Finding the Balance between Effort and Surrender

Wisdom turns up in unexpected places. Who said, “Life exists somewhere between effort and surrender”?

The legendary and still active 44-year-old quarterback in the National Football League, Tom Brady, might be the most recent.

Many discovered this before him, including Danielle Orner:

Life is a balance between what we can control and what we cannot. I am learning to live between effort and surrender.
I imagine the Buddhists came up with something similar long ago.

How does this apply to therapy?
 


The most distressed of my patients — the joyless ones — inhabited one end or the other. Those who took the effort to an extreme sometimes achieved material or professional success but almost always encountered repeated frustration to obtain it.

Their singular focus also entailed costs for marriage and family.

A number of these, usually men, tackled life as if on the playing field where the domination of the opposition demanded mastery. They viewed problems as a series of obstacles to be overcome to the point of relentlessness. Such individuals were formidable but not easy to live with.

Openness, they believed, revealed weakness.
 
Serenity lay beyond their reach, leading to treatment.
The ones who specialized in surrender gave in to fear out of a lack of confidence and a punishing history. The human beings they encountered fell into the category of potential deliverers of harm, a kind of enemy army. Intimacy and emotional risk lived in the same category.

The safest way of surviving, as they believed, was to trust no one. Pets frequently provided warmth people didn’t.
 
In each of these cases, the counselor’s job is to ask the patient the cost of their favored strategy. If they identify the price, treatment goes forward. A bumpier path lies ahead if the individual has not reflected on the downside.

More than a few continue to defend their preferred choice. They will, perhaps, encounter more emotional pain or disappointment before choosing to make necessary alterations in their style of living. They might require reflection upon why they decided to be the person they are. However, a clear decision might not have occurred since none of us know our motives in every detail.

Many of my clients found their approach to life as children or teens. The solution appeared as the best available choice for the circumstances of the time, place, and people who surrounded them. I’m speaking of parents, relatives, schoolmates, and teachers. Keeping your head down and avoiding attention developed into a necessity for survival.

Time and experience reveal less satisfaction in the course of their lives. To the extent they become aware of the limitations growing out of their existing style, a search begins to remedy their discontent.

The world had changed around them, and the behavioral choices of decades past came to provide less profit and more loss. It was as if the new tires they put on their human vehicle years ago became threadbare.

With enough pain, the motivation to seek a better way ahead emerges.
 
 
But what of the balance between effort and surrender? That idyllic place is a moving target. Always.

I once asked Rick Taft, who managed investments for a living, whether he believed the stock market would rise or fall. “It will fluctuate,” he said.
 
This is true for stocks and most everything else. Just as the weather changes, we retain no promise of health, happiness, wealth, or much else. But if we can stop depending on a smooth life course, we have taken the first step toward emotional balance.
 
Without a single, permanent, satisfying spot between effort and surrender, what then? Here are ten suggestions:
  • Take opportunities where and when they arise. Doors open, but not always more than once.
  • Recognize the only unchanging experience in life is change. You cannot freeze the planet or our bodies in place, as the climate reminds us. Learn to become a tightrope walker on a windy day.
  • You do not have to take every opportunity, but take more than are comfortable if your nature is hesitant. Pull back instead if those instincts tend to push you to jump without looking.
  • Life will unsettle you, as it does to all of us. Resolve to reach for joy in small things, lest the inevitable unfairness of some days wrecks your disposition.
  • No one thinks about you as much as you believe. Others spend too much time with a miniature version of themselves buzzing around their brains. The focus outside of themselves emerges less often, except in moments of outsized feelings like love, hate, and fear. Therefore, don’t worry endlessly about looking foolish and making mistakes, lest you recall embarrassment long after the crowd has moved on.
  • You’ll grow more if you do more and find some exhilaration in daunting moments, balanced or not.
  • Learn to meditate, beginning in a calm and quiet circumstance when possible. Daily practice centered on your breath (as the top video suggests) reduces your chance of being swept away by a stiff breeze or worse.
  • No one figures out their life. Few of us fully display our pain and confusion. Do not be fooled by appearances.
  • If you can find a tender and consoling hand, reach for it. If you see a needy soul, extend your own to them.
  • Smile and laugh. Most of our worries don’t become a reality, and among those that turn out as we feared, a remedy might be found with time and effort.

We live in transit — in a perpetual transition, no matter its static appearance. A man in a train moving at a steady pace has no sense of forward motion except when he looks out the window. An observer outside the train, however, wouldn’t be in doubt about the fellow’s progress.

With the above in mind, think of life as a series of alternatives. The midpoint between them should not always be your target:

    • Sleeping — waking.
    • Seriousness — laughter.
    • Learning — teaching.
    • Following — leading.
    • Being for yourself — being for others.
    • Head — heart.
    • Action — contemplation.
    • With people — alone.
    • Reading — writing.
    • Contemplation — spontaneity.
    • Being in the moment — being conscious of yourself.
    • Looking back — looking forward.
    • Listening — speaking.
    • Getting — spending.
    • Indoors — outdoors.
    • Accumulation of material things — reaching for experiences.
    • Assertion — passivity.
    • Diving in — waiting.

Are you disappointed I have not offered you a simple answer to this puzzle?

Sorry, I am too busy working it out for myself, searching for each day’s new balance!

———-

Beneath the top video are the following images, in order:

  1. An 1891 poster from Wikimedia Commons of Félicia Mallet by Jules Chéret.
  2. Tears of Blood  by Oswaldo Guayasami.
  3. An incredible view of Lake Misurina, Italy, from History Daily.
  4. The Example of One Choice Question, a screenshot simulation from the TV show Are You Smarter Than the Primary School Students? Taiwanese version. The picture’s author is 竹筍弟弟 (talk) from Wikimedia Commons.

    On Adult Attachment to Children

    There is nothing like the wordless sadness of a beautiful face dear to you. I’m referring to the small, huggable, wide-eyed ones when overtaken by uncertain illness.

    “Mine!” is one of his favorite words, claiming property his bigger brother shows an interest in. The malady, however, offered nothing he wanted to keep.

    The upbeat mood of the smiling, sweet-as-chocolate cherub melts in a few minutes. Energy departs, spirit evaporates, words transmute into inexpressable discomfort. The flush of heat rises, but the body descends.

    The sick two-year-old loses his chatter.

    My youngest grandson does not reach for a hand — doesn’t lead you to a toy, or a place, or try to have you for himself instead of sharing you with his six-year-old brother.

    It must be tough to be a little fellow, hard to make your imperfect utterances understood.

    Now he wants the hugs only a mom and dad can supply — seeks their comfort and embrace, the safety he can’t describe.

    You watch this happen. COVID fertilizes your fear, growing like Jack’s speedy beanstalk. The concern is new, though other epochs had their own dangers — smallpox, polio, plague …

    The moppet slumps into slumber. You depart, but the precious person grips your heart, now shadowed by a cloud.

    The day passes. Your wife’s sleep is fitful.

    The golden boy holds the sorrowful power to instill worry.

    Daughter #2, his mother, sends a message early the next day.

    A long nap, his parents’ knowing, double-duty attention, food, and more sleep sweep the danger away. The tentative all-clear sounds.

    The news makes the sun shine brighter today. The superpowers of small children extend to the stars.

    Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.”

    What the writer didn’t say might have also been spoken about love. We are held fast by our loves, the closest friends, our offspring, and our grandkids, too.

    Those attachments can do far worse to us than the bit of concern we had that day. Much, much worse. Many near misses and joys await. Best not to borrow trouble.

    But this two-year-old deserves credit. His bounce-back brought the sky’s warmest blue. Only the dearest hearts inside you do this. He sprinkles fairy dust and doesn’t even know it.

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

    The first photo dates from 1934 and was published in Modern Screen magazine in 1950. The two-year-old girl is Elizabeth Taylor, with her mother Sara Sothern and brother Howard.

    The second image was taken by Rita Martin and shows an unnamed child in 1912. Both of the photographs were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

    Love and Where We Find It, Including the Therapist’s Office

    Our feelings are attached to places and dates, dates in both senses of the term. People with a good memory can even tell you the room or moment when particular words were spoken — when the mood or lighting altered because a relationship changed.

    First meetings, last meetings, and relational drama become almost like a portion of the architecture and appearance of the place where they happened. The spot takes on an emotional resonance out of proportion to what a stranger would notice.

    No wonder the counselor’s office becomes part of your alliance with him. Even your time slot in his schedule organizes your life and attaches to the experience of therapy. His consulting room is not just a place where memories are uncovered but where they are made.

    If you’ve ever owned a home or lived anywhere for a long while, you may have returned soon after you left. Maybe your route from work put you on the old path without thinking.

    Others go back consciously, though not sure what draws them. Some want to revisit an unforgotten ineffable quality associated with this material segment of their history. Or perhaps they still search for the events that happened there or the one or ones with whom they occurred.

    The evoked sentiments loom larger than the manufactured creation. They make the edifice small by comparison.

    —–

    An older woman I know, someone I am close to, visited Chicago decades after leaving for the suburbs, then California, and finally Nebraska. When arriving her first time back, she wanted to see the old neighborhood we both inhabited and the “other house” where her teenage years transpired.

    This charming lady’s youth and home life were troubled, but not so for the earliest years near my family. Her parents wished to rise in the world, motivating their departure from the north side of the “Windy City.”

    The dad, in particular, had been marked by poverty. Adult ambition took them all to a posh Chicago suburb, where parental conflict, poor parenting, debt, and the father’s illness and early death damaged everyone. The best part of her life remained back in the old dwelling on Talman Avenue, the street where I knew her.

    The status-driven designer house was supposed to make all their lives better, but when our tour stopped in front of it, the recollections embedded in the place bubbled up. A flood of tears followed. Once she caught her breath, she said, “For this.”

    For this?

    They’d moved from a location where she had friends and felt accepted and acceptable, where her parents got along with each other: a place where the idea of home meant safety.

    The exit from West Rogers Park leading to the family’s new chapter became a loss, not the betterment expected. The ensuing unhappiness tied itself to the new site.

    The finer set of walls, rooms, and a circular driveway brought no satisfaction, no lofty place in the world. This was the graveyard of hope, not its fulfillment.

    The therapist sometimes enables people to feel they are worthy of love after a lifetime of believing they are broken, ugly, or stupid — “too sensitive,” disturbed, or weak. The fact of being valued can cause outsized affection, transference, perhaps love of the one who assisted in the process.

    When the treatment ends, it isn’t uncommon for the client to wish to take something physical — a small piece of its contents, a “thing,” but one containing personal meaning.

    This desire is similar to small children holding on to their blanket or a stuffed animal to calm them when the parent isn’t available. But saying goodbye to the counselor is different.

    The article given by the clinician is a transitional object and also something more, intended to preserve indescribable emotions indefinitely. Mom and dad return, but from the healer, there is a parting.

    Momentos needn’t be beautiful to carry the significance of the people and moments we retrieve from those inanimate creations, the sentiment they offer. We also remember places, sometimes unremarkable, because of those beside us when we were there — the beloved parents, partners, and pals of our lives.

    —–

    When the Madison and Wabash elevated train platform underwent deconstruction and remodeling, I could not look at it without recalling my dad. He and I stood on the now-discarded wooden planks many times and at many different ages.

    I doubt I will ever see that station without thoughts of him, though the boards on which we trod have disappeared.

    I imagine there are such locations in your life. They become part of us.

    Are the things intended to catch lightning in a bottle — the electric charge of human contact?

    The best possible “bottle” evokes emotion in touch with the heart. Perhaps, too, “sessions of sweet silent thought,” as Shakespeare would say.

    When you are old and ridding yourself of worn-out objects and stuff of no value, I suspect you will keep those beyond price because they carry this special kind of magic.

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

    The photo of the old Madison and Wabash “L” (Elevated Train) Station is the work of David Wilson. The image was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

    For those who don’t know the Chicago “Loop,” the term first referred to the area within the “L” train’s loop-like route around the city’s downtown center.

    Erotic Transference and the Fantasy Lives of Therapists

    My father, a man of uncommon decency, kept an issue of Playboy Magazine in the closet he used for his overcoats. I discovered this item while snooping around the house, not expecting that. The featured model was Jayne Mansfield.

    This happened in the late 1950s, long before the unending pornographic video flood undercut the thrill of “dirty photos.US citizens of the time lived in a post-Victorian, white man’s dream world, just prior to birth control pills and the sexual revolution. Then they continued in a non-Victorian, more sexualized version of the same thing.

    I was old enough to fathom why a man might be interested in perusing color pictures of the famous blond beauty in all her air-brushed nakedness. I put the magazine back as dad left it, never confessed my discovery, and didn’t try to interrogate.

    If my sire had fantasies despite sleeping next to the woman of his dreams every night, I imagined everyone did.

    Therapists do, too.

    I notice beautiful women still and didn’t close my eyes when they entered the office for psychotherapy. Another psychologist mentioned such beauties energized him, helped him focus his attention on “the person” behind the attractive face and form.

    Hmm.

    This man maintained an active sex life, by the way. To my knowledge, he didn’t engage in affairs with his patients but acquired a reputation for more than a few of the extramarital variety at one of the hospitals where we both practiced.

    Counselors are not eunuchs. Acquiring a license to practice doesn’t require neutering.

    We “notice,” and some few do more than take in the visual, feminine glories of the natural world despite ethical codes forbidding the mix of romantic engagement with those who come with personal problems.

    Intimacy with a therapist is never the solution to those problems, though some professionals persuade themselves it is a different manner of “helping.In case you haven’t realized it yet, we homo sapiens can convince ourselves of anything, justifying murder, robbing our kids of their credit cards, and more.

    I can’t tell you I never fantasized about the women I treated. I don’t recall doing so, however. But then, we don’t remember every dark night dream of body and soul, do we?

    Did I have those fantasies or not? I still can’t be certain. Most of the time, I compartmentalized or separated home from work. What fantasies I do recollect didn’t derive from doctor-patient interaction.

    I never overstepped professional limits, despite invitations offered in straightforward confessions of love from female clients. These included one lovely who brought a kit of sex toys and a variety of condoms to a session and proceeded to unload them on my desk.

    The topic of sexual transference continues to pull in readers to my blog, as well as the writing of others. The humans alive today, every one of us, are here because the drive to procreate remains in the DNA passed to us and through us.

    I heard females, a limited number, mention our sessions stimulated their lubrication.

    I recall another dear person I referred to a different psychologist because we couldn’t resolve and move beyond her transference, aka, her obsessive wish to be my lover.

    In our final meeting, she asked for a parting hug. Weeks before, she presented a pencil drawing of me holding her. Since I couldn’t predict how far she might take an embrace, I refused. Anger followed.

    Another woman, paradoxically, could not have been further from capturing my interest. She did refer to her satisfying sex life with her husband, but this wasn’t what prompted her to consult me. Nor was the brief report remarkable.

    I found nothing stimulating in her intellect, personality, appearance, or her way of walking or moving, speaking or smiling. She didn’t flirt and didn’t wear revealing clothing. I guess the lady was in her 40s or early 50s.

    And yet, I felt drawn to her. By the process of elimination, I can only conclude she produced an oversupply of pheromones.

    My boundaries and respect for those who requested guidance stopped me from considering the pursuit of touch outside those limitations, as did my love for my wife and a set of clear principles. I never needed to think about potential public humiliation, financial ruin, and vocational catastrophe.

    None of this makes me a saint, in case you wondered. If you can find one, let me know.

    But, I heard a few stories from men who did destroy their lives and those of their victims.

    Two of my patients, defrocked former ministers, sought my services because they’d taken advantage of their religious authority and charismatic charm with multiple members of their separate congregations. One still retained an imposing presence and a powerful voice, a capacity he’d used to deliver stirring sermons. His shame was almost palpable.

    Another man I’m thinking of, a doctor, employed several ex-patients in his office of female employees. Those with whom I spoke all admired him, but people in authority who provide treatment to a person in distress often receive this kind of attachment and appreciation.

    This is what erotic transference tends to involve. The transferential object needn’t be Brad Pitt or whoever is the latest heartthrob.

    Well, the odd man I’m describing owned lots of “presence,” an indefinable quality of strength or self-assertion, self-confidence, or magnetism setting an individual apart from others. One might describe it as an aura of sorts.

    Most of humanity becomes invisible in a crowd, while those with “presence” stand out no matter their size.

    Thus, perhaps it should be without surprise to discover the physician I’m describing took one of his employees, a former patient of course, into his office about once a week.

    The couch doubled as a foldout bed. If you entered his “castle” after she exited, the scent of sex remained.

    Back to me. I confess I sometimes could be a bit too attentive to the faces and bodies seeking psychological assistance. At least my eyes were. As a psychologist, you need to remind yourself of what you are doing, what your duty is and return your attention to the patient’s needs.

    This isn’t difficult if your role remains well-defined internally. Most get this right, I suspect. Otherwise, malpractice insurance costs would be closer to those of medical specialists.

    Patients test therapists. Not all, but some of those whose life histories included soul-breaking physical and emotional violations.

    A few push their new doctor with displays of anger or intimate provocation. They come to the consulting room with memories of people who appeared kind and turned cruel, the ones who offered comfort as an avenue to their own carnal and controlling advantage.

    These injured folks don’t want to be hurt again. They plan attire and enticement to assure themselves the kindly and wise Dr. Jekyll won’t become Mr. Hyde. I also encountered a couple of traumatized women who brought small knives into the office in an attempt to menace me.

    Safety and testing take many shapes. It can also serve to control the practitioner, rather than submitting to control by him.

    I’ve read nothing about erotic transference and countertransference (when the counselor experiences a desire to pursue a client) specific to the new virtual, computer-mediated age of treatment.

    It will be interesting if research informs us whether the power of transference can jump over and through the Zoom screen. I imagine it sometimes can.

    From a distance of 10 years since retirement, my take on all this is that we psychologists and other helping professionals cannot but bring the whole of our humanity and personality into our vocation. Knowing yourself well as a healer means you should keep your focus and actions in check.

    Of course, we are human, and humans do many things they shouldn’t. Be grateful, then, to find those talented professional souls who don’t, no matter their line of work.

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

    The first photo is of Ingrid Bergman and Mathias Wieman in a promotional shot from the 1954 movie Fear. The following image is a screenshot of Eva Marie Saint from On the Waterfront, also of the same year. Finally, a screenshot of Audrey Hepburn in War and Peace, a 1956 movie. All are sourced from 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.

    A Basketful of Moms

    There are lots of moms out there. You might even have had one yourself. Or more than one.

    Here are some to cheer or miss or wish they’d been better:

    • The One Everyone Wants. Loving, supportive, defending us when needed, encouraging and challenging us, too. Always there.
    • The Overburdened Mom. Too many kids, too many jobs, too many issues of her own.
    • The Stepmom. She can be either of the first two, just not the one who gave birth to you. This mother might favor her own kids or accept you as if you arose from her body.
    • The Big Sister Mom. Usually, the oldest sister, especially if you have an overburdened mom.
    • The Nextdoor Neighbor. She might have made you wish she were your own mother.
    • The Favorite Teacher Mom. If you had a winning teacher such as this, I don’t need to tell you how much she influenced and helped you.
    • The Dad Mom. The double-duty father has to take both roles when the mother is absent or ill. He might be a stay-at-home dad when the mother is the breadwinner, too.
    • The Mentor Mom. A supportive guide you find in the workplace.
    • The Role Reversal Mom. She expects you to listen to her and, to some degree, be her moral support and caretaker (long before she gets old). You hear stories from her you shouldn’t hear.
    • The “I Know Better” Mom/Grandma: She won’t accept the second banana, supportive job you’d like her to take with your kids.
    • The Good Mom/Grandma: This lady allows you to grow up whether you have kids of your own or not, and limits her unrequested advice. You are allowed to be an adult, your own person with your own ideas.
    • The Mother Who Played Favorites. Yikes is all I can say.

    Well, I’ve probably missed a few, including some of the least admirable, but you get the point. I hope the stork deposited you in the lap of the kind of mother you needed. If not, that you found a substitute elsewhere. An impossible job, for sure, but the most essential one on the globe.

    A round of applause to all the best of them and perhaps some kindness even for the rest of them.

    And to all of you who are mothers, will be, or wish you could be.

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

    The drawing is called Mother and Baby. It comes from a 1923 advertisement for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

    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.

    Does Love Die of Boredom? Some Unexpected Advice

    As the stream of time moves us on, most of us hope to find a comfortable way to manage. Few beg for more of the turbulence of early years, a period fraught with insecurity and internal confusion. “Who am I — who do I want to be?” — is a question we’d rather not ask. Psychological and physical ease is the goal.

    Yet, do we risk a life of deadening routine? Do we hold too fast to one version of our identity past the point our partner finds us dull? Even the beautiful and smart can be unlucky in love.

    Who might we consult to make ourselves forever interesting to the one we care for?

    How about someone who ended one of his most famous works with the words, “You must change your life.”

    Rainer Maria Rilke died at 51 in 1926. In his half-century, he gained an unconventional perspective on love and keeping it fresh. He thirsted for experiences, wishing to absorb the world with new eyes as if he were seeing his surroundings — human and natural — for the first time.

    The poet often praises those who make perception into an activity, not the automatic, passive accumulation of sights, sounds, and smells entering our awareness without effort. He wants it to be alive, not rendered invisible by his failure to recognize more than customary appearances.

    In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, insightful observation requires intention: an attempt to make the familiar unfamiliar, nor turn from what troubles us when we look and listen closely.

    Here is an example from the title character Brigge:

    There are many people, but even more faces, since everyone has several. There are people who wear a face for years, and of course it wears away, gets dirty, cracks in the creases, stretches like gloves you’ve worn whilst traveling.

    Rilke’s words push us to take a new look at the next face we behold. He implies more exists behind faces than we thought. The portrayal of Brigge discloses a young man attentive to subtlety and nuance, the qualities arrayed before him available to his sight: the sensory world we find unremarkable without the effort to inspect it.

    Now imagine yourself attached to someone like Rilke, woman or man, who transforms part of the experiences you take for granted.

    At age 27, Rilke received a letter from a 19-year-old, with whom he continued a prolonged but occasional correspondence. The younger man, a military student named Franz Kappus, sought advice on his own literary efforts.

    The compilation of Rainer Maria’s side of the exchange appears in his Letters to a Young Poet.

    In the eighth of his 10 communications, dated August 12, 1904, Rilke addresses the reasons he believed sweethearts became boring.

    For it is not only indolence that causes human relationships to be repeated from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before any new, inconceivable experience, which we don’t think we can deal with.

    Note, Rilke doesn’t say one of the lovers is boring. He says tedium grows out of hesitation to take on new inward and outward adventures. He continues:

    But only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.

    For if we imagine this being of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. In this way they have a certain security.

    The above passage suggests courage is the inoculation preventing the death of intimacy. Moreover, Rilke believes it will foster not only closeness but also Kappus’s self-discovery. In eaves-dropping on a century-old private exchange, we are allowed to ask if we too remain in “a corner of (our) room” out of a desire for security and safety.

    The older man’s message continues to explore this idea:

    And yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells.

    We, however, are not prisoners.

    Later, both Kappus and we are told why we ought to flee our self-imposed confinement and embrace the wider world.

    If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them.

    And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.

    How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses.

    Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

    The dragons might also be thought of as personal shortcomings hidden by the masks we wear — the truth we hide from others and ourselves. The writer suggests we take the role of a sculptor of our individual humanity, forever adapting, shaping, and experimenting with an identity which new circumstances, aging, and personal history demand we change.

    Rilke asks us to begin self-examination, to stand erect and naked before the sunlit mirror, and declare, “This is who I am.” The static life, he might tell us, is a missed opportunity. He applauds those who wish to know more — endlessly.

    The whole of humanity will never take Rilke’s advice. Not everyone accepts life’s unexpressed invitation to discover who they are and create who they strive to be. I suspect the man is speaking of rare creatures among us.

    Perhaps they would be the metaphorical tightrope walkers and fire-eaters, and those to whom love or justice or freedom are worth everything they possess — everything they must endure for the chance to achieve them.

    In our challenging mortal world, Rilke recommends we mull over unnecessary boundaries and barricades built for self-protection, some of which cost us the fulfillment we say we want.

    Since the clock on our duration keeps its steady pace toward the ends of things, we do well to live with a tempered urgency to be more, notice more, and do more.

    And if we are lucky and his suggestions are correct, win and maintain a lasting love.

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

    The quotations from Letters to a Young Poet are a part of one long paragraph. I’ve broken the sentences up to better clarify your understanding and my commentary.

    The first painting is August Macke’s 1914 Tightrope Walker. The second is Tightrope Walkers,1944, by Remedios Varo. Finally comes Giorgio de Chirico’s 1926 The Two Masks. All of these come from Wikiart.org/

    Should You Trust Your Gut?

    Trust your gut, they say. This is commonplace advice, sometimes even offered by therapists. I ask you, though, dear reader, to consider the world. Should those who are trusting their intuition, their instincts, their fervor-driven sense of righteousness continue to “trust their gut?”

    I get the idea — the intention — of those who believe wisdom is discoverable in the body, its sensations, and instinctive tendencies. They think you may be in danger of working against yourself, not honoring your personal truth. You have dismissed or discounted something within to which you should be listening.

    Whoa.

    The data on the subject suggests hesitation. Not that you will always be wrong when relying on your feelings, nor right if you evaluate possible future action in a more analytic, rational way. Rather, the “gut” provides worthwhile direction in some situations, while in others better guidance leads to questioning its message.

    Before we go deeper, let’s summarize both sides of the argument.

    PRO TRUST:

    Each of us is the product of the long evolutionary chronicle of our ancestors. The qualities helpful to their survival and procreation are wired inside of us, their descendants. Necessity often demanded quick decisions with few comparable memories upon which to tap. Our existence as 21st-century humans proves the excellence of many of their actions.

    We all possess an internal sense of ourselves unknowable beyond the boundary of our skin. This personal state is informative. We need to honor its wisdom.

    In many instances, we have no books to consult, no time to find scientific scholarship applicable to the present decision confronting us. Besides, abstract ideas can’t tell us if we should date person X, try to make friends with individual Y, or talk back to parent Z.

    MAYBE, MAYBE NOT:

    Few of us avoid mistakes in judgment. For instance, our first impression of a bright or attractive acquaintance often causes us to believe he is also superior in other, unseen ways. Only time and additional contact reveal the truth. A swift, positive, global opinion is called a “halo effect.”

    The choices made at a “feeling level” discount how emotions can lead us astray. Think of the occasions when love, anger, revenge, or fear has led to worsening your troubles.

    Homo sapiens are poor affective forecasters. The research of Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues demonstrates a tendency to underestimate our emotional resilience and durability when imagining our reaction to life’s disappointments. Put another way, we are lousy at deep-seated, unthinking predications of our well-being in the months and years ahead.

    The divorce rate supports the same notion; so do the common, but erroneous, expectations of a wonderful life following a giant lottery award. The optimistic assumption of a large, lasting boost of happiness delivered by children over the course of the time they live with us is generally incorrect, as well.

    THE CONCLUSION:

    The simplest answer on trusting your gut, your feelings, or your instincts is this: the matter depends on the quality and quantity of your previous exposure to situations like the one in which you find yourself.

    Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein* looked at how and what experts learned while practicing their profession. The “gift” or “sixth-sense” required years of particularized employment in the field.

    As the first author wrote in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, two conditions are necessary for acquiring the skill endowing people with this kind of savvy:

    • an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable

    • an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice

    Gary Klein described how this applies to firefighting commanders. How do they know, he wondered, what decisions to make on the spot without comparing options in a systematic and time-consuming fashion?

    They could draw on the repertoire of patterns they had compiled during more than a decade of both real and virtual experience to identify a plausible option, which they considered first.

    They evaluated this option by mentally simulating it to see if it would work in the situation they were facing…. If the course of action seemed appropriate, they would implement it. If it had shortcomings, they would modify it.

    If they could not easily modify it, they would turn to the next most plausible option and run through the same procedure until an acceptable course of action was found.

    Master chess players have this capacity — this intuition — to size up a chessboard in mid-game, almost at once. Anesthesiologists do, too. The regularity, orderliness and limited nature of the countless cases they have encountered provided the prompt feedback on their performance needed to “become” intuitive.

    The outcome of the contest or the surgery graded their choices straight away.

    What does this tell us about our own ability to come up with instinctive, “felt” decisions in everyday life?

    Much hinges on what our exposure has been to the kind of circumstances offering immediate success or failure from which to learn. We lack the thousands upon thousands of contests played by a grandmaster or the uncounted number of patients over decades of training and work as an anesthesiologist.

    Such examples of expert, rapid grasp of the essential features of an event pertains to the part of human experience governed by clear cut guidelines or rules. The physician makes use of his remembered storehouse of biological, physiological, and chemical science. The Chessmaster retrieves his internal archive of permitted movements of the chess pieces and the results of past strategies he and others employed.

    Human relationships, in contrast, have more variables, unknowable psychological dynamics, no access to what another person is thinking or sensing in the moment, or a complete history of his life. They are not orderly.

    A political pundit or a stockbroker faces a task every bit as daunting and unpredictable. Kahneman says any claim from them of extraordinary intuition is “self-delusional at best, sometimes worse.”

    Having said this, I doubt you shall give up on your hunches. Remember, though, the information you receive about the adequacy or error of your choice of friends and lovers, for example, often is delayed and equivocal.

    Some people are good to be around one-on-one and not in a group, trustworthy in fulfilling our routine expectations but not all, pleasant in the short run but not for long.

    Most of us are permitted but a slice of time with individuals we believe we know well. Full understanding might take years of both talk and observation, however. Their secrets and private behavior leave us ignorant of their darker corners.

    In summary, I’d suggest you hesitate when you are told to “trust your gut.” Other than those moments when delay is impossible, many problems give you the luxury of getting advice, reflecting on patterns of comparable past encounters, and recalling your own default tendencies.

    The latter might include your basic optimism or pessimism, inclination to approach or avoid, extraversion or introversion, toughness or vulnerability, etc.

    You might consider alternative interpretations of what you confront and estimate the potential benefits and costs of imagined ways of dealing with whatever is ahead. Don’t forget to ask yourself what mood you are in and whether you are hungry! The influence of temporary states such as these might be significant.

    If it makes you feel any better, well-trained counselors with untold hours of experience shouldn’t always “trust their gut” either.

    There is lots of research on this, too!

    ——————–

    The painting, Freedom from Fear, derives from Wikimedia Commons and is described this way:

    The Four Freedoms is a series of four 1943 oil paintings by the American artist Norman Rockwell. The paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—are each approximately 45.75 inches (116.2 cm) × 35.5 inches (90 cm), and are now in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The four freedoms refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union address in which he identified essential human rights that should be universally protected. The theme was incorporated into the Atlantic Charter, and became part of the charter of the United Nations. The paintings were reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post over four consecutive weeks in 1943, alongside essays by prominent thinkers of the day.

    Following that image I’ve placed a photo taken by Staff Sargent Craig Cisek of the U.S. Air Force. It shows a firefighter spraying water during a simulated C-130 Hercules plane crash. The image is also sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

    *Conditions for Intuitive Expertise: A Failure to Disagree

    Is There a Downside to Beauty?

    The legend tells us that King Midas, given a choice of any reward in the world, requested “the golden touch.The fulfillment of his wish left him overjoyed. Everything at hand could be turned to gold!

    When dinner arrived, however, the greedy regent discovered a downside. The food, once meeting his flesh, became the inedible precious metal.

    He starved to death.

    With Midas as an example, we might ask ourselves what becomes of those who receive another much wished-for gift: beauty.

    The upside is well-known: attention, popularity, crowds of suitors, and more. Data suggest this group gets higher ratings on a wide range of characteristics. More social and career doors are thought to open, too.

    The challenges of being adorable receive less comment. Here are a few of the problems attached to living inside a lovely face or form. Not every such individual suffers them all, but please imagine I’m talking about you.

    • Start with stereotyping. Think of golden curls atop your head. Some will suppose you are foolish, scatterbrained, and insubstantial. Thoughtless discounting of your loftier attributes must be overcome, at least in the USA.
    • What happens when you speak? Will your voice and words alter your appeal? Might dullness downsize the appraisal?
    • Acquaintances sometimes think physical charm places the lucky one at the front of every line. Such onlookers suppose your innate power to enchant obliterates all obstacles. They misunderstand your life.
    • Jealousy follows from the idea of “unearned rewards.” Some conclude your professional achievement came because of a “special relationship” with a supervisor or boss. Sexual harassment and gossip remain a hazard for all women.
    • If you are introverted, the buzz of attraction you create might overwhelm and fatigue you. The world expects you to be delighted to mingle among multiple eyes and swiveling heads. Refusal to attend group events can label you as rude or “stuck-up.
    • The potency of physical allure lays a trap for the gorgeous. Shall you depend on your attractiveness alone to generate a satisfying life? Perhaps you can prosper without much education, wit, or humanity – for a while. You would do better to recognize your season comes – and goes.
    • Aging for the comely one, when her self-image depends too much on the mirror’s reflection, carries dreaded anticipations of future invisibility. The male gaze includes no lifetime guarantee. Cosmetic surgery can slow but not stop the clock. The battle with a younger self is unwinnable.
    • A life graced by a perfect “package” does not eliminate all the hurdles and heartbreaks suffered by homo sapiens. Work, dating, friendship, athletics, and raising children offer satisfaction, but also potential woe. This fact remains unknown to those who think your angelic wings lift you beyond everyday travail.

    • Comparisons abound. You will be compared to your friends and offspring by the friends and offspring themselves. Observers note the pecking order in any lineup and coworkers join in the chorus of the judges and the judged. Many will name you a blessing, some a complication to their place in the world.
    • Your life as an object of desire means categorization as a competitor. The insecure will be troubled by your presence. If you divorce, do not expect your position within your community of friends to go unaffected. You are now a threat.
    • The exquisiteness of a woman both enhances and complicates the search for a mate, scares some men off, and causes commodification by the players. The role of a trophy – shiny, polished, and metallic – won’t keep you warm inside.
    • All of us understand society through the lens of personal experience. With enough time and interaction with people, we begin to fathom those who are different from us.
    • The magnetic life of a radiant creature presents her with the task of grasping the psychological state of peers who sit below the radar she never escapes herself. Since ravishing visions are always in short supply, those who are “easy on the eyes” tend to lack a confidant who identifies with being “the fairest of them all.

    Even if you are a member of the club I’ve described here, you needn’t fit my description. On balance, it is thought far better to be attractive than not, just as it is preferable to be the tallest candidate for President of the USA. He wins the popular vote in most elections.

    Few of us would turn down a pleasing combination of body and brain. I’m not suggesting you should. But when we think of the best-looking mermaids in our pool, perhaps we might recall they occasionally envy our safety from fishermen and their hooks.

    —–

    The three images above are publicity photos sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Ingrid Bergman picture was used to promote her 1944 MGM movie Gaslight, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

    Next comes Joan Crawford in a 1936 shot taken by George Hurrell. Finally, Dorothy Malone as captured in 1956 by Universal International Pictures.