilst traveling.

Rilke’s words push us to take a new look at the next face we behold. He implies more exists behind faces than we thought. The portrayal of Brigge discloses a young man attentive to subtlety and nuance, the qualities arrayed before him available to his sight: the sensory world we find unremarkable without the effort to inspect it.

Now imagine yourself attached to someone like Rilke, woman or man, who transforms part of the experiences you take for granted.

At age 27, Rilke received a letter from a 19-year-old, with whom he continued a prolonged but occasional correspondence. The younger man, a military student named Franz Kappus, sought advice on his own literary efforts.

The compilation of Rainer Maria’s side of the exchange appears in his Letters to a Young Poet.

In the eighth of his 10 communications, dated August 12, 1904, Rilke addresses the reasons he believed sweethearts became boring.

For it is not only indolence that causes human relationships to be repeated from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before any new, inconceivable experience, which we don’t think we can deal with.

Note, Rilke doesn’t say one of the lovers is boring. He says tedium grows out of hesitation to take on new inward and outward adventures. He continues:

But only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.

For if we imagine this being of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. In this way they have a certain security.

The above passage suggests courage is the inoculation preventing the death of intimacy. Moreover, Rilke believes it will foster not only closeness but also Kappus’s self-discovery. In eaves-dropping on a century-old private exchange, we are allowed to ask if we too remain in “a corner of (our) room” out of a desire for security and safety.

The older man’s message continues to explore this idea:

And yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells.

We, however, are not prisoners.

Later, both Kappus and we are told why we ought to flee our self-imposed confinement and embrace the wider world.

If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them.

And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.

How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses.

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

The dragons might also be thought of as personal shortcomings hidden by the masks we wear — the truth we hide from others and ourselves. The writer suggests we take the role of a sculptor of our individual humanity, forever adapting, shaping, and experimenting with an identity which new circumstances, aging, and personal history demand we change.

Rilke asks us to begin self-examination, to stand erect and naked before the sunlit mirror, and declare, “This is who I am.” The static life, he might tell us, is a missed opportunity. He applauds those who wish to know more — endlessly.

The whole of humanity will never take Rilke’s advice. Not everyone accepts life’s unexpressed invitation to discover who they are and create who they strive to be. I suspect the man is speaking of rare creatures among us.

Perhaps they would be the metaphorical tightrope walkers and fire-eaters, and those to whom love or justice or freedom are worth everything they possess — everything they must endure for the chance to achieve them.

In our challenging mortal world, Rilke recommends we mull over unnecessary boundaries and barricades built for self-protection, some of which cost us the fulfillment we say we want.

Since the clock on our duration keeps its steady pace toward the ends of things, we do well to live with a tempered urgency to be more, notice more, and do more.

And if we are lucky and his suggestions are correct, win and maintain a lasting love.

====================

The quotations from Letters to a Young Poet are a part of one long paragraph. I’ve broken the sentences up to better clarify your understanding and my commentary.

The first painting is August Macke’s 1914 Tightrope Walker. The second is Tightrope Walkers,1944, by Remedios Varo. Finally comes Giorgio de Chirico’s 1926 The Two Masks. All of these come from Wikiart.org/

When God Wrote a Symphony

God can do anything.

At least the All-powerful One who created the universe and all the living things in it.

But, on a remarkable day, the Almighty got bored. “I’ve done everything,” he said to himself. “What might I yet do to enhance the world?”

Thus came the idea of a new, mammoth orchestral composition–a piece in three long movements on the largest possible scale. “And so it was.”

The next morning every person on the planet, no matter their age or place, awoke with sheet music and the musical instrument required.

They’d shared a dream overnight, instructing them to practice their portion each day with the newfound talent instilled by The Timeless Being.

In six months, they now knew, God would lead the premiere.

Ah, but we creatures aren’t perfect, are we? Otherwise, why did the Lord drown his people in The Flood? All but Noah, his family, and an ark full of pairs, that is.

Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t come out well, either.

Indeed, one little man in the Deity’s band was already troubled. A diminutive tailor named Thomas read through the score, distressed to discover he had a solo. A star turn in front of the whole world. A cymbal crash, no less. His would be the climactic moment of the entire piece, the capping culmination, its ending excellence.

The clothier, you must understand, preferred the shadows to the stage, avoiding attention his entire life. He worried about bringing his cymbals together a moment too soon, a beat too late, making his noise too loud or soft, or bumping into a fellow percussionist.

Thomas doubted everything about himself. He always had. On this occasion, however, he’d not only be letting himself and humanity down but The Big Guy. Or Woman. Or whatever gender description is appropriate for the Immortal.

What might happen? Would the Supreme Being submerge the earth a second time? The responsibility squeezed Thomas’s heart. He couldn’t sleep, didn’t eat, and lost weight. “God, help me!” pleaded Tom.

No answer came.

The day began. All the living world instantly arrived at an enormous space in Africa. Humankind found itself onstage, surrounded by the rest, in the water, trees, open lands, air, and hills.

After the ensemble tuned, the Maker stepped off his golden chariot and took the podium. The music commenced.

The first movement took eight years to play, but even Thomas thought the celestial tones beautiful beyond imagination. It enchanted the universe of listeners, too, even the man in the moon. Still, as time passed, this musician’s timorous anticipation grew.

After a brief pause, the Lord’s downbeat launched the second section, seven-years in length. The flawless symphonic sounds soared even beyond the loveliness of what had preceded it. Birds froze in mid-flight, transfixed. The giraffes and hippos, the alligators, too, found their eyes glistening. All the collective hearts conjoined, every living creature in synch.

Except for our buddy, of course.

By the beginning of the symphony’s third part, the single suffering soul was beside himself. The cymbal crash lay 10 years ahead. He wrung his hands, wiped his brow, and began to shake.

The decade passed. At last, the moment!

God turned in the cymbalist’s direction, providing the cue. Thomas lifted the metal plates, and then…

Everyone heard the clatter. But it was the sound of Tom dropping the cymbals, not putting the intended final punctuation to the Divinity’s glorious score, 25 years of perfection since the heavenly baton first moved.

The Deity lowered his arms, the performers froze, and the world held its breath. Thomas looked down, but the Immortal One raised the tailor’s head and opened his humiliated, terror-struck eyes to meet his own.

The gaze, as Tom experienced it, felt as though it went on for eternity. In clock time, however, perhaps just a few seconds elapsed.

The composing Creator composed himself and turned to behold the philharmonic altogether.

And he said the only thing a great, eternal musician would say.

“From the top!”

================================

The first design is Frontiepiece K, The Ancient of Days, to William Blake’s 1794 work Europe a Prophecy. The next image is God Speed! by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, sourced from wikiart.org. Shiva as the Lord of the Dance is the last artwork, created in India. It dates from the 10th or 11th century, now part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Collection.

The Therapeutic Value of Remembering “Things”

 

I sometimes wonder what things — stored or discarded objects — might offer clues about who we are and how we got this way? Some carry secrets we’ve forgotten and epiphanies yet to be disclosed.

I was watching my oldest grandson color a month or so back. It’s been a long time since I colored with my kids themselves. The scent, and sight, and size of his Crayola box brought to mind an age six experience of my own.

The teacher must have asked my classmates and me to bring home a supply list on the new academic year’s first day, the Tuesday after Labor Day. I doubt the paper said more than the words “one box of Crayolas.”

My mom probably didn’t give it much thought, other than to fulfill the requirements and not pay more than necessary. The ghosts of her own haunted youth doubtless accompanied her to the store.

Each student took his bag of necessaries to our classroom at Jamieson School and unloaded them when told to. But this simple job was to be something beyond routine.

Once we lifted the tops, my eight-crayon cohort shrunk like small buildings encircled by the many multi-colored, peaked towers bursting upwards from the desks surrounding me. I sensed everyone else lugged the largest case to school — forty-eight crayons worth.

That was the first day I encountered a personal sense of “less than.” Not the box, but I felt “less than” the other kids.

Please understand, no comments or comparisons issued from the mouths of others, nor any judgmental glances. My brain interpreted the sign-language communicated by all the well-supplied boxes.

Such coloring tools carry a powerful aroma. You might ask yourself about scents that continue to remind you of childhood, as well. Alfalfa and cedar come to mind.

The cedar infusion of air came from a wooden toy chest. I can’t attach alfalfa to anything precise. Perhaps the plants grew in one of the many empty lots around our home, places long since filled in by brick and mortar construction. Both smells bring pleasure even now.

I played in those unbuilt spaces: baseball, softball, marbles, hiding, racing, and digging in the dirt for ancient coins or arrowheads. Layers of clay were common as one probed.

If you wish to know more about your roots, poke among the items yet surviving in family vaults and attics. Find old photos and inspect the background articles: the furniture, wall decorations, gadgets, and more. Perhaps their unending patience awaits your notice.

My grandmother also left me with a “thing” whenever she kissed me on the cheek. Each show of affection ended quickly, but her lips’ outsized wetness lingered until I located a towel. I liked her but didn’t enjoy being submerged in the middle of the living room.

What other recollections might return with these? Memories tend to bump into each other, a bit like a line of dominoes when the first is tipped over.

By the time I finished eighth grade in 1960, I observed something else. In my neighborhood, a number of the parents kept a complete, multi-volume encyclopedia at home. I saw those owned by friends, some new and expensive, others not quite so recent.

Ours came from the late 1930s and looked like it had been through an economic depression and conflict, though its arrival in the stores was a bit ahead of World War II. I suspect the set got purchased second-hand a while after my birth.

The volumes were well-worn. Their hard use conveyed the sense of hard times. I only realized this within the last month.

The yellowing pages carried the mindset of my home. From a psychological standpoint, my parents and, therefore, my brothers and I lived in the shadow of a vanished time.

For all the humor the family shared, we inhabited a psychology sprung from a period when bad things happened. My folks’ lived-history stoked fear of their recurrence.

Other objects in the home revealed the same mentality, as did my folks’ conversations. Indeed, if Fate deposited our shelves with a brand new, high-end collection of similar books, the volumes probably would have stuck around for no more than a few weeks. Then, realizing they didn’t fit, the entire 26, from A through Z, could only have grown legs and fled while we slept.

They didn’t belong.

I already knew the truth such things represented but never recognized these hardcovers contributed to the atmosphere.

Yet, we soon got a new set. Jewel, a nearby grocery, advertised a 99 cent special. The letter A began the weekly march through the alphabet and closer to a complete edition. I heard about the ad on TV, and my folks obliged my desire.

Thereby, perhaps, the family took a small step into to more benign present. To the good, the books never departed.

I’d not recommend looking back to everyone, but therapists would be remiss in doing otherwise. History and the processing of its legacy are a part of our work. Not to learn about the past’s impact on your own life, including new insights into the present, recommends finding a different career.

Distant recollections come to me on their own, though not with regularity or unwanted frequency. I’m comfortable with them, and, as the encyclopedia memory tells me, they occur at odd angles, provide new perspectives, and sometimes enlighten me. As time has passed, these recollections also carry more sweetness and humor than ever; enlarged gratitude, too.

As we move along in life, we occupy the successive ages our parents reached before us. Understanding anyone older only accomplishes partial knowledge, whether one is a counselor or not. As I gain more of the age my father and mother achieved, I sometimes learn more about them — and myself.

My parents, gone now for 20 years, still teach me.

———–

The first photo is of my parents before my dad was shipped overseas during WWII. The last image is of the young author.

“What Am I Without It?” When Opportunities Follow Loss

 

They say we don’t know the value of a thing until it’s gone. If so, everyone on the planet has learned something during the pandemic.

Do you remember your last kiss or hug or handshake? We aren’t often told, “Hey, I wanted to mention, this is the last time, at least for a while.” How rude of Mr. Covid not to announce us.

For a portion of our fellow men, having a job and a place to live is newly uncertain. The future of recess on the playground and the source of the next meal leave question marks.

We miss smiles not blurred behind an electronic scrim on Zoom, the twinkle of another eye, a hand on a friend’s shoulder, and a meeting with his eyes.

The bottom half of faces, too.

If the deprivation we suffer illuminates our values, perhaps we will live a rearranged, reimagined life just ahead. One hopes the knowledge of “what is important” sticks with us.

Ours is to search for the joy we so miss, the balance stolen by the virus, the buoyant activities and interactions that made previous hard times endurable; the reliance, worship, and community encounters broken up and swept away like browned leaves in the wind.

At other times some decided to volunteer for losses. Peter Serkin, the recently deceased pianist, set music aside in his early 20s to travel. He ceased both practicing and performing to “find out who I am without it.” The artist returned to concert life and an extraordinary career informed by what he discovered during his self-imposed separation from his instrument.

Religions ask us to give something up, a loss imposed if you are a doctrinaire believer. Certain foods become forbidden. Your self-denial tells you how much your faith means to you, or perhaps how much you fear divine judgment.

Your devotion and comfort in the Deity grow from saying “no.” Saying “yes” to a moral code outside of church gives its own meaning, as well.

Time is a commodity we all lose all the time. Some careers stand frozen in place. Athletes don’t get their physical prime back. Young people need formative social experiences and pleasures that cannot be retrieved with ease from behind.

The philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he is not the same man.” The speeding passage of the seasons always requires our choice of one activity over another, one person over another. We might ask, how much time will I trade for how much money?

We are forever deciding where to focus attention, enduring stress to find the next job, risking a question in the hope of a particular answer, daily saying hello and goodbye. No wonder the Hebrew word “shalom” signifies both of those common words.

We are, if we are self-aware, frequently finding ourselves. A person who recognizes himself as changing and changeable knows he must remodel himself. Even without awareness of this necessity, he will be altered by time and events.

The first of the Ancient Greek Delphic maxims was “Know Thyself.” Most don’t, but even if they do, they ought to ask later, “Am I still the man I was? Who am I now? Do I want to be a different person living a different life differently?”

As the planet reopens, we will discover a new world, one with fresh dangers and novel opportunities. Indeed, our place in it, the place for us before COVID-19, may not be suitable after. To the good, we are still capable of becoming.

What you lose changes you. Though we come to expect it, the ache from the departure of a loved one remains tender for as long as it takes for the breeze to wear it away. Hearts are full of irreplaceable people, some alive in “a world elsewhere,” others muted shadows.*

Perchance a grand adventure awaits in the recovered and recovering times. Think of yourself as a sculptor or a portrait painter creating your own likeness.

Yours is the only hand that shapes and shades what is essential, knowing what you alone comprehend. Chance or fortune will fiddle with you, but you needn’t accept every bit of the fate they deliver.

You have a part to play if you can locate it. You haven’t, you say? Keep looking for the role to which you aspire. Life can break you, but it also carries surprise and wonder.

Late in his life, my dad often studied the cement a few steps beyond as he walked, perhaps reviving a habit begun in the Great Depression. He found pocket change, paper currency, and once a fancy watch. I’d not recommend the practice, but you won’t find anything unless you seek it.

First, tape over the hurt spots and find the hunter within.

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*The three quoted words come from Shakespeare’s play “Coriolanus,” Act III, Scene III.

The top painting is “With an Umbrella,” 1939, by Paul Klee. The final photograph is “Arizona Sunset,” late July, 2020, S. of Tucson by Laura Hedien, with the kind permission of Ms. Hedien: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/

The Therapeutic Value of Reading

 

If you have been socially-distanced into submission, as many have, you might be reading more than you once did. Have you turned to self-help books, more news articles, history, poetry, novels, or something else?

The decision depends on what your goal is.

Distraction is called for, at least some of the time. Understanding our politics provides another enticement, though “hair on fire” prose of questionable truth won’t find me turning the page. I salute take-home guides to personal problem solving unless they offer you an escape from changing your life by thinking about it alone.

One might categorize writing differently. Sometimes the language of long and short stories is therapeutic in itself. Virginia Woolf’s work comes to mind. Here is a bit from To the Lighthouse:

What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

The author’s reflections and her lovely way of expressing herself make me wish to know more. She takes me outside of my mind and back again to show me the inside. The author transports me. I am caught in the updraft of her sense and spirit.

Books can make one laugh, too, and good-natured humor at almost any moment has value.

For me, however, most of the time, I’m searching for a new idea, a way of thinking from a perspective I passed over. I don’t require a happy ending, just one I find believable.

I want my eyes to widen, an enlargement of my view of the world, my imagination inspired, my humanity extended. Yes, reading offers this help.

Take a quote from the late Christina Crosby, who wrote of her life after a paralyzing accident of endless residual pain:

In order to live on, I must actively forget the person I was. I am no longer what I once was — yet, come to think of it, neither are you. All of us who live on are not what we were, but are becoming, always becoming.

Yes, I want words like these, arranged to communicate insights just beyond my reach until I read them. I want Dr. Crosby’s eloquence and frankness, the greatness of spirit in her fortitude.

In the end, I want to learn more. I seek enlivenment. The way to this destination requires some amount of disquiet. How is discomfort therapeutic, you ask? Remember, psychotherapy creates a tolerable degree of discomfort, as well. We often must strain and extend ourselves to grow.

The literature for which I search might unsettle me. Do you wonder whether we should bring on more distress in the time of COVID-19?

Franz Kafka created my answer over 100 years ago:

I think we ought to read only the kinds of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.

The not yet world-renowned writer was then 20-years-old.

———-

The first painting is A Beauty Reading by Utagawa Kunisada. Next comes The Magdalen Reading by Rogier van der Weyden from the National Gallery, London. The photograph was done by luxfon.com/painting. Third in line is a photo of an Old Man Reading a Newspaper Early in the Morning at Bansantapur, Nepal by Bijay Chaurasia. All of these come from Wikimedia Commons.

Consolation and Hope in a Challenging Time

On most days, I wouldn’t be quoting President Abraham Lincoln. At a different time, this atheist might not be looking for solace in scripture, though I am often comforted when I do.

Today I’m doing both and offering their consolation to you.

Lincoln, this country’s Civil War President, authorized a day of “national prayer and humiliation” in the midst of that war. His proclamation reads, in part:

I do … designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer. And I do hereby request all the People to abstain, on that day, from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite … in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.

Humiliation fits for this time, too, just after the storming of the Capitol. Fasting fits, as is expected on the annual Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Self-reflection is necessary. Humility and prayer create the appropriate attitude and mood for the occasion.

People are dying. Loneliness overwhelms many, poverty and joblessness terrify, sadness covers the homes and the hearts. Then came the mob.

Humiliation, indeed.

Yet, there is hope.

Lincoln’s leadership continued under even more challenging circumstances.

As the Civil War neared its end, the President offered these lines in closing his Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865. His message was one of reconciliation between opposing sides:

With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Abraham Lincoln knew our job is always to repair the world.

Reverend William Sloane Coffin, 100 years later, knew it, too. He offered this in prayer: 

Lord … Number us, we beseech Thee, in the ranks of those who went forth … longing only for those things for which Thee dost make us long, men for whom the complexity of issues only serves to renew their zeal to deal with them, men who allieviated pain by sharing it, and men who are always willing to risk something big for something good — so may we leave in the world a little more truth, a little more justice, and a little more beauty than would have been there had we not loved the world enough to quarrel with it for what it is not — but still could be. …

————

The top painting is called Woman at Prayer by Harry Wilson Watrous. Next comes The Morning Prayer by Ludwig Deutsch. The final image is the photo of a Nomad Prayer taken in an African desert, sometime between 1931 and 1936. The photographer was Kazimierz Nowak.

William Sloane Coffin’s prayer can be heard near the end of the award-winning radio collage/documentary created by Studs Terkel and Jim Unrath, Born to Live: https://beta.prx.org/stories/118275

Which Therapies Work? A Guide to Finding Them

Many people seeking psychotherapy are in crisis. The urgency of their need causes them to rely on recommendations.

They wonder who they should see. Under pressure, a deep dive into a complex field can be too much.

This essay intends to assist those in distress to match themselves with the best help.

The prospective patient may not know his condition’s precise name. Without this, the task of finding a practitioner who will fit his needs is harder. Generic descriptions like depression or anxiety offer a starting point only. Even if an individual consulted someone before, there is no guarantee he was correctly diagnosed.

No, I won’t give you a magic bullet or the name of someone to call.

This will be a different approach to the search for satisfactory psychotherapeutic care.

Allow me to establish a few premises:

  • No clinician, however gifted, is an expert in every form of therapy.
  • Not every remedy is appropriate for every ailment.
  • The most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-5 is over 900 pages long. If you encounter anyone foolish enough to claim mastery of all the human problems within it, run.
  • Not every therapist is a talented diagnostician. Some are not well-trained in this area nor have an extensive range of experience with clients from the book’s numerous categories.

To the good, the number of empirically validated forms of counseling continues to grow.

How, then, do you find the kind of specialized intervention you need?

Division 12 of the American Psychological Association maintains a long list of treatments, including those “evaluated to determine the strength of their evidence base.”

The website links to the therapies, describes them, and indicates the degree to which research supports their use.

Each description also includes a link to enable you to find a therapist who practices the outlined remedy. Of course, there are many other ways to locate a practitioner: recommendations, professional organizations of those who allege expertise in delivering those services, and sites such as Psychology Today.

Your insurance company might propose a list of “preferred providers,” as well. The latter group agrees to accept their HMO or PPO’s fee limits.*

If you can identify your diagnosis, you can begin your investigation with its name. Division 12 also provides an inventory of these conditions, along with this disclaimer: “the absence of a treatment for a particular diagnosis or treatment target does not necessarily suggest the treatment does not have sufficient evidence. Rather, it may indicate the treatment has not been thoroughly evaluated by our team according to empirically-supported treatment criteria.”

I hope you will not be afraid of the diagnostic process or “classification” with a name for your suffering. Without a thorough understanding of your problem, no provider can address your condition in the way best for you.

Good luck!

————

*The acronym HMO refers to Health Maintenance Organization, a form of managed care. PPO refers to Preferred Provider Network.

The photo is described as Sunrise at North Point Park, Milwaukee, WI. It was taken on February 1, 2009 and is the work of Dori. The image was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Reaching for Happiness

Phil Brickman could be a funny guy, but he was not a happy one. Let’s start with the first words he said when I defended my Master’s thesis. Phil was one of the examiners, a member of the small panel passing judgment on whether I met the degree’s requirements.

All the committee members had signed off on my research proposal. Once finished and written up, they’d read the account I gave them of my efforts.

The group of three talked for a few minutes before asking me to enter the room. The 23-year-old version of GS inhabited a state of controlled anxiety typical of graduate students in such situations.

The questioning began. Phil spoke first:

There is a very serious problem with this thesis.

Those were not the words I’d wished for. Fortunately, I carried no sharp objects with me. I waited as my brain began to dissolve. While my imagined dead-end future passed before me, the same gentleman said more.

Philip is spelled with one (lower case) L.

Philip was calling attention to how his name appeared in the Acknowledgments section of my long paper.

It read, “Phillip.

Oops.

I don’t recall what happened next. My guess would be laughs, my apology, and relief. Or maybe my leaping across the desk (I can see it now) and throttling the man. No, I’ve never been one for rashness or battery.

Young Assistant Professor Phil wasn’t a popular guy, as you might have guessed. He didn’t fit well with people, including those of us who called him a teammate on our Northwestern Psychology Department softball team.

Everyone recognized Phil’s intellect, however. Indeed, Doctor B become famous in his field, and his research continues to be cited and discussed.

One of Brickman’s major contributions to our profession is an idea called “the hedonic treadmill.Simply put, the notion consists of this: we adapt to events in our lives, and our elation or dismay tends to fade. As time passes, we return to where we started in terms of mood.

Here is an example of the idea (co-created with Donald Campbell in 1971).

Imagine you get a happiness boost by achieving some goal you’ve long been shooting for. You feel great, but the pleasurable dose of enhancement diminishes with time. The set-point — your usual level of high spirits or unhappiness — returns.

Don’t despair; welcome news is coming. Your set-point doesn’t control everything about your emotional state. One can still reach a condition of well-being: a satisfying life with an often positive and seldom negative mood.

In 2005, long after Philip died, other social scientists took his idea further. A study involving over 2000 twins, Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade estimated that 50% of your life satisfaction derives from inborn temperament — your genetic inheritance. Another 10% comes from life circumstances, with 40% determined by personal outlook and life-altering thoughts and actions.

The encouraging development is that various empirically validated forms of psychotherapy emerged since Phil’s work ended, concentrating on the 40% of our well-being we can enhance and the 10% of life conditions we can sometimes change. Although our genes can’t be altered, we can find ways to move through life at a higher altitude.

Therefore, the patient and therapist’s job aims to boost the things over which we possess some influence.

The irony of Phil Brickman’s life, one he took at age 38, was that his research led to improvements in many other lives, though he never achieved this for himself.

A story by Jennifer Senior from The New York Times (NYT) of November 24, 2020,  focuses on the tragedy, but I prefer to remember this man in a brighter light.

Think of someone who throws a stone into the ocean and then walks away. The ripples continue long after his departure. Many others, years after the missile touched the water, watch the surge catch the sunlight. The beauty of the reflection benefits all of them and those around them.

The cause of the tiny waves is a mystery to many whose lives thereby were enriched. Even you, dear reader, might be one who Dr. B’s distant hand helped to lift.

Now you’ll remember his name and the proper spelling of it, too:

Philip Brickman.

One L.

The top image is Pedra do Baú — Compos do Jordáo. The author is Izabel Tartari. The second photo shows Anna Stoehr, AUS, competing in the Boulder Worldcup 2012. It is the work of Henning Schlottmann. After the University of Michigan picture of Dr. Brickman, comes a 3D Graph That Shows a Rippling Pattern, the creation of Mr. Noble.xyz. All but the photo of Phil come from Wikimedia Commons.

Have Men Changed? Curing the Culture of Complaint

We live in a culture of complaint, as Robert Hughes first called it in 1993. Maybe a malicious physician transfused the once belittled stereotype of the angry old white men into the national bloodstream. Some younger men now glorify their righteous anger.

It shouldn’t have been surprising to find the written word “unfairness” used 36% more often in 2018 than in 1961.

Raucous whining was not always tolerated when I grew up. Loud expressions of self-pity and bellyaching served as the stock material of situation comedies. Fulminating males like Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden and Carroll O’Conner’s Archie Bunker depicted the stuff of laughter and futility.

A “real” man projected quiet, decisiveness, and courage, enduring disappointment in silence. Pushed far enough, he settled matters with his fists or on the playing field. After a loss, he got up, shook hands, congratulated his opponent, and returned to do better the next day.

This male accepted the rules. Dads of his kind lived next door to everyone in the 1950s and ’60s. They weren’t an easy bunch, however. A few pushed the family around or worse. Some drank to excess but had comrades and friends who believed in shared sacrifice. Shouldering responsibility was taken for granted.

A dark side lived inside them: crushing, unspoken privacy. One had the sense they kept secrets, things about which they harbored shame.

The “real man” role demanded they carry too much weight, but not the kind measured in numbers on a scale. It came from the psychological armor covering their tender parts. The burden of maintaining a livelihood also added poundage. The home was for the spouse to care for in a time of unmentioned gender discrimination.

Their battlefield, they’d been told, was downtown.

These gents did not kick down or suck up, but the toll of all they were and what they weren’t stalked them. Such fellows put their hearts into fulfilling the standard image of manhood. The ticker continued to beat but also beat them down, failing at an alarming rate in a time before statin medication and a healthy diet.

Much has changed. I’ve described a myth, of course, but one that featured select qualities worth admiring. Its white and black quality matched the lack of color in the movies and on TV. Black men, too, aspired to the white man’s model. They understood endurance.

These fathers were solid. Hard at times, yes, but when a broad hand rested on your shoulder, it encouraged and melted you. You wanted to embody it, to create yourself in the mold out of which it emerged.

The best of men still aspire to a modified version of the old fiction. A new gentleman’s design encourages him to show love to his offspring, listen more, and recite fewer solutions. The spouse is a partner saluted in her desire for fulfillment beyond her mother’s old and conventional slot.

Kids today still want certainty and security from their parents, who, if they allow themselves to remember, recall their own place as children once: young people needful of adults to rely upon.

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) acknowledged the challenge: how to persuade your family you will protect them from everything when you aren’t sure you can ensure your own survival.

Bacon believed achieving this required hocus pocus, a magic act of sorts. Guardians hide something, a least for a while:

The joys of parents are secret; and so are their griefs and fears. They cannot utter the one; nor they will not utter the other.

For most, this entails self-deception, burying enough self-doubts to accomplish the charade, both in the competitive workplace and at home.

Perhaps the irate men of today are finding the masquerade more difficult. They return from work without a living wage of the kind their poppas achieved — if they have employment. Many seek a reason for this outside themselves and, it must be admitted, there is no shortage of unfairness to point to.

Our triple troubles of unemployment, inequality, and pandemic enable the defensive closing of too many minds. Certitude takes the place of thoughtful examination. Belief in demigods squeezes out the supreme beings who are neglected once the sabbath is over.

Simplified answers drip from those who would misuse the widespread terror of failing at the basic job of meeting family expenses and caring for one’s kids. Their demagogic rants offer an example their followers imitate.

Francis Bacon recognized this dilemma, too, offering the remedy of mindful inquiry, not unsupported jumps to judgment:

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.

Despite the distracting and desperate circus performance sometimes masquerading as leadership, the modest, neighborly man and woman deserve respect. The world would do well to toast their everyday labor to make an honorable living and a home.

These decent souls put their families ahead of their own needs. They form the ranks of our best public servants, the people who do their jobs with integrity. This group of adults continues to give us reliance on the democratic republic we live in. Their oath of office binds them to serve the Constitution and not loyalty to any person.

Hope and the possibility of trust survive, partly due to the faceless and nameless citizens who do not place their advancement on the auction block.

Most of us recognize the same values and work to instill them in our children: enough fortitude to overcome hardship, enough effort to meet challenges, and enough humanity to comfort our fellowmen.

In the face of disease and want, the words of Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) add to Bacon’s 400 hundred-year-old guidance. Roosevelt was a daughter of privilege who lost both her parents by age 10. A timid and frightened child by her own report, she became a voice against racism and disadvantage. Her life was a triumph over anxiety and the second-place status of women:

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

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The painting Freedom from Fear, reproduced above, comes from the Four Freedoms, a series of four 1943 oil paintings by the American artist Norman Rockwell. The paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—are each approximately 45.75 inches (116.2 cm) × 35.5 inches (90 cm), and are now in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The four freedoms refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union address in which he identified essential human rights that should be universally protected. The theme was incorporated into the Atlantic Charter, and became part of the charter of the United Nations. The paintings were reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post over four consecutive weeks in 1943, alongside essays by prominent thinkers of the day.

As noted on the United Nations website, “First lady of the United States of America from 1933 to 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt (photographed above) was appointed, in 1946, as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly by United States President Harry S. Truman. She served as the first Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights and played an instrumental role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At a time of increasing East-West tensions, Eleanor Roosevelt used her enormous prestige and credibility with both superpowers to steer the drafting process toward its successful completion. In 1968, she was posthumously awarded the United Nations Human Rights Prize.”

As further noted on the UN website, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 (General Assembly resolution 217 A) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected and it has been translated into over 500 languages.