One Strategy to Reduce Your Unhappiness

Is it possible those who harm us might, after a passage of time, appear to be people who helped us learn something important?

Is it possible their very same cruel act enabled our growth and happiness?

I appreciate what I’m suggesting sounds odd, unusual, even crazy. Consider, however, a view based on a Buddhist text called The Vimalakirti Sutra. Its ancient wisdom offers those keen observations about the best way to live.

Imagine you are driving down a superhighway at high speed. Another driver cuts you off, raising your rage and your blood pressure. Not the first time.

Perhaps you swear and lean on the horn. Maybe you race to overtake the “evil” one, hoping to cut him off as well. Retaliation has taken hostage of all cooler thoughts.

Such animal vengeance is dangerous, both to you, the incident’s instigator, and other innocent drivers and their passengers. This time, however — this time — you tame your scorching animosity, internal disarray, and recklessness. This time you learn.

You recognize yourself in the other driver’s careless or mindless behavior: “I shall not become the thing I hate.” You no longer discount the possibility you — now — not the other man, inhabit the potential to create mayhem or death. You begin to transform the anger and impulsivity long a part of how you react to frustration.

The success in mending your problem contributes to an ironic insight: the man who almost maimed you did you a “favor.” Without him, your change may never have happened. It might also have occurred much later, after creating more sadness, fear, or hurt in others, as well as the suffering within.

Waiting in line offers a similar example of how we cause ourselves agony. The queue is long. You have other tasks to perform. Why is the clerk so chatty, so slow?

The blockhead is inefficient. Doesn’t the man realize time is slipping away? He ought to call someone to help with the flood of people!

Viewpoints like this grind the insides and ruin your day, but approaching them in a more Buddhist fashion achieves a better result. Ofttimes therapists counsel patients to “reframe” their distressing experiences — to envision them from an alternative perspective.

Tell yourself the unwanted wait is an opportunity to enhance patience. Consider the episode in a bigger picture. Will catastrophe occur if you spend more time than expected standing still? Use the moments to accomplish something else. Chat with the person in front of or behind you. Plan the week in your head.

Indeed, the unwitting agent behind the desk can be viewed as your benefactor: the one who helps you become more tolerant.

Happier, too.

If you are prone to holding grudges, changing your mindset reduces obsessive ideas about life’s unfairness. Perhaps, too, the world begins to appear more benign.

I’m not saying everything happens for a reason, but not all grievances lead without remedy to long-term misery. The “teachers” needn’t have intended kindness, but occasional gratitude toward them takes you a step nearer to a more fulfilling life.

Yes, some hurts are so grievous their perpetrators need to be brought to justice. Counselors are experts in aiding one’s mourning process when sizeable damage occurs.

A proverb often attributed to Buddhism tells us, “When the pupil is ready, the Master will appear.” Another formulation uses the word teacher for master, with the same meaning: someone who gives us wise guidance.

The one who harmed you might be the Master in disguise.

Either way, our job is to open ourselves to unexpected enlightenment. Overcoming the worst of the torments on life’s menu remains our responsibility, no matter the pain’s origin.

Unless we make something better of at least some of the misfortunes beyond our control, they will make us their plaything.

Hardship invites us to redefine it by the actions we take. When the dark invitation arrives, we do well to open it to find its hidden light.

—–

The top image is called Enlightenment by Peter Buirlakov. The sculpture photo is A Helping Hand by Forest Runner. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Surviving in a Moment of Helplessness and Closed Doors

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

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

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

The world is overweight with pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They also serve who only stand and wait.

—–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are five of those pointers in paraphrased form:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fulfillment arrives when you experience the freedom not to.

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

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

The choice is yours.

—–

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

When Someone Says, “Others Have It Worse!”

People say you make more of your problem than you should. You know their names.

They use a variety of expressions:

  • Get over it!
  • Man up!
  • Don’t be a baby!
  • It’s not so bad!
  • Buck up!
  • Others have it worse!
  • Be a man!
  • You need to tap your will power!
  • I’ve gotten over worse myself!

Your critic implies pain is a competition. If you gain the gold or silver medal, your hurt is justifiable to them. The rest of humanity, you included, ought to recover. Soon.

There are always those who score higher on the calamity scale, but their misfortune is irrelevant to your condition.

You are not a rubber ball, ready for a quick rebound. Even spheroids deflate or lose elasticity.

Many of those who utter such phrases claim they mean to be encouraging. Maybe they also throw in the expression, “You are feeling sorry for yourself.”

Self-care requires self-soothing. Grant your afflicted soul sympathy, not censure.

The friends who judge can be impatient. They suggest you’ve been down too long. A stopwatch does not enable recovery. Slip-ups and relapses happen. A hostile world can grind away, predicaments pile up and add to one’s adversity.

As Hamlet’s Uncle said to his wife,

When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.

It isn’t unusual for the other to offer examples of those who found a way to thrive after a catastrophe. All praise to such extraordinary people, I say. Yet comparisons like these are a bit like standing you next to Michael Jordan and demanding you play basketball on his level.

Oh yeah, sorry, I forget you are 5’2″ and 45 years old. My mistake.

Sometimes the man indicting you points to an incredible story of bravery or loss, someone who survived mass murder or genocide. In effect, he tells you, “If he cleared the hurdles, why can’t you?”

Such an acquaintance neglects to mention all those who didn’t survive or triumph, the ones whose stories we never read or hear, many of them dead.

The fellow’s implication is that you are unnecessarily weak when you should be tough and resilient. Perhaps he thinks you bear the stamp of moral failure, a lack of character. The bloke shadows you with shame.

Whatever his motive, he provides nothing of value with words like this and much for which he might deserve blame.

I’m assuming you are making an effort. I hope you recognize your shortcomings.

It is in your interest to make the changes you need. If you are 600 lbs. and you believe a diet of soft drinks and pizza are the royal road to weight loss, the other might be alert to an issue you would be wise to address.

Frustration comes with the job of observing somebody you care about fall short. The fellow pointing his finger may be well-intentioned and clumsy with language. Recall whatever kindnesses he offers you or contributed previously.

Your task awaits: heal. Time passes, challenges persist, try again. Give yourself patience and love. Find the proper remedy with professional help.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 of the Hebrew Bible recognizes not all hardship is deserved:

Yet another thing I observed under the sun is that races aren’t won by the swift or battles by the strong, and food doesn’t go to the wise or wealth to the intelligent or favor to the experts; rather, time and chance rule them all.

Uncontrollable events may befall you, but no law compels you to be still and wait for them. Our human race is capable of creation and accomplishment. Search for a fruitful path to your own agency.

The adventure of existence continues with or without your participation. The old baseball cliche reminds us: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes the games are rained out.

For quite a few people, just surviving in the period of a pandemic is a heroic achievement. Give yourself credit.

Dissent and criticism, judgment, and shame are everpresent. Listening to disapproval remains a choice.

Walk away if possible, dismiss accusers if conditions permit, assert your worth if this is in you. Not every accusation requires a rebuttal. Again, counseling can provide assistance.

Action awaits, even if you are not now ready. Prepare as you can. Please remember what Chicago’s legendary Studs Terkel used to say:

“Take it easy but take it.”

———————–

The first image is a Frown of Disapproval authored by Me. The second is the Frown photo of Rebecca Partington. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Persistent Depressive Disorder: Not All Depressions are Alike

Some therapists don’t talk much about diagnosis, but it is essential they think about diagnosis. Proper treatment depends on the correct classification.

In the case of longstanding depression, here’s why:

  1. Effective therapy for Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD) differs from approaches to other types.
  2. Persistent Depressive Disorder consists of a distinct set of symptoms not typical of the broad range of mood problems.

How is PDD different from other periods of unusual sorrow? Duration is emphasized.*

The syndrome lasts longer (at least two years) and often starts early. Symptom-free periods, if they happen, last no more than two months. More comorbidities are present: that is, other diagnosable conditions.

Among additional distinguishing characteristics, traumatic and abusive childhood experiences are frequently a part of the individual’s back story. In general, the younger the patient was at onset, the more limited his problem-solving skills are today.

Though the above list may be daunting, the evidence supporting the effectiveness of the Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System of Psychotherapy (CBASP) is impressive. Indeed, an extensive review of the scientific literature endorsed by the European Psychiatric Association recommended it as a top-line psychotherapeutic procedure for people with PDD.**

Perhaps not surprisingly, significant improvement tends to demand an extended therapeutic regime. More than a year would not be uncommon, with an indefinite but lengthy course of less frequent follow-up sessions to maintain gains.

The prescription of psychotropic medication in combination with the “talking cure” is customary, as well.

One of the most notable features of CBASP is its focus on fragile self-esteem. The client views himself as unable to produce satisfying encounters with acquaintances, coworkers, and friends. Nor does he realize the degree to which his words and deeds (or their absence) cause some of his unhappiness.

While his pain is acknowledged as genuine, CBASP views the new client as someone with chronic and pessimistic expectations of the world: self-fulfilling prophecies.

History informs him of how his life has worked out and, he believes, will work out. The evaluation of the patient, therefore, seeks to uncover the ways he contributes (without intention) to the repetition of disappointments characteristic of his past.

Moreover, the practitioner expects such counterproductive social interactions not to be restricted to life outside the consulting room. Comparable events are predicted in-session. The provider of treatment discusses this prospect with the sufferer.

Together they analyze what the depressed individual forecasts will happen between them, along with the actual effects of his behavioral choices. The atmosphere of the conversation must ensure a feeling of safety, not judgement.

An enlargement of the patient’s self-awareness develops as his anticipation of the psychotherapist’s behavior is explored. The Socratic dialogue with the healer should lead him to conclusions he comes to on his own.

This enlightenment is also fostered when the therapist tells him of his own internal reactions to what the client is doing: the feelings or thoughts emerging inside himself (the analyst) in-the-moment. In this way, the patient begins to become aware of his impact on others.

When the process works as designed, the outpatient starts to try out what are novel efforts to accomplish the kind of responses he desires. This begins in the office and extends to people he encounters elsewhere.

Thus, the transference relationship with the counselor is key. The system builds toward recognition of the healer as somebody who responds differently from those in his pretreatment life who caused harm or neglect.

Just as he comes to grasp he was mistaken in many of his beliefs about the adviser, so he begins to recognize routine errors in expecting the worst from much of the rest of the human world.

Progress relies, in part, on the subject’s growing ability to sense his own power to affect how people react to him. Another marker of improvement is his expanding understanding of how failed actions and inactions have added to his fixed sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Increased flexibility in both cognitive and emotional domains is a goal.

The therapeutic conversation includes a step-wise analysis of how troublesome situations in the client’s life developed – what happened at the start, in the middle, and at the end of them. Questions include, for example, “How did you interpret what occurred?” “What did you do?” “What did you want” and “Did you get what you wanted?”

A successful course of CBASP empowers the patient to gain insight through the emotions and thoughts evoked by inquiries like this. The ease of performing similar analyses on his own expands. He reaches the point of engaging the interpersonal world with an enhanced belief in what is possible.

Hopefulness comes to occupy an enlarged place in the client’s vision of what lies ahead. As a result, he risks letting go of passive-aggressive, hostile, submissive, and avoidant strategies. Friendly and assertive advances toward society increase.

Put simply, while there are no guarantees, the news is encouraging for those long-depressed souls who have yet to find a satisfying route to the alleviation of their unhappiness.

—–

*The complete diagnostic criteria for Persistent Depressive Disorder can be found here: https://images.pearsonclinical.com/images/assets/basc-3/basc3resources/DSM5_DiagnosticCriteria_PersistentDepressiveDisorder.pdf

**Jobst, A., Brakemeier, E. L.., Buchheim, A., Caspar, F., Cuijpers, P., Ebmeier, K. P., … Padberg, F. (2016). European Psychiatric Association guidance on psychotherapy in chronic depression across Europe. European Psychiatry, 33, 18-36. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.eurpsy.2015.12.003

The bottom photo is Central Utah in Late Summer at Sunset by Laura Hedien, with her kind permission: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/

For the Curious and the Brave

Are you an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist? Are you curious? Are you brave?

Think of your life as a challenging but unique voyage. Just as we find ourselves in the churn of a pandemic, so others we call heroes endured and survived their own dangers.

Take the ever-resourceful Odysseus (Ulysses) in Homer’s Odyssey.

The 10-year Trojan War is over. Ulysses and the men of his isle-domain proceed home to Ithaca. The warrior soon angers the sea god Poseidon. The fleet is taken off course, all but his own ship destroyed.

The journey home will match the length of the siege of Troy.

Can our protagonist “bend history” as it is happening?

Observe his encounter with a set of lovely-voiced, lute-playing enchantresses. Odysseus has been warned of them by the sorceress Circe.

First you will raise the island of the Sirens; those creatures who spellbind any man alive, whoever comes their way. Whoever draws too close, off guard, and catches the Sirens‘ voices in the air – no sailing home for him, no happy children beaming up at their father’s face. The high, thrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him, lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones. ...

The greathearted leader discerned more than caution in Circe’s advice. He recognized a chance to listen to songs so lovely they would make him oblivious to the danger of mindless drowning.

In effect, he wondered whether he might find a way to have his cake and eat it!

Ulysses directed his crew to plug their ears with beeswax, as his advisor suggested. All but his own.

He ordered the men to lash him to the ship’s mast and ignore whatever ravings and directions he shouted until they were past the singers’ reach.

The crisis revealed an opportunity for Odysseus. Our own challenges are less fantastic, but perhaps not less mindless. The times require the best of ourselves for ourselves and the fraternity of our fellow humans.

We can weep the fate of flash-frozen, aborted plans. Many are deserving of tears. But, our wits have not been lost. If we can keep them, and benefit from luck, sound judgment, and those who take risks on our behalf, calmer waters may yet appear.

Ulysses had no guarantee of achieving his goal of reaching his loved ones, but a god bent on frustrating him. He survived to attain Ithaca, embrace his wife Penelope, reunite with his aged father, and clutch his grown son Telemachus for the first time. Moreover, he regained his kingdom.

Though the resourceful one was no longer a young man, Alfred Lord Tennyson imagined him speaking of leaving home once more with vessel and company of sailors:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Ulysses’s desire to leave home once again is the English poet’s invention. It is not present Homer’s original tale. Indeed, the Ithacan had wept for Penelope more than once during their separation.

Why might the poet’s version of Odysseus wish to depart for further adventures?

Did he regret giving up the offer of immortality, love, and comfort proposed by the beautiful Calypso? Might his nature simply have been restless? Did this “master of exploits” hunger for attaching more glory to his name and legend?

Perhaps the camaraderie of his Greek companions in wartime made him most alive. Or he felt empty except when the Sirens shared their melody.

Decide for yourself. But whatever you believe, your immediate task remains this:

Find the music in your confined life.

Even now.

The first image is Ulysses and the Sirens by Léon Belly. Next comes The Sirens (1872) by Gustave Moreau followed by Odysseus and the Sirens by Otto Greiner. The same title describes the Attic Red-figured Stamnos, ca. 480-470 BC (a type of Greek pottery used to store liquids). All were sourced from Wikiart.org/

Best Man: Remembering Joe Pribyl

In a world rife with helplessness, an old friend comes to mind. His memory provides one answer to the question of life’s meaning in a moment suggestive of a heartless and strange cosmic order.

You would not think Joe Pribyl a remarkable man upon first acquaintance.

Some people possess an arresting presence. Joe did not. A stocky man, a bit under average height, he had graying hair and lacked whatever grace or style makes some people appear to be wearing a custom-made suit instead of a borrowed wardrobe.

My friend’s facial features didn’t betray high distinction either, except perhaps for deep vertical creases and old acne scars, of which Joe possessed more than a few. Yet it did convey warmth and approachability, more appreciable than any sculptural handsomeness.

At the start, I thought his everyman quality diminished him. Before the end of his life, however, I realized the inseparability of his nature and goodness from the human community.

He placed himself with and for every one of us.

Joe was a man of faith, admired by a faithless soul like me. Roman Catholic from start to finish, living his Sunday-service-beliefs every day. His grace came not from appearance, but kindness toward others, from waitresses to total strangers. The essence of his being was on display, fully himself, the rare unselfconscious human with nothing hidden.

He volunteered. He served. He raised his hand.

For years this therapist and his wife, Mary, also a psychologist in the practice they shared, organized a mission to Central America. The well-matched couple brought books to educate the sea of dispossessed, illiterate, and impoverished brown youngsters most of us don’t consider.

Doctor Pribyl did not consign a remedy for the world’s ills to someone else.

Brave enough to display tears, my friend never wept for himself, but others. Yet Joe was one of the few people I ever met who was content.

The healer displayed remarkable equanimity and courage in dealing with the near-death experience of a heart attack in a foreign and ill-equipped land. Later cancer stalked him, hanging around, as it sometimes does, never quite vanishing. Joe integrated the latter disease into the fabric of his existence as a natural event, not a matter of personal unfairness or rage.

On display was all the towering distinction my friend’s physicality lacked, but only if you focused hard, long, and understood him well.

Death came, a bigger than life opponent with an undefeated record, but not before Joe tricked the grim reaper into allowing additional time for attention to his patients, the woman he loved, the family dearest to him, and his lucky friends. I’ve never witnessed a better magic act.

In the overtime, extra-time of Joe’s life, I talked with him about my new grandson, almost two-years-old when the therapist passed. Grandparents wonder what the future holds for the little ones, who they will become.

I’m sorry Joe isn’t around to represent what one man can be, can do. If my grandsons were older and Joe still alive, I might point to him and say, “Look, look at this fine person. Look beyond appearances. This is a man. My friend is what a man should try to be.

This gentile soul, dead almost two years and a confidant for half my life, was a quiet fellow with an easy laugh. He didn’t come to impress you. While some people converse to be heard, he came to know you. There was little judgment in him.

His self-effacing way, at first, made me think nothing of his offer of friendship. Before the end, I recognized him as one of the great gifts of my life.

Thinking about Joe this morning, I reflected on the question with which I began this essay.

How do we persuade ourselves of a just deity in the face of all the world’s casualties? I imagined myself, a non-believer, asked to defend God in a criminal proceeding.

The reel of my imagination unspooled as a trial would.

First, the prosecutor made his case, piling up the innumerable instances of tragedy, natural and human. Of disease and murder, duplicity, betrayal, racism, slavery, and wartime. Of geological catastrophes sweeping the multitudes away, Jehovah’s Old Testament, self-created flood included.

The lawyer went on for hours and even cut short the presentation, convinced his case irrefutable. I doubted my argument in God’s defense: Joe’s life as an example of God’s best work, best man.

My turn came, the Lord’s defender. I told stories about my friend, including much of what you now know. I didn’t go on for long.

The verdict came from the bench, not a jury. The female presiding wore a blindfold, as Justice is supposed to. She gripped the scales in her right hand, on one side piled high with the prosecutor’s evidence.

On the other sat Joe, since no graven images or likenesses of the Almighty are allowed us. My friend’s figure lay in the shadow of the towering count of accusations against the God of his belief. The adjudicator would soon release the balance she maintained, allowing the evidence to determine the outcome.

A courtroom full of eyes were on the apparatus, waiting for its pivot, though I couldn’t watch. I’m told for a moment nothing happened, then the scales of justice shuddered and a grinding, terrifying sound came out of nowhere.

I looked up. One side plunged.

I cannot tell you how I knew, but beneath her blindfold, I’m certain Lady Justice was winking at me.

A Therapy for Today: Telepsychology in the Coronavirus Age

When the world is stressed, people think of therapy. But what do you do if a therapist’s waiting room makes it impossible to maintain social distance or the office has closed?

Anxiety is understandable. The nation and the world are in self-isolation. We are lonely, apprehensive about our health, and worried about the well-being of our families. Don’t be ashamed of being scared amid this new but temporary situation.

The idea of psychotherapy intimidates many people even when coughs and sneezes aren’t more dangerous than usual. The only safe therapeutic option is now online. Not only is this a change for the vast majority of current patients, but daunting to contemplate for many coming to counseling for the first time.

Welcome to membership in the largest club ever, the unusual human condition of the day. To the good, the therapist wants you to tell him of any hesitations or worries about this unfamiliar, remote method of care. He will try to calm you and work within your limits. 

Even before you seek counseling, the following often helps:

Ask yourself what other challenges you’ve had in your life. Make a list. Remember the qualities inside of you that enabled you to endure and triumph. They are still present.

Here is information to consider if you are seeking live video treatment:

  • While telepsychology or teletherapy can include phone calls, this introduction is limited to simultaneous videoconferencing in real-time.
  • Imagine yourself sitting in front of your computer in a well-lit space. The therapist sees you above the waist, and you can see only as much of him. He hears you and vice versa.
  • Although there is a bit of a time-delay in the discussion, this is an as-it-happens experience, just as in a doctor’s office. Thus, appropriate dress is required. No pajamas! 
  • Some therapists are adept at providing counseling this way. Others are new to it due to our Coronavirus emergency moment. Ask the counselor about his experience with this medium when you reach out for an appointment.
  • The provider will talk about several more things before booking your first session. Among those topics are the following:
    1. You will need a computer that includes a webcam and audio for both talking and listening. He may ask for a few more details of your setup. A phone nearby is essential; headphones are helpful. This person will try to use words you understand if you aren’t computer savvy.
    2. He needs to be acquainted with your reason for calling him. A clinical psychologist considers whether he possesses the skills to treat you for the condition you describe.
    3. Questions related to your physical and emotional history should be anticipated, as well.

Further steps follow once an appointment is made:

    1. The therapist will send you a Telehealth Informed Consent Form and go over it with you. This will include potential benefits and risks of treatment.
    2. Payment arrangements will be made. Be assured that Medicare has agreed to pay for telehealth sessions during this emergency.
    3. If you are not covered by Medicare, check with your own insurance company to determine reimbursement for such services and what portion of the fee is your responsibility.
    4. The counselor will ask you to sign a release/permission allowing him to speak with an individual designated by you in an emergency.

The professional who treats you needs the competence to provide teletherapy. Technical expertise is necessary to address an unexpected failure of the audio or video connection. Ask about this.

FaceTime and Skype are not secure platforms for the delivery of videotherapy, meaning your protected health information in a session might be compromised and your confidentiality breached. Nonetheless, during the Coronavirus emergency, HHS (the US Department of Health and Human Services) is permitting the use of insecure platforms to meet the demand for psychological assistance.

The doctor will discuss potential privacy concerns within your residence. Will anyone try to hear what you are talking about? Might another person enter the room? Will a pet or child show up?

White noise machines may reduce the chance someone else will overhear you. You will be encouraged to minimize distractions to the extent possible.

Your telephone is used as a backup in case of temporary loss of video or audio, not as the primary source of communication.

Visual cues such as your facial expressions, tears in your eyes, or tremulousness in your movements are indications of your emotional state. He must know that you are not engaging in harmful activities within his sight, etc. None of these indicators are knowable if he speaks with you on the phone.

Research suggests that teletherapy patients are about as satisfied as those who participate in traditional office visits. Most dissatisfactions come from technical problems in the course of the sessions.

Consider this an introduction to the treatment closest to an in-person office visit. You can expect other matters to be brought up, too.

Do not take what you have read here as a complete overview of the field. As the virus peril continues, federal and state laws may well change rules to adapt to changing circumstances. These might impact the delivery of psychological assistance.

Know that help is available to respond to the heightened stress of our situation. Talented psychologists, psychiatric social workers, psychiatrists, and other license counselors will continue to render the comfort they provide every day.

All these health professionals work with you, not on you. If you embrace the idea of partnership, both of you will work to create a bridge to a better time for everyone.

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The photos above come courtesy of Laura Hedien, a gifted and generous photographer. They are Crossing Chicago River at Michigan Avenue on March 21, 2020, and Crazy Luminescence. Much more of her work can be found at: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/

In Search of a Rescuer: Where Erotic Transference and Politics Intersect

Most of us have hoped, early or late in life, for someone to “make it better.” Children want this when they fall. They need to believe instant magic is possible, and often it is. A smile, a hug, or a kiss can be enough. We are social creatures looking for connection, sensual and emotional.

When illness is serious, medical professionals are asked for their form of hocus pocus. Those people possess specialized knowledge. The name for it is “health care.” A proper physician communicates his expertise, but the care, as well.

Those with injuries to the soul seek a specific category of treatment: psychotherapy. You might be the perfect physical being, beautiful and whole except for the unseen pain of twisting emotion and turbulent thought. But, you ask, how much can another human do when no surgery or potion fixes what isn’t working?

Should the attempt to help succeed, admiration for the one who helped tends to follow. Sometimes before aid occurs.

The idea of a protector is potent and easily sexualized. “Someone to Watch Over Me,” the old Gershwin song goes. There are moments in life when we call out for such a knight or sorceress to summon the daylight.

The problem, though, is that life’s manufacture of dilemmas doesn’t stop. The factory assembly line can be unkind. Joys and sorrows are randomly generated. Nor does love offer a permanent cure-all.

The nourishment given by passionate and abiding affection helps with many problems, within limits. The lover (or potential partner) can offer only one hand when you find yourself in the soup of struggle. The other he needs to keep himself afloat. Lasting sorcery available 24/7 is in short supply.

If the therapy client searches for a deliverer or a romance in the counselor’s office, desire gets in the way of the best the therapist can provide: for the patient to rescue himself with expert and sensitive help.

The doctor’s assistance does not demand his becoming a brawny stretcher-bearer throughout the client’s life. Instead, the latter learns to take on present challenges and get past his past to make his way.

To do so, our wounded hero must allow (in small doses) uncomfortable emotions access to his heart. Similarly, he begins to permit uneasy topics and memories admittance to his thoughts. Taking responsibility for recovery requires behavioral changes, too; actions he hesitates to try. New and more workable ideas will disentangle the ones binding him if he recognizes their mirage of false security and unties them.

Some argue there is a benign supernatural healer in an afterlife, but I don’t know anyone who claims he now walks the earth. Some of us do, however, mistake mortal beings for more than they are. Thus, no matter the gifts of the therapist, he is not, by himself, the answer.

Current politics reflects this problem. Close to half of the United States thinks they’ve found their savior, a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Nothing short of a no-holds-barred holy terror will save them, they believe.

The other 50% hopes a nobler protector is yet to come. The latter group has been disappointed in people with names like Mueller and fears there is no other metaphorical wolf-slayer at hand.

Here, as well, many who wait and dream make the same error as some counseling clients. The hoped-for wizard in the office is like the fictional Wizard of Oz, just another man. The heavy lifting of well-being will require the muscle of those who lift themselves. The psychologist might suggest a path and a pace, display encouragement and understanding, but no more.

Neither a passive role in counseling nor remaining inactive until election day will accomplish a rescue, whether it be from personal despair or a case of national turmoil.

In 1867 John Stuart Mill put the governmental situation this way:

Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

It is often quoted in these words:

The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

Whether the worthy man or woman is a therapy patient or a nervous citizen in a shaky republic, he is tasked with principled action to effect the change he wants.

Postcard and letter writing, marching and registering voters, phone calls and donations wait for us only for a while. Energy enacted creates its own source of energy, confidence, hope, and a sense of control: steps in the defeat of passivity, dependency, and worry.

Walt Kelly’s old Pogo comic strip told us “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

If the cartoonist were working today he might prefer this, a remedy of which each of us should remind ourselves:

I have met my rescuer and I am he.

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.