The Music of Catastrophe

If music means something important to us, our contact with a new person finds us trying to discover what musical loves we might share. Thus do friendship and romance begin.

In a world where isolated suffering comes easily, music, like some of the other arts, reveals we have much company in our emotional distress.

Songs add language to instrumental expression, making them more precise in meaning than purely instrumental music. Vocal composition is literally sung to words, but there is just as much of the human experience in the more abstract forms, even if a symphony is not so easily identified with the particular circumstance (say, a broken heart) described in lyrics.

Sound offers solace if a composition reaches the tender, injured place inside. Few pieces, however, deal with cataclysm and collapse. To my ears, one of those is the Symphony #4, the last such work of German composer Johannes Brahms.

Brahms was a life-long bachelor from Hamburg, who died in 1897. He achieved recognition early and much success afterwards. The major unhappiness of his life was his unfulfilled romantic attachment to Clara Schumann, 14 years his senior; the widow of the man who first recognized his genius, the composer Robert Schumann. Some believe their age difference, his virtual adoption by the couple, and the shadow of Brahms’s indebtedness to her late husband made the consummation of his ardor impossible. Brahms’s final symphony reveals he knew much about human calamity, whatever its source.

Lacking a description from the composer about what his symphony “meant” — if anything or nothing — we are left to make our response personal. Perhaps no language exists with which to “understand” Brahms’s Fourth and my use of catastrophe is misplaced, but I am not alone in the opinion.

That disaster, if there is one, occurs in the fourth and last section of the work, the concluding 10-minutes or so. There, too, you will hear a much commented upon “conversational” quality in Brahms, when the wind instruments “speak” to each other. David Hurwitz of Classics Today, finds “active rage and impassive grandeur” in the ending. Jerry Dubins wrote, in Fanfare magazine, of the “final rush to oblivion … on the symphony’s preordained appointment with disaster and annihilation” in “a score of gloom and doom.”

Why might one want to listen given this description?

To me and the many who rank the work one of the most perfect and moving in the entire classical repertoire, much poignant beauty accompanies the ride into the abyss; indeed, because of it. The reasons for listening are no different from those causing us to appreciate a sad song. In Brahms’s 40-minutes we become the composer, inhabit his intellectual and emotional journey, and are seized by towering grandeur; perhaps even  swept away, exhilarated by the suspense and power, and moved to tears. Some would say a great work of art, if masterfully performed, can change us.

Franz Kafka knew the power of all art forms and wrote about the potentially transformational impact of writing:

What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be like an ax to break the frozen sea within us.

Will you be changed?

You can find out in 40-minutes time.

The top photo is the work of Ville Miettinen. It is described as, “A crevasse (moulin) in the Langjökull glacier, Iceland. At the time it was perhaps three or four meters long, a meter wide and some 30-40 meters deep.” The second image is the 20-year-old Brahms in 1853. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Therapeutic Journey and Our Problematic Concern with Destinations

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

What are we missing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear not.

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

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

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

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

You cannot ask for more.

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

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

What No One Mentions about Health Insurance

I am always amused by questionnaires designed to reveal whether we have enough money to last a lifetime. They are intended to help us plan for retirement. Yes, many of you are too young to worry about this, but humor me. One of the questions is some version of “How long are you going to live.” Another asks, “How much money do you expect to spend each year (for the rest of your life)?” Those questions are often enough to make us stop trying to fill out the form. Why?

Because we don’t know and it’s too scary to think about.

Which brings up the problem of choosing a medical or health insurance policy. I will use the words “medical” and “health” interchangeably to describe this insurance. I intend to target only two aspects of making a choice of health coverage, each of which follows from the questions above.

Simply put:

  1. We can’t predict how much health insurance we will need because we lack a crystal ball about our future health.
  2. Both psychological and intellectual roadblocks make it difficult to choose a policy. Thinking about illness and death, hospitals and doctors, is scary.

Despite all the words spoken about health insurance in the USA, no one discusses these two points and how they complicate the debate over what should be the federal government’s role, if any, in providing medical insurance for citizens.

I am therefore taking on the job. Again, humor me. This is important.

Lots of adults in the USA still get medical insurance from an employer, who might also insure the spouse and children. Most of you in the rest of the Western World receive government sponsored evaluation and treatment. But, historically speaking (if you are not disabled or “low-income”), in my country there are three choices other than a plan for which the employer pays a big chunk:

  1. Decide you don’t need or can’t afford medical insurance.
  2. Buy a policy on your own, one sold by an association (for example, by your college’s alumni program), or one offered in your state-run online marketplace.
  3. If you are a senior, sign up for Medicare, which is the coverage you get if your employer deducted a portion of your salary to make you eligible once you were old enough.

Our politics is dominated by the question of who makes the choice. Are you free not to buy medical insurance? Are you free to choose the kind of policy you want? One that pays for nearly all medical/psychological conditions or only some? Are you free to assume you won’t need certain medical/psychological services?

Some of the voices in this argument imply this is a rational choice, much like deciding whether you want to buy a car or prefer public transportation; and, if you do want a car, what model might you enjoy and how much are you willing to pay.

In fact, however, the decision is more complicated and not fully rational. Philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, a sociologist named Ernest Becker, and psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski have raised the issue of our discomfort with even the idea of mortality, let alone facing the reality of serious disease. Moreover, those social scientists created a body of research demonstrating our unconscious flight from the terror of our own personal end. No wonder Ernest Becker called his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death. No wonder the three psychologists do research on Terror Management Theory: not about terrorism, but the terror of knowing you will someday die.

Are you still reading or have you thrown a sheet over your computer screen?

If we cannot frankly face death without a secret shiver and a turning away, how then can we make rational choices about what health care we need or will need?

Will you or your child get depressed, need psychotherapy, or psychotropic medication? Become addicted? Have an accident? Face an unplanned pregnancy and need maternity and pediatric care? Be taken to the ER? Require a vaccination? Encounter a chronic, expensive illness?

No crystal ball, eh?

Few people seek out these unwelcome thoughts. We put them out of our minds when our health is good. Indeed, we must surely have inherited the ability to distract ourselves from life’s dystopian downside. Had our ancestors, broadly speaking, not had such an attitude, they wouldn’t have survived and we wouldn’t be here. They needed to attend to all the immediate tasks of living. “What if I get sick?” was not the most helpful question when the crops needed planting and harvesting.

A certain bravery is to be found in this optimism toward life. The attitude must come from half of our species, the fair sex bearing our children; those who (to quote W.E.B. DuBois) risked their lives and bodies “to win a life, and won.”

Illness and mortality are prospects most of us compartmentalize unless we are battling them. We will acknowledge the concerns, but in an abstract, impersonal way. They are “out there,” or “might happen someday,” but not today. We give these inevitabilities their own separate room within our psychic space, building the structure with bricks and mortar, double thick, the more to keep our emotions and thoughts untroubled. We wall-off potential weaknesses of our psyche and flesh, put them in isolation where we cannot be turned to stone by the prospect of serious illness, as if we faced Medusa.

My office manager routinely checked insurance benefits for new patients when I was in practice. Why? Because they usually did not know about their coverage. Some, in fact, were saddened and surprised to discover they had no therapy benefits and their insurance paid only for physical issues; that is, until the law required attention to mental illness.

Understand, please, my patients were almost all of average or greater intelligence. Still, most lacked knowledge of potential holes in what they considered to be their healthcare safety net. They trusted they were “well-covered.” Perhaps an insurance salesman told them so or their employer did the same. Or, maybe, after the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) became law, someone assured them therapy was among the “essential health benefits” in their insurance contract. In the latter case, they did, indeed, have counseling benefits. Again, however, they tended not to know the details.

We live, as humanity always has, in a world requiring a significant amount of faith in other people. What I’m getting at, however, is more than trusting whoever designed your insurance or whoever is offering the product. In order to make thoughtful decisions about medical insurance we must face the issue of illness and mortality squarely, without evasion or distraction; and with a level of experience, intellect, and even specialized knowledge to do the job. We must do this despite our tendency toward mental and emotional evasion of illness and death.

To quote the title of a Tom Stoppard play, what we have here is The Hard Problem.

The top image is a Saddlebred Stallion in Harness by Jean. Balloons in a Car Lot in Normal, Illinois, by ParentingPatch, is followed by Caravaggio’s The Head of Medusa. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Dozen Ways to Avoid Regret (and a Warning about Endless Therapy)

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When we suffer regret we are, by definition, occupied with the past. We lament things we did or didn’t do, time lost, vanished opportunities. Perhaps, however, it would be useful thinking about how to avoid regret going forward. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Recognize life’s limitations, learn from failure, and don’t stop trying. Anyone with imagination can think of several possible lives to lead, places to go, experiences to pursue. If  you are honest you can even envision a different spouse or children, no matter your great good fortune in those you have. Thus, the world is like a candy store in which only so much consumption of sweets is possible, to borrow a metaphor from Haruki Murakami and Forrest Gump. The earlier you recognize this the more you are forced to refine and narrow your choices. Moreover, you must reach for some of those candies without ever having tasted them and before obtaining experience in how to grasp each one artfully, a guarantee of mistakes. We can only learn from disappointments and try again. Live your values as best you can: dive deep into those few candied heaps of life you deem worth the effort in the short time permitted. Don’t end your days saying, “I should have” or  “Why did I waste my time on … ” Or, worst of all, “Why didn’t I?” Michael Jordan, basketball hero, said:

I’ve missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games.Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

  • Improve your choices. Moving through life, take stock, reflect. Write down your analysis, perhaps every five or 10 years. Look where you’ve been, where you are, and where you would like to go. I’m talking about what career you might still pursue, what you’d like to learn about, how much of yourself you hope to devote to relationships, what personal characteristics you still wish to alter, where you’d like to live, what you’d like to see, and the legacy you might leave behind. No one can do everything, be everything. Too much candy, too little time, too much indigestion.
  • Since we can’t invent more hours, we are left to determine how best to spend our allotment. If you hope to become World Champion in the art of perusing and responding to tweets, stop reading this now. You are wasting minutes you could devote to your curious focus on 140 characters or less. For myself, I watch TV/video less than an hour a day on most days, except for those in the baseball season! Why? Because I value the time spent in the company of fine novelists, historians, and ancient philosophers more than what is on the tube. Some of this might strike you as elitist, but no. Literature isn’t automatically “superior” to TV, film, or theater. I’ve simply made a choice: my personal preference. You can find superb TV shows if that is what you believe is a good use of your day. I’m suggesting you think through choices. Assuming you are mature, the most satisfying life possible for you will be a life designed by you — not a consequence of habit or the persuasion of advertising, the boss, or friends. Quiet consideration of how you spend your waking hours is essential to the success of your plan, especially if you are not happy.
  • Be active, take risks, always seek to grow. Some of these endeavors will assume the form of self-disclosure and vulnerability, some the shape of honest self-reflection, some the act of trying new things. The courage to know yourself and then be yourself is never easy. The ground is shifting under all of us. Move, don’t sit still. Reinvent yourself, at least a bit. Proceed, don’t rush, but live with intensity. Walter Pater wrote:

To burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

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  • Be wary of bucket lists. I’m referring to the postponement of activities until late in life, the things you want to do before you begin residence below ground. Several problems come with delay: a) you might not live long enough. b) if you are forever looking forward you won’t live in the moment and experience joy in the now. c) bucket lists assume excellence at predicting what will bring fulfillment in 10, 20, or 40 years. We are poor at this. Research on “affective forecasting” (being able to predict how life events will influence our emotions) affirms the weakness. Richard Posner, in his book Aging and Old Age, puts the dilemma of anticipating our future self this way. Say we sentence a 20-year-old to life in prison. Are we punishing the same person when he is 65? That is, does a man change over time? Possibly deepen, mature, give up old hobbies and take on new ones, learn more; become enriched and transformed by love or literature or experience, turn grateful or embittered, for or against life? Unless we can predict the manner in which events and people will work on us and how we will work on ourselves, we might realize a long postponed trip to Paris would have been better in life’s springtime; or, in my case, a Chicago Cubs World Series victory would have meant more to me at 20, when I lived and died by the team’s fortunes, than it did in 2016. By the way, I didn’t plan on morphing into a less avid fan. I simply changed.
  • Regret can be a result of idealization. As Janet Landman observes in her book, Regret: The Persistence of the Possible, this emotional state is akin to the aftermath of a decision made at a fork in the road. We reach the divide and must choose. Proceeding down the chosen path, past the time of easily retracing our steps, we think: “I was mistaken. The other way was better.” But really, do we know?  We only understand the lived experience of the choice we made. The other avenue is easy to idealize because it exists in imagination, because we didn’t encounter the imperfections one can only suffer by a different choosing. Do you wish to spend a lifetime lamenting a mirage?
  • Ask whether there is another side to losses, mistakes, and missed opportunities. I am not Pollyanna. Few who read my writing regularly would think so, I suspect. I will say, however, that I have learned far more from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” than from any other source. Not every mistake can be rationalized, not every loss offers even close to equal compensation in some other form. But before you devote the rest of your days to regret, take a few moments to seek what can be learned from life’s hard and unequal distribution of pain. Perhaps you can create some good out of your awareness of those things you did or didn’t do, the words you said or didn’t say, the chances missed and the poorly chosen roads endured — if not for yourself, then for someone else.
  • Remember that research says you will be happier if you take newfound money and buy a cup of coffee for a stranger than if you use the gift for yourself. King Midas wasn’t a happy guy, was he? Take a hard look at your desire to gain triumphant, towering status and wealth.

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  • Be careful how much time you spend looking back. I am on thin ice in saying so. A good therapist begins with history. The untying of binding emotional knots is essential, often requiring discovery of how they came to be, where they remain, and more. Danger exists, however, in believing every knot requires attention, every cognitive or behavioral change demands agonizing soul-searching. Some will loosen with the passage of time, others aren’t too important. CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) is able to master many without endless and wrenching historical probing. Meanwhile, weigh the time spent on a backward focus versus possible gains from attention to the now via action. Curtail whatever retrospective view isn’t essential to making a satisfying life. Is this avoidance, cowardice? Only sometimes. Psychotherapy in-depth encourages a seemingly perpetual return to the bottomless gorge of your memory-distressed soul until you dredge up every dark thing at its floor. Sometimes we must put an end to reruns and begin a new season in the installment series of our lives. Your therapist might urge digging deeper. He may be correct. I’m here to say — on reflection — my patients sometimes knew when to stop when I didn’t.
  • Is there room for gratitude? Such a sentiment is hard to summon in the midst of despair, maybe impossible. The practice of routinely reminding yourself what is good can, nonetheless, diminish sadness much of the time.
  • Time is always moving forward and doesn’t permit time-travel for do-overs. Those facts set the stage for regret. Not because you made horrible mistakes, but because you are human and were thrown into a set of unalterable physical laws (as are all of us). The best way we can deal with what nature offers is to make good use of the present and plan for the future, even though the person for whom we are planning (our future self) may not be as thrilled as we hope with the baton we pass him. Regret is inevitable because our genetic inheritance keeps us unsatisfied, always seeking more and better. Those early humans without such ambitions — those who were easily satisfied — didn’t survive, nor did their offspring become our ancestors. Evolution enabled the perpetuation of our forefathers’ genes in the form of their progeny, but offered no guarantee of joy in our status, our mate, or our job. Regret, therefore, is built into who we are: restless creatures still driven by the biological imperative to behave in a way that increases the chances of our genes surviving, even past our reproductive years.
  • Learn to forgive yourself. You cannot do everything, you will never be perfect, you will disappoint and injure others, your imprint on the planet will (unless your last name is Will Shakespeare or Hawking or Beethoven) be small. We are always learning and forever changing course. Do your best, try to do better, and leave it at that. Life is punishing enough for most of us without volunteering for the cross and offering to hammer in the nails, to boot. As a Christian colleague occasionally told her patients, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”

You need the wood, too. Take the timber and carve a sculpture or draw a lovely image or build a house; or burn it to keep yourself and another good human warm. Leave the job of summing up your life to history, assuming history cares.

In my book that is enough.

The top painting is Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet. The second photo is Sunset Over the Vercors Mountains, Seen From Grenoble by Guillaume Piolle. Finally, Sunrise with Reeds in Winter is the work of Benjamin Gimmel. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Haunted by Lost Love: Escaping Our Preoccupation with the World Inside Our Head

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We live in two worlds: the real one around us and the one we think about when we are by ourselves. The “inner version” contains past loves, loves unavailable now in the actual world. Within us we can access fantasy and memory, a bygone time of affection and its disappearance. Thus, those lost relationships can “live” inside of us, even if we never see the object of our romantic attachment again. By the end of this essay I hope you and I will share a clear idea of the differences between these two worlds; and a sense of what to do if you are captured by the troubling and stirring inner world of lost love.

I’ll concern myself with two kinds of love and the overlap between them:

  • Romantic love you once had and lost: love lost because someone broke your heart.
  • Romantic love you tried for but didn’t win: love unfulfilled. This category would include everyday unrequited love, as well as erotic transference toward a therapist.

Where does love begin? With reasons or emotions? Most would say the latter. Language is telling. We are “swept away.” We “fall” in love. We become “love sick.” Note the passivity of these descriptions. Love is not caused by logic or careful analysis. Romance “happens.” Once the love blooms, however, reasons follow and justify our feelings and continuing preoccupation.

The person preoccupied with vanished affection is also occupied by it: occupied in the military sense. An emotional army invades and takes control of our head and heart. These are the soldiers of the cruel King of Hearts, the man who now governs our internal life. The monarch makes sure the idea of the beloved — the image of the beloved, the fragrance and touch and voice of the beloved — cannot be escaped. The heartless King of Hearts insists we review our life of heartbreak. Review and review and review, enacting a repeated agony.

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The one we love now has two lives. She is “out there,” living a life on planet earth; and she is “in there,” living an existence unknown to her, experienced only by us. The manufactured being does not think and act identically to the being in the world. We only think so.

We spend time wondering about her. What is she doing now? Who is she with? Does she think about me? What does she think about me?

We are neither voyeurs nor mind readers. Her real identity is a mystery, while her created identity is made up of the language with which we form her life inside of us. The more enchanted our inner life of unreality (and the more distant we are in time from the relationship’s termination),  the greater the disparity between this person as she is now (outside of us) and who we imagine her to be. Ironically, the creature we most want to know we unwittingly make unknowable in the act of obsession. “Make,” however, may be too strong a word. Obsession is, perhaps, not a choice, but a thing that just happens to us, like the love by which we were captured.

In either case the lady leads a double-life, one-half of which is a false representation enhanced and enlarged by our emotional and mental process. We trap ourselves by creating a divinity, a goddess requiring worship, with an internal shrine of our own making. Meanwhile, our regular-sized existence is diminished by the outsized, manufactured mirage. How can we then fail to think we would be happier if only we were with this person, this entity who is more magnificent than humanly possible? Better, indeed, than she was when she was with us, in most cases. Did we filter out some unpleasantness from our memory?

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We are tortured in the process of obsession, including the endless review of small events. Things said casually, unimportant comments and facial expressions that meant nothing we make into something: something fraught with meaning, something important, full of sharp edges.

We run through imagined scenarios. What if I’d done X? What if I’d not done X? We kick ourselves over actions and omissions that, in reality, probably made no difference. Our preoccupation with this past keeps our love alive.

Our love is placed on life-support. So long as the ritual homage we pay to her continues she will not die as a love object. We exercise the terrifying curse of regret-filled imagination to create a posthumous life for the love we feel and the one we love. Thus, like a person traveling to see a sick relative (someone who remains barely alive), we journey to make internal “hospital visits” and drain our days of the energy and time needed to do anything else.

Once the love is history — when the act of chasing and wooing and trying to impress is over — the memory and fantasy stay behind as a cruel, unchanging mockery. Objects of memory don’t age. The longed-for beloved doesn’t get a cold or brush her teeth. She isn’t inconveniently tired. The target of our obsession can’t lose concentration or temper, fail to laugh at our jokes, acquire friends we don’t like, show-up late, or look washed-out before she puts on her lipstick. She is an ageless dream and daydream.

I would not recommend searching for the reasons we maintain the “romance” of a dead romance, to the extent it is a choice. We are not logical creatures, especially when in love. Perhaps we find sustenance in the possibility, however small, of a realization of the love we hope for. “She still might come around” (one says to oneself), acknowledge the error of her ways, plead for a second go. Perchance the lovely Frankenstein someday will turn gentle and reciprocate our affection.

We wait for the phone call, the email, the tweet opening romance’s door. Perhaps we keep love alive because we think this supersized version of yesterday’s love far surpasses what any real, mortal, new person could offer us today. No satisfaction can be found, unfortunately, either in regret or the hopeless hope of a happy ending.

Might we simply not have enough going on in our lives? Is the daily, dull, dreadfulness we think of as real life relieved by a remembered, glorious preoccupation? The fantasy never fails. The ghost is dependable, always there, ever ready to stir us. Pain, after all, can create its own ecstasy.

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And so we travel places where our lost love might still be observed or perhaps even met face-to-face. We seek those people with whom she has contact, friends of hers who might know what she is doing, share something she said about us, advise how to win back what we lost. The truth is, however, that every relationship in our life — business, family, friendship — pales in comparison to “the creature.” We suffer a preoccupied inner life at the additional cost of a diminished outer life, a life in the world of touch and taste, of face-to-face interactions and smiles and bruises and sweet perfume you can smell, not just imagine smelling.

What then? Say you’ve had enough pain and want to wrench yourself from all the tendrils holding you back. You go to a therapist. He will, almost certainly, recognize your need to grieve: encourage an emotional processing of the events revolving carousel-like inside of you. The goal is to end the spinning in your head, get you off the torturous wheel. The grief-work allows you to take the memories a step-further than you have until now: to give up hope; to shed tears with a compassionate human, not in isolation; to become angry with the ghost and finally to bury her. Only those we first reduce to human size can fit into a normal grave.

You might ask, doesn’t this “solution” just keep you in your head? Yes, and for that reason therapy is not yet complete. You still must seize the life outside. Treatment isn’t over until you return to the world of possibility and lived experience. The cure must diminish your use of fantasy and memory going forward. The process of burying your late love affair also requires the exhumation of a different person from another grave — a real person who can live in the world and act on the world.

Who might that be?

You.

Yes, you.

You must make history, not regurgitate it, and thereby escape the long reach of your past and present fantasy. You must tear yourself from the metaphorical hand holding you back.

You can do this.

You must accept the knowledge that some of what is in your brain lives only there; that some of what is in your skull could never and can never come to be. Fantasies are like that, otherwise we would call them by a different name.

In this awful truth is encouragement to get past your preoccupations and move on to your occupation with life, accomplishment, friendship, joy, learning, and growth: that which is still possible within the breathing world. And possible only in the lived experience, only in movement, only when you lift your eyes from the darkness to the sun.

Even, perhaps, to find new love.

The top image is called Mariana in the South by John William Waterhouse (ca. 1897). Buddah Head Carved into Living Rock is a photo taken by Photo Dharma in Sadao, Thailand. Finally, Please Touch Gently is the work of Marcus Quigmire. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When Words Fail

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There are times, whether in therapy or in life, when words are inadequate. Listening to a story of heartbreak, sometimes my heart broke a little, too. If my patient watched me carefully (no failure on his part if he didn’t), he saw the tears in my eyes. Words would have intruded on what was happening between us. In a sense, the air, the touching contact of our eyes — the silence — did that which could be done.

This moment in US history cries — and cries out — for a response, but too many words have already been written and spoken. I am reminded of the composer John Cage, a wry and brilliant man. His most famous piece is entitled 4’33.” The composition consists entirely of silence. Quiet is appropriate for mourning, is it not?

Whether in words or in silence, compassion only goes so far. Expressed opinion only goes so far. But the emotional shards need removal, thus grieving comes first for most of us.

The work of therapy begins with the processing of pain. Sadness often robs us of motivation. Fear can paralyze. There are more catastrophes predicted than realized. Unrestrained anger turns you into the thing you hate. Rage is a motivator, but not easily prolonged or healthily maintained. No psychologist would urge you to try.

What then? Prior to counseling’s end you must change yourself if your goal is to change the world, whether one’s small personal globe or the bigger one.

Marcus Aurelius wrote,

The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s … it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.

Like the wrestler we take a breath, search our ingenuity, and get up when we have been thrown to the mat.

A return to the fight is essential whether in therapy or life. Action — exerting control of what you can control — defeats the sense of helplessness.

In therapy and in life we are called to heroism. Courage is required to take on uncomfortable truths, beginning with those about ourselves. Difficult actions must follow. No heroism is needed to pour gasoline on your heart and light a match. Reason is your friend; emotion, not always.

Take responsibility and act responsibly.

Nor does one profit by the simple wish for a result, a passive hope for a change, or a patient wait for others to lift you. Freedom from your demons, in therapy and in life, must be won.

Our demons teach us who we are and what we are made of. Are they perhaps, in this way, our friends? Do we owe a peculiar debt to our challenges? You cannot think otherwise when you watch your 14-month-old child learn to master his universe, but you can when you have been decked. Regardless, whatever we want we must make it so.

Therapy is not an endeavor of a few weeks or months if the goal desired is substantial. Whether in therapy or in life you will succeed only if you persevere. Expect setbacks. Whether in therapy or in life, many make a fast start out of the gate, but fade before the stretch run. The finish line is not achieved and the problems then persist. Lasting dedication of your entire spirit triumphs over both temporary grievances and passing enthusiasms. No distractions are permitted for the true of heart.

Cato said:

When Cicero spoke, people marveled. When Caesar spoke, people marched. … Good judgment without action is worthless.

Whether in therapy or in life the voice is yours, the choice is yours, and the action must be yours.

The painting above is The Silence by Johann Heinrich Füssli. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When Therapy is Long Does Your Therapist’s Patience Grow Short?

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Some phrases never grow old, never become routine. “I love you” is one.” So is “I don’t want you anymore.” It is not that we’ve never heard the words before, but that they are so powerful and fraught with significance (or so hard to say or mean so much) either to the one who utters them or the one to whom they are delivered. In therapy the dread-laden expression is different: “I can’t do more. I need to refer you. Treatment has been long. The lack of progress means we must stop.”

Yes, perhaps it is said differently or becomes evident not through language, but impatience or facial expression or indifference. Where once enthusiasm and intensity bloomed, now the counselor seems to be enduring you, too conscious of the time, growing weary of your moments together. Two of my readers, Claire and Rosie, asked me to write about what permits a therapist not to take this dreaded path, the one leading to his desire to dump you — hoping you “never again darken my door” even if he doesn’t say the precise words I just used. Thanks to them I will try. I speak for myself, but know many therapists who would agree with much of what they will find below.

  • I like people. I like stories. I like individuals, not groups. I try to provoke meaningful conversations even with friends, not small talk. The time I spent with my patients was the perfect environment for me to look into a person’s history, history being a favorite subject from my early school years on.
  • I learned to notice small signs of progress. Sometimes we advance in microscopic steps. We reach a plateau on the mountain climb of treatment and then must catch our breath or wait for the storm to pass. The old Chinese saying tells us, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Therapists measure their work in moving toward a goal, not reaching it in quick time.

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  • The work is gratifying. Where else do people come to you, rather than requiring your travel? Watching others grow — helping them grow — generates good feeling on both sides. You receive thanks.
  • The work is an honor. New counselors find the responsibility almost overwhelming: another person places his well-being in your hands. A wiser, more experienced, older doc should know (or remind himself) of the implicit tribute his patients give him by their consultation and expectation of his help.
  • I received payment for my effort. It was easier to be patient with patients in the knowledge some of my compensation came in a material way. That said, in a handful of cases, long-term clients were thousands of dollars in debt to me before the sessions ended and they achieved the life they wanted. Yes, they did then pay me, usually over time. Healers must not be so self-sacrificing that they become resentful of those they treat.
  • The patient’s life was not mine or that of my spouse or children. While clients sometimes wish to be closer to their doctor, the therapeutic distance created by him makes it possible to put treatment still-points in perspective. I am less calm and understanding with my wife and adult children than with those who sought my professional skills. I cared about the people I treated, but (usually) not to the point of a disruption of my equanimity. Thus, I tended to be patient with a lack of movement, thinking of such episodes as a rather commonplace experience not usually requiring a desperate and immediate remedy.
  • I was responsible for making therapy fresh. A therapist’s job is to bring his intense focus to every session. He must also reflect periodically on whether he has missed something important. I reevaluated my patient and my approach, made course corrections as needed. A therapist who is often bored or unable to change perspective and look anew at the client is in the wrong profession. I kept it interesting both for myself and for those who put their trust in me. A patient is not your entertainer. The counselor should be emotionally and intellectually engaged on his own
  • Of course, if you aren’t putting in the effort, you might wear the therapist down. If you are simply paying for a friend, buying his time because you have affection for him (or using him to replace a missing social life) then he should recognize this and talk to you about it. So long as you rededicate yourself to “the work” of therapy, no ouster need be expected.

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  • Progress isn’t linear. I once asked my money manager, a professional analyst of financial markets, what he expected in the near term from the stock market. He answered, “It will fluctuate.” What he said was funny, but his comment acknowledged that no one predicts economic busts or booms, much as many people claim to. Therapy doesn’t move in a straight line of ascent from start to finish, anymore more than the stock market goes straight up or down in perpetuity. There are bursts of change, but more often, periods of little movement. I didn’t expect patients to be elite prodigies of self-analysis and courage, sprinting to psychotherapy’s finish line, so I wasn’t desolated if treatment took its time.
  • The therapist discovers value in challenges. If therapy were always smooth sailing, counselors would become bored with it.  They would learn nothing new because no greater progress could be made by doing so. Since I lacked a magic wand, I had to continue to consult colleagues, read books, and attend classes. Those who posed therapeutic dilemmas generated some of my growth as a counselor and a person. Why would I wish to cast aside people who were, in effect, helping me to do better?
  • Elite athletes are useful models for clinicians. Baseball players grind out a 162-game schedule from April through September, longer if they reach the playoffs. Successful athletes learn to put today’s failure behind them, lest they worry themselves into being unable to perform well tomorrow. I was better than many in my capacity to go home and think about other things, relate to my loved ones, and set the therapist hat on a closet hook. To do otherwise would have burned me out. I was not available 24/7, nor did I guarantee rapid responses to email or phone messages. I made sure I didn’t get used up. A doctor who takes good care of himself is less likely to get tired of you.
  • Buddhists provide yet another excellent example for therapists. You know the frustration of a long static line: a line where there is but one indolent checker or ticketing agent taking care of all those in the queue. You have places to go, people to see. Yet your reaction to just this type of setting — one seemingly out of your control — might determine whether you lead a satisfying life: 1) You can be frustrated and make yourself miserable. 2) You might jump to the line’s front and complain, which will not usually make the line shorter or the ticket agent more efficient. 3) You can reframe the experience. A Buddhist would say, in fact, you should be grateful for the line and the plodding employee because they are giving you the opportunity to learn patience. A lengthy term of treatment where every inch of progress is dearly won offers the same opportunity.
  • My job was a gift. I performed work that was not always “work.” A summer job during my school years in the 100-degree heat of a metal-stamping factory taught me how soul-killing “work” can be. I later came to make a good living in clean, climate-controlled surroundings as a psychologist. My patients helped me become more patient, more thoughtful, more loving — more grateful. I was my own boss and I took meaning from the relationships and the privilege, the stories and the intimacy. I used my brain, one of my favorite body parts! Living this professional life and remaining (mostly) grateful defused many frustrations.

The task of a therapist is not to say, “You’re fired,” but to find a way through or around, under or over; whether running, crawling, pushing, pulling, cajoling, asking questions, waiting, reconfiguring, staying silent, or getting his own help. Much as some of our patients worry about being put into a dumpster, we are working to get them out of one.

Rest easy.

The top photo is called Doraemon by istolethetv from Hong Kong, China. The second is named I’ll Miss You Dad by Cecilio M. Ricardo, Jr., USAP. The final image is a highway Sign at the Truth or Consequences, New Mexico Exit taken as part of an August 24, 2009 road trip by CGP Grey.