A Therapist’s Heroes

I met a personal hero in my early 30s. A dim recording of our 40-year-old 40-minutes still exists.

My life has been lucky, in part, because of unexpected encounters such as this, and for other reasons, too. I grew up in a time when the world of little boys overflowed with heroic TV and movie figures. Most displayed physical bravery, but there was right in what they stood for: as the Superman television series told it, “truth, justice, and the American Way.”

I’m not the only serious kid who took the message seriously. Our fathers fought in World War II and Korea. Duty and sacrifice were expected of us, as well. The boundaries of acceptable behavior were clearer then. Now exhibitionism and self-congratulations — characteristics once frowned upon — squirm and twist themselves into chest-beating greatness. Meaningful apology is absent in much of public life.

We choose our heroes uncritically as kids. Most parents bask for a while in the admiring gaze of their children. Adulthood brings a more nuanced view. Today’s media offer few people with the purity of The Rifleman, Paladin, and The Lone Ranger — the principled Westerners my generation of boys watched in the ’50s and ’60s.

That world, as it enlarged, compromised us all and we compromised ourselves. Some of this is inescapable and doesn’t involve the loss of your soul. Still, there are things I wish I hadn’t done, adult times when I wasn’t my best self. Regarding other actions and inactions, I’ve made a quiet peace; grateful for the knowledge, humility, and experience the shortfalls brought me. Not to excuse moments of cruelty, failing resolve, or license, but as I look around the globe I notice some company. So it is that I try to do better.

I wonder if we are poorer for the missing simplicity of the remarkable characters TV paraded past the mid-twentieth-century optic nerves of my generation, as we search today’s narrow daily world for models in matters of living.

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Who was the hero who greeted me on March 18, 1978? A gorgeous man and a great one. Not outsized, as POW John McCain was, because of refusing a chance to free himself from continuing torture. Preferential treatment and desertion of his comrades meant cowardice, and the airman suffered for his steadfast valor.

Carlo Maria Giulini, instead, was a symphony conductor/hero, who also knew what mattered. He exemplified virtue in action and his art. Unlike Giulini, few of us are both good and great, a combination irresistible to his admirers.

Integrity is a always a pricey thing. The Italian musician said no to rather different opportunities than the combat pilot: promotion of his career and financial gain because he convinced himself full readiness to honor men like Bach and Tchaikovsky was more important.

The Maestro believed love for the music was not sufficient, but required understanding of the intention of every note on the page. Only upon fulfillment of both demands did he permit his private search for beauty to become public in performance. Years would go by even if it meant — as it did — never leading compositions he loved. “I’d rather be three years too late, than three minutes too soon,” he said. Here was a gentle man made of steel.

*****

We lost an extraordinary person in John McCain on August 25, 2018, a statesman saluted by sham mourners whose expensive clothing disguises a lack of character, and others who recognize what they lost and attempt to improve themselves because of his example.

Late in life, McCain might have uttered the words Tennyson put in the mouth of the aged Ulysses to his surviving companions of the Trojan War, before they embarked on their final voyage:

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

John McCain’s daughter Meghan gave a distinguished eulogy. Such sadness is common enough at funerals, but not by itself a reason to view it. Listen to her devotion and private knowledge of the Senator who was her dad, her eloquence in describing what made him special and necessary. Those qualities compel our attention and respect as a kind of civic duty.

Such men as the congressman lift us by the standard they set. Imperfect, but noble. They reach beyond themselves in service of a greater cause. The best among us do not rate self-interest as the dominating value in their lives.

Here is her speech. I hope you will watch and try to do better, as we all must if our world and that of our children and grandchildren is to be better:

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The top photo is of Carlo Maria Giulini. The second image is from an Interview with John McCain done on April 24, 1973. Thomas J. O’Halloran was the photographer. It comes from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

What Do We See When We Look Back? Another Perspective for Understanding Your Life

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Many therapies begin by looking backwards. Often, however, the deep-dive into the ocean of previous hurts focuses only on the patient and a tiny number of others. Is more needed?

The circumstances surrounding any life are worth thinking about. The historical conditions in which one lives can be enormously important to a backward glance at life, yet therapists are not experts in history. Nor are we routinely specialized in philosophy, sociology, and religion, the better to understand those who visit us. A counselor might not readily recognize the significance of all aspects of a new patient’s life.

When I encountered someone from an unfamiliar religious background I attempted to learn more: not only from my patient, but from religious writings. If clients came to me with existential questions, a sense of emptiness and a lack of life meaning, we sometimes talked philosophy.

In the course of my career I needed to learn about poverty and anti-Semitism in the old Soviet Union, the arrangement of marriages among Pakistani-Americans, and the importance of loyalty and family responsibility to the Mexican-American community.

This necessity not only helped me better perform my therapeutic work, but enhanced my understanding of people and the world more generally.

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One can also fool oneself by ignoring the ideas and trials of our distant ancestors.

People of all cultures and times faced the same core issues, although sometimes in different ways. The human experience changes in terms of technique — technical knowledge, astonishing new devices, and skills — but not the basic concerns of living: love, friendship, competition, survival, loss, morality, work, and play. The same conundrums are forever present: happiness, honor, success, failure, self-awareness, self-interest, integrity, rationalization, sadness, greed, and one’s responsibilities to others.

Yes, we now face possible global catastrophe from weapons or climate change; but robbers, kleptocrats, and rape were always present. Discrimination today usually takes a different form than widespread slavery, but human rights are still an issue. War and natural disasters, famine, and disease always threatened the human race. Life was never stress-free.

We benefit by recognizing the common humanity we share with individuals who are “different,” whether they are our contemporaries or people who shared our cultural past. We risk laughter at those from non-Western backgrounds, their styles of hair and clothing. They behold us as well, however, and might share the same tendencies to mock or disapprove.

Old photos can be treated similarly. As we turn the pages of antique family photo albums it is difficult to relate to those who seem ancient, even if they lived only 50 years ago. We too will become dated creatures to newer generations. If you assume those of different times offer nothing worth learning, then you have closed your mind, blinded yourself, and reduced the possibility of self-knowledge and better human relations. Moreover, you render your personal history impotent in its ability to have any substantial impact on those who follow you.

Old words remain relevant. Even if Aristotle lacked an iPhone and wore a toga, he had a good brain, as did many others before and after. We are silly not to attend to his thoughts. Our ancestors didn’t know everything and many justified slavery and maltreatment of women, but they recognized much of importance about the human condition.

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Closer to our own time, the men and women of the last century had more than a taste of modernity. They owned cars and worked in factories, knew oppression and misuse of workers, used the telephone, and (from 1922) received regular radio broadcasts. They realized what money could buy and what it did not. Therefore, I offer you eight quotes from those who lived in the 20th century and earlier.

Our personal problems are not new. Others walked in our shoes, even if they wore sandals, wooden shoes, or no footwear at all.

And remember: we read history and philosophy not to understand old and dead civilizations, but ourselves. Perhaps you will dismiss the eight ideas by the seven people you find below. On the other hand, I expect some will speak to you, especially (I hope) the final one:

 

Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.

— Jalaluddin Rumi, 13th century Persian poet.

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You will be broken. Your try to flee it, but ultimately you can’t, you can only fritter away your time on the planet. Yes, be prudent, but don’t think you will escape.

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

— Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1929

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It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forward. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops … .

— Soren Kierkegaard, 1843.

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The following words are those of H.L. Mencken, published on July 26, 1920 in the Baltimore Evening Sun, from an essay entitled “Bayard vs. Lionheart,” concerning the difficulty of electing good people to national office:

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In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through … . But when the field is nationwide … and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily and adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. … On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

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It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

— Theodore Roosevelt, April 23, 1910: Paris.

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The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie — a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days — but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.

— Hannah Arendt in a 1974 interview with Roger Errera.

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Dorothea Brooke is an admirable fictional character in Middlemarch (1871-72) by Mary Anne Evans (better known by her pen name, George Elliot). Ms. Brooke is here speaking to the young man who loves her. He has just said that without her he would have nothing to live for:

That was a wrong thing for you to say, that you would have had nothing to try for. If we had lost our own chief good, other people’s good would remain, and that is worth trying for.

At the end of the book Dorothea’s life is described in terms of her quiet impact on others:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature … spent itself in channels which had no great name on earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number (of people) who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

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The photograph at the top is called Blessed Art Thou Among Women by Gertrude Käsebier, from 1900. The computerized image of Aristotle is the 2005 work of Kolja Mendler. A photo of H.L. Mencken follows. The final image is a sketch of Hannah Arendt by Albarluque. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The People’s Climate March 2014: Join the Global Weekend for Action

The future is a severe taskmaster. It is difficult enough to focus five years ahead, let alone 20 or 50. Yet some measure of future orientation is necessary, not only for our survival, but the well-being of our children and grandchildren. I’m talking about climate change.

Taking responsibility for this problem is hard. Other matters are pressing. Many believe, with over 300 million people in this country alone, individual action counts little.

Ancient Athens was different. A real democracy existed, at least for those who were citizens (not women, children, or slaves). About 30,000 adult males were eligible to vote on any resolution of the city-state in the fourth century B.C. By contrast, in our republic we elect representatives to do the job of governance at a distance. Thus, we are less involved in our future unless we choose to become active beyond backing office holders.

A September 16, 2014 New York Times article by Justin Gillis describes a new report “declaring that the necessary fixes (to global warming) could wind up being effectively free.” If so, any concern about the cost of remedies won’t stand in our way; that is, if we have the will to push the issue.

Until, however, we (and I do mean the two of us) martial the gumption to persuade our government and the rest of the world, little can be expected. I suggest you read and act on the following alert from Rosaliene Bacchus. This weekend provides you with the chance.

Three Worlds One Vision

People's Climate March - 20-21 September 2014

Has your life been changed by a record-breaking climatic event? Have you lost your home or means to support yourself and family because of climate change? Are you concerned about global warming and climate change? Are you frustrated with the inaction of our political and industrial leaders?

If you’ve answered “yes” to any of the above questions, here’s an opportunity to take action, to do your part. This coming weekend of September 20-21, 2014, let’s show up at the People’s Climate March in a city near us.

“The People’s Climate March is an invitation to anyone who’d like to prove to themselves, and to their children, that they give a damn about the biggest crisis our civilization has ever faced” said Bill McKibben, climate author and environmentalist turned activist, and co-founder of 350.ORG, a global climate movement.

In the United States, the major event will take place in New…

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Fred Spector: From Combat to Friendship with Fritz Reiner

Fred SpectorWhat part does courage play in being an orchestral musician? In the life of 89-year-old Fred Spector, that part was not small. A Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) violinist from 1956 to 2003, his early career progress was interrupted by World War II.  But the experience prepared him for his eventual contact with Fritz Reiner, orchestral martinet nonpareil, as well as one of the greatest conductors of all time.

Fred entered the Army Air Forces in 1943 as an 18-year-old navigator of a B-25 aircraft. Mortal combat, not playing the fiddle, was now his life. Once the war ended, Fred took up the violin again for the first time in three years. Living on Kyushu Island in Japan, he was asked by a priest to give a classical violin recital. With his commander’s encouragement and lots of practice, Fred gave the first post-war concert in that area along with an accompanist in 1946.

After returning to the USA, Spector’s aspiration to become a CSO member returned. Indeed, he had taken lessons with John Weicher, the Chicago Symphony’s concertmaster, before entering the Army Air Forces, as a stepping stone to his eventual goal. For the next decade Fred spent time with the Civic Orchestra (the CSO’s training orchestra) as its concertmaster, played recitals, worked on radio broadcasts, performed in night clubs, and conducted Broadway shows that were touring. His reputation spread until Fritz Reiner hired him in 1956 to join the CSO’s second violins.

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Reiner was notorious for “testing” musicians he didn’t know. It wasn’t long before Fred’s turn came. Leon Brenner, then the assistant leader of the second violins, became ill. Fred was moved from well into the section to the spot that was almost within the conductor’s reach.

During one rehearsal of two or more hours, Reiner targeted the young Spector, then a man with flaming, bright red hair. According to Fred:

Every 10 or 15 minutes he would stop the orchestra and say, “Spector, you are playing wrong! “He wouldn’t tell me what I was doing wrong. We’d start again and 10 or 15 minutes later: “You are playing wrong!” This went on for the whole rehearsal. I asked Francis Akos (the leader of the seconds, who was sitting next to me) what I was doing wrong. He said, “I don’t know what you’re doing wrong.” (After that day) I sat there in the same seat (while Brenner was ill) and Reiner said not a word to me.

When Leon came back, Reiner made one of his few jokes. While I was going back to my regular seat he said, “Spector, you played very well. Spector De la Rosa (referring to my red hair).” He laughed and the whole orchestra laughed. (Thereafter) I got to know him and became very friendly with him because of photography. Photography was a hobby (we shared) and I was the unofficial photographer of the CSO… I took some very good pictures of Reiner that he loved.

I asked Fred if he ever questioned Reiner about what he was doing “wrong” once he and the conductor became friendly.

We were at a party that he threw and I was sitting at a table with him and David Greenbaum (longtime CSO cellist), and David’s wife and Reiner’s wife were there, too. Reiner’s wife had David do some imitations of Reiner and then (Reiner kidded) David: “So now that you did that, where are you going to work next year?” And at that point I asked Reiner, “Remember, three or four years ago, you were telling me I played wrong all the time? He said, “Yes, yes.” “What did I do that was wrong?” He said, “Nothing. I just wanted to see if you would get nervous.” I didn’t get nervous, I was great!

I then questioned Fred about how he managed to keep his composure, since Reiner was notorious for breaking the confidence of many seasoned and talented musicians.

It really wasn’t difficult for me. I guess, compared to combat, that was nothing.

Fred Spector, as he enters his 90th year, has seen it all, done it all, and then some.

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The 2010 photo of Fred Spector is courtesy of his son, J.B. Spector. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second photo is Fritz Reiner.