How Much Intensity? How Much Danger is Wise?

Are we too preoccupied with safety? I’m not a man perched on the razor’s edge, but sometimes I wonder about the question.

Truth is, Britain’s playgrounds are being made less safe – intentionally. The aim is to promote resilience in children. They hope to overcome the oversight of “helicopter parents” and grow some hardiness in the little ones.

After all, if we want them to become farmers or auto mechanics, they need contact with dirt; if surgeons, there will be blood.

I understand the educators’ concern about an antiseptic upbringing. The suburban life of children where I live is doubtless more protected than the one I found within Chicago long ago.

Concrete-paved alleys and empty lots were my playground, not nicely mowed and supervised school yards. Broken glass might be present from garage windows exploding upon impact with a hard-hit ball. The flat-roofed garages voiced a siren song enchantment, leading us to shinny up their drain pipes for balls lofted on top by accident. Telephone polls were part of the narrow field of play, stones pleaded to be thrown, and an occasional garage abutment was an immovable obstacle. One such clobbered me as I tried to escape being tagged in a game of touch football. Much earlier I’d lost part of a front tooth when I tripped and kissed the ground mouth-first. Might have been my first kiss, but not my best one.

Risk is unavoidable short of a straight-jacketed life. Homes and virtual friends are more sanitized than the peopled world of sex and struggle. One finds a dispenser of hand cleanser everywhere one travels, it seems. We watch our heroes, real or imaginary, taking chances on screens and in stadiums. Us? Not so much.

The ones Nietzsche characterized as the future Übermenschen (supermen) would be the bold ones, the strivers and tightrope walkers. They would stretch themselves in a search for fulfillment of all they could be. Danger was an invitation to living, transcendence of self, (and suffering, yes). Play requires this. The fenced in “herd” might be safer, with fewer challenges, but no life survived their enclosure – no dreams and little joy – only obligation, restriction, and cringing. Too much self-consciousness, for sure.

Some of us find safety in well-worn ideas, the ideas shared by our peers. Learning too can be dangerous; thinking for yourself, as well. So we cling to religious orthodoxy or the received wisdom of the tribe. For myself, I’ve grown tired of hearing the same thoughts over again, unless they offer some poetry of expression. I’d rather be stretched to see if I can think in a new way about new matters. Or reject the ideas because they are only “different,” not “better.”

I try to be an honest man for lots of reasons, aware of this cost: “The life of the honest man must be an apostasy and a perpetual desertion.” So said Charles Péguy, who thereby warned us that our honesty would often be displeasing. Frankness is dangerous enough for me most of the time.

For many, making a phone call is a challenge, raising your hand is a risk, asking for something a set-up for disappointment. Therapy, too, represents “the undiscovered country.” Perhaps you don’t want to visit. Where is danger absent? True, the wax wings Icarus wore melted when he got close to the sun, but he did have quite a ride. I guess security can found in a suit of armor, unless the metal gets rusty. Doesn’t all of our psychic armor get rusty?

The perpetual dawn we want is asking the impossible, but searching for it beats a lifetime in a cave. A part of us wants to breathe the air of another place, another planet.

What to do? First know yourself. How much intensity can you take? If you suffer from anxiety, distress will not disappear except by stretching of the rubber band of your soul; albeit little by little.

Some live for the dance, lose themselves in the music of life, and allow tomorrow to come when it comes. Yes, grief is a possibility, but, as Nick Romano (John Derek) says in the movie Knock On Any Door, you then “live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.” Sounds reckless, but we do need something to enliven us, avoid the slow-death of routine and saying a perpetual “no” to opportunity and adventure. In my estimation, many of us, much of the time, live in an emotional safe zone than permits personal and societal growth. Still, don’t be Nick Romano. Perhaps a recommendation from the stoic philosopher Seneca will appeal more than Nick’s words:

It is truly said … by Curius Dentatus, that he would rather be a dead man than a live one dead; it is the worst of evils to depart from the world of the living before you die.

Intensity can be too much. It doesn’t take long to ruin your life (or your sleep) and good judgement is a precious quality not found at the store. But don’t assume maturity always means being careful. There is wisdom, too, in finding out what you are missing before you miss it.

Understanding Our Anger

Though I will never understand everything about the anger displayed in groups – the rage now surrounding us – I have some knowledge of how it developed. Early man discovered he needed allies against nature, beasts, and other humans. He sought the talents of partners in finding or building shelter, getting food, and providing comfort for fear and loneliness. Those who made their way alone were not likely to survive and, by definition, didn’t create offspring.

Allegiance to the small collective – call it loyalty – both was required by the group and increased your chances of outlasting isolated fellow-men. The band was more likely to thrive and your genes stood a better chance of reaching the next generation and beyond.

We became tribal creatures. Believing rumors of potential conspiracies by groups of competitors for scare resources was safer than thinking strangers meant well. Those who were different – other – were often enough enemies for us; we therefore become wary of all others. Not least, those who looked different and came from elsewhere: the people with odd customs, strange habits, who uttered unintelligible sounds. Rage enabled the fight to survive, to overcome our fear and take on threats. Thus supported and encouraged, everything became possible. Buoyed up by the group, small man became larger than himself.

Such qualities did not disappear from our nature. We now see them displayed even in so-called first world, “civilized” society. We vilify our political enemies. We are capable, as fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance images of our brain) show, of reacting to our fellow humans as we do to furniture. Untermenschen: less than human.

Yes, it is desperately important to vote, take the political action you can, voice your opinions, and make even small financial contributions to defend our democratic republic. Yes, some “others” are carried away. They yell and deceive and might want you out of the country. But not all do. Most, indeed, are rather like the rest of us: struggling with the life project, hoping our children will live in a better world, wishing for peace and security. If we lump them – all of them in the same trash bin, assume they are all irrational or crazy, are we then superior to them – really? If we succumb to our version of the same self-righteous anger, are we then superior to them – really? Do not assume all of our allies are pure. Our “team” is never the sole repository of virtue.

You will learn little from those who echo you. We might learn something from people who don’t, at least on occasion.

We would do well to search for solutions, some amount of compromise with those “others” who are open to it, and vigorously defend against the far smaller group of opportunists and the fully self-interested who only want what they want. Better policies than those now in place must address widely experienced concerns, not just those of your tribe. The country needs a better light bulb, otherwise replacing the present installation will leave us still in the dark.

Our genes won’t change any time soon.

Work for a better world, but do not become the thing you hate.

—————————–

The first image is a Cartoon Representation of the Molecular Structure of Protein Registered with 1pi1 Code. It was created by Jawahar Swaminathan and MSD staff at the European Bioinformation Institute. The fMRI image below it is the work of Washington Irving. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

But I Don’t Know How to Talk to People

My buddy Rock was facing a common young man’s dilemma: what do I say to a girl? Our school lunch group, all of us 15 or 16-years-old, had little experience in that department. Fewer than half had been on a date. I will let Rock and our friend Harmon provide an example that applies even to adult variety women and men with Social Anxiety Disorder.

Keep this in mind if you share the same worry: you might be better at talking to people than you think.

Rock’s problem was set up by asking out a comely classmate. She said yes, not the outcome he prepared for. A little bit like the dog who chases the speeding fire truck and somehow overtakes the juggernaut. Now what?

The date was scheduled for Saturday night, so Rich (his real name) had time to create a plan. Harmon, playing the role of our comparative dating veteran, was consulted. He listened as Rock asked for help with the talking business:

First, you need to think of girls as – like – real people. Like one of the guys. You talk to friends with no problem. Talk about the same stuff with your date: school, teachers, movies, tv, music. Try this: make a list of topics to bring up. Then, if the conversation gets slow, consult the list. You’ll do fine.

Note the confidence and authority. Those of us who overheard the lecture were impressed. This was better stuff than we were getting from our teachers.

Encouraged by Harmon’s advice and pep talk, Rich proceeded to work on his agenda. “I can do this,” he said to himself. By the weekend, a formidable and fairly lengthy itemization of topics existed. He even memorized it.

Saturday evening arrived.

Rock took the Lincoln Avenue bus to the stop closest to the girl’s home. From there he walked two blocks to the address. Deep breath. Front door. Several repetitions of the agenda had been carefully rehearsed. The document was as clear in his mind as the chiseled version of the Ten Commandments was to Moses. Rules to follow to the letter.

The door bell was duly rung. A brief conversation with the mom ensued, then off with his date for the short walk back to the bus. Movieland and the wonders of time spent with a pretty girl beckoned. Houston, we have lift off!

Meanwhile, in various homes in West Rogers Park, Chicago, friends of Rich were all wondering some version of the same thought: what might be happening now? We hoped, after all, to get tips from our chum come Monday’s lunch. Perhaps enlightenment awaited us. A strange new world beckoned. As they say on Star Trek, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Rich arrived at our noontime meal looking like the person we’d last seen on Friday. No remarkable transformation. No bigger muscles, no greater height, no glow. He sounded the same, too. Finally, the question:

What happened?

(Pregnant pause, no pun intended. A sober look came over Rock’s face).

Well, by the time I’d walked the two blocks from her house back to the bus stop, I’d gone through the entire list.

Imagine now the collective sigh of a group of 10 young men: the air making a half hearted escape from a large balloon. Rock continued:

Yeah, I’d keep asking her questions and then … nothing. Silence. And I’d made especially sure that I didn’t smell bad. She did say she liked the movie. Oh, wait, she asked me one question:

Do you like Sugar Shack?

What’s Sugar Shack, I answered?

She tells me its a new song. That was it.

Some men are called to greatness, others have it dumped on them. Or not.

What is the point here? Rock did everything right. He made fine conversation, showed interest in his companion, and still … nothing worked. Moreover, before long he realized the date disaster wasn’t the fault of poor social skills.

Take the lesson to heart, my friends. If you’d like to learn more concerning the ease of drawing the wrong conclusions about your social skills; and about the treatment of Social Anxiety Disorder using Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), read this:

I’m Not Very Good at Making Conversation/

Remember: sometimes it’s your fault, but not always. Maybe even less often than you think.

The top photo below is called Young Love at the Malt Shop by Kevin Simpson, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Next comes a Cover Illustration created by Livia De Simone for Dream Hunters, published by Astro Edizioni. It was sourced courtesy of Bubysan and Wikimedia Commons.

For the New Year

Conventional New Year’s resolutions don’t interest me much. At least not before careful consideration. Here, then, are suggestions to help reconfigure your 2018 list. They fit with the notion of the road not taken; or the direction not discovered. They are ideas to apply to your resolution-making, not a set of 2018 goals themselves:

  • Slash the resolutions you’ve already made! The more things on the list, the less likely you will attend to any of them. Achieving one or two life changes is remarkable enough. By reducing the number, you must decide what is important to you. The exercise has value by itself. When you consider the rest of the items below, keep this in mind.
  • Challenge your intuitions. Research by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt suggests we quickly and intuitively come to our positions on matters as serious as politics and religion. According to Haidt, our brain acts as a kind of post hoc lawyer to defend instinct-driven moral beliefs and to fool us into thinking we reasoned out our convictions before arriving at them. Opening your mind to rejected ideas isn’t easy, but might enlighten you.
  • Don’t borrow trouble. Most of the things about which we worry never happen. Beyond taking proper precautions over what you control, worry is an anxiety-inducing waste. Yes, look both ways before you cross the street, plan your financial future, eat well and exercise, but don’t obsess. Consternation offers you nothing. Need help? Check out Craske and Barlow’s cognitive-behavioral program with your therapist or consider ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy).
  • Realize the road is not always comfortable. A good life depends, in part, on knowing rocky and smooth stretches are unpredictable, inevitable, and usually temporary; all part of the highway we travel. Years ago I asked a wise financial advisor, Rick Taft, “How do you think stocks will do in the New Year?” His answer? “The market will fluctuate.” We could just as easily describe the inconstant fate awaiting us as an unavoidable fluctuation. No matter how smart you are, Fortuna (the Roman goddess of luck) spins her wheel. Good emotional shock absorbers are essential. Failures and tears add to the richness of our existence, however much you and I wish they could be avoided. You can learn from them, but only if you reflect on your life and keep a mirror handy for an occasional self-inspection.
  • Whose life are you living? The one you want or the one designed to make people love you and accept you? Evolution led our ancestors to concern themselves with reputation. Those who did increased their chances of survival and mating success. Like a number of the qualities evolution “selected for,” a preoccupation with public opinion can drive us crazy. Happiness is not the aim of evolution, only passing on your genes to a new generation. Once again, you might need to fight instinctive tendencies if you wish more than an average measure of satisfaction. Anticipation of the world’s disapproval leads one to display a false self and worry about being unmasked. Remember, this is your life (not theirs), and tuning out some of the voices who criticize is part of creating a strong and resilient personality.
  • Relationships are the most fulfilling thing on the planet. Try to have some! (Oops. I offered a goal).
  • Research suggests generosity to others is more fulfilling than spending your nickles on yourself. Similarly, experiences will offer more pleasure and more satisfying memories (say, of a vacation) than things like an attention-getting sweater or a hot car. Think back. Do you feel warm inside as you remember the set of wheels you had 10 years ago? I don’t need to think hard: until three years ago I was still driving the well-used car I bought in 2000! More on how to get from here to happiness from Daniel Gilbert:

It is said that “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Not always, but often. Just so, maturity is achieved by surviving life challenges plus the passage of time, with some learning thrown in, of course. I’m not suggesting disappointment and mistreatment are equally distributed among us, but each of us knows suffering and, fair or not, it is in our interest to learn from the bad breaks.

All the above considered, here are ideas to push your sail boat off the dock and into the fresh waters of the New Year:

  • It is not that you have done wrong (you have), but whether you do more and more good.
  • It is not that you fall, but whether you get up.
  • It is not that you are a victim, but whether you are a survivor.
  • It is not that you make mistakes (you will), but whether you learn from them.
  • It is not that you get angry, but whether you get over it.
  • It is not that friends and lovers disappoint you, but whether you still believe in friendship and love.
  • It is not that you erred, but whether you took responsibility.
  • It is not that you take life seriously, but whether you also recognize its laughable absurdity.
  • It is not that you’ve forgotten what’s been lost, but whether you are grateful for what you have.
  • It is not that you see life’s ugliness, but whether you seek its beauty.

To close, the following old words from the nineteenth-century Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, seem right for 2018:

“Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind. Spare us to our friends and soften us to our enemies. Give us strength to encounter that which is to come, that we may be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath and in all changes of fortune, and down to the gates of death loyal and loving to one another.”

Tell Me What You “Want” and I’ll Tell You Who You Are

When I ask what you desire, I’m not talking about which menu item you prefer at the restaurant. This essay, instead, considers your most passionate, uninhibited, and selfish side and offers a chance to learn more. I come to praise “wanting,” not to bury it. Last stop before I take you on a roller coaster ride of a part of your nature you might hide from yourself.

What is “wanting?” At the extreme, it is taking, but playful; possessive, rapacious, covetous, but pure. Wanting doesn’t respect every rule. Desire is a thing unleashed: single-minded, obsessed, hungry, spontaneous, irrational. The undiscovered country is its goal.

Adventurers to this land seek new ground. The kind of wanting I’m speaking of lives with abandon and without self-consciousness. It inhabits a place outside the domain of evil or good, so try not to stand in judgement. This creature is feeling-dominated, not word or thought-restrained. Pre-verbal. Desire’s triumph is found in moments of joy and exploration, enough to burst the heart.

Small children possess this jubilant abandon, witness my two-year-old grandson. But I sometimes think we stake their little hearts and then call the corpses civilized.

Desire, at its zenith, is about discovery, about making something new: being alive to the world. Risk is attractive and the downside almost irrelevant. Where others slow down, desire speeds up. More constrained souls, in contrast, seek a fulfillment of duty, a chance to prove themselves by taking on challenges, and acceptance of social rules. Perhaps they are merely afraid.

Desire wants only joy. Sharing of joy to multiply it, too. Yet, in its pursuit of fulfillment (and the evolutionarily-packaged seed it carries), injuries to others can happen. The unknown spouse of a “wanted” married woman (not the kind you find on an FBI poster) can be someone invisible to the desirous one; carved out of the equation, a faceless person who won’t find out and won’t be hurt. Remember, though, no desire, no human race.

I’m not talking about people who intend to injure others, or who see the potential victim and still don’t care. They inhabit a different class.

Some souls submit to risk and adventure only in selected portions of their lives. No one can live there always – too many train wrecks come if you don’t look both ways before crossing the tracks. But, such a life is possible when compartmentalized; though rare is the highly intuitive, curious free-spirit who can keep the boxes separate. Even when they can, existence might become too intense, too high and too low, too painful too often. But the high wire is a place of dizzying delight, addictive perhaps, so don’t think you wouldn’t like it there.

Others, those of a different, more careful nature, only visit their deepest want on rare occasions. The adventurer/angel entity is then unleashed as if by a strange invading army.

You can live a happy life, as much as we are allowed, without uncaged desire. Such a life, however, will have some restraints, a lower ceiling on pleasure. No ecstatic frenzy for you. Almost all of us are conditioned by 5000 years of civilization and nearly as much religious history; by our parents, our teachers, and oceans of indoctrination; by reading, thinking, and all the “thou shalt nots.” The wise ones told us life was about giving up certain parts of ourselves, fair-play, and the pursuit of lofty places and principles: about relinquishment and acceptance and gratitude for a half-cup of coffee. Fifty-percent would be enough, they said. Our sensuality was indicted and shamed.

Most of us call cruising at a lower altitude the triumph of practical wisdom over foolishness. Desire thinks the last statement is a cheat. And if wanting is a large part of one’s nature, surely societal rules pose a greater restriction on them than for tamer souls. The former cannot comfortably be different than they are without denying themselves.

When I was in single-digits I envied my next door neighbor’s toy soldiers. Howie always got better toys than I did. So, I took one, discovering that having the thing was a less satisfying experience than I anticipated. I also felt guilty and, the next time I played at his house, returned the unmissed plastic man-of-war to Howie’s towering pile of tiny inanimate playmates.

My desire wasn’t rational, but mindless. I’d met Freud’s Id inside myself. From that moment, I understood I had this quality in me. Later, I discovered that if you haven’t satisfied your wanting in bed, you haven’t had sex.

Desire still exists post-youth, though buried deep under the weight of responsibility and family; conventional virtue and reputation. No wonder men and women have mid-life crises, do crazy things, dress like they are still young. Everyone wants to be desired. Everyone wants the view from the mountain top occasionally. Some don’t want to descend.

Do you know their names? Count Columbus and Marco Polo among them. Explorers like Scott of the Antarctic. The Homeric heroes, horse-taming Hector and Odysseus, sacker-of-cities. We need such brave dreamers, the ones who want to look behind the door, the ones who will become astronauts.

How much can one live with wanting? How much can one live without? For those high in desire, in risk-taking, free by nature, Icarus is a model to be emulated, a spontaneous young man using his wax wings to reach the sun, not a damned fool crashing to earth when the sun’s heat melts them.

Religion and society try to inoculate us to our baseness, if that’s what it is, but the untamed creature is still present, and may agree to adopting a different form: athletic competition in hope of fulfilling the want of the chase, the win, the trophy, the sensuality and exultation of the vanquished opposition; or, the rat race (because we are part-time rats, climbing over others) and wielding raw power. Perhaps even simple things like buying something you say you “can’t live without.” Here, in this last tame example of desire, is the ultimate domestication of the beast within.

You can’t be a man and a wild animal all the time, but you can’t be a man without greeting the animal you are. The ladies have him inside too, though their historic cultural prohibitions are even greater than for men. They are, therefore, less well-accepted when they exhibit their creaturely side.

If you think of yourself as a virtuous person and actually are pretty good (two different things), you are ripe for someone else’s taking and the awakening of your own wanting. Then it is like an explosion, an irresistible force that can only be resisted by a team of stallions pulling you away.

I’d say most people don’t even know they are missing anything, so accustomed are they to the socialized forms of desire. The creature is drugged to sleep. Why don’t we admit to this? Perhaps because it associates us with the animal world. We want to think we are better, deserving of a heaven that doesn’t even admit pets. We fear losing respect, hesitate to hurt others about whom we care. We fear losing our self, the person we “think” we are, the best self we can be.

Beware. Too much denial is dangerous, too. The precincts of quiet desperation house those who have never lived.

Few can sustain high-wire wanting happily. Craving is never but momentarily satisfying: they go on craving after a period of rest. The constant seekers must find other adventures. The soul is restless, also a part of their nature.

You say you don’t recognize yourself in this? Don’t knock yourself out to search for the unimaginable part. I’m not here to upset your steady, unruffled life. But it is there.

Some of you might call it crazy. If it is, there is a sublime craziness to it, not made for planet earth but some purer, loftier realm, free of judgment. A place where you can eat all the candy you want without losing your taste for more or getting sick; and give away handfuls to your friends, who will love you for sharing your bounty: the bounty in yourself.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote:

My candle burns at both ends;

   It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –

   It gives a lovely light!

The poster up top is from the famous movie, A Streetcar Named Desire. Next, is Joanbanjo’s photo of a Roman Legion from the Museum of Lead Soldiers in Valencia. Finally, Bruegel’s depiction of The Fall of Icarus. If you can’t find him, Icarus is in the water just below the boat on the right side of the painting. Surely, this placement of the title character is a comment on the indifference of the world to his calamity. The soldiers photo comes from Wikimedia Commons, the Breugal from Wikiart.org/ For those of you curious about exploring an analogous, but not identical person to the one I’ve described, investigate Meyers-Briggs personality configurations on the net, especially the one identified by the initials ENFP.

Should Therapy Be Forever Introspective?

                                                                                                                          And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to Blossom.

This poem, long attributed to Anaïs Nin, but more recently to Elizabeth Appell, unwittingly touches on a therapeutic problem:

What if the person “tight in a bud” is captured by the safety of a therapeutic process: too long within the bud, not beyond its green wrapper reaching toward the light?

Does therapy sometimes risk cocooning the patient too long, uncovering and uncovering and uncovering depths of feelings and insights at the expense of progress in the world outside of the therapist’s office? Put differently, if “the unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates tells us, is the overexamined life unlived?

I am accustomed to self-reflection both inside my head and in my practice, but I think we do have to acknowledge each side of the question. We need self-awareness, but the place where it resides is sticky, full of creatures who grab us and hold us fast. At least, they try to.

Life is something of a leap, a challenge: a reach for love, learning, helping others, and fulfilling the “becoming” still unrevealed in us. The world offers us differing models, from arrogant, thoughtless, unreflecting leaders who are, nonetheless, men of action; to those of us whose exploration is more inward, but may be confined by that inwardness.

We are offered fictional and mythological models, too. These are all people of action. When they go underground to visit dead souls, as they do in Dante’s Inferno and Homer’s The Odyssey, they are struck by how out-of-place they feel. They must, inevitably, return to the world of the living.

One version of hell on earth is an endless preoccupation with grave feelings and haunted days; consumed with envy of those who live with abandon. How ironic that some of the externally risk-averse accept a familiar hell in a box. As Nietzsche wrote in Also Sprach Zarathustra, “Verily I do not want to be like the ropemakers: they drag out their threads and always walk backwards.”

I helped many untangle themselves from the grip of dead or distant childhood abusers. I learned, too, by examining my own history from an over-the-shoulder perspective. We must be careful, however, to avoid an endless backward look; especially if one already has an inward bent. Walking backwards will then be the only direction available.

Action, usually taking the form of work, is an antidote for brooding. Passive distraction such as video watching is not the answer. The mind is like a device attached to rubber band: unless engaged (or retrained by a serious meditation practice) we are subject to the pull of the elastic, snapping back to troublesome preoccupations and general discontent.

Insight comes not only from focusing on the past, but experience in the present. You will never resolve everything in your history. You can resolve enough to free yourself – enough to act. Sometimes therapy does require years. Know, however, what your goal is. Consider a move toward it at the earliest appropriate time even if the bulk of your therapeutic process is still dealing with yesterday’s wounds. Work with your therapist to fashion a path down and in as needed – yes – but also identify and step into the road up and out.

A good therapist can be your guide in both places. A more limited one may lead a fine tour of Rembrandt, the seventeenth-century Dutch painter, but ignore the glories of contemporary art.

Each one is a worthy escort, properly placed and timed.

Don’t stay in either gallery longer than you have to.

The top photo is Grand Central Station – (1957) by Brassai. Next comes Alberto Baumann’s Introspection (2003) and then Rembrandt’s Man in a Golden Helmet (1669). All are sourced from Wikiarts.org.

The Need for Escape

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

Other examples come to mind:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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