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

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

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

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

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

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

A scary thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, the blank pages beckon.

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

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

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

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

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

I had not always been adept, however.

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

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

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

ATTITUDE (YOURS):

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

BE PREPARED:

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

MEETING WITH A CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE OR MANAGER:

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

A FEW OTHER CONSIDERATIONS:

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

FINAL THOUGHTS: 

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

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

The Taoist Farmer and a Patient’s Search for Answers

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

Take the old story of the Taoist farmer.

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

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

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

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

Is there another way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We do what we can.

I offer this consolation to you, nonetheless:

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

No wonder we search for love.

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

Dying to be Seen, but Afraid to be Seen: Where Insecurity and Invisibility Meet

The quiet ones envy those who are sociable. Not always, but often. They wish for an ease of contact which is not theirs. Too many hunger for understanding, for a kind person to recognize them, accept them; even love them. They are dying to be seen, but afraid to be seen.

Anonymity is the preferred choice. Many escape to the shadows, at least if they can.

Don’t raise your hand, says Mr. Anxiety, even if you have the right answer. Too risky. Your voice might quiver, your hand might shake, and there could be a follow-up question which leaves you speechless.

The insecure ones make a trade. They take the apparent safety of invisibility at the price of being ignored, misunderstood, or quickly forgotten. They leave no mark on the world, hoping to avoid criticism and ostracism. Better to take yourself out of the competition for attention than be told to go away. Of course, you wind up alone, but you persuade yourself this is better than rejection.

Instead of belittlement you opt for the shrubbery, hiding behind the bushes. True, sometimes you get wet when the lawn sprinklers go on. Occasionally a kid throws a ball that hits you or a dog sprays you, but you get used to it.

Group conversations are the worst. When might I jump in? My face will flush. They’ll think I’m an idiot, too boring. I’ll just sit tight or stand and nurse my drink.

Who would have thought a man could dive into his glass, hide behind its opacity? Or imbibe enough to shed his disguise and turn into a more outgoing, confident version of himself?

Once you sober up, you will still be like a person with a fire inside who is afraid of venting a smoke signal. The result? You are consumed from within and your glorious flame is unnoticed.

Mark Twain said, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” Change two words and the sentence becomes: the man who does not speak has no advantage over the man who cannot speak. Will you be thought of as the latter? Are you already?

Or have you become someone who is told what he thinks, afraid of challenging a rude or wrong idea? You will be outdone by those with half your intellect. They, the half-brained, are kings and queens in the land of the mute.

You remain unknown, even if others think they’ve sized you up. Many believe you are stuck-up because you avoid them. Some say you are kind, several imagine you lack “personality,” others reckon you stupid, a few timid: an easy mark to be pushed around. Most strangers form no opinion. Not one of them will be completely right, know the whole package. You won’t even be seen in full by yourself.

Your attempt to vanish is exhausting. The task is like running a race, trying to escape the eyes of others, but distancing yourself from yourself. If all escape routes close you will grab your throat and squeeze, stifle your emotions and ideas so as not to offend anyone.

Do you wish asphyxiation by your own hands?

I hear you gagging.

Do I know you? Not completely. But I’ve seen you and I might have been you a long time ago.

It wasn’t fun.

It’s not as if everyone else is completely visible. No one is. One might display an eyebrow or an ankle, even a heart: that most precious portion of ourselves when offered as a present. Such a one is trying, practicing, gathering momentum.

A gradual path toward self revelation can grow on you.

In the end, however, if you are seen but unseen, dying to be seen but afraid to be seen, you should realize something: you cannot be both.

You must choose or remain in torment.

The therapist’s door is waiting, but even there you can try to be invisible.

A pity.

Counselors, you understand, don’t do their best work blindfolded.

The top image is a photo of the cover of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. The cover was illustrated by Ludvik Strimpl and the photo taken by Gallica/Sudoc. The image was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Different Form of Bravery

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as brave. We are not the kinds of heroes found in movies, wartime, or a burning building rescue. Yet one must become the hero of his own story. The reason is simple: there is no one else to do the job. If you are a supporting actor in the movie of your life, audition for a better part.

The clock never stops and opportunities, inevitably, diminish with age. Time still offers chances to change, to try, to dare, but we are captured by long-standing routines. One might say we have traveled the same rut for too long, the furrow deepening with each step. To get out we must climb a wall of earth with strength thought lost.

By 65, the age of my friend Keith Miller, some are already retired. But Keith had at least one more hurdle, one waiting for him over 40 years. Such youthful aspirations are patient, sitting quietly in the back of life’s class, hoping for attention, never raising a hand.

Long ago Keith attended a conservatory and took classes in conducting. He even conducted a chamber group a bit back then, more recently a stint leading a community band, no strings. Keith can’t be called a professional musician, though he has taught piano. The insurance company at which he works as a top-tier technical support analyst is not a wellspring of conductors.

Nevertheless, he had the nerve to apply to the International Masterclasses Berlin, where he would reside for six days in March; and, if he survived, lead the Berlin Sinfonietta in one movement of a romantic masterpiece. Keith was one of 11 students from Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina and the USA;  some working conductors with their own ensembles. Almost all were at least 30 years younger than my friend.

But, this is Keith’s story and he needs to tell it:

Packing my luggage for Berlin, I carried expectations, too. Not only from years of listening, but by studying the scores in the months before the masterclass: three symphonies by Brahms, Schubert and Schumann.

This was, after all, my inauguration into the world of orchestral conducting. Sleep medication was the only way to calm my bedtime energy. Most of the anticipation came from the unknown, all that is not in the musical score:

How might the maestro react to my lack of experience? How would I fit, being the oldest student? What of the orchestra’s cooperation and opinion? Would I make good music?

The first rehearsal generated the natural nervousness, heart-palpitations too, but also an internal reminder, “I can do this.” Maestro Shambadal’s steely eyes focused on me. The maestro, Principal Conductor of the Berlin Symphony, was born in Israel and studied with many “greats” including Giulini, Markevitch and Celibidache.

After a few deep breaths I began Schumann’s 4th Symphony. Quickly came a loud clap. The orchestra stopped. Maestro yelled from the back of the room, “It begins on the 3rd beat!” I made the correction and got through ¾ of the first movement before my time was up. A few other stoppages occurred for matters of technique and interpretation. I reminded myself I’d come for just such instruction.

I realized I needed to improve. My desire for the maestro’s approval quickened. The ensemble’s response to my leadership lacked enthusiasm and I knew it.

Three more rehearsals followed and group evaluations, as well, before the concert at which we would all perform. We reviewed videos of the 11 conductors, mine included.

Ugh! My posture was terrible. I looked like a bent old man. Maestro alluded to the same thing. I worked on straightening up, without which I couldn’t communicate command and authority. Here, perhaps, was the explanation for my initial failure to elicit what I wanted from the musicians.

I was selected to conduct the second movement of Schubert’s 8th Symphony at the concert. I marked the top of every page of my score with three words:

POSTURE. TEMPO. RELAX.

Keith worked with an experienced orchestra, many of the musicians retired members of the Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Radio Symphony and regional orchestras, along with younger instrumentalists.

Hundreds of years of accumulated experience face a newbie. Some such ensembles take pride in being able to size up a conductor in minutes, and tear him down in less time. Or ignore him and give “their” version of the piece. Still, each player has a job to do: taking the conductor’s vision as achieved in rehearsal, and making the black notes on white paper sing. Keith learned the conductor’s job, too:

His score holds all the notes, every instrumental line on the same page: dizzying to see, much less read while everything is happening in front of him. There is no opportunity to search the lines, the musicians’ faces, and be the director, too. Without an instrument, armed only with certainty, the knowledge of everyone’s role, and his ability to persuade and inspire, he must make something old into something new.

Concert time at last.

Striding up to the podium I was confident and enthusiastic. I brought along a week’s education.

I led with warmth, lyricism, and the dark drama there in the score. The players were spot on: tempo, dynamics and music-making.

What was experience like? The most exhilarating of my life.

I turned and bowed to the audience. Smiles all around. When I asked the orchestra to stand, I saw many smiles among them, as well. I shook the first violinist’s hand and received one word enthusiastically delivered: “Bravo!” The first cellist gave me a hearty thumbs-up.

My mind was captured by one idea.

“I want to do this again and again!”

The previous conductor and I gave each other a big hug. Later, an audience member said the maestro was watching me with full attention and nodding (not nodding off!), as if to say “very good!” After the concert, he congratulated everyone.

Returning to my hotel after a celebratory dinner, I sat at the edge of the bed and cried. All of the emotion and memories, the anticipation and fulfillment, overtook me. Once composed, I began to pack for the trip home.

Courage takes many forms. Sometimes it is simply making the music that is in you, waiting to be made. Taking a risk, not asking permission.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes said:

Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them.

Here is a man who made his music:


The Therapeutic Journey and Our Problematic Concern with Destinations

We are an impatient race. Tasks don’t get done fast enough, the wait in line is too long, the computer too slow. Our destination looms like a slave-driver of our own creation, craving full speed to the end of our journey and the imagined prize awaiting us there.

What are we missing?

Many of those in long-term therapy are ambivalent about the inevitable end of the journey. They correctly recognize that accomplishment of one’s therapeutic goals means the terminus of the walk through the mine field of the psyche, the regular sessions, and the severing of the therapeutic relationship.

The mine field traipse is the only one they hope to dispense with. Indeed, most would say removal of unexploded emotional bombs caused their enlistment in treatment in the first place. By contrast, the absence of session-bound, intimate time with the therapist is dreaded, like ejection from a cocoon.

The story is even more complex, however; both for those who fear the loss of their road-trip, therapist-guide/companion and those who believe the journey’s end will bring nirvana, the permanent release from all suffering.

Consider: more than a relationship is forged in treatment. There is a process of struggle, self-reflection, honesty, learning. Perhaps nothing before — nothing the patient has tried or accomplished — has been so hard, but so rewarding. Each step in each session is enriching or intense — alive — even if fraught with portent and overlaid with tears. The furniture in the office stays the same, but the mental furniture gets rearranged, replaced, knocked-over, tested, taken apart, and put together. All this is “process,” not product. All this is overlooked when clients reflect on their ambivalence about the end of counseling and loss of the therapist.

In part, the problem is our instinctive goal-directedness. Often, however, the target — whatever it might be — is not as special as anticipated. Heaven does not exist on earth. We get used to even a transformed life, no matter how worthy. We become accustomed to our new, higher cruising altitude of emotional stability. The background activities — the daily maintenance of clothes, body, and living surroundings — still must be done. As the Zen proverb goes, “After enlightenment, the laundry.”

Therapy becomes a road traveled-well only if we try to notice everything, absorb everything along the way. It is not like pursuing a diploma: trudging through courses in philosophy or calculus that are endured, not enjoyed. The treatment isn’t like having an ice cream cone in its pleasure, but absorbs our entire being as a fount of learning. The engagement is total, the preoccupation remains in mind even after the session ends, the effort is important, the risks great. You are reaching for the next handhold on the mountain. Yes, you are doing so to reach the top, but you will be on summit for just a few minutes, a static place no one can live. You soon must move below. Life is in the movement. What you took away was the experience, the incremental achievement of all the concentration and self-surpassing courage you could muster.

Cervantes’s Don Quixote reminds us, “The road is always better than the inn.”

The post-war circumstances of military veterans add to the discussion. None of them want to relive the horror. Yet, some will say it was the most intense experience of their lives. Moreover, the intensity is missed, if not what created it. Thus, the therapy journey brings not only pain, but something of value in its dedicated, focused, life-on-the-line process. Not a deadened, dull, inert state of being.

Elite athletes, similarly, don’t enjoy every moment of their competition. The combination of actions and emotions includes strain, focus, effort, and fear of failure, as well as elation. We tend to think of goals and the pleasure associated with their achievement without full recognition of the other experiences they live while in motion, in process, and in the moment. Yet this is what any journey worth taking entails.

If you are currently in long-term treatment and agree with my description of the journey’s value, you might say: “Well, then. Now I’m not just fearful of losing my therapist, but the journey, too!”

Fear not.

If the treatment has been successful, a wider world has gradually opened to you outside the counselor’s consulting room. Many journeys beckon, inward and outward, outside your comfort zone, where all journeys live: more and different friendships, travel, new vocations and hobbies, increased openness to art or music, spiritual awakenings, returning to school; and, too, “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”*

You will embrace some of what once frightened you or found you closed off. Not all things, but some things. Even from the defacing hand of age, a man of thieving heart, will you wrest unexpected gifts.

You never become indestructible, but you can move along in life more confident in the ability to manage most of the hurts; accepting that, they too are a part of the human experience, the beautiful/terrible richness of life.

You will not become everything you could be. No one does. But you will be alive to the world.

You cannot ask for more.

* The last words of Wordsworth’s poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.

The top photo includes Remains of the Via Appia in Rome, ner Quarto Miglio, by Kleuske. The second image is called Roma, via Appia Antica: Arco di Druso e Porta San Sebastian by Lalupa. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Do Therapists Only Care about Money? An Airplane Morality Tale

I will not persuade you.

No, I will not persuade you therapists are not in it for the money. If all you see are greenbacks in their eyes (🤑), I don’t imagine I can dislodge your thoughts. I can’t deny we work for a living. Indeed, some of us live well, go on vacations, have pricey things. No, I will not persuade you, but instead offer you a story about one noble and gifted therapist.

Perhaps then you will persuade yourself.

Three people make up our cast. Two participants, one observer. All occupied one side of an aisle on a commercial flight. Little identifying information about the 30ish man in the window seat will be mentioned.

I had the aisle seat. Call me the observer. A pretty lady with thick brown hair sat between the young man and me. Bald men, at least this one, notice luxuriant hair!

As we waited on the tarmac, I saw the window-seated gentleman fanning himself. True, the compartment was a bit stuffy before take-off, but I wondered why he hadn’t opened the nozzle above to create a cooling air flow. Perhaps he hasn’t traveled often, I thought. I reached over the napping woman and touched his arm, pointed up, and twisted the nozzle. He smiled and the fanning stopped. I went back to reading my book.

The sleepy woman’s eyes opened:

I became aware of some intense breathing from the gentleman to my right, turned to look at him, and noticed he was sweating profusely. I asked him if he was okay, and our interaction began …

He told me he ‘hates flying,’ especially, the take-offs and landings. I recognized the brief conversation helped him to regain control of his breathing, so decided to continue distracting him by engaging in some light discourse. I was also very, very relieved he wasn’t having a heart attack! He told me he was traveling to visit his girlfriend, and when I joked it would be her turn to visit him next time, he laughed, ‘Oh no, she’s moving (here); I’m not doing this again!’ He shared that he has a young daughter who loves to sing and so I invited him to tell me more about her. He seemed to appreciate the distraction and smiled when he spoke about her.

My focus was to remind him to take deep breaths, attending to the slow inhalation/exhalation of his breath. This gentleman seemed somewhat embarrassed, but also quite grateful, and certainly did not eschew my help.

After we reached cruising altitude, he seemed much calmer. From time to time his breathing turned faster and more shallow, which would prompt me to engage in conversation to provide a distraction. We spoke about his destination. I shared some of my favorite places there and he told me what his girlfriend had planned. I encouraged him to enjoy the weekend, fearing he would worry about the return flight instead. I also supported his willingness to fly, given his clear dislike of it!

When we began descending, our fellow-passenger was in distress again. I turned my head toward him, and thought I was directing my voice quietly just to him, never imagining you (on the opposite side) would be privy to the ‘therapy.’ I was focused intently upon him, as a counselor would be with a client.

I used ‘grounding’ mindfulness, and ‘present moment awareness’ strategies to help him control his breathing, and distract him from his fear. I coached him through some diaphragmatic breathing by instructing him to put his hands on top of his ‘belly’ (which sounds less serious than ‘diaphragm,’ and somehow always prompts a smile).

I asked him to attend to the rise and fall of his hands on his belly, and the feel of his hands against one another. When I noticed he was holding a soft velour hat, I encouraged him to pay attention to its texture. I coached him to pay attention to the muscles in his feet, legs, arms, shoulders, and neck, to experience each area relax, to wiggle his toes — anything to take his mind off the descending plane. I kept cycling through the breathing exercises. It seemed to help him, fortunately.  Of course, I also supported his positive progress.

Once we landed, he again seemed quite grateful but a bit embarrassed. I worried for him on the return flight, so tried to empower him, as we regularly do with our clients, by reminding him he managed the trip with the help of some newly-learned techniques which he could do for himself.

What did I feel during this exchange? I focused on calling up anything I could think of to help him, and keeping my voice calm and steady, as he was struggling a lot! I was pleased in a wondrous way, that I happened to be there and able to help. Such serendipity in the world!

I was also a little embarrassed to discover my ‘therapy session’ was overheard. (The gentleman behind us caught my eye when we stood up to de-plane, to acknowledge the ‘session,’ as did another person in that row). I hoped he and others were not distracted by the repetitive refrain, and that my struggling seatmate was not self-conscious about anyone overhearing. I felt a bit of the ‘therapist’s high’ that happens once in a while, when we have helped another person to find the ability to succeed, and we hope, empowered him to use the new tools to help themselves going forward. I was amazed that by some coincidence I was in that particular seat, at that time and I forgot all about the nap I had eagerly anticipated.

If anything, Catherine “Candy” Davies minimizes all she did, and the gift she displayed in doing it. A tour de force for sure. For over two-and-a-half hours Candy worked with the gentleman, sped through a sandwich, read a few magazine pages, but retained constant awareness of her ‘patient’s’ emotional state. I congratulated her when we landed and she introduced me to her husband waiting inside the airport. Later I found her online and asked if I could share her story. She kindly provided most of the details you’ve just read.

Candy was not always a therapist. She earned an MBA and worked for a large corporation, as well as a non-profit. She’s also been a teacher of college business courses:

My ‘midlife crisis’ led me to a career change, and a return to school to earn an MSW.  I have been working at SUNY, New Paltz (the State University of New York, New Paltz Campus) since 2007 and am happily married to husband Bill. We have two grown children of whom we are very proud.

When I shared the story with Bill, he commented it was yet another example my career change was the right decision.  I agreed with him, for it put me in a place to help this young man.

Legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, said: “The true test of a (person’s) character is what he does when no one is watching.” Even though a few of us listened-in (you can’t hear everything on an airplane and my book was engrossing), I would remind you Candy remained unaware of her audience until the end.

Maybe now you have persuaded yourself — by virtue of my seat-mate’s basic decency and therapeutic talent — that counselors are not the self-interested rascals you thought we were. Then again, maybe not.

But regardless of what you think, Candy will still be out there, giving her best, healing when possible, living her values.

Biased though I am and special though she is, in my experience she is not alone.

Below “Candy” Davies SUNY photo, is a High Contrast, Stylized Vector Image showing hands helping each other, the work of Phollox. The last image is A Helping Hand, by Jean-Paul Haag. All but the photo are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.