Why Therapists (and Others) Don’t Always Understand

How often we hear someone say, “I understand.” How often we think, “I only wish it were so.” Beyond the imprecision of language, I want to consider 10 reasons why true comprehension – recognizing the other person as he is and in depth – is difficult.

  • The fog of appearances: We instantly react to the individual in front of us, even before he makes a sound. Beauty (including a lovely voice) or its absence rose with the dawn of man. Sometimes revealing, sometimes obscuring; sometimes enhancing, sometimes diminishing. Sometimes all of the above.
  • Stereotypes: Beyond what we take from the person’s facial symmetry, shape, and size, other factors can cloud deeper comprehension. Gender, age, race, religion, and nationality interfere with vision beneath the surface.
  • Secrets and history: Polite conversation sets boundaries around self-revelation. Many of us believe we have been misunderstood – judged to the point of harm – and hesitate to reveal much. Even in therapy this is an issue, though with time and growing trust, significant secrets are often divulged. Without exposure, the job of comprehending you is far harder.
  • Our limited access to important data: Think about what information you might need to understand someone else. No one can access to all three sources below:
  1. The individual is the only person who perceives his life from the inside. He does not, however, see himself from the outside and will be shocked the first time he hears a recording of his voice. His grasp of his own motivations cannot be assumed accurate and may not reflect the work of the unconscious. Similarly, he interprets his life without the benefit of external perspective; except whatever is received, understood, and accepted of the other’s body language, tone of voice, praise or criticism. Most of us would be unsettled to know what others say about us in private.
  2. Friends and acquaintances hear what the same individual says about himself, what he reports of life apart from the observer, as well as experiencing his behavior in real time. Even his intimates must contend with the fact that “a mask of him roams in his place through the hearts and heads of his friends.” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil).
  3. Finally, the therapist has the most limited exposure to the client in real life. Ideally, however, the patient is more open to the therapist than perhaps he has even been to himself. The counselor has the training to “figure out” who is facing him, and the opportunity to ask the most essential questions with some expectation of penetrating to answers not offered in the public world. He sees not from the inside and not only from the outside, but,  from closeup, below, and through.

  • How remarkable are you? Though I evaluated and/or treated well over 3000 people, I encountered only a handful who were unique. Such individuals represent an enormous challenge to one’s understanding.
  • Countertransference: We can have reactions to our patients that grow out of our own unfinished issues with persons of consequence who they resemble in appearance or personality. This is called countertransference. Objectivity and unbiased analysis flees the evaluator under those conditions.
  • The limits of our experience. One who hopes to grasp the essence of another will not have encountered the whole of humanity. If, for example, most of his contact is with like-minded people (let’s say small town residents of one religion) he will be at a disadvantage with those whose backgrounds are different. On the other hand, therapist and non-therapist alike can meet an individual with whom he is “in sync.” In that event, both might find friendship and sympathetic intuition effortless and uncanny.
  • The listener who wants to be right. Insecure counselors can be troubled, sometimes unconsciously, by their own uncertainty. They tend to find it more comforting to put people in a box than to recognize when someone doesn’t fit. The job of evaluator (not a judge) calls for two qualities not often mentioned. First, enough confidence to say to yourself, “I don’t understand yet.” Secondly, “I can do better and I’ll work until I get this right.” Therein they offer an odd combination of humility and security. From time to time the therapist must clean the slate and start over.
  • The observer’s own emotional wounds and defenses: Our personal wounds (we all have them) place a limit on the ability to absorb, accept, and seek the truth of all humanity. Indeed, who is to say there are not many truths. The best of us never fathom all we encounter.
  • The listener’s capacity and willingness to endure the other’s pain: Hearing personal stories, even with the therapeutic distance healers work hard to achieve, still creates vulnerability to the most poignant encounters. Too many such episodes close in time risk either overwhelming the counselor or making him callous. To understand the human condition one must recognize his limits.

Final thoughts. Treatment by someone who opened-wide your self-understanding can make you believe no one on the planet will ever know you so well. I’ve long believed that if you then allow yourself to take more real-life personal risks, other satisfying and close relationships are achievable. Nonetheless, the special nature of a therapy relationship may include a hard-to-duplicate quality of perception and acceptance “as you really are.” You then will want a friend or lover who is psychologically-minded, a patient and dedicated listener, and one who makes the effort to approximate what an expert analyst can manage. This might be a tall order.

Do remember this: you and the therapist might not have much in common beyond his comprehension and kindness. Interests, compatible temperaments, and world view count for a lot. He exists, as well, in a fantasy world of your creation: literally, too good to be true. Were the light-reflecting cellophane of illusion to come off the package, you’d find his unshaven, distracted, and ill-tempered alter-ego – occasionally.

Another thought. A psychologically profound understanding of your inner workings isn’t always essential for a happy relationship outside of the office. Love and acceptance, even without full knowledge of all your moving parts, can go a long way. Not even your counselor has a total grasp of himself or anyone else. That said, his success at his work doesn’t require perfection.

Anyone close is “out of this world.”

The first image is called Rorschach-like Inkblot by Irion. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The painting that follows is Vassily Kandinsky’s Composition VI, 1913. Finally, just above, is Honore Daumier’s Couples Singers, as sourced from Wikiart.org/

The Remarkable Impact of Being Seen: More on Erotic Transference and Love

I treated the unfaithful of every faith. Many led conscientious lives of mindful moral rectitude. How surprised they were when religion and family didn’t insulate them from infidelity.

What is the magic in the eyes of another – including a therapist – who looks, hears, and understands you? What characteristic of new love turns people upside down, in or out of marriage?

Let’s begin with what is believed about straying spouses. Conventional wisdom in the United States labels extra-marital sex as a matter of evil intent (active pursuit of someone else), lust, and “trading up” to an attractive partner who is often younger. Potential injury to the spouse is an afterthought, when thought at all. You are “bad” to cross the line. A more charitable opinion indicts absent willpower. Perhaps I believed such views myself when I began my practice.

Then I encountered people who were wracked with guilt and still loved the mate from whom they’d strayed. These folks led principled lives and consciously avoided or resisted such opportunities for years, until …

The secret ingredient explaining the attraction of a new person may be the same quality many a patient finds in her therapist.

Yes, most everyone wants sexual intimacy, but put warm bodies aside for a moment. Let us also set aside those who do seek to “trade up.”

Recognize this: we all want to be known or “be seen,” and once seen, embraced for the entirety of our being. Some don’t receive this gift because they hide themselves from others, avoiding openness. One can disguise oneself in public, creating a persona quite different from the truth of your existence. Then, even if people enjoy or admire you, the stunt double receives the applause, not you.

For many, the externals get in the way of being understood and accepted in totality. I’m speaking of those who are too beautiful, too plain; too fat, too thin; too rich, too poor; too young or too old. Even too gifted or too “average.” The barrier of these qualities is not surmounted. The other’s X-rays do not penetrate the dominating impression made by those outward facts. The “package” remains unwrapped, the contents unrevealed.

Now think of what a good therapist does. He gradually understands you, comes to know your secrets, observes how you think, what makes you laugh, grasps why you cry. He cups his hands and catches your tears. You become more than your externals to him. You experience less emptiness in his presence. Indeed, you might believe you have been newly minted because, for the first time in forever, someone perceives you with fresh eyes.

When you look in his eyes you see your reflection. In a flash the disjointed world takes form. For the first time. At last.

Think of a small child who loves you. You might be his mom or dad or grandparent, his aunt or uncle, his baby sitter or neighbor. You come into his home and he runs to you, embraces you, and shines the light of his being on your being. Therapists come close to having this effect on some of their patients. A new lover shares the capacity of the small one to make your heart full to bursting. You are their universe, the focal point of their life. The longer you have lived as an “unknown,” the more likely you will be overwhelmed.

Even in good marriages we can get taken for granted and take the other for granted. Or perhaps one’s universe was never fully encompassed by the spouse. Maybe the routine of working, getting, spending, raising kids, cleaning house, and mowing the lawn wears us down, dulls our vision. You might not have known the room of your life was dark and cold until an attractive stranger shines his light on you: looks at you in a way that makes you remember the long missing warmth of the summer sun. It is not only the sex that draws one to stray, it is the sparkle in the other’s eyes.

No, I’m not giving the unfaithful a pass. I am trying to understand them.

New or old, in love or friendship, we must see the other with new eyes. That is what therapists do.

Call it a survival technique.

Call it love.

Call it our duty.

We must try.

—————————

Bette Davis is the actress in the top photo.

 

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.”

Can You Be Too Beautiful? When Sex Gets in the Way of Love

We live in a world of appearances and surface qualities, relentlessly sold, as if only beauty matters. But what of the wreckage that comes in the package when “the package” – the outer wrapping of a gifted female form – blinds the male observer to what is inside?

A few words, then, about the desire to be “known” as more than a “hot chick,” but for the soul and the idea at your core: the craving for understanding that women, in particular, find elusive in their male partners.

Men are built to be struck dumb by beauty, females to blind them, in order to procreate little duplicates and extend our mutual genetic life in the form of offspring. At some point in civilization’s course, we learned to reign in the lust and wait a bit, the better to determine whether physical attraction can combine with compatibility, protection, and parenting. But there is tension between the urge for touch and the restraint of such desire. So the human world has always been.

Good parents, especially parents of daughters, worry about the sex thing in their growing children. My wife and I did, for sure.

One of our little lovelies was unusually sense-sensitive. She craved affectionate touch from us, skin on skin. Not as though my wife and I held back. We couldn’t get enough of holding and kissing our children, just as we fondle our grandson at every opportunity today. Our tiny lady found special joy and comfort in the “skinny” of things, as she and we came to refer to it.

Well, to the good, she didn’t become a wild-woman, as we occasionally feared might happen. Our two daughters had different natures, and we tried to respond with what each one required, not a “one-size-fits all” approach.

In my clinical practice I treated a number of women who resembled my daughter’s wish for the skinny. Some of them came by this characteristic because they’d been deprived of loving touch when young. Others, however, perhaps had my little one’s nature, desirous of physical affection more than most, sense-oriented in their genetic template. I listened to stories from females who found being held more satisfying than sex. Young and older women, both.

The early stage of dating coincides with the early stage of physical maturity. If love is blind, it is blindest when the body parts spring into action, especially the part belonging to the man. Can a young fellow understand his girlfriend when he hardly grasps life at all and hormones are flooding his brain? Not well. But, perhaps the young woman hasn’t yet discovered what a precious thing it is to be precious, treasured for reasons other than her youthful glow.

What happens then? The female gets older, but not yet old, wonders if a “good man” exists – just one – capable of understanding and sexuality; less self-love and more of a kind that recognizes the unique qualities beyond “curb appeal.” “Me, not her!” she seems to say, referring to her appearance as if it had a life of its own. “Want me not only in the bedroom: the other me is important, too.”

Some of those I’m talking about fall in love with their therapists. Beyond the traditional Freudian transference, why might that be?

Could it be because his job is to get underneath the skin, beyond the skin? And, because he is forbidden to touch? He communicates in words, words alone. He thinks about you, listens to you, analyzes you, looks into your eyes, abides with you, cradles your being (not your body) when you most need a comforting embrace.

Moreover, often a counselor is older, less driven by his own sexuality. He is not so captured by his hormones and your fetching vision. He can radiate, for all these reasons, a more fatherly presence, at least the kind of father you might have wanted if your own fell short. The best dads cherish their children of both genders, recognize the human being inside, and speak the words conveying this knowledge.

We need, all of us need, to ache for love, the ache before touch, the ache that cannot grow when want is satisfied early and often. Romance is fueled by magic, imagination, and language; physical reality can get in the way. Not that romance doesn’t crave fulfillment, but lofty affection needs time to brew, age a little before you drink.

Does this sound quaint, the musings of a man raised in a less sexually free atmosphere than we live in today? I plead guilty. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Analogues similar to the doctor/patient growth of love do exist: in bygone days, when people separated by distance wrote love letters. My dad and mom were newly married when he went to war. The ardency of his well-traveled words can be read here: Love Letters.

Is this not what you want? I sometimes wonder, in our current environment, if a man’s discovery of a woman at the most genuine level is preempted by too much, too soon. In my dad’s day, sex was more a question of whether than when. Now, consummation is expected early and almost disqualifying if one or the other wants to wait very long. But these are general statements and may not apply to you at all. My apologies.

Some women should be treasured for their intellect, kindness, and talent; for their revolt and their surrender; for their self; but settle for financial security or sex or just someone to blunt the dull edge of loneliness. These women should have their hands kissed, but the bargain doesn’t always include tenderness. Stupefied by their own stupidity, men can be blind to what they too are missing.

In the last few years, I’ve come to the point of cherishing my long-time friends, something similar to what I think a woman wants from her mate. I have begun to tell them, men and women both, what makes them special to me. To express my gratitude for their being and for being in my life.

We need to age a little to find this gratitude for the things so long taken for granted. And maybe some of us (men too) need to lose 20% of our charm so the opposite sex will be less dazzled and see farther, less physically attractive to be loved for who we are. Might we need to look middle-aged and recognize our mortality before the whole of us can take precedence over body parts and hair and symmetry and the other handiwork of the sculptor who made us? Not our fault, but still …

I could be way off, as I said. I am a married man who has received more love than I deserve and listened to intimate stories in the office, too. I can’t know by experience what any of you, dear female readers, understand from the inside. But, before you dump my words into the dumpster, consider this. This is what I think you want, in a poem of W.B. Yeats. The kind of love he had for a woman who spurned him:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Maude Gonne, the woman for whom Yeats carried a torch well-beyond the writing of this verse, did not get the fullness of his love because she jilted him. His was an abiding affection even when she was no longer the beauty of her youth.

But then, the question is, do you want this sort of love?

You already know what I think.

—————-

The top photo is A Beautiful Female Mannequin, by epsos.de. The second image is a Boston photo of Jules Aarons. Next comes Beautiful Female Avatar from Second Life, the work of Jin Zan. The iconic American Girl in Italy by Ruth Orkin follows. Finally, a painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo entitled Flora. All the female images except for the Orkin photo are sourced from Wikimedia Commons and, quite intentionally, none of them are real women (with the exception of the Orkin photo), since the essay is about believing “the package” is the real thing.

Part II: So You Say You Want to Know Yourself? Thoughts on Examining Your Life

512px-Vladimir-Grig-Who-Am-I

In my last post I promised to give you my thoughts on the questions I posed about knowing yourself and examining your life. There were 13 in total, (superstitious anyone?). Here are the responses they prompted in me.

  1. Someone asks for a year off your life — a transfer of 365 days from you to him in return for money. Would you accept? How much money seems sufficient? The old Twilight Zone TV series presented an interesting story involving such an offer: The Self-Improvement of Salvatore Ross. I can imagine circumstances in which I would take the offer. If I needed money to save the life of someone I loved, for example. Otherwise, probably not. But then, I am financially comfortable. Were I not, perhaps I’d be more inclined to accept. I’d not care to get a bigger house, win status, or travel the world. Nor would I give the year for any charity short of enough dollars to change thousands of lives. There are limits to my altruism.
  2. If you could trade one extra year of good health and youth for one less year of longevity, would you make the exchange? Everything else being equal (which is never the case) this is attractive. Pain can be instructive if you are young enough and the suffering is defeated. Living longer, at least into an old age suffused with agony has no appeal for me. Leon Kass, physician and philosopher, however, argues that discomfort and gradual loss of our abilities combine to make us less resistant and more grateful for the release provided by death. Note that my answers to all of these questions are personal. You might well offer ideas at least as worthy and persuasive, perhaps more faith-based.
  3. What would you die for? My post What Would You Kill For? includes many thoughtful responses I received from friends and acquaintances.
  4. What would you kill for? The same essay deals with answers to this query as well.
  5. Imagine you are given the opportunity to improve your physical beauty by 25% or your intelligence by a similar percentage. One or the other, just by saying so. Please discuss your decision and justify it. Were I a deformed young man, enhanced beauty would be difficult to resist. The importance of what meets the eye, of course, depends on the individual’s self-image and how much else recommends him to others in the mating game. The hand of time steals pulchritude from us all, a dime’s worth here, a nickel’s worth there, until at last those who once possessed surpassing beauty often sustain the most damaging psychological losses. We witness what some pursue from surgeons to fight the clock. The world pressures women more than men with regard to appearance, another consideration. At this point in my life, however, I’d take 25% more intelligence, being without an outsized vanity regarding how my externals are judged. Yet I wonder if the added cognitive burst might then separate me from friends and loved ones, literally change my thinking, our mutuality, and increase their discomfort in my presence. The value of relationships means more to me than becoming Einstein. Had I been given the offer of a bigger brain in my school years, however, I’d likely have accepted. We tend to think of ourselves as a kind of unitary whole, despite the changes we go through outside and inside. For a number of the questions in this essay, consider whether you would answer the same way when youthful, in middle-age, and in old age.
  6. You are offered the chance to live one day over again. A “do-over.” Which 24-hours would you choose, if any? Describe what led you to this determination. My first thoughts here were focused on my youth, when confidence and self-assertion were wanting. On the other hand, life worked out before long. Moreover, any edge won with increased bravado would have been temporary, or (as Rosaliene Bacchus commented in response to the original post) might have altered the course of events in ways I didn’t predict. For example, had I been more masterly with some young woman in my single days, perhaps I wouldn’t have met and married my wonderful wife, produced our two great daughters, etc. No, I’d let the opportunity for a “do-over” pass by for the chance of self-advancement, but take advantage of it with respect to someone I hurt. My answer to question #10, based on regret, offers the details.
  7. A genie will give you the ability to relive one day of your life just as it happened, without change. Which would you choose? Explain. My post What Memory Would You Take To Eternity? describes a heavenly reward consisting of living forever in a single, precious, blissful moment. I chose the instant I treasured most and treasure still, described therein. However, if I had 24-hours to live over again, I’d probably conjure up my father when I was a small boy, maybe three. He created a pretend radio show for me using the nozzle of our vacuum cleaner (hose attached) as a mock microphone. We played different parts, at least as the story was related to me much later. Though I lived it, I own no memory of the event. I’d like to visit him again in the fizzing sparkle of his relative youth, when his heart fairly burst with love and pride in his first born. The pictures of my dad with me show how overwhelmingly happy he was, beside himself with joy. I remember my own experience of this dad role with my children and watch it duplicated today whenever I go over to the home of my youngest daughter and son-in-law Keith with their wonderful boy — my grandson, of course.

That’s enough to ponder for now. Stay tuned, as my dad might have said in our imaginary radio days, for my take on questions eight through 13.

The top image is a work of Vladmir Grig called Who am I as sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

An Uplifting Moment (Two Therapeutic Minutes)

Therapy doesn’t only happen in the office.

Here is a brief and inspiring video, just over two minutes long. No essay for today.

I’m going to keep it a surprise, so take a chance. One hint: it is not about a soldier returning home. That is to say, the events in the video don’t contain anything unexpected. What is important is that you might feel better for having seen it and be reminded of something that is therapeutic for your life. I certainly was:

A Lovely Surprise

To Ink or Not to Ink? The Tattoo Question

image

When I was a kid (I think that was about 300 years ago), the only people who had tattoos were found at amusement park side-shows, on the docks occupied by Marines and sailors, and in a few other places you were discouraged by your parents from approaching. Tattoos were rarely associated with either high-class or high art.

Things have changed.

First, lots of people have them, young and old. Second, there is (thankfully) less prejudice against those who are inked. Third, the art of tattooing appears to have improved, and some of the images are pretty darn impressive, original and beautiful. And you just read that from someone who loves Rembrandt and Renoir.

But, there is still the question: should you or shouldn’t you? I’m going to address the pros and cons here from the perspective of someone who has a lovely cousin who is heavily into getting them, many patients of mine who had them, and many people of my vintage who have a kind of instinctive and negative reaction to the idea of getting inked.

Here is what one lady has to say:

I didn’t start getting tattooed until I was in my forties and they still look awesome to me. If you google old people with tattoos, you will see that what I’ve just said is true of all of them. People just say they will look bad because they like to criticize tattooed people.

As far as work is concerned, it has never been a problem for me. I wear long sleeves and let’s face it, I’m not really a professional of any kind (although this woman does have a college degree). G.S. I think a lot of the people in my son’s generation are more concerned with that. My lifestyle is different now, so I really don’t have to care about employers. I would never take a job where they were uptight, but I don’t really need a job. (Perhaps those who aspire to professional positions do need to consider this, however unfair the discrimination might be). G.S.

To understand why I get tattooed, you’d have to know who I am. I was a hippie in the ’60s and ’70s and my friends were mostly musicians, artists, fashion designers, and actors. I have always been part of the counterculture. I married into the music business. As our kids grew up, we had to settle down quite a bit and give them a more mainstream lifestyle. But, as I’m sure you know, you can’t deny who you are forever without costing yourself a lot.

When our children were in their teens, I had a number of moments that I might call epiphanies. I realized that I didn’t have to be the perfect PTA mom anymore. Tattoos were getting popular and I thought they looked really interesting, so for my daughter’s 19th birthday we decided to get tattooed together. I will never forget that night.

First, I have to tell you that just about all tattoo artists are actually fine artists or musicians — real professionals. So, anyway my daughter and I went to a shop and while we were getting tattooed we were talking to the guys there. I soon realized that I was having a great time, more fun than I ever had with the PTA ladies and the church people! I also recognized that there is an amazing counterculture that is built around body art.

That experience started me looking at tattoos and talking to a variety of tattooed people. I saw some amazing art and I decided to get more. At first, I always got them where they couldn’t be seen. For years I thought about getting a “sleeve,” which is what an arm fully-covered with tattoos is called. I found an artist whose work I really admired. Finally, I decided to go ahead. Now, it took a really long time to get my arm done — over 30 hours. And it really hurt. So, when other tattooed people see me, they have a lot of respect for not only the art, but for anyone who has spent that much time in pain getting tattooed.

I was not, however, prepared for the amount of attention I started getting. I live in the suburbs and the suburbs aren’t very forgiving toward alternative people. And, I’m not gonna deny it, tattoos are popular with some lower class elements of society, like people in prison. So, although it has gotten to be more acceptable in the years since I first started, most mainstream people still see the body art subculture as a negative aspect of society.

I have received some really rude comments from stupid people. I live in the Bible-Belt. The crucial thing for me is, I used to keep who I really am to myself. Now I can’t. I am such an “alternative” person in a lot of ways. I am drawn to the edgy side of life. I am kind of unusual even within the body art culture because of my age and because you don’t see that many tattooed women. But it has helped me in that I can now express myself.

My tattoos are really important to me personally. They have a lot of meaning to me individually. They were designed for me and only me. I have one that is all about my dad (who died when I was very young). Of course, there are a few small pieces I would do differently now. But I’m not tired of them.

On the negative side, there are times when I wish I didn’t have so much of my body covered by tattoos; like when I go to the doctor. Or when everyone is staring at me.

But the whole experience has helped me to see who I am. It has been part of the process of finding myself, something that some of us in any generation have a tough time doing. Especially for me, born into an almost immigrant family with very conservative values, my uniqueness was rarely valued. But, like I said, who you really are comes out whether you like it or not.

Datoga_Women_Tattoo-8

Beauty, as the old saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder. It is a position that I have been a bit slow to come to since I listen to Beethoven and Brahms and Bach and tend (still) to think that little else offers anything like their art. But, the friend I just quoted enlightened me and humbled me, helping me realize that I’m in no position to judge in that way; that no one is. Taste is not as simple as right and wrong.

Yes, some of the tattooed are doubtless trying to get noticed. Surely, some are trying to stick a figurative thumb in your eye and show contempt for a world that, after all, is often contemptible. And, I suspect, that at least a few of those into body art simply want to fit in with whatever crowd they wish to belong. But is that any different from buying a Gucci handbag or driving a Lexus or wearing a Brooks Brothers suit?

I learned something from this thoughtful lady, as a therapist must if he or she is to be any good at all. We are often taught by our patients, friends, and acquaintances. The world is quite a school, but, just like school, you must pay attention. What did I learn? To look for the personal meaning in body art and be less ready to jump to judgment, something that seems to make us feel superior, but does much needless harm.

In the 1950s it was unimaginable to almost anyone in the USA that there might ever be a black President. Homosexuality wasn’t disclosed and was almost universally and publicly mocked. The acceptable world was mostly white bread and mayonnaise, which left lots of people out. Things change. It is your body, after all, and the art you put on it harms no one. While I’m not likely to try it myself, I’m more open and accepting of it than I’ve ever been before.

In 2000, in a Vice Presidential Debate, Dick Cheney, a man with a gay daughter named Mary, said:

I think we ought to do everything we can to tolerate and accommodate whatever kind of relationships people want to enter into. We live in a free society and freedom means freedom for everyone.

Perhaps there should be a book, something like a high school year book, that we update from time to time. I guess Facebook is like that. But one that requires us to say a few words in summation of our life. And if I could write that summation for the lady who is the subject of this blog, it would go something like this:

I was lost and now I am found. I did no major harm and, in fact, raised two fine children and am helping raise one of my grandchildren. I met and married the man I love and decorated a body that he loves with beauty as I see it. I had a heck of a good time doing it too, and met a lot of neat people along the way. I don’t preach, but if you watch me and have a problem with tattoos, you still might learn something from my example: you might discover just a little about why some people like me decorate our bodies in the way we do and ask yourself why that bothers you.

It is a philosophy and description of a life — dare I say, something that might eventually serve as an epitaph and bring a smile, at least to me. Not many of us do better.

The top photo of a son and his mother was taken by Jeff Stelle and Kat Moya in Columbus, Ohio. They are the same mother and son mentioned in the post. The second image is the Traditional Tattoo of the Datoga People, Tanzania by Kathy Gerber. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.