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.

———————————————————

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.

Inside the Patient in Therapy: What’s Going On?

We think of therapy as a conversation between two people.

Dig a bit to find the unspoken thoughts and feelings stirring inside the client. What are they? In what order do they arrive? And why can’t some patients recall the discussion even a few minutes later?

Let’s imagine observing a middle point in a hypothetical session.

The client’s inner world, from a photographer’s perspective, might look this way:

Emotions are brewing. Think of beer or a broth. Visualize the internal concoction as a liquid of at least mild temperature and motion. Active ingredients could include anger, embarrassment, calm, feelings about the therapist, confusion, shame, and sexual arousal.

Don’t forget thoughts.

Where do the stew’s components originate?

  • the client’s life history and memories
  • sensitivity to pain or judgment
  • openness
  • the world in which he lives
  • his brain’s capacity to deal with and analyze complex material
  • the genetic makeup with which he was born

The therapist’s tone of voice, confidence, understanding, and guidance of the process play into the other person’s state. The security associated with the office shouldn’t be discounted as a factor, either.

The specialist’s next comment spins from his lips into the air. Perhaps it is a statement, a question, or an interpretation of what came before.

The client’s ears hear the voice, clearly or not, and understand the words as the counselor intended or not. The language now launched lands in the mixture already present.

The woman or man’s experience is a combination of what he perceives outside of himself and its meeting with what is inside.

More is possible. Patients, if they place a high value on the relationship, sometimes ponder how to respond. They wish to say the “right” thing — to be “good.” Self-consciousness in this setting isn’t unusual.

Consider the chance the listener is not listening and has lost focus. Maybe the language and inflection increase or calm any emotional turmoil.

The unconscious plays an undefined role too. Past events may be evoked.

The patient might not be as attentive and emotionally “present” as he was a few seconds before. Confusion sometimes scrambles his consciousness — bodily sensations, as well.

Therapists must be careful not to overwhelm this soul, amplifying his struggle to process the unstable encounter between external and internal events.

In some cases, the individual cannot “stay” with the flow of ideas, memories, visceral changes, and feelings. In this situation, the client often takes a kind of unseen flight from his fraught condition. His action is like putting a part of himself in another room, away from whatever is troublesome: dissociating portions of the momentary experience and “going away” from it.

He remains in the chair or on the couch, but a segment of his awareness, including access to his complete range of emotion and sensation, is elsewhere.

Treatment would fail if this were to occur in each session.

I’ve created an example of one kind of encounter, not typical of everyone’s experience. Many, if not most meetings, are calmer, less stirring, more laid back.

Assuming this did happen, however, the end of the visit might produce amnesia of some of the material discussed during it.

How do counselors prevent this?

  • They take in whatever is in front of them: tone of voice, postural alterations, physical evidence of anxiety. Eye movements, changes in the rate and intensity of speech, facial expressions, perspiration, and tears need to be noticed, as well. These and the patient’s comments concerning comfort or discomfort should enable the doctor to know whether to intervene: reduce the client’s tendency to become overwhelmed or dissociate.
  • Both parties need to converse about how much intense material can be tolerated and how to communicate distress as it occurs.
  • The health care professional can suggest the patient write a summary of the session’s end, perhaps when he returns to the waiting room. Like dreams, the experience or portions of it are not always recalled otherwise.
  • Zoom and comparable virtual treatment platforms include recording options. This permits the client to review a video of the session alone or with the counselor during the next appointment.

A sensitive and competent therapist will inquire about what the patient wishes to talk about and recognize what he might not recall from recent sessions.

His job is not to interrogate. Rather, he desires to be attuned to the person who has entrusted him with the responsibility of his care. He hopes the client will join him in a shared enterprise designed to achieve progress on the treatment path.

Obstacles like suppression or dissociation can prevent mastery over the life challenges that brought the individual to psychotherapy.

Psychotherapists aren’t magicians. We have only words, compassion, and understanding of what is required and when. Words in the right order spoken in the right way are often enough.

———

The first image is Picasso’s The Red Armchair, from 1931. Next comes Classical Head, a sculpture by Elie Nadelman, created in 1909/10. The third figure is featured in Stefan Kaegi’s Uncanny Valley. It is followed by the work of an unknown artist of the Fang culture, a Central African ethnic group. It is thought to date from the mid to late 19th century. Finally comes Sleep Muse, a 1910 sculpture by Brancusi. All but the Kaegi are sourced from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Peace of Mind in a Moment of Catastrophic Thoughts

If the political-pandemical moment has lit your hair on fire, I offer a suggestion. Get into the shower. But since I can’t personally help with this remedy, let me provide some calming words.

We must begin here: many people fear the worst outcome in the U.S. election come November.

Some ask me for my opinion, my prediction, my reassurance.

I tell them I have enough trust in the good sense of the majority of my fellow-citizens to save the democratic republic. Hope and experience sustain me. I do what a concerned citizen can do. I will vote and, until events are past, take modest political action via the phone, the mail, and contributions to candidates I support.

These thoughts and efforts, however, do not dominate my time or my life.

Yes, potential chaos and catastrophe loom, but few souls profit by submerging themselves in disastrous scenarios. They are instead immobilized if not drowned by the self-imposed punishment those imaginings bring.

The keyword is potential. A difficult or unmanageable result is not an accomplished fact. Better results, I believe, are likely.

My patients sometimes benefited when I asked them what challenges they’d survived in the past. By reviewing their personal history of hardship, they often recognized their capacity to endure and surmount misfortune.

We are the descendants of those who did so again and again for thousands of years.

Another question fashioned perspective: how many times did you dread an event that did not occur?

Most catastrophes are surprising. The legal arm of those desiring to preserve our democracy is as prepared as it can be. The citizenry makes itself ready to register and cast ballots.

Meanwhile, the best scientists and educators in the world are working to create vaccines, treatments, and policies to enable a return to a life we recognize.

All are challenged to find equanimity even in easy times. The religious do well to read their scripture.

I continue to meditate daily, enjoy classic fiction, and study Mahayana Buddhism, a recent interest. Distraction comes by watching comedy and baseball. Friends, children, and grandchildren give me joy. Loved ones touch my heart.

There is value in fact-based news sources, but not those I find redundant. Our front lawn features a sign encouraging the presidential preference my wife and I commend to our neighbors.

Pleasure exists in on-line art, including the gorgeous photos of Laura Hedien featured in this post. Early morning walks invigorate me. A short weight-lifting routine is an old discipline made new.

My evening dessert menu doesn’t include politics. Nightmares receive no invitation into my bedroom.

If catastrophe happens up ahead, that will be soon enough for me. Then we will react and work to improve what fate brings. But I emphasize, I expect a bumpy ride, not one into the abyss.

Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, offered these words 2000 years ago:

But those who forget the past, ignore the present, and fear for the future have a life that is brief and filled with anxiety. … Their very pleasures are fearful and troubled by alarms of different kinds; (even) at the moment of rejoicing, the anxious thought occurs to them: “How long will this last?”

Shakespeare wrote the following in Julius Caesar:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

I am no hero, but I take comfort in such wisdom.

And in you, dear reader.

———

The photos of Laura Hedien included here (with her permission) are The Chicago River as Seen in Downtown Chicago and Clouds Over a Mountain Range in Southern, Arizona (2020): Laura Hedien Official Website

Should You Trust Your Gut?

Trust your gut, they say. This is commonplace advice, sometimes even offered by therapists. I ask you, though, dear reader, to consider the world. Should those who are trusting their intuition, their instincts, their fervor-driven sense of righteousness continue to “trust their gut?”

I get the idea — the intention — of those who believe wisdom is discoverable in the body, its sensations, and instinctive tendencies. They think you may be in danger of working against yourself, not honoring your personal truth. You have dismissed or discounted something within to which you should be listening.

Whoa.

The data on the subject suggests hesitation. Not that you will always be wrong when relying on your feelings, nor right if you evaluate possible future action in a more analytic, rational way. Rather, the “gut” provides worthwhile direction in some situations, while in others better guidance leads to questioning its message.

Before we go deeper, let’s summarize both sides of the argument.

PRO TRUST:

Each of us is the product of the long evolutionary chronicle of our ancestors. The qualities helpful to their survival and procreation are wired inside of us, their descendants. Necessity often demanded quick decisions with few comparable memories upon which to tap. Our existence as 21st-century humans proves the excellence of many of their actions.

We all possess an internal sense of ourselves unknowable beyond the boundary of our skin. This personal state is informative. We need to honor its wisdom.

In many instances, we have no books to consult, no time to find scientific scholarship applicable to the present decision confronting us. Besides, abstract ideas can’t tell us if we should date person X, try to make friends with individual Y, or talk back to parent Z.

MAYBE, MAYBE NOT:

Few of us avoid mistakes in judgment. For instance, our first impression of a bright or attractive acquaintance often causes us to believe he is also superior in other, unseen ways. Only time and additional contact reveal the truth. A swift, positive, global opinion is called a “halo effect.”

The choices made at a “feeling level” discount how emotions can lead us astray. Think of the occasions when love, anger, revenge, or fear has led to worsening your troubles.

Homo sapiens are poor affective forecasters. The research of Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues demonstrates a tendency to underestimate our emotional resilience and durability when imagining our reaction to life’s disappointments. Put another way, we are lousy at deep-seated, unthinking predications of our well-being in the months and years ahead.

The divorce rate supports the same notion; so do the common, but erroneous, expectations of a wonderful life following a giant lottery award. The optimistic assumption of a large, lasting boost of happiness delivered by children over the course of the time they live with us is generally incorrect, as well.

THE CONCLUSION:

The simplest answer on trusting your gut, your feelings, or your instincts is this: the matter depends on the quality and quantity of your previous exposure to situations like the one in which you find yourself.

Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein* looked at how and what experts learned while practicing their profession. The “gift” or “sixth-sense” required years of particularized employment in the field.

As the first author wrote in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, two conditions are necessary for acquiring the skill endowing people with this kind of savvy:

  • an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable

  • an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice

Gary Klein described how this applies to firefighting commanders. How do they know, he wondered, what decisions to make on the spot without comparing options in a systematic and time-consuming fashion?

They could draw on the repertoire of patterns they had compiled during more than a decade of both real and virtual experience to identify a plausible option, which they considered first.

They evaluated this option by mentally simulating it to see if it would work in the situation they were facing…. If the course of action seemed appropriate, they would implement it. If it had shortcomings, they would modify it.

If they could not easily modify it, they would turn to the next most plausible option and run through the same procedure until an acceptable course of action was found.

Master chess players have this capacity — this intuition — to size up a chessboard in mid-game, almost at once. Anesthesiologists do, too. The regularity, orderliness and limited nature of the countless cases they have encountered provided the prompt feedback on their performance needed to “become” intuitive.

The outcome of the contest or the surgery graded their choices straight away.

What does this tell us about our own ability to come up with instinctive, “felt” decisions in everyday life?

Much hinges on what our exposure has been to the kind of circumstances offering immediate success or failure from which to learn. We lack the thousands upon thousands of contests played by a grandmaster or the uncounted number of patients over decades of training and work as an anesthesiologist.

Such examples of expert, rapid grasp of the essential features of an event pertains to the part of human experience governed by clear cut guidelines or rules. The physician makes use of his remembered storehouse of biological, physiological, and chemical science. The Chessmaster retrieves his internal archive of permitted movements of the chess pieces and the results of past strategies he and others employed.

Human relationships, in contrast, have more variables, unknowable psychological dynamics, no access to what another person is thinking or sensing in the moment, or a complete history of his life. They are not orderly.

A political pundit or a stockbroker faces a task every bit as daunting and unpredictable. Kahneman says any claim from them of extraordinary intuition is “self-delusional at best, sometimes worse.”

Having said this, I doubt you shall give up on your hunches. Remember, though, the information you receive about the adequacy or error of your choice of friends and lovers, for example, often is delayed and equivocal.

Some people are good to be around one-on-one and not in a group, trustworthy in fulfilling our routine expectations but not all, pleasant in the short run but not for long.

Most of us are permitted but a slice of time with individuals we believe we know well. Full understanding might take years of both talk and observation, however. Their secrets and private behavior leave us ignorant of their darker corners.

In summary, I’d suggest you hesitate when you are told to “trust your gut.” Other than those moments when delay is impossible, many problems give you the luxury of getting advice, reflecting on patterns of comparable past encounters, and recalling your own default tendencies.

The latter might include your basic optimism or pessimism, inclination to approach or avoid, extraversion or introversion, toughness or vulnerability, etc.

You might consider alternative interpretations of what you confront and estimate the potential benefits and costs of imagined ways of dealing with whatever is ahead. Don’t forget to ask yourself what mood you are in and whether you are hungry! The influence of temporary states such as these might be significant.

If it makes you feel any better, well-trained counselors with untold hours of experience shouldn’t always “trust their gut” either.

There is lots of research on this, too!

——————–

The painting, Freedom from Fear, derives from Wikimedia Commons and is described this way:

The Four Freedoms is 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.

Following that image I’ve placed a photo taken by Staff Sargent Craig Cisek of the U.S. Air Force. It shows a firefighter spraying water during a simulated C-130 Hercules plane crash. The image is also sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

*Conditions for Intuitive Expertise: A Failure to Disagree

Surviving in a Moment of Helplessness and Closed Doors

Before I present an unconventional way for you to think of your value, I must acknowledge your pain. I imagine your circumstances may be far worse than my own.

Those like myself are fortunate. My immediate loved ones don’t suffer coronavirus (fingers crossed), I am in no financial distress, and we enjoy continuing nearness to each other in our small bubble.

For every other pampered hostage to the pandemic/recession, however, heartbreak abounds. According to the CDC, over 40% of U.S. adults surveyed in late June “reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition.” If all the world’s disquiet could be piled up in blocks of cement, it would reach higher than Mt. Everest.**

The world is overweight with pain.

We commonly define ourselves in terms of what we can “do.” Making a living often confers dignity. Status matters to those who make comparisons. Union with hands, cheeks, lips, and bodies have fueled desire for as long as man has been man.

How then does one hold oneself together when money is short, pride in social standing absent, health is imperiled, and touch means staying in touch rather than touching?

You are, in fact, already taking action of extraordinary worth.

First, you are surviving. For reasons you understand about yourself, you retain a portion of hope or a sense of responsibility for those closest.

Contrast your mortal state to that of a god for a moment. In the West, we think of any deity as an eternal being who is all-powerful and all-knowing.

This leaves humanity the possibility of displaying qualities absent in an invincible and omniscient entity who can’t die.

Think about danger. Bravery is possible because we are at risk of physical or emotional harm. The ever-present chance of adversity constructs the platform to display courage.

Man’s creaturely situation requires the choice to endure and persist. Misfortune happens, and its visit is not always brief. The Stoic philosophers believed this allowed each person to demonstrate “greatness of soul” by withstanding “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as Hamlet described his own tribulation.

To the extent hope is an idea, you have created it. Moreover, my guess is you are amid (or can recall) such woes as Shakespeare put into Hamlet’s life. You know the experience of bearing what appears unbearable, including depression. If you did not, you wouldn’t now be reading this.

Your survival at this moment is a tribute to your character and worthy of applause. I offer you mine. If, with time, you can do more, then do so. Enlarged strength is the residue of a series of small actions.

For now, remember the last eight words from the sightless John Milton’s poem, “On His Blindness:

They also serve who only stand and wait.

—–

The top image is Meeting on the Beach: Mermaid by Edvard Munch, sourced from the Munch Museum. The second is Hope II by Gustav Klimt, sourced from Wikiart.org/

**Perhaps the most distressing finding in the CDC bulletin is this: “The percentage of respondents who reported having seriously considered suicide in the 30 days before completing the survey (10.7%) was significantly higher among respondents aged 18–24 years (25.5%), minority racial/ethnic groups (Hispanic respondents [18.6%], non-Hispanic black [black] respondents [15.1%]), self-reported unpaid care-givers for adults§ (30.7%), and essential workers (21.7%).”

The Proper Attitude for the Moment

Few would argue the upside-down nature of the world. People ask me two questions:

How are you doing?

Will you help me understand what’s going on?

The second query reflects their desire to comprehend why people are behaving the way they are: masks or no masks, safety or freedom, vilifying folks who don’t agree with you, etc.

I’ll leave the answer to this for another time.

As to the first question, my younger grandson has the right idea. He is lucky in his possession of two loving parents, a (so far) affectionate older brother, and the appropriate attitude for our time.

His take on life is best reflected in one verbal and one nonverbal form of communication.

The verbal one is “Uh-oh,” which he offers with the perfect degree of clarity, inflection, and facial expression.

Put crudely, he recognizes we are in deep crapola.

His behavioral, nonverbal vantage point is evident from the picture above. I’m told he often takes this posture, though the photo is of a one-year-old girl. He is her age.

If the world is upside-down, so he appears to say, look between your legs with your eyes below your chin, and you’ve made it right-side up.

Were he 35-years-old or more, I think he’d make a terrific President. OK, an adult performing the stunt would shock people but, I think we are getting used to shocking strangeness in top-of-the food chain elected officials.

He’d fit right in and offer leadership by example superior to that which we often get.

Sometimes you have to laugh–all of us at every opportunity.

Signs of People-pleasing: When You’d Really Prefer to Say “No”

A question lingers like a floating bubble in the space between you and a friend.

He asked you to do something you don’t want to do. Maybe he urged you to attend a party or eat at a restaurant or help move furniture to his new apartment.

Part of you wants to reach out and swat the invitation away. Part of you fears what would happen if you did.

Yet saying “no” is one of the most liberating skills you can acquire.

Otherwise, your life and everything within it is reachable by the creature above, one you call a friend. What is yours — including your time, money, schedule, and personal choices — is his.

If the dilemma sounds familiar, you might be a person who extends himself for others — a lot. Indeed, the extent of your extension feels like your arm is made of rubber.

A recent New York Times article lists several signs of “people-pleasing:” It’s OK Not to Please Everyone.

Here are five of those pointers in paraphrased form:

  • A tendency to offer help even when you’re burned out.
  • Making immediate apologies for incidental problems you didn’t cause.
  • You believe you are responsible for the moods of those about whom you care.
  • You encounter guilt, worry, or anxiety when you don’t meet the expectations created for you.
  • Conflict avoidance: an attempt to side-step or give-in because of alarm over angering someone else.

The New York Times list is not exhaustive, so I’ve added a few:

  • A penchant for ignoring your discomfort: saying “yes” when “no” would be the authentic answer.
  • A movie of you would display excessive smiling as you attempt to create a pleasant persona, thus invalidating your actual state of body and mind.
  • You offer multiple excuses when trying to circumvent an invitation or request.
  • Unanswered prayers for permission to skate past the friend’s solicitation leave you helpless.
  • An inclination comes over you to enlist a companion, parent, or lover to say “no” for you.
  • Many days feature you enduring both the sensation of pressure to be what you are not and the inability to withstand the stress.

  • An impulse occurs to delay your answer to a counterpart’s entreaty in the hope the matter will be forgotten.
  • You cannot strike down the habit of kicking yourself after you agree to do a task you now wish to flee.
  • On the occasions you avoid the commitment, you pray for forgiveness from the buddy.
  • You believe “goodness” is never failing to “be there” for the other. The definition is both wrong and impossible to accomplish.
  • A sense of relief descends like a balm when an acquaintance cancels plans you agreed to.
  • You furnish unsolicited favors, in particular, if you believe you’ve been a disappointment to someone whose attention you covet.
  • You buy gifts to win the respect of the individual who matters to you.

What are we talking about? You inhabit the role of a “pleaser” who renders service as if employed as a servant.

Feelings of insecurity fuel your self-effacing behavior, undervaluing the talent and personality that makes you engaging and lovable.

You also display a misunderstanding of what you owe the rest of humanity and what is owed you. Your notion of obligation is inflated and determined by those who find you useful.

The problem, unless you change, gains you little, but rather:

  1. More, not fewer requests because your reliable responsiveness reinforces the petitioner.
  2. Endless reactiveness to the prods and pulls of your social circle leave you empty, unable to care for yourself. A chronic low mood and possible depression may follow.
  3. Your actions get you less than you hoped for from those to whom you are over-generous with your time. Rather than producing profuse praise, your exertions become entitlements. Moreover, any guarantee of reciprocation when you need help exists as a fantasy alone.
  4. Your repeated denial of desires meaningful to you creates a state in which you receive limited respect. The world views you as the rare self-effacing creature without any personal cravings or needs.
  5. Public statements asserting your joy in “helping” diminish the very acts you perform. The willingness to do what the other asks informs him he needn’t value those labors either.
  6. You hesitate to test whether this man will continue to keep you near if you quit the self-created job of gopher. Perhaps he would, but the risk of finding out terrifies you.

To the extent COVID-19 keeps you indoors, you might have a reprieve from the typical inundation of calls for favors. With the opening of society before conditions are safe, the pressure to perform your usual array of circus tricks may increase.

The stakes of going along with what friends want shall then include your health.

Should you recognize someone who looks like you in this people-pleasing portrait, professional assistance is available. While people-pleasing isn’t a formal diagnostic category, I’d encourage you to request a therapist who understands the concern.

A counselor who is skilled at delivering acceptance and mindfulness-based treatment, such as ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), deserves your consideration. Empirically validated interventions offer you increased assurance of benefit from a psychotherapeutic journey.

Living as a hostage to self-interested others is in your power to overcome. The choice to be useful is not the same as being used.

Fulfillment arrives when you experience the freedom not to.

In contrast, having to do what is distasteful because you fear rejection is a kind of ritual of sacrifice. Those who love you do not wish you such unhappiness.

Friends who tally your worth in the hours of uncompensated labor you supply may be lost as you change. Successful treatment, however, allows you a greater balance between give-and-take within your social connections.

The choice is yours.

—–

The first image is the Logo of the National Reconnaissance Office. The second object is an Ethiopian Stop Sign modified by Fry1989. Finally comes a Thumbs Down Sign, the work of KaiO.Ried. All three were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.