When You Feel Lost

I was warned.

I was warned about bad neighborhoods when I began to explore the world. Relatives portrayed it as an unkind place where bad karma, bad luck, and bad people lurked.

They seemed to mean they waited for me alone.

Parents ought to warn, but not so much as to form a fearful youngster. In time I took my chances and dared to explore.

Not only the city, but myself, the uncovering of my self: exposure to condemnation and humiliation, rejection, and all the common disgraces uncommonly hurtful when they happen to us.

How else, I reasoned, can I be known?

We need to get lost a few times to make our way. We must be disappointed in our fellow man to distinguish those worthy of trust from those who are not.

Our job is to fall down but not stay down. To enlighten ourselves not just from books, but the game, the ladder, and the heart.

Lewis Carroll wrote, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

He advised us to make goals.

But isn’t taking unknown trails to uncharted destinations also an essential message?

How about “The Road Not Taken”?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Is the verse grim? The poet, Robert Frost, wished us to smile: “My poems … are all set to trip the reader head (first) into the boundless.”

If we take him by the two last words — “the boundless” — perhaps one meaning is to fill life with experiences, adventures, and explorations of the world without and the world within.

Might we reveal to ourselves who we are by searching the unfamiliar places, the avoided challenges, the prospects we fear? How else shall we overcome them and recognize our flourishing resides in growing mastery?

Perhaps misdirection and disorientation lead to unexpected joy.

The admonition “know thyself” cannot be fulfilled without discovering our choices in unaccustomed circumstances, with people different from ourselves, attempting skills not yet expert.

Until we are swept away and carried aloft how can we know where to land?

Enlargement of life comes from living it, unless you enjoy confinement.

Possibility awaits outside the box, outside the lines, outside. Beauty, too.

When I was a boy, I recall older kids saying “get lost” to those young ones they didn’t want nearby. They meant, “stay away.”

But might a wise mentor say to a young man, “lose your way,” as a strange kind of guidance?

Every so often, “getting lost” might be just the thing. Early enough, when time is on your side, before dark.

Until you trod the unpaved, unplumbed, unfamiliar off ramps a few times, you won’t ever discover your hidden resilience.

Perhaps only by getting lost on occasion can we find ourselves.

——-

The first image is Lost Bird Logo by Tánh Nguyễn. Next comes Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead in its 1883 version, followed by Blossoming by Paul Klee. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Your Therapist Didn’t Tell You

Many therapists spend most of a session without uttering a sound. The more they talk, the less they are heard. The more they speak, the less the patient does his own emotional processing.

The more they offer answers, the less the client claims ownership of his happiness, responsibility, and control.

When treatment works, the seeker isn’t passive but active. The new thought is taken, not given. He grasps the reins, a voluntary effort.

Clinicians should rarely propel the train, though they may clear some of the tracks. Persuasion and insistence have limits. A parental, authoritative position creates a struggle for power or dependency.

Repetition is tiresome. Some people won’t change. They sought a remedy with the wish for someone else to do something.

We are not surgeons who administer an anesthetic so you can be redesigned while unconscious. If we possessed a storeroom full of magical potions, we’d be drinking them ourselves.

The counselor asks questions, points in a direction, and monitors the strength of the resistant wind. He manages the temperature and allows hope to enter the room.

Who will reach for it? Not all do.

Like marriages and friendships, there are signs of trouble. The sessions drag, the medic becomes a debater, misunderstandings occur. The analyst drains his life force; perhaps he dreads the next appointment. The psychologist tries too hard, his counterpart too little.

Though the lesson is unwanted, the other’s life is not ours to reshape. The patient has the right to stay where he is, no matter the suffering.

The only adult we can alter is the one in the mirror. The man reflected in the silvered glass must reflect, claim his own agency, and act.

Mallets won’t hammer others to the shape desired. We are not sculptors or portrait painters. Sometimes the best we can do for another person is to give up on our capacity to do him good.

At least this permits him to take back his life.

Some people, including a few “helping professionals,” listen to be heard, to make pronouncements. They do better to listen to understand.

We all have limits. We all have goals and choices. Regarding the latter pair, here are mine for 2020:

To better understand myself and others. To discover an enlightening idea, an unexpected sight or sound.

I choose to search for these; and perhaps to change the world.

The Risk of Emotional Openness: Of Therapists and Their Pedestals

Most of us in the West assume a stance of “openness” to a degree my parents and immigrant grandparents thought shameful and dangerous. Yet our casual ease in talking about “the personal” still has limits: lines not to be crossed.

On the dark side of that border, one finds all of us who are not “known.By this, I refer to the hidden aspects of who and what we are. In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky wrote about the parts of ourselves kept below the earth:

In every man’s memories there are such things as he will reveal not to everyone, but perhaps only to friends. There are also such as he will reveal not even to friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. Then, finally, there are such as a man is afraid to reveal even to himself, and every decent man will have accumulated quite a few things of this sort.

I had a taste of my mother’s notion of the proper place of privacy in repeated statements like, “What would the neighbors think?Her family’s advice for what was and wasn’t discussed came from a generation whose education was Eastern European and specifically Jewish.

Amos Oz, the late Israeli novelist, born in 1939, offered this commentary on those who fled Europe for Palestine before the genocidal erasure of their families and friends by the Nazis:

They had no difficulty at all in expressing communal feelings — they were emotional people and they knew how to talk. (But) the moment they tried to give voice to a private feeling, what came out was something tense, dry, even frightened, the result of generation upon generation of repression and negation ... They could never be certain that they would not utter something ridiculous, and ridicule was something they lived in fear of. They were scared to death of it.

Here, perhaps, is a partial answer to why so many of our friendships and romances fail. We want to experience the freedom and comfort of another’s knowing approval, but hesitate to leave more than a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the secrets Doestoevsky mentions.

No signpost to our camouflaged essence directs the curious to know what we want to be known, but dread will be known. The ridicule that terrified Oz’s parents is thus avoided.

Obstructions to external acceptance of our innermost selves are still more numerous. Unlike those mentioned, these come from the deficits in the ones whose respect we crave.

Few potential friends and lovers know how to enter our protected internal spaces or realize they misunderstand us without so doing. Much work is involved in achieving a depth of awareness of another person, time thinking about more than how to win someone’s friendship, or get naked with them.

Our observers see only the surfaces we present. I’m speaking of qualities like our appearance, intellect, or quick wit. We blind people with our externals, intended or not. What is obvious is like the topsoil of a garden, suggesting little of what lies underneath.

Beneath the stereotype applied to their veneers, the beautiful and smart, the handsome and wealthy, are always harder for an observer to see as they wish to be seen.

As amateur analysts of the human condition, we imagine most compatible acquaintances offer no challenges to comprehension. They are thought to be like us in nature, philosophy, and motivation, with perhaps a few variations due to age, gender, race, nationality, and religion.

Not always.

Whatever uniqueness exists in their clandestine attitudes and behaviors often defies stereotypes. The more unique they are, the less likely they will fit our usual classification system.

One group is skillful in lifting the veils of those who might dance away from in-depth exposure of who they are: therapists. With enough talent and experience, they uncover much of the shrouded but exceptional humanity missed by so many.

This quiet recognition astonishes the ones who are now, perhaps for the first time, recognized. The power of the event and the wizardry often attributed to the counselor confers a significant part of the appreciation and, sometimes, the love directed toward him.

The healer’s discovery confers on him a weighty obligation, as well. While he treats many patients and might feel great affection for them, he does not (if playing by the rules) share the same extent of meaningful attachment to them that he receives from them.

Whenever any of us recognizes the inner-truth of an unknown, defended soul, we are placed on a metaphorical pedestal. How do we manage the esteemed position conferred upon us because of our x-ray vision into his heart?

How much care and carefulness, how much gentleness, ought to be given to someone who believes we (and only we) hold the secrets of his universe? 

Regardless of whether one is a therapist or not, we now receive a responsibility we did not seek, ownership of a particular station in the life of the one stripped of his mask. Therapists, close friends, parents, or lovers — almost all of us sometimes take on the weight of this — or walk away in disregard.

No simple directions exist for managing the unsought for status. Comments on therapy blogs make clear that the best mental health experts can leave an indelible imprint. The memory of them may long occupy a living space in the minds and hearts of former clients, not quite a first kiss but still on a high shelf of importance.

In such cases, counselors are inclined to believe they have done their job. While they opened the patient to possibilities, that openness comes with the sometimes painful knowledge that much of their future will be lived without visits to the individual who did the unmasking.

Helping professionals think the toll is worth the reward, but only the client can say this with certainty.

I’m convinced not all do.

We live in a world of love and loneliness. Most of us have experienced both. The impact of being known is extraordinary enough to change the life of the one so revealed and accepted — accepted despite revelation of the dark treasure within their confidential, invisible fortress.

Not everyone you meet risks traveling to this place. Not everyone locates somebody who might hold the key to their closeted existence. No wonder Vincent van Gogh wrote the following in a letter to his brother Theo:

Many a man has a bonfire in his heart and nobody comes to warm himself at it. The passers-by notice only a little smoke from the chimney and go their way ...

The stakes are considerable for the unseen. Their smoke signals disappear in a moment unless repeated. Even then, not all follow the vapor and welcome what they find there.

What else can the undiscovered one do? Will he speak the words and uncover his feelings before a stranger?

The risks echo. Is the hazardous path to “becoming known” a wise adventure or a dangerous one?

Perhaps both.

—–

All of the images above are the work of Mark Rothko. In order, Untitled, 1968; Untitled, (Light Over Grey), 1956; Untitled, (Light Cloud, Dark Cloud, 1957); No. 12, 1960; and No. 17 (Greens and Blue on Blue) 1957. I encourage you to take more than a few seconds to look at any one of these and discover what is beneath the surface impression, a visual analogue to the subject of this essay.

Disarming Your Negative Thoughts: How Meditation Helps

We expect too much of language. People use it to console, laugh, and express love. Phrases manage our relationships and help us make a living. We grab them to persuade and to injure.

Regrettably, our words also damage us. I refer to the private internal self-torture we alone can hear.

One remedy for this problem does not involve the pitiless expressions themselves. Instead, the method helps get us away from the typed black and white creatures inhabiting dictionaries, the ones we utter within our inner sanctum.

Allow me to explain the background first.

In cases of depression and anxiety, the voice inside our head is leaden, crushing. The word contraption called the brain pumps out endless discouragement, self-doubt, potential catastrophe, regret, and self-blame. All in letters of the alphabet, all caps in a giant font.

Some of this is caused by our genetic wiring, some learned. Homo sapiens survived because ancestors could anticipate problems and plan for defense. Communication helped. Thinking ahead and in our head was vital, allowing reflection on the past and learning from personal history, too. We take in criticism as they did, especially when young, to better adapt to conditions, meet inescapable demands, and achieve acceptance by the community.

For the troubled among us in particular, when nothing else occupies our attention, invading armies of words sometimes describe an unfortunate back story, accuse one of inadequacy, and generate fear of the future. The space between the ears is filled with emotionally charged, unsettling sentences. We try to avoid or escape them by occupying our time in productive and joyous activities, embracing love, and engaging in hobbies.

Some use the radio or TV to drown out their self-loathing. Books might distract, video games entertain. Others imbibe alcohol or take drugs. The lucky sleep self-recrimination away, fortunate unless slumber is all they can do.

When work and play are done — often late at night or when we are by ourselves — the loquacious intercranial attack picks up. Try as we do to kick the phrases away, they rebound in our direction. The more our ideas are repeated internally, the more they boomerang, as if connected to a rubber band we can only stretch so far before a snapping return to the original shape, shooting the trouble back at us.

The harsh routine at its worst implies, “Sorry, your lifetime allotment of happiness is used up.”The task for winning the battle for our distressed brain’s attention is to drain the words of their power. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) can do some of that, increasing our ability to talk back to irrational cognitions.

Traditional dynamic psychotherapy, in addition, aims to relieve us of our sense of unworthiness based on mistreatment by parents and other misfortunes. Grief-work is necessary.

As for the rest, all of us benefit from being calmed and relieved of the tendency to give too much desperate meaning to the reflexive thoughts that seem to think themselves into us and against us.

Mindfulness meditation can address this. The usual instruction is to concentrate on your breathing. If you are like me, a few seconds into early meditation sessions a distraction will pull you away from a focus on the breath. Many of the intrusions are benign and random. This is typical and not a bad thing.

Once you recognize what happened you are informed how your mind works. Even more so, if the topic taking your attention off breathing is challenging and you notice this. Maybe it’s anxiety or worry about what is before you, perhaps downing yourself over a comment you made or sadness and anger about what a neighbor said about you.

The new meditator’s job is observing the unpleasantness and then returning attention to his inhalation and exhalation. You don’t flee the interruption, indeed you recognize it without judgment. Meditation experts tell us our value judgments (good/bad, right wrong, pleasant/unpleasant, positive/negative, wise/foolish) make such disruptive notions and feelings more painful than would otherwise be the case.

When everything goes as planned, a practice of daily meditation allows you to accept these thoughts for what they are (just thoughts). Life gets a bit easier. One’s intelligence is pulled away from self-disparagement, concentration improves, and you become calmer. Your head is emptied of incessant involuntary terminology and its tag-along emotions. Words separate from their previous emotional resonance and residue.

In one sense you have grown more observant of your cognitive and affective private life while more distant from it: less trapped and victimized by the historically fraught words. Their grip on you is loosened. A state of liberation follows, along with an experiential realization the punisher inside is not your master any longer: not essential to who you are.

A personal example: I once went to the Emergency Room with unendurable, hours-long pain from a kidney stone. I’d encountered a few such hard but injurious objects before, but never so lasting and punishing. I was given morphine, a narcotic.

Once medicated my body reminded me the affliction was yet there, but I was distanced and detached from the hurt: more accepting of it. I no longer cared. My feelings about the discomfort dissolved. For a meditator who is far enough along, the concepts once capable of hijacking your well-being lose the authority to harm you, though you still sometimes note the same terms in your head. You stop giving them importance, thus robbing them of their “truth” and impact.

Instead, you deem the terms as arguable statements, not indictments of your worth. They rest easier, not allowed to be a part of you, not taken to heart. These perceptions and notions have detached from your identity. The experience is like reading a book or watching a movie about someone else, not you. Separation from such things permits you to see the world and yourself in a more objective fashion.

In effect, the meaningful labels you attached to many of these internal communications lose their sticking ability, as if the “glue” adhering to your self-image dried up. The stickers fall off. The readiness to judge falls away. Room for beauty and fascination take up space once occupied by darkness.

Nor is your decision-making as likely to be influenced by the hyper-emotional thought-generation machine. The enemy within the language has been disarmed. Life can be more in your control, free of the ever-growing clutter of self-inflicted emotions and concepts you’ve been living with. The reprogrammed cerebral cortex is more settled. Moments of serenity are possible.

Do not minimize the amount of work involved in the process. Most people I’ve known who try meditation give up early. They believe they are “bad at it,” bored, or report the assault of troublesome beliefs and worries entering their attempt to quiet the mind makes them worse than before. Others only begin when their suffering is already at a peak rather than when depression or anxiety is not so present. Some find the needed time and discipline of a once-a-day devotion to the endeavor more than they can do.

I can only say that persistence, dedication, and the capacity to wait for delayed gratification are useful in meditation and much else in life. Combined with CBT (including any needed grief-work), the world may open to you in a new and better way.

—–

The first photo is of Cadillac Mountain in Arcadia National Park. Next comes Composition VII by Kandinsky, followed by 72 Seconds Before Actual Sunrise, Southern California, USA by Jessie Eastland from Wikimedia Commons. Finally, The Rayleigh Effect, Seconds Before Sunrise in New Zealand by Moriori, also from Wikimedia Commons.

Some “Super” and Surprising Advice

Though I am not Ask Amy, Carol Hax, or Dear Abby, today I present advice over 100-years-old. Life-changing notions, many think. Below is memorable guidance on how best to live from a man famous for saying, “I am dynamite!”

While lions and tigers and bears don’t menace us anymore, the writer in question claims we face towering psychological challenges without them. The following aphorisms try to scale those heights.

I’ll reveal our secret advisor, N, before this essay’s end.

Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.

We are, according to the author, desperate to be many things to many people. The masses are hypnotized by beliefs learned long ago, beliefs repeated over and over by our parents, relatives, our community, teachers, and religious leaders.

We want to fit in and “succeed” as defined by our nation and neighbors, and rise to the afterlife. This leads to a “herd mentality,” in the words of the wise man.

Winning a mate is dependent on what others think of us and how well we conform to the popular estimate of desirability. As N observes, we wear masks instead of embracing our own inner truth. Thus, he also wrote:

Become what you are.

Put differently, he refers to a potential transformation of ourselves once we throw off the training wheels and invisible guide wires society uses to constrain us. Having accomplished this emancipation (no one else will do it for us) we can be what we should be. Humans are otherwise automatons tricked into believing they are liberated and enlightened.

Let the youthful soul look back on life with the question: what have you truly loved up to now, what has drawn your soul aloft, what has mastered it and at the same time blessed it? Set up these revered objects before you and perhaps their nature and their sequence will give you a law, the fundamental law of your own true self.

When those words are followed, N believed they lead us to discover that which is at our core. The real identity within us can be glimpsed if we possess the courage to break the “group think” of the tribe. Few will have the will power to do it. N insisted only a handful of us will identify and reject the restrictions stamped onto and into us from our beginnings.

Finally,

You repay a teacher badly by becoming merely a pupil.

Here, the German philosopher (I’m giving you a hint as to his identity) defines what he means by a student. N tells us we are pupils not only of the instructors we meet in school, but the received “wisdom” of institutions and authorities, including government, religion, philosophers, and books. We must dispense with whatever part of their thinking doesn’t survive critical analysis.

Our task is to leave behind worn-out doctrines and replace them with our own. Indeed, he hopes the beginner will, by dint of his internal strength, courage, and intellect, create a revolution in his thought. The most extraordinary among us, N imagined, become breakers of norms, inventors of a re-engineered vision of the world and our own place outside of the mainstream. The former novice thereby morphs into a superman (Übermensch).

The creator of these ideas was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), a German philosopher and cultural critic. This groundbreaking thinker had the misfortune not only of an early breakdown but an anti-Semitic sister who misrepresented his work just as it began to gain attention and after he was incapacitated.

While Nietzche rejected the doctrine of Aryan and national German superiority voiced by the reactionary writers of his time, the Nazis caused the further posthumous distortion of claiming him as their philosophical mentor.

His Übermensch was a rare and solitary hero of individualism, not part of any racial white herd who bowed robot-like before a leader, whether religious or governmental. He rejected materialism, capitalism, and outward show. Nietzche’s enlarged man, instead, met life without fear, realizing his personal (not group) potential and finding joy in his short existence, come good fortune or bad.

Shall we develop and live by our own out-of-the-box ideas, rejecting the tribal masses in their lockstep march to a tune other than their own?

Only if we are brave enough, said Nietzsche.

—–

The first two paintings are by Paul Klee: Senecio (1922) and Magic Mirror (1934). They are sourced from Paul Klee.net/ The final image is Friedrich Nietzche (1906) by Edvard Munch, from Wikiart.org/

Why Therapists Search for Your “Useful Discomfort”

One of the therapist’s first tasks is to gauge the new patient’s discomfort. If he is drowning, the doctor’s job is like that of a lifeguard, to secure and elevate him straight away. But if he is treading water, head still well above the chance of a big gulp, the inexperienced counselor’s mistake must be bypassed: taking or allowing the sufferer into the swirling downspout of his emotional whirlpool.

Entrance there leads to a subterranean dark place on a high-speed descent. His well-being and stomach for counseling might be left behind.

The depth of psychic trouble will often — and often must — wait. Trust in the relationship and safety come first. Only when some grounding work is done can you best search for a place I’d call “a useful level of discomfort.”*

Useful how? The patient, assuming the distress is not entirely new, waited for some time to come to a professional. The woman or man lived a complicated life, tried self-help books or will power or faith or work or drugs or sex or each of these to better himself. Arrival at the clinic means nothing worked or worked enough.

He needs to move past his sticking point, the concerns he didn’t want to think about, open up about. If he becomes overwhelmed, however — by too much, too soon — a premature end to the office visits is likely. Stopping short of the mucky floor of his emotions is necessary. There is a zone of useful discomfort in a less acute, sustainable place higher up.

The in-session professional senses this, watches for it. Imagine the consulting room divided in half. On one side of an invisible partition sits the counselor. On the other, his client resides in a breathable, transparent fluid. Much movement occurs within the liquid, high and low, serene or agitated or depressed: the entire range of possibilities to which our hearts are subject.

The individual requires acute attention. Where he exists within his emotional space might change a dozen times before the clock suspends his share of the therapist’s face-to-face focus; in the same place or another, up or downriver.

Here is one of the reasons the doctor monitors the elapsing passage of the hour. He must, if he can, retrieve the drifting, disconsolate patient before session’s close; get him to shore. Leaving him with “useful discomfort” is often acceptable. A client who is worse off with regularity as he leaves the building is a guarantee of treatment failure. Health care professionals don’t want those in their care suffering the engagement too much.

The time is and is not the patient’s, though he purchased the visit. He owns that it happens, but the provider’s job is to manage the way it happens. Think of the latter as a traffic cop of sorts, the conductor of the flow of ideas and moods. The doctor reinforces the guard rails, keeping his charge from careening off the tracks, the chasms in his psyche through which he will fall if the session ends in the wrong place.

Those in psychotherapy possess many escape hatches. Full frontal immersion in a place they have avoided will force them to rely upon these old survival techniques and defenses. Only these, not their healer, then signal possible relief. The patient will have returned to the place of his former misery, but be glad because the prescribed ministrations, interpretations, and nudges made him worse.

The lesson of useful discomfort takes you forward, not retreating from life. Much of our flourishing depends on finding a way to tolerate unpleasant situations, not flee them. Resilience and courage incubate here. With experience, the formerly uncomfortable territory becomes less noxious. The circle of life enlarges.

The therapist should not be like a sadist slow-cooking you on a spit. His desire for your useful discomfort is to sustain your capacity for facing your issues without making the offered remedy either a feel-good waste of time or an intolerable ordeal guaranteeing a defeat of the therapeutic project. In effect, he is saying, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, ‘”you are not in Kansas anymore,’ but this is the necessary place for you now. I will do my best to make it manageable.”

Like Dorothy’s “yellow brick road” Odyssey, the effort leads to discovery of the strength inside you. From there, whether home or away, new adventures are possible. You are now the master of your self.

——-

The second image is Ancient Harmony by Paul Klee. *The expression “useful discomfort” is borrowed from a recent article about climate science/

The Critics Among Us and Those Who Raise Us

The standard method to make a child to dislike himself is to contrast him with a sibling, one alleged to be superior in behavior or personality. It takes a kind of misbegotten skill, however, to use the technique on every one of your offspring. The destructive parent tells son X he isn’t as well-behaved as his brother Y. Meanwhile, the mom or dad complains to Y that he isn’t as smart as X.

“Try to be more like X. I’m only saying this for your own good.”

Both end up disliking themselves and their competitor, not knowing the other receives the same treatment.

Therapists, were they loathsome enough, might put such caretakers on commission, since they drive droves of the walking wounded to an eventual meeting with a counselor.

Ah, but wordy wickedness was practiced even in ancient times. Some parents unknowingly model their actions after the Greek god Momus, so foul he was expelled from Olympus, the gods’ heavenly home.

Aesop included Momus in a couple of his fables. In one he presides over a competition between a man, a bull, and a house. This ungodly judge gave no trophies, finding fault with them all. The man’s failure was to hide his heart, causing Momus to claim he could therefore not evaluate the merit of his makeup. The bull fell short because his horns included no eyes, the better to guide him whenever he charged.

My own favorite, however, was the umpire’s indictment of the house. The god of blame found the residence lacking in the wheels needed to avoid difficult neighbors. Momus might have a point here.

Critics also attract their own critics. A world famous musician on the downside of his career gave the local music scribes a name: eunuchs. Why? “Because they can’t do it.” Meaning, in his case, they wrote in complaint of him because they lacked his musical talent to perform.

The player’s bitterness revealed one of the dangers of being the target of denigration: becoming like the person who castigated you.

The “eunuch” example is odious. The extremity of such word-use is the point. Exaggeration is valuable to those who wish to damage; injure in an indelible, lasting way. We can all remember personal examples.

Who do verbal abusers and bullies aim for? Those weaker (children, subordinates) and the targets who betray their vulnerability, terror, or timidity by facial expression, downcast gaze, words, neediness, or posture. These are the preferred victims, though anyone will do. Protest their sarcasm and they’ll say you can’t take a joke.

Rise higher and you encounter a few jealous backstabbers. Fall down and you serve some as a doormat. But don’t discount life’s frustrations as a driver of lashing out under pressure. Almost everyone has a boiling point.

The right criticism is worthwhile. Corrective instruction and rigorous expectation by a mentor or supervisor are both necessary and inevitable. One only finds resilience in taking on that which is painful and challenging. If we received 24/7 adulation and applause, whether inside ourselves or out, the world of excellence would be beyond us.

Still, one must distinguish between those whose words can help or spur us on and the people intent on our obliteration. When you have been raised by folks who pretend the former, but shoot for the latter, confusion follows. Life requires us to identity disguises. False friends display affection so long as we are of use, not longer.

With therapeutic guidance it is possible to improve at ferreting out adversaries, the wolves clothed as sheep or protectors; those who vilify and believe your weakness is their strength.

Remember, no one is so fine a judge of character as to be foolproof. Disappointment and hurt contribute to the price we pay for love and participation in the human group.

Some flee from appraisal and keep out of range of the quiver full of arrows we all carry at times. Here is the best argument not to run, captured in the last line of a quote from a Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel.

“The opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

He did not survive the murder of family and friends to die inside, but to live with people, many of whom were kind.

—–

The first two photographs, both taken on May 24, 2019, come from Shasta County, south of Redding, California. The first is by Angela Walfoort, the second by Monica Leard. The final image is the work of Hans Hillewaert: Angola at Dawn on the Kunene River, seen from Epupa Falls, Namibia. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.