How to Avoid Common Misunderstandings

 

We’ve all used the phrase “I assumed.It often expresses the disappointment of an expectation.I assumed” X, but Y occurred instead.

This implies that one person didn’t specify his meaning, or the other misunderstood or wasn’t paying attention. One or both believed an understanding had been created. Something obvious was not grasped, explicit or implied.

Years ago, I used the expression with a teenage patient, a quick-witted, sometimes rude young fellow. He responded, “When you assume, you make an ASS of U and ME.

Impertinent, but correct.

On another occasion, I taught a neighbor’s boy how to drive. He’d taken the relevant driver’s education classes and read the required material. The teen recognized Illinois permitted a right turn after a complete stop at a red light or stop sign.

Then one could turn, so he believed.

The young fellow didn’t glance left down the street to make sure he wouldn’t collide with the cross traffic. He “assumed” the stop alone allowed him to go.

Fortunately, no accident occurred. I took a deep breath, restrained myself from removing his head from his shoulders, gulped, and explained the danger.

Should we assume less than we do?

Think of words. Do people agree on the meaning of phrases like ...

  • I promise?
  • I’ll see you later?
  • I will do it soon?

What is a promise? When are broken promises excusable?

What do you mean by later?

When? Today, tomorrow, in a few days?

Most of us expect or hope for reciprocity in relationships. If we do regular favors for another, display generosity of time and attention, pay for food and drink, we anticipate occasional effort to provide consideration in return.

Not everyone gets this. Indeed, the nonreciprocal individual might be shocked if he were accused of selfishness.

Consider routine language combinations such as “next Tuesday.Does it mean the Tuesday of this week or next?

When you ask a person to telephone you tonight, what constitutes tonight? Or, perhaps, “Call me after dinner.Does everyone agree on when nighttime begins and when it’s too late?

We tend to believe ourselves reasonable and logical. As for the next bloke, we aren’t sure. Yet we “assume” the gentleman thinks as we do in everyday conversation: he conforms to our comprehension of words and “normal” conduct.

Since many find it uncomfortable to ask “when exactly” a task will be performed, another potential complication exists. When will the package delivery occur, when will the contract be sent, etc.?

Do your friends or acquaintances reason as you do? Would their understanding, the organization of logic and thought match your own? Do you recognize their blindspots? Do you know all of your own? How can you be certain?

When you reflect on your own knowledge and values, do you find yourself in sync with the people you socialize with? If you are perfectly aligned, you might reach a point of boredom in their company.

No matter how hard you try, how hard your friend tries, misunderstandings occur, epic or tiny. Fortunately, most are minor.

We can’t see ourselves from the outside nor get into another’s head. Each of us creates a universe through our eyes alone, not a reality. Though our realities overlap, no couple envisions the world identically. In your self-created cosmos, your unique conception of life informs every picture. No wonder the rhino/artist in the single-cell comic (above) paints everything the way he does.

The other’s “universe” is fun getting to know. Discovering another world makes life entertaining but complicated. We must strike a liveable balance between trying to interact with machine-like certainty and accepting everyone’s limits, including our own.

Nonetheless, I offer you some brief guidance to reduce your chance of misunderstandings and presumptions going wrong.

  • Consider how often mix-ups occur in your life. Are they repetitive? In what way? What might you do to cut down the number?
  • Make a list of past disagreements and how much assumptions played a part. Focus on the ones most common to you.
  • Recognize the types of persons with whom you tend to encounter troublesome issues. Are they bosses, teachers, lovers, or particular friends? Analyze the significant categories and ask yourself why this one and not another.
  • People of different generations and cultural or ethnic backgrounds follow the norms of their cohorts. For example, there are generational differences in the use of language. “I’m up for that” once was the equivalent of “I’m down for that.” For some, it still is.
  • One method of minimizing errant assumptions is to ask more questions.
  • Perhaps some of the acquaintances you thought you knew well have changed. Or maybe you have.
  • Find a place of comfort between constructing careless agreements and meticulous conversation, similar to a lawyer drafting a contract. Accept the small mishaps of life as the condition of human existence.
  • Be sure to allow some room for both you and others to change. As the 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes said when asked why his current ideas were inconsistent with past statements, he replied, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

If a friend moves from compulsive promptness to something more laid back, he probably doesn’t text you the news. 

Ah, the complexity of relationships! Make the best of them. You can make human contact smoother and perhaps laugh at some of the bumps along the way.

===========

The last image comes from a 1901 issue of Puck magazine. It was drawn by Samuel D. Erhart. The source is Wikimedia Commons.

Why I (Still) Write Blog Posts

I began this blog in 2009. The driving reason was to leave my thoughts to my children for whatever they might find worthwhile, especially after taking off for the great beyond if such a place exists. This was not my sole motive to scribble, however.

As they all recognize, writers write out of inner necessity, an activity so essential to their being they cannot do otherwise for long. Some hope for fame, but few outlast the memory of their name if that. I never embraced their goal.

Offering your written words to the reading world takes a small bit of courage since not everyone will agree with what you say. With few, if any, ideas not thought or said by the best minds of our past, one needs ego to believe your new material will stand out with anything new.

Part of what justifies the idea of presenting personal observations despite all the brilliant writers of yesterday is the time in which we live. Every human life exists within a unique moment and place, no matter the similarities to all the history preceding us.

A few decades ago, a Ford Foundation study concluded the daily New York Times contained more information to process than the average sixteenth-century man had to consume in his lifetime. Wow!

The thought is astonishing until one recognizes who the gentleman was: a creature who couldn’t read or write, never got far from home, lived and died in the blink of an eye, and performed the same repetitive tasks without end.

No TV, computer, Internet, either, not even choices of toothpaste. Just flowers at weddings to make sure the new pair didn’t overpower each other with an unpleasant odor.

We live in a moment when the speed of change leaves us dazzled, dazed, delighted, or distressed, depending. Thus, I can rationalize my words as fitting for the time you and I share.

I also write for other reasons. The first of these would be the help or enjoyment the posts give to some readers. The second is praise, though I’m pretty self-sustaining without it.

Another, and this is significant, the act of composing keeps my brain active and focused away from occasional dystopian reflections I can’t escape about the world’s current state. Furthermore, the task of assembling sentences gets my mind off the usual worries and personal concerns none of us can avoid without something else to do.

Many use drugs as a distraction to help with this. Lots of folks get comfort from prayer. In addition to writing, I employ meditation and study, conversation, human companionship, love, comedies, and helping those I can when I can.

An unexpected bonus has been the correspondence I’ve had with a handful of individuals. I took joy from meetings with four of them I didn’t already know. Homo sapiens fall in love online; why shouldn’t they fall into friendship, too?

Another reward was a surprise gift from a person I did know, who made a book for me out of my writings up to the moment she presented it. She is a dear heart, as I’m certain are many of those whose comments in response to my work reveal their humanity.

I now have two young grandchildren, boys. Like most of you who reproduced, the children’s health, not gender, was all I cared about. Yet, I’m glad I have the chance to watch these spirited souls grow up and to aid a bit in the process. Thus, I set down words for them, as well.

I am aware I repeat myself — duplicating points I made among the over 600 published titles you can find here in the Archives. Inevitable, I suppose.

I also change my mind or discover research findings not available when I started the compelling hobby. I’d argue the fellow who began 12 years ago has been altered by moving into a new version of body and brain as we all do as we age, aware or not.

Those changes of heart, soul, additional experience, and reflection will take you places you never imagined going. Therefore, my posts have also changed.

For those who continue to read me, I’m forever amazed and grateful to the people who’ve consumed about everything in these electrified white and black pseudo-pages. I’m pleased, too, new arrivals find their way here, despite my lack of presence on conventional social media.

So, my thanks to each of you for hanging out with me. I hope to be doing this for a while yet.

——

Another person I met online: Laura Hedien, Storm Cloud Photography. With her permission, the two works used above are Supercell in Nebraska, 2021, and Sunflare, sunset in N.D, 2021. As always, I’m grateful to have made the connection with her and appreciate her generosity.

The Indirect Messages We Find Hard to Understand

There are many ways we are informed of our place in the world, where we fit in the lives of others. I’m speaking of relationships and work.

I imagine you’ve read about open body language, making eye contact, pleasing facial expression, and whether we ask another person about himself and his ideas. Such behaviors or their absence provide information about our standing.

I’ll mention a few more later, but the main attraction for today speaks to the question differently. Let me tell you a story.

Two white men chatted in a waiting room a couple of weeks ago, another gentleman and me. He spotted my Cubs hat and struck up a conversation. The time passed in an entertaining, cordial way until his turn came to enter the office.

The out-of-shape fellow employed a walker but had a most pleasant and engaging disposition. I’m guessing we belong to the same generation.

For sure, we shared our love of baseball. But the sports stories he related aren’t what lingers within me. Rather, he told a tale of early employment, unlike anything I knew.

This charming bloke labored in the building industry for most of his life, a muscle-taxing, manual way of making a living. Still a teen, his first job required him to dig a trench, a task of several days.

On the morning of his first day, a truck came by and stopped beside the dig site. The driver’s elevated position in the covered vehicle reflected a higher status since all the other employees engaged in physical challenges exposed to the summer sun and the heat.

The communication began:

“Hey, buddy, would you like some coffee?”

“Thanks, but can I have a Pepsi Cola instead?”

The man behind the wheel turned away and drove on.

In the afternoon, the same truck showed up again. My chum looked up as the rig stopped. The now-familiar voice spoke:

“Hey, buddy, would you like some coffee?”

The new guy on the job recognized his previous mistake.

“Yes, thanks.”

“What do you take in it?”

“Cream and sugar.”

“We don’t do that here.” So the big machine sped off.

When the workday ended, the rookie took a bit of time to reflect during his trip back to his parents’ house. He wondered what happened. The youthful chap was not stupid, though he had little experience outside of home and school. The second day found him more prepared.

The predictable arrival of the authority figure offered the unsurprising question.

“Hey, buddy, would you like some coffee?”

“Yes, with cream.”

“Good,” came the reply, and, not long after, the creamed beverage appeared.

What do you believe happened between the older man and the younger one? Think for a moment before I tell you what I imagine.

In the world of beasts, birds, and the (so-called) civilized creatures on the planet, there is a form of ranking known as a “pecking order.” Here is an internet definition:

A hierarchy of status seen among members of a group of people or animals, originally as observed among hens.

To fit into the social world, one must learn where one stands, what behavior is acceptable, what is not, when to listen, when to speak, when it is your turn in the “pecking order.”

Thus, assuming my waiting-room companion wanted a tolerable place in the arrangement of laborers, he needed to discover how to behave. In effect, the coffee potentate trained him about his rank and the consequences if he didn’t accept without question the lowly station he occupied as “the new guy.”

If my temporary buddy wanted to continue working in this place, individualism was out. Unless he first blended in with the crowd and followed orders, no guarantees existed. To put it another way, the conditions demanded recognition of even unstated rules, to sink or swim without swimming lessons.

He learned to swim.

I could be wrong and, if you have a different interpretation, please tell me. But, to my mind, the youngster who is now an oldster received the unorthodox instruction — “know your place” — without the remark ever being made.

Bigots of the time said such things when talking or writing about black people.

The story I related took place over 50 years ago. These days, one might realize one’s standing with a “friend” if, for example, he makes you wait but not others or drops his attention to you when someone else enters the room.

Or maybe he engages in monologues without asking you questions about yourself, wants to see you only when he needs a favor, doesn’t respond to calls, texts, emails, etc.

Of course, we all fall short with friends on occasion, but some do it as a matter of routine. Were I to choose from these methods of communication, I’d prefer the method of the construction workers to that of the inconsiderate friend. But that’s just me.

We all have to do some wiggling to find a satisfactory spot in the world. At least for a while until we develop the confidence, strength, and character to say no to the person who imposes unfavorable conditions on us.

And then, if you also have economic security, you can set many of the guidelines and, I hope, be considerate to those around you.

My favorite comment on the role money plays under similar circumstances is best captured in the words of a famous, long deceased harmonica player named Larry Adler.

It is as eloquent as it is vulgar, so turn away if you must:

You should always have enough ‘fuck you’ money.

Sorry for that. No other phrase quite captures the sentiment.

=======================

The top two images were created by Laura Hedien in May and reproduced here with her permission: https://laurahedien.com/

The first was taken Outside of Gail, Texas. The second displays a Sunset in Texas. The final image is the work of William Gottlieb, derived from Wikimedia Commons. It is a portrait of Larry Adler and his frequent collaborator, the dancer Paul Draper, in City Center, New York, around 1947.

Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Please, HEAR ME!

We want to be heard by those who matter to us: known, accepted, cared about. Many people are wanted for particular qualities, but not the whole of them. Often their entirety — their essence — is neither recognized nor understood.

The essence is more than a pretty face, a powerful embrace, a tender or firm hand, femininity or manliness, or a sense of humor. The extent of this elusive thing isn’t sexuality, intelligence, prominence, money-making, the ability to protect, or the capacity to be a capable parent or housekeeper. It is all of these and more.

That which is to be embraced is everything, despite everything. It is their core and voice. We wish to be seen for more than can be seen.

Each of us hopes what we say and feel makes a difference. Not with everyone but with someone. Not at every moment, but often.

No fellow man or woman can fully understand us. Nor can we fathom the extent of our changing selves. Moreover, there is always an element of “seeming” as we move through life and its transforming interaction between who we are in this moment and who we are becoming.

Vision tells us the people standing before us are static, solid, and fixed. In truth, they are blurred, not constant. Time-lapse photography provides evidence of never-ending changes on the physical surface and points to the same ongoing process within. The mirror plays the identical trick when facing it.

Each one of us has had the goal or fantasy of being relevant, not a matter of indifference — not a replaceable part.

An old New Yorker cartoon by Robert Mankoff offers a visual representation of what we don’t want. A woman seated near her husband interrupts him to say, “I’m sorry, dear. I wasn’t listening. Could you repeat everything you’ve said since we got married?”

What explains this failure to communicate, to connect, to be known by someone? What might account for a shortfall in understanding by the person we desire, love, care for, want to be with, want to be close to?

I’m referring to only the ingrained version of this common happening. Everyone gets misunderstood some of the time or falls out of focus and presence.

Here are factors to consider in conversation:

  • The speaker has real limitations in word usage. He can’t explain what he wants us to know.
  • The talker takes too long, circling whatever his concern is, not quite getting to the central message.
  • The pair find it hard to be unguarded in what they say.
  • Body language and facial expression interfere with the intake of words and their meaning.
  • Genuine hearing problems affect the listener.
  • The hearer is a habitual multi-tasker and doesn’t give his complete attention.
  • The twosome infrequently sits face to face in a quiet room when speaking.
  • Differences in temperament, history, knowledge, and gender create a gap language fails to overcome.
  • The infrequency of tender or open conversations increases the danger of big emotions (held back) now overtaking the couple.
  • One or both participants cut each other off.
  • The auditor assumes he received the same memo before, perhaps many times. He takes in the first few words and tunes out, filling in the rest from his catalog of familiar beliefs about the other.
  • One or both are in “attack” mode. The two people engage in accusations, not reflection.
  • Transference from previous relationships interferes with the individuals’ abilities to differentiate this person from someone else.

A match between two people in friendship or love requires maintenance. However, unlike an auto whose oil must be changed and tires replaced, the reasons for the work are a bit elusive.

Let’s begin with the duo’s beginnings. The initial affection and mutual interest tend to be motivated by a few appealing qualities: sexual allure, shared enthusiasms, the feeling of being desired, newness, or a temporary fitness between roles. An example would be one party’s search for a protector and the other’s joy in being appreciated for providing this.

Such attributes outshine and obscure other features of significance about the pair’s interconnection.

One of the surprises and challenges of grasping the “being” of the mate is the continual unfolding we go through as we proceed through life. Only a stone statue untouched by wind, water, or pollution remains unchanging.

Existence means transformation. In the best circumstances, this enables the possibility of growth.

A step toward improving our relationships is understanding that none of us are the same as we were. The partner, therefore, must attempt to “know” you — a living, developing, wavering soul moving through unending alteration — while he engages in a motion of his own and tries to understand himself anew. If the pair of friends or lovers can discover their nonsynchronous “becoming,” the endeavor to retain, recover, and recognize the companion may lie ahead.

Each of us loses his way at times. Still, much is possible if we recognize one of the greatest opportunities to be found in the search for friendship and love: to discover another who takes on the lifelong task of fondness, forgetting, and generous acceptance of human frailty, the better to become aware of another being who intends and attempts the same.

No wonder our delight when we come close to this closeness.

———-

The first photo is called Couple Talking by Pedro Ribeiro Simões of Portugal. The second is a A Reading & Conversation with Scholastique Mukasonga. The Moderator was Odile Cazenave. The photo was taken at the Boston University Center for the Study of Europe. Both of the images were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“The Best Meal I Had All Day” and Other Words of Wisdom

Emmanuel Terry, my Uncle Manny, is remembered by my brothers for something we heard from him whenever he came to dinner.

No matter the food he ate earlier, our gathering lacked completion until he said, “This was the best meal I had all day!” He smiled and we grinned at what became a necessary secular benediction at the evening’s conclusion.

Though we took his words as a joke, we might have better understood them as a true expression of appreciation, a thanksgiving for the feast and comradery of the moment.

Well before such festivities, Mr. Terry endured the Great Depression of the 1930s, psychiatric hospitalization, electroshock treatment, and service overseas in wartime. Late in life, he suffered the death of his wife, my Aunt Nettie. He knew loved ones and joyous reunions should not be taken for granted.

Uncle M. smiled a lot when we were together, drinking in the companionship and enjoying the laughter we all shared. And, yet, I am the inheritor of a few philosophy texts he read. Too bad I never thought to ask him what in those yellowed pages mattered to him.

Did they contribute to his gratitude?

This brings me to a friend (I’ll call him K), who is entering his 75th year on the planet, a bit longer than Manny achieved. On his birthday, the pandemic doing its worst, he wondered what he might wish for beyond the loving expressions of his children and friends.

While talking to his son-in-law a solution evolved. He planned to bestow some small benevolence on someone he didn’t know. But who, how? Close contact with people would risk lives, both his and the other.

K wasn’t deterred.

My buddy realized an acquaintance in another country might be useful in the endeavor. One owns an eatery in a city where bars and restaurants are open. He chose an establishment over 4000 miles away.

This longtime friend placed a call and asked the proprietor to serve a drink to every person in the place. His confidant would charge the tab to K.

The barkeep honored the anonymity desired by the benefactor of all the strangers. Thus the task was done.

My comrade suggested I take some similar action myself. I told him I would and, also write about his random act of kindness.

Perhaps you enjoyed a beer on my friend, but probably not. I’m guessing if he could have fed the world he would have. None of us can.

We can only do our small part.

Like Uncle Manny, K is a wise man and a grateful one.

It is no accident that these characteristics go together.

Such people make us better than we are.

———-

The adults flanking the young man at his bar mitzvah celebration are his Uncle Manny and Aunt Nettie. The gentleman seated at the right is George Fields. Yes, I am the boy in the middle. It was the best meal we had all day.

When One Person in a Relationship Changes

I discovered the social challenge of moving from one group to another in sixth grade.

First, let me situate myself. I was part of the post-World War II “Baby Boom” generation, a group for which the world was unprepared. Chicago’s school system, like others, discovered children like me flooding the narrow hallways of buildings used by our parents.

Why so many? The youthful soldiers returning from Europe and the Pacific attempted to retrieve lost time along with their young wives. My father’s letters across the ocean spoke to both his desire for my beautiful mother and the offspring they hoped for.

I’d spent the past year and a half in an overcrowded classroom shared with students one semester ahead. When my younger cohort came time for advancement to the level the older kids were completing, our teacher asked me if I wanted to “skip” that term.

Paul Friedman gave me this chance to proceed into seventh grade without finishing sixth. Thanks, Mr. Friedman, wherever you are.

The opportunity sounded fine to my parents and me, in part because I got along well with those a half-step up. The phrase “double promotion” applied to my more than ordinary educational boost.

Over the summer, I continued to hang around with my longtime, same-aged buddies, but Autumn turned out to be different. From the first day of class on Tuesday, September 2, 1958, the alteration, like a temporary shadow hovering over my life, greeted me with a frown.

I saw Lloyd and Roger, my old pals, talking, but when I tried to insert myself into the conversation, they acted aloof. Of course, I didn’t use that word, one absent from my vocabulary, but it described my puzzlement at the unsocial “distance.”

Continuing efforts to recapture our previous camaraderie produced the same result in the next few days. With no choice, those friendships faded as I found a place among my older classmates.

Life offers far more significant but somewhat similar challenges. Beyond moving out of your current neighborhood and going to new schools, think of changes in your profession, status ups and downs, leaping ahead or staying behind in terms of income, etc.

A daunting hurdle occurs when someone dependent on alcohol or drugs ends his addiction. Friends accustomed to joining him in drink or drugs say, “Oh, it’s only one drink” or “Come on, do you think you are better than me?”

If the newly sober fellow continues hanging around with the users, his sobriety is in danger. He has two problems now: abstinence from substances and finding new friends.

A political commentator, Kurt Bardella, describes leaving his occupational affiliation in 2016: the Republican Party. His writing doesn’t provide the most common answer to the question liberals ask, “Why do Republicans still work for Trump.” Rather, he speaks to the 1958 version of Gerry Stein’s experience on the playground. Here’s what happened to him when he left “the team.”

Candidly, I had no idea where my next paycheck was going to come from. I lived off my credit card. Fell into debt. The professional network of Republican operatives, consultants, and lobbyists I had spent a decade of my life in Washington cultivating was now gone.

Bardella no longer fit in. Changing religion might generate the same kind of exclusion. This also reminds me of something my mother uttered more than once as I grew up: “What will people think?”

In Bardella’s case, his professional and relationship community became unavailable to him. No other workplace niche existed for political operatives and conservative spokespersons who, like this man, self-emigrated.

Even such things as happiness and unhappiness can complicate relationships when they are not shared. If you are leaping forward in your career and an old buddy finds your glee overbearing relative to his modest success, one of you might decide he has tolerated enough.

More than a few of my patients worried their friends would grow weary of their degree of misery. They dared not exceed what they believed was an acceptable length and level of unhappiness. While they tended to overestimate the likelihood of rejection, I must admit it was never zero.

One might say the larger the discrepancy in the level of happiness, success, and misery between two friends, the greater the chance of a tear in the social fabric binding them. Part of relationship survival requires walking not too far ahead, nor falling too far behind. Some amount of self-censorship is also needed.

Fitting the pieces of your personal life into the jigsawed spaces of another’s existence isn’t a fully acknowledged human task. The good news is, most of us get at least passing marks.

We are complicated creatures, don’t you agree?

With all the encouragement we receive to be independent and tough enough to take on criticism, there are limits to this commonplace advice.

When my mother asked, “What will people think?” she displayed a wisdom one shouldn’t always ignore.

——-

The two photos are from my time in Minnie Mars Jamieson School. They show my third-grade class followed by my graduating class. I am lucky enough to remain friends with four members of the latter group: Ron, Jim, Steve, and Neil.

No prizes if you can spot me, though I am present in both pictures. Of course, the “High Potentate” of the Zeolites won’t have any trouble. Apologies for the inside joke.

If You Could Have Dinner with Anyone, Anywhere, Who …

Have you changed your mind in, say, the last nine years? How about the most recent six-months?

I hope so.

In 2011 I wrote a post about an invitation to a feast. Any reader might choose anybody to be his companion in my hypothetical scenario.

The possibilities were unrestricted. Any person alive or dead would qualify: If You Could Have Dinner with Anyone in the World …

What I didn’t consider in offering the challenge and posting responses was a thing called time. Time appeared a near-infinite concept. No one who responded to my query lived in the presence of Azreal, the Grim Reaper, so far as they or I knew. Infection did not stalk the earth.

People made bucket lists assuming the planet would be as open to them in, say, nine years, as it stood on the day my essay popped up on WordPress. The normal human concerns about money, romance, and work remained ... normal. My respondents weren’t locked down, mask-wearing, social distancing creatures.

If you wanted to hug someone you’d hugged 100 times before, you might reach for embrace #101 without a thought. No dread needed to fill your head.

The value of skin against skin hadn’t skyrocketed. Closeness wasn’t an existential issue. Your loved one didn’t carry Death’s scythe with which to harvest you.

Now we esteem lives in a different way. Some of us do, at least. Indeed, there is a partisan difference even in Americans’ sex lives: Sex in the Era of Coronavirus.

But overall, perhaps we understand, in a less abstract way than we did in the pre-pandemic era, nothing is guaranteed. OK, taxes and death, the old standbys. Nothing else. The topic today is the same one in the earlier article, but with a guarantee of safety unneeded then.

If you could have a meal with anyone in the world, living or dead, who would it be? In this imaginary opportunity, the food will be safe; the virus will be vanquished, no caution to keep six feet apart, or wash hands again and again.

Is the question too easy? Are the answers predictable? I’m guessing the list of people is more limited. Perhaps I’m wrong.

Surprise me. Or not.

—–

The first image above is Death and Life by Gustav Klimt, sourced from Wikiart.org/ The one below it is Grim Reaper obtained from FreeSvg.

Finding Trust Without Guarantees

In village days a scoundrel couldn’t conceal his character for a month. But today every time I take my car to the garage or have a prescription filled, I have to trust people I don’t know about things I don’t understand.

Those comments were made over 60 years ago by Huston Smith, a transcendent philosopher of morality and religion. His statement remains valid today. Where does this leave the wisest and most secure of us, not to mention those for whom trust is a luxury of someone else’s unimaginable life?

Smith found reason to believe in many of his fellow-men. He sought those who wrote about virtue and, more crucial, those who lived it.

He knew iniquity exists, as did those he spoke with, but is not the whole of existence.

All of us suffer betrayal. An ex-patient I’ll call by the initials KF told me a tale of uncommon cruelty.

KF was a college student out West during the Vietnam War, before the volunteer army. He commuted to school from home. The husky, black-haired young man was free from military service so long as he remained in good academic standing and carried a full course load.

His father, who abused this fellow when he was small, now charged him rent for shelter and food. Though my client managed the tuition, the old man offered no consideration on living expenses.

Knowing he was at risk of eviction, KF dropped out of school. The military came for him.

During combat in Southeast Asia, KF escaped physical injury, but letters home went unanswered. Once home, he discovered his father had thrown away or sold everything he owned.

Nonetheless, he surmounted the challenge of finding love and making a family better than the one from which he came.

Not all of us are as afflicted as my former patient, but we share his hope of intimacy. James Baldwin recognized the desire and the risky necessity of letting down our guard to get it:

Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

Yet so many of us do go without – without companionship, absent a confidant, and lacking at mate. Some believe the world wouldn’t care if we disappeared from its face.

Anonymity seems the better choice if your pattern is to encounter bullies and the unfaithful. Thieves, narcissists, alcoholics, and abusers possess their own imperfect radar attuned to human vulnerabilities.

Some people hesitate to trust because they have no confidence in their capacity to distinguish the dangerous from the safe. This leaves them writing-off all of humanity or attempting to obtain information from every possible source, as if diligent detective work guaranteed discovery of unquestionable virtue.

Neither approach works. The former souls inhabit a cloud of ignorance and take a stance of perpetual defense. The latter never find “the truth” because they seek endless data, never realizing there will always be a sliver of doubt.

Both types of individuals remain isolated or disguised, little better than existing in a bunker far from anything but momentary ease. Both are exhausted by near-constant scanning for the self-interested and evil. They suffer preoccupation with misgivings over incidental events others forget.

Because they skate past those who might give them respect and kindness, the negative experiences of their life do not find a counterweight on the other side of the scale to persuade them intimacy is worth the risk.

Everything they believe confirms the danger of mankind. They also discount their own value to those few they acknowledge could merit knowing.

There are no perfect people, no purity even among those who give their lives for others or their country. We all hold to our self-interestedness in no small part of our behavior. Such quality enables us to survive.

In his 1788 essay Federalist No. 51, James Madison wrote:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

He and the men whose thoughts inform the U.S. Constitution knew they were not to be found either in government or out.

Nonetheless, our necessary concern for our well-being still permits the possibility of understanding and decency. Humans pull through because of the ability to join together, trust each other, and benefit from the comfort, love, and security they provide and receive from others.

Disappointment in relationships is inevitable. Those you fear may well also be disappointed by your words or conduct. Avoidance or rejection of available friends or lovers can inflict the equivalent injury on them you wish to avoid for yourself.

These challenging times present the opportunity to discover the best and worst of our brethren and the identical characteristics in ourselves.

No guarantees come with a new relationship. Remember this, however. The person who represents to you the potential for connection also looks for the same fulfillment himself.

Perhaps he even searches for it because of the qualities he recognizes in you.

—–

The three photographs are the work of Laura Hedien, with her permission: https://twitter.com/lhedien?lang=en. The first is of Mountain Reflections Near Salt Lake City in January 2020. Next comes A Lightening Storm With Stars Above in Western New Mexico. Finally, Factory Butte, Utah, 2019.

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.

What the Coronavirus Taught Me About Love

When I practiced therapy, I reminded myself to bring intensity to my work. Every day, every hour.

Each patient was a kind of wayfarer. His journey had reached a sticking point. He was faltering with sadness, loss, or anxiety, guilt or helplessness.

A bit like a pilgrim, the searcher hoped to find a balm for the soul.

Life brings routine. We create routines to make it easier, more efficient, to avert the wasteful reinvention of our daily tasks.

But routine deadens, too. A therapist must make the work fresh.

The healer must be present, concentrate, note the body language, and not offer words far from the point, missing the point. I tried to give each meeting “life.I didn’t always succeed. No one can, but the next time my patient visited offered another chance to join him in searching out an oasis: a green, peaceful, and certain place, where refreshment might bring renewal.

The aging of my parents brought home the recognition it always does. One never knows when the last time will be. The twilight handshake, the final moment of laughter, the embrace of someone we love.

I made sure to part from my folks with an “I love you.Now my children and grandchildren do this with their parents and grandparents.

These parting words are never enough by themselves. The pandemic tells me so. Its voice calls out, “There is more to do.

Why do I hear this now? Because I can’t do more, I am separated from so many, as you are. What, then, does “more” mean when the opportunity comes?

The voice did not say.

Here’s my answer.

The heartbreak of a goodbye must be balanced by delight in a hello. We must treat each new contact as a gift, greet the friend or lover, the father or a brother as though it were the first time: the moment we discovered something unique in him. Graceful, beautiful, kind — it does not matter. Strong, faithful, wise — whatever are the qualities embedded within him.

We need to try to sum up the other’s every sacrifice for us, all the touching words they said to us, their thoughts and prayers for us and approach him anew. With gratitude.

In another dreadful historical moment, Abraham Lincoln said, “we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so must we think anew, and act anew.

The virus teaches us the day is short, no matter how long the sunshine lasts. The message is the same, regardless of the time or place. Since we do not have eternity, the moment and the people must be grasped, held close.

If we safeguard ourselves and others, and if we are lucky, a reunion yet will come.

When you see loved ones again, remember: speed to them as if it were the first time and the last time, every time.

—–

The photos above come courtesy of Laura Hedien, a gifted and generous photographer. They are The Look and Splashes. Much more of her work can be found at: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/