Can You Stop a Person Determined to Commit Suicide? Afterthoughts on Watching “Goodbye Solo”

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Can you save someone who is suicidal? What would you do? If you are like most folks, you’d try to talk him out of it, remind him of what he has to live for, and stay close by to make sure he doesn’t act. You might urge him to get therapy or medication, call 911 or send for an ambulance.

When the patient tells a therapist about his suicidal thoughts, some counselors will ask “Why haven’t you committed suicide?” This is not an attempt to encourage it. Rather, depressed patients will often answer the question by stating what connects them to life. They might refer to religious beliefs, children or family, the hope of a better future, or whatever presently keeps them hanging on. And now the therapist has a sense of whether there is imminent danger and what he has to work with that can keep the patient alive.

Counselors routinely ask new patients about depression and the details of any plan they have to harm themselves. They want to know about a history of such attempts and the person’s tendency to be impulsive. Their concern is heightened if their client is more than usually comfortable with physical pain, a characteristic that can make “the act” easier. They seek information about the individual’s network of friends and family, hoping that he has a web of supportive people.

The healer tries to determine whether the patient believes that he doesn’t count in the world (or worse) that he is a burden on others. Therapists must evaluate the possibility of alcohol or drug use which can create the disinhibition to make the suicide attempt. They ask whether he is suffering from a loss which, if grieved, might provide relief in time.

But sometimes, even an excellent therapist can only do so much. Sometimes medication can do only so much. Sometimes electro-shock therapy fails. And then there are those who will try none of these remedies or, having tried them, stop trying. Which brings us back to the question posed in the title of this essay: can you permanently prevent the suicide of a person committed to it, especially someone whose life is largely behind him?

This query is brought to mind by watching a 2008 American movie of understated eloquence called Goodbye Solo, directed by Ramin Bahrani, and starring Souléymane Sy Savané and Red West. You might recognize Red West, a boyhood friend of Elvis who worked as his body-guard and as a stunt man before he became a character actor.

Seventy-two-years-old at the time the film was released, West has the visage of a man who has lived through everything, paid for each act of recklessness with a line on his face, and suffered more heartache than any 10 of us. He plays a character called William. Solo is his African émigré cab driver in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The proposition William offers the cabbie is simple: agree to take him to the top of Blowing Rock mountain in several days for $1000. He never states why, but the cabbie and the audience know it is to jump off and kill himself.

cigarettes aren't doing the job, so Red West decides to end his life on his own schedule in 'Goodbye Solo' (that's the taxi driver on the couch)

They are strangers, but Solo comes from a place where human relationships count for a lot. Moreover, he is an optimistic man, set on improving life for himself and his family. He hopes to become a flight attendant. Solo believes that he can alter his circumstances and that life will take-off for him, not come to the crashing end that William, twice solo’s age, envisions for himself. The cab driver does his best to connect with this old man; to engage him socially, to make friends, to have good times, to bring him into his own modest home; to inject William with some of his optimism about life.

We never find out much about William’s background, although he appears to have no significant social contact and no work to fill his time or give it meaning. There are hints of what life has done to him, or what he has done to himself, but Solo cannot discover much more than William wants him to know. It becomes clear that William’s suicidal intention has been well thought-out; that his plan is not impulsive.

William is not unappreciative of Solo’s efforts, not so fully out of touch with life that he has stopped caring about what happens to certain others. Nor does he dismiss the beauty of nature, if one can conclude that fact by his choice of Blowing Rock as the place of his demise: the last thing he will see (if he follows through with his plan) is the staggering magnificence of the vista beyond the mountain (see the top photo). After all, he could instead blow his brains out in his motel room.

In effect, Goodbye Solo puts a question to us: what is one to do when a long life — a rough life — has simply become too much? When one is care-worn, broken-down, and deadened, but not yet dead? When the beauty of nature and a child’s smile no longer compensate? When the kindness of strangers — their caring and concern — either isn’t enough or is too frightening because it portends only more vulnerability and loss if one allows them in?

Data from the American Association of Suicidology suggest that these are not idle concerns. Although the elderly made up only 12.5% of the population as of 2007, they accounted for 15.7% of all suicides. Moreover, men over 65 were more than seven times as likely to kill themselves than were women of the same age, and this difference grew as they aged.

Lest you become too depressed in reading this essay, you might wish to know a remarkable story that describes how a willingness to play out the hand you are dealt can be a far better choice than to “fold” and leave the game too early: “In Defeat Defiance:” Suicide and the Danger of Giving Up Too Soon. Therapists are sworn enemies of suicide and hopelessness, of course. Religion and loved ones try to silence such thoughts, as well.

But, especially for some elderly men, the questions are persistent. Can you stop a person like William — as old as William — determined to commit suicide? Can Solo? Should Solo?

Watch the movie.

Special thanks to my friend Bernie for recommending this film. The first image is of Blowing Rock by Ken Thomas, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second photo comes from the movie, Goodbye Solo, left to right, Red West and Souléymane Sy Savané.

Thou Shalt or Thou Shalt Not?

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In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, a few of my patients spontaneously offered some interesting commentary. It amounted to the following: they felt uncomfortable celebrating his assassination. They viewed the immediate and most visible response to bin Laden’s death as if the general public entered into some bizarre and gigantic adaptation of the scene from the Wizard of Oz  in which most everyone is singing “Ding Dong, The Wicked Witch is Dead.”

Please understand, none of them thought he was a good guy. They all believed he was an evil man on the order of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong. All of my patients believed that the world would be a better place without him. And, they understood the sense of relief, exhilaration, and justice expressed in the streets and around Ground Zero of the 9/11/01 attacks.

But, he was still a human being, murdered with relatives — who included his children — close by. And here we were, waving flags, chanting “USA,” singing, and celebrating. It simply felt uncomfortable for the few patients who mentioned it, who were also aware of the bittersweet nature of this man’s death, especially for those who were most harshly affected by his life.

This got me to thinking about how we view moral rules and exceptions to those rules, including the biblical admonition not to kill.

What follows is a brief commentary on a few of the Ten Commandments — how they are understood and how most of us create some wiggle-room with respect to carrying them out or not. You will note that I skip a few:

  •  “… you shall have no other gods before me.” I find this interesting because it does not say that you cannot have other gods. Rather, you are told not to place any other gods higher than the god of the commandments. Remember that polytheism was common in the ancient world, so a relative ranking of gods might not have struck people as unusual at the time these rules were written.
  •  “… for I the lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me …” Here, it seems not only that are you in trouble if you reject the almighty, but so are your kids, and your kid’s kids, etc. Contemporary civil justice rejects this notion.
  •  “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slaves may rest as well …”

Relatively few among us in American society follow the letter of this direction. Even if we do not personally work (or study), we may employ others who work in our stead. Interesting too, that no mention is made here of the inappropriateness of slavery. Rather, it seems to be considered acceptable, and advises only that you give your slaves one day of rest per week.

  •  “Honor your father and your mother…” Well, does that include a parent who abandoned you or abused you, too?
  • “You shall not kill/murder.” This allows for no exceptions, but civilized societies commonly make exceptions for self-defense, justice, and war.
  • “Neither shall you commit adultery.” Although most agree that this shouldn’t be done, it is obviously done quite a lot. Some even justify it. See my blog: Infidelity and Its Treatment
  •  Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife. Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Boy, if we really could wipe out the “desire” mentioned here, Western economies would fall like dominos. Envy fueled by advertising is omnipresent. Without that desire, cars, jewelry, homes, clothing, and gadgets of all kinds would be valued only in terms of utility, not because they are necessary to “keep up with the Joneses.”

One of the toughest things in life is to match up what we say and what we do. Life is complex and some amount of compromise, not to mention relativism is inevitable: not every situation easily permits the use of a hard and fast rule. Certainly, these commandments have not been taken literally in every situation as we live them, whatever lips service we might give to their importance and guidance.

It is more than understandable that Osama bin Laden’s death would be celebrated in this country; or, at least, provide a sense of some relief and satisfaction, despite the biblical injunction not to kill.

Somewhere, though, in the fading sounds of the near festive gatherings surrounding the announcement of his death, is the quiet rejoinder of John Donne. The last four lines, in particular, just might capture a bit of the sentiment that my patients were referring to:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The photo above is part of the house which John Donne occupied in Pyrford, England; taken by Suzanne Knights, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

John Donne’s words come from his 1624 Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation 17.

“I’m Still So in Love:” Why We Must Give Up the Ghost

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Some patients haunt your memory.

I recall treating a teenager who had lost her father suddenly.  It had actually been many years since he died, but she remained cut-off from the world and her family.

Friends were kept at a distance, her mother was pushed away, and her stepfather was never permitted to come close to her, try us he might.

Never ever.

Her mother and mom’s second husband worried about her self-isolation, so they brought her in to see me.

As the treatment progressed, I discovered that this young woman thought about her father a lot.

Every day.

She would review the memories that she still retained of his kindness and warmth.

Of course, I’d never met him, but I got the sense that she had idealized him — fashioned her memory so as to make him a vision of perfection that no flesh and blood mortal can hope to achieve.

And the recollected reproduction of her father, almost like a ghost, remained the most intimate connection of her life.

Not just historically, but even while I was treating her.

In fact, sometimes she would talk to him; one way, naturally, since she was not psychotic. And that provided her with a kind of closeness that was the best she could do to recreate the comfort that her dad had provided when this young woman was little.

As the protagonist states in Robert Anderson’s play I Never Sang For My Father, sometimes “death ends a life, but not a relationship.”

The people — the real people who reached out to my patient — found her unresponsive. They could not compare — could not compete — with the vanished flawlessness of her dad; an excellence that, after all, probably never existed in the first place, however dedicated and fine a man he might have been.

Moreover, her “relationship” with her father was safe: the dead cannot die on you; or reject you; or move away. They are utterly reliable and totally benign, unlike the rest of us.

As most of us do, my patient had been trying to protect herself from the injuries that life delivers from without, but left unguarded those equally tender places that are open to the wounds that come from within.

When a child loses a parent early on, she often loses the surviving parent, as well.

No, not to death, but to grief. Having lost a spouse, the surviving despondent parent (more often than not) is unavailable to aid the children. She is too bereft herself to be able to be the life-giving, supportive, attentive, omnipresent presence that children sometimes need a parent to be.

Worst of all, it is precisely at this time of loss that the child needs the surviving parent most desperately. And, it is at precisely this time that the remaining parent is least available and least capable of giving what he or she might wish to give, if only he or she could.

The result is a double-loss: one dead parent and another who is, for a time at least, a dead man walking, the half-alive state that we all know from the shock and privation and emptiness of a broken heart; a heart that one cannot imagine will ever heal.

It is no one’s fault, certainly not that of the grieving adult. Rather, this is just one of those dreadful ironies of the human condition: in the moment of loss and for some time after, the now-single parent has no capacity to do what must be done.

But the child needs that impossible thing, all the same.

Once I came to understand that my patient was still in a relationship with her father, her therapeutic needs became clear.

She needed to grieve the loss of her father to a satisfactory conclusion — a grieving that had been prevented by her fear of bringing up her own loss with her mother as much as her mother’s inability to console her child.

She needed to realize that she had put her life on hold by clinging to a ghost who, of course, could only provide so much warmth.

She needed to open herself to a stepfather who longed to engage her, even if he could not be the plaster saint her father had become; and the peers who were ready to provide their own rewards, even if they could not replace her dad.

The therapy worked out well.

My patient did not so much lose her relationship to her deceased father as let him go to a different place in her memory and in her heart.

It helped for her to answer the question, “What would your father want for you if only he could tell you?” Because the only answer he would have given (and she knew this) was that the beloved father of her dreams would want the best for her; and for her to reattach to life and to the people who could give her something that he could not.

After all, he was dead.

And so, she said goodbye to him. At last, she let him die.

So that, finally, she could live.

The photo above is of ectoplasmic mist at Union Cemetary, CT on 10/29/2004 by 2112guy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Why Therapists Want to Talk about Your Childhood

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Why do we have to talk about my childhood? Shouldn’t I be over that? What difference does that make now?

Sometimes, it makes all the difference.

Not everyone requires an in-depth therapeutic look at their childhood. Many people can benefit from short-term treatment to get over a crisis, a recent loss, or current relationship issues.

Others will profit from a cognitive-behavioral approach (CBT) that works to change present day action, thought, and emotion.

But there are times when the past is a dead-weight on one’s life, preventing any kind of lift-off into a more productive, joyous, lofty, airborne, less anxious and guilty way of being; one that is not grounded by a gravity — an invisible force — that seems to pull one back to a repetitive cycle of sadness, regret, and chronic avoidance of challenges.

An example:

Take an intelligent young woman in her 20s — movie-star beautiful — with a quirky sense of humor, and more than average intelligence. Her parents praised only her beauty, but derided everything else about her. From an early time their constant criticism made her worried about displeasing friends; and later on, lovers.

She learned that she could make a dazzling first impression while hiding her anticipation that others would find out what she offered was only skin deep.

This woman’s super-model exterior and surface gaiety belied her belief that there was nothing inside of her that was really valuable. She hid the thoughts and feelings that her parents had always put down, so as to prevent people from discovering her vulnerabilities.

But even when she was successful at “fooling them into thinking” that she was better than she really was, the praise and approval she received only persuaded her that she was a good actress — that beneath the stage makeup she was nothing — just nothing but an empty, worthless shell.

Her anxiety about being “exposed” for the fraud she felt herself to be was combined with a depression that grew out of her failure to win her parents’ love. And, in order to achieve that love, she continued to try to extend herself and prove herself to them, only to be rejected or neglected or taken advantage of once again, thus confirming her sense of worthlessness.

Unfortunately, she was also drawn to potential boyfriends and platonic companions who resembled her parents in their mistreatment of her — as if the only love worth having was one that would allow her to triumph over rejection and win the affection of someone who resembled her parents in their lack of affection for her.

Our heroine succeeded in graduating from college and getting a good job. But none of this filled her up more than temporarily, just as a new purchase of an attractive dress might make her feel good for a few hours or days until she sank back into her default state of sadness and misgiving.

Now imagine that you are her therapist. What would you do?

Tell her that she is beautiful, talented, and accomplished (as evidenced by her academic and vocational success)?

She has already tried to tell herself this, she has already heard this from others, and she still feels bad.

Work with her to improve her social skills?

She is already skilled socially; “a good actress,” as she would characterize it. She is able to be assertive professionally and put-up a good front; until, of course, it involves a personal relationship about which she feels strongly.

Send her to a psychiatrist for anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication.

Perhaps, but this does not guarantee that she won’t continue to have the same self-doubts and make the same bad relationship choices of people who treat her poorly.

Use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help her “talk back” to her negative self-attributions (put-downs of herself) and help her to evaluate herself more objectively.

This is not likely to be sufficiently helpful by itself if she continues to favor people who reject her, caught in some version of the old Groucho Marx joke: “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.”

Use CBT to help her gradually stand-up to the people who are treating her badly.

Again, this might be somewhat useful, but will be countered by her belief that there is something wrong with her, and that she deserves the mistreatment she receives. Moreover, it will be hard to be assertive because of her terror that she will lose these same people if she pushes back against them.

What then is left?

In my opinion, this lovely young woman will have to begin to see (really see) and feel what has happened in her life, going back as far as necessary to the mistreatment she received at the hands of her parents: their failure to give more than lip-service to loving her, their cruelty, their inattention when she did something that should have been praised, their criticism, and their tendency to make her feel deficient and guilty.

If she does not see them for who they are, she is likely to continue to believe that it was largely her own inadequacy that caused her to fail in her quest for their love. And, if she continues to place them even on a relatively low pedestal, she will also keep reaching out for love from all the wrong people — the people who remind her of those parents; those who possess the only kind of love she wants because it is unconsciously associated with her parents.

It is not enough that this patient becomes intellectually aware of all that I’ve described.

For therapy of this kind to be successful, she will have to feel it, not just know it.

Feel it intensely.

Why?

Early life is a “hot” moment in virtually any life. Emotions are highly charged in children. We have not yet learned how to regulate those feelings, and so we are very, very vulnerable to injury. Nor do we have any of the defenses or the intellectual understanding of things and of people that will help us later to navigate the choppy waters of life.

And so, in this “hot” and challenging early time in our existence, we begin to formulate solutions to the difficulties of life.

For example, if voicing opinions different from dad’s beliefs results in his condemnation, many kids will learn to keep their mouths shut and internalize their feelings. Meanwhile, they are likely to feel diminished and less good about themselves if there is too little love and too much criticism.

A parent’s opinion counts enormously in the formation of the child’s self-image.

Time passes and the child perhaps has succeeded in reducing, at least a little, the amount of displeasure, anger, and targeted discontent coming from his mom or dad. So the behavior of keeping a low profile and “acting the part” that the parents expect is reinforced, even though depression and self-loathing are below the surface.

Such choices are made by the child unconsciously, but seem to make the best of a bad situation and become a well-ingrained pattern of behavior.

Eventually the child becomes a teen and soon a young adult, away from a good portion of the daily parental disapproval. Now, having established some defenses and skill in handling life, the crackling tension of early childhood is over. Instead of the ever-present hot moments of early life, existence now consists mostly of many more “cool” moments in which the pattern of behavior becomes solidified and habitual.

Think of it this way. A small child is like a piece of metal in a forge or foundry. The searing affective cauldron of early life is like the super-heated nature of a forge, designed to make the metal malleable so that it can be wrought or cast. Unfortunately, in the childhoods I’ve been describing, the little piece of metal that is this tiny life is shaped by the destructive forces of the household into a form that is warped; not fully serviceable.

With the passage of time and the “cooling down” of the emotional intensity of that life, the newly shaped adult — like the forged or cast piece of metal — is no longer malleable. The pattern and outline he or she is now in — the self-opinions and self-defenses that were established in the forge — have taken on a permanent, fixed form. The same ways of living developed while young continue to be used to some extent, even if they are not all that useful; even if conditions have changed.

Obviously, new learning is still possible, but at the deepest level — the level of self concept and self-love, as well as the tendency to be drawn to certain kinds of people when looking for love — alteration of the shape or form or way of living is much harder to achieve.

What then does therapy do to assist with this much-needed alteration?

The therapist and patient work together to re-enter the “forge” of childhood, that time of “hot” moments when personality was fashioned into its current image.

Once back in the foundry, the emotion generated in recollecting that time can make one malleable again: capable of being reshaped and of reshaping oneself into a less self-critical person who believes in his value and no longer seems so drawn to people who are excessively critical.

Therapists who do this kind of “depth” or “psychodynamic” psychotherapy may well encourage the patient to journal — even to write autobiographical essays. They can be assisted in remembering what seem like incidental details of early life such as their school teachers, the friend who sat next to them in third grade, the path they took to walk home, what TV shows they watched, the time of day that mom or dad came home, the summer vacations that were taken, the sounds present in the home, the aroma of cooked foods, and so forth.

Anything that might be useful to jog emotion and memory is fair game, including old photos and report cards, conversations with siblings or childhood friends, and revisiting the neighborhood in which one was raised.

The process can be painfully difficult. Indeed, it must generate significant emotion to reproduce, as far as possible, the forge-like nature of early life — the conditions which permit a realignment of internal interpretations, understanding, and feelings. Grieving over the losses of the past can only come with openness to whatever is felt and discovered in digging up the psychic “can of worms” that sometimes is to be found in one’s past.

And it is the emotion connected to the early trauma that, when finally re-experienced to at least a partial degree, proves cathartic and informative; allows one to realize that “it wasn’t your fault;” at least not to the disqualifying extent that you have come to believe it.

Sometimes there is a “break through” moment, as in the film Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon and Robin Williams. But even without that kind of emotionally generated epiphany, this type of treatment can be transformative.

Of course, not everyone needs to do this. A more cognitive behavioral approach along side this type of exploration may also be helpful in some cases.

But sometimes there is simply no substitute for the hands-in-the-dirt and feet-to-the-fire process that I’ve described.

Take heart.

If your therapist wants to talk to you about your childhood, sometimes it might just be exactly what you need; just exactly the cauterizing instrument that your hurt is waiting for.

Remember — the heat of the forge can be hard to withstand, but upon emerging from it perhaps you will notice that its warmth has healed your lonely heart.

The above image is Metallurgist working by the blast furnaces in Třinec Iron and Steel Works courtesy of Třinecké železárny, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Of Clocks and Weddings and Getting Cold Feet

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It could have happened to you, but it probably didn’t.

The young man was 28 years old and in love with a 21-year-old beauty. His prospects were not great, but he had finally landed a steady job at the Post Office near the end of an economic downturn. Marriage was now possible, his intended said “yes,” and her parents gave their permission.

A marriage license would be required.

They agreed to meet in downtown Chicago at the famous Marshall Field and Company Building, now known as Macy’s. That block-long edifice faces State Street on the west, Randolph on the north, and Washington on the south.

The time was set. From Field’s they would make the short walk to City Hall to get the legal document.

“We’ll meet under the Field’s clock,” he’d said off-handedly and she’d quickly agreed.

The day came and at the appointed time he was there. Right under the clock at Randolph and State as he’d promised.

Only she wasn’t.

What could have happened? Did she get delayed? Was she injured?

Or, just perhaps, did she get cold feet?

Meanwhile, a lovely young woman aged 21 stood at the corner of Washington and State.

And she was thinking to herself, “What happened to Milton? He is always so punctual. Where could he be? I’m standing under the clock just as we agreed.”

You see, a small misunderstanding had occurred. Marshall Field’s had two clocks, one at each State Street corner.

It wasn’t long before one or the other figured things out and walked toward the corner opposite. The meeting occurred, only a little late. The marriage license was obtained and the wedding followed later that year, just as planned.

Both the bride and the groom showed up for that, on time and in the right place.

My parents’ wedding.

How easily it all could have gone wrong, in which case, you wouldn’t be reading this and I wouldn’t have written it, because I never would have been even “a twinkle” in my father’s eye, as he sometimes referred to me.

And my wife couldn’t have married me — a man who didn’t exist. And our kids would never have been born, etc., etc.

Getting “stood up” at weddings is hardly unheard of. Movies have been made about such events. Think Runaway Bride with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Then there was the 2005 media circus surrounding Jennifer Carol Wilbanks, who disappeared in order to avoid wedding bells, later falsely stating (in an effort to explain her absence at the alter) that she had been abducted and sexually assaulted.

The worst “real life” tale of this type that I ever heard from someone personally involved in the event concerned a “high society” wedding — one for which no expense had been spared, enormous numbers of people had been invited, and everyone showed up other than the groom, who didn’t even call ahead to cancel or ever apologize to his fiance by letter, e-mail, phone, or text message, and certainly not face-to-face.

And then there is an Internet story of a young man who actually went so far as to go through the wedding ceremony and reception, only to speak to the assembled throng of well-wishers declaring that he intended to get an annulment the next day because of his new wife’s recent sexual escapade with his best man, upon which he pulled out photos of the two that more than verified his report.

Now there are those who would say that “everything happens for a reason,” and that everything turns out well in the end.

I am not one of those people. I believe in accidents, good and bad, which seem to be randomly distributed despite our best efforts to control events.

And, as far as happy endings are concerned, they do happen sometimes, although not everything ends happily.

But, I do believe that you have to make the best of things.

The young woman of the “high society” wedding I mentioned was humiliated and devastated, but did eventually marry a man who loved her to pieces and actually showed up on their wedding day to prove it. They’ve been married forever and continue to be very much in love.

And, it’s hard to argue that the man who promised annulment would have been better off married for more than a day to his unfaithful if temporary spouse.

Let’s hope they both learned something from the experience and went on to find happiness elsewhere.

In the end, especially when you are young, most set-backs are relatively brief, especially if you have some resilience.

Of course, whatever children might have been born of the last two ill-starred matches I’ve described never came to be.

A good thing? Not a good thing?

Did we miss the next baby Beethoven (who was born of a very unhappy marriage)?

I can’t say.

All I know for sure is that I’m glad my folks had enough confidence in their love to stick around, and that one of them walked down the block to find the other.

But for that… well, you know.

One of the two State Street clocks of the old Marshall Field and Company Building in Chicago, now known as Macy’s. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons, photo by DDima.

My Way or the Eternal Highway: The Business of Heaven

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Does heaven exist and, if so, will your atheist brother get in?

This is the sort of question that bothers lots of the faithful. And a Christian pastor named Rob Bell has stirred the pot with Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

I guess that would include you and me.

Apparently, what most bothers the more doctrinaire believers about Bell’s tome is that eventually everyone, even those who do not lead fully exemplary Christian lives, can be saved and go to heaven. In other words, “love wins” even for people whose beliefs don’t line up with those who go “by the (good) book” during their lifetime, even including the possibility of heavenly eternity for those of entirely different religions.

No more need to worry about that brother of yours, your mom or dad, or all those honorable people whose religious faith (or lack there of) is different from yours.

This would mean, of course, that there is no longer any need to convert others to your particular way of thinking and believing.

Look for the missionaries to be lining up at the unemployment office.

And it would also mean that you don’t really have to follow the letter of the law as it is written in the old religious document upon which you have been reliant. After all, you will get a chance to go to heaven anyway.

And then there are all the judgmental people who would have to stop passing judgment in earthly imitation of a “Last Judgment” that would no longer be exclusive.

And all the hellfire-and-brimstone preachers who keep Sunday morning TV crackling who would need to update their resumés; as would their cameramen.

Boy, the unemployment line is getting pretty long by now, isn’t it.

Seems like Pastor Bell’s point of view would mean trouble for those individuals whose livelihoods depend on getting even more people to look at the world (and the world beyond) in the same way that they do. After all, in the religious market place there are only so many souls who are interested enough in salvation to show up for worship on the sabbath. So, you’d better round-up whomever you can and get them to “buy-in.”

The cynical among us might just think that there could be a post-prison job for Bernie Madoff in this somewhere. Oh, wait, I forgot that Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker snapped up those jobs some time ago.

But before you line up at my office with a flaming torch in your hand, I do want to make something clear.

I’m not suggesting that all of those who want to save your soul are self-serving. I’m sure that the vast majority do so for the right reasons. But, where money is to be made, where churches and temples require repair and maintenance, where books and religious accessories are sold and salaries are paid, you do need to keep an eye open to motives less pure than your eternal reward.

Earthly rewards have a way of messing things up.

A 1951 movie comes to mind. The Man in the White Suit starred Alec Guinness as Sidney Stratton, a chemist and inventor who creates a virtually indestructible fabric that repels dirt. At first he is hailed as a genius and hero. Later, when clothing manufacturers and their employees realize that his invention will put them out of business, he is their target.

Heaven without a well-guarded gate and an earthly admission fee, like a white suit that will last forever, just might create some enemies. Apparently, Rob Bell has a few of those.

Then there is the question of what constitutes heaven. Several possibilities come to mind:

  • A heaven that every one eventually can reach even if they don’t make it on the first try — something like the “love wins” heaven of Pastor Bell. I would guess that such a heaven would be sort of like some grand family reunion, where all past grudges are forgiven, everyone gets along, and Aunt Edna’s fruitcake actually tastes good.
  • The standard-issue version of heaven where there is a judgment and there is a permanent hell for those who don’t pass the evaluation that happens at the end of life. In it, you (if you are anything like your current self) will miss your atheist brother who is in the “other place” for eternity because he screwed up the mere three score and seven years he had on earth — (under)grounded for life and then some. Moreover, if you care about what is going on with your brother while you are in a better place, you just might also be bothered by the troubling events on earth. None of that seems like much fun to me.
  • In the next possible conception of an afterlife, your brother still is in hell, but you don’t care; even though you loved him when you were alive. In other words, you have been transformed into a creature quite different from the one you were on earth, but you are having a grand time. Greek mythology anticipated this, by suggesting that the newly departed were required to drink from the river Lethe, whose waters caused them to forget their lives on earth.
  • The 1998 Japanese film After Life offers still another notion of a posthumous existence. Heaven would consist of living forever in whatever single moment you choose from your life history on earth. To live “in the moment” necessitates that you give up that part of yourself which, like all humans, allows you to look back and remember the past, as well as to look forward and anticipate the future. Experiencing whatever single event is most precious involves sensations and feelings of joy or delight attached only to that isolated slice of time rather than to thought, worry, reflection, or concentration on other things, even including other positive relationships, experiences, and events. With respect to the question of your brother mentioned earlier, unless he was involved in the single moment you choose to occupy for eternity, you’d simply never think about him.
  • Finally, there is the possibility that there is no heaven and no corresponding hell either.

Of course, it’s not as if I really know.

Do you?

The top image is Ascent of the Blessed ca. 1490 by Hieronymus Bosch, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Music Would You Take to a Desert Island?

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Toward the end of Woody Allen’s wonderful movie Manhattan, the character he plays asks himself “Why is life worth living?”

His answer?

Well, there are certain things, I guess, that make it worthwhile.

Like what?

For me, I would say, Groucho Marx, to name one thing… Willie Mays and the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony (by Mozart) and Louis Armstrong’s recording of Potato Head Blues… Swedish movies, naturally… Sentimental Education by Flaubert… Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, incredible apples and pears by Cezanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s… Tracy’s face…

Humor then, followed by the art of a gifted baseball player, music, movies, a work of fiction, visual art, food, and the young woman he realizes he loves, almost too late.

Your list would be different, mine would too. But isn’t it interesting how prominent music is on lists such as this, how often people find that an interest in music binds them to lovers, friends, and the joy of living?

A popular radio program on the BBC since 1942 has been asking what music you’d take with you if you were a castaway. It is called Desert Island Discs and it has hosted interviews of nearly 3000 prominent people in that time, trying to find out what tunes would be essential if they were marooned on the proverbial desert island.

On their website Desert Island Discs you can hear a number of these programs and discover the musical choices of folks like Martin Sheen, Alice Cooper, Tom Jones, Tim Robbins, Emma Thompson, Jerry Springer, Barry Manilow, Whoopi Goldberg, J K Rowling, Stephen King, Simon Cowell, Colin Firth, Patrick Stewart, Kim Cattrall, Kiri Te Kanawa, Luciano Pavarotti, and many others from the world of science, philosophy, literature, and government.

Back to Woody Allen’s question, what makes life worthwhile for me?

My wife and children, my friends and my brothers… Brahms’s Symphony #4, Beethoven’s Symphony #3, Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, and I’ll Be Seeing You… Judy Collins… Alfred Stieglitz’s photo The Steerage and Van Gogh… The Lives of Others, The Best Years of Our Lives, Lost Horizon, and The Prizoner of Zenda (the last two movies with Ronald Coleman)… getting to know (really know) people…

Anna Karenina, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving… baseball and the Zeolite Scholarship Fund… Shakespeare… Chocolate… Dim Sum, Superdawg (a Chicago area hot dog drive-in), and almost anything cooked by my wife Aleta… Precious and Peanut (family dogs)… listening to and telling stories… the satisfaction of doing something difficult and well… a good cup of coffee and the singing of the birds on a spring morning.

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And if you asked me what would I want in any heaven worth the name?

All that plus my father in middle-age and my mother before life defeated her.

Put another way, I guess I am living in something pretty close to heaven on earth.

Not bad at all.

Since, for most of us, food is one of the joys of living, you might want to take a look at an interesting and recently initiated blog on that subject: Adventures in Food.

The top photo is Brown sisters Melody, Deondra, and Desirae performing on a Steinway grand piano at CBC Radio Studios in Ottawa, Canada as part of the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival on September 12, 2006. Photo by Mike (Binary Rhyme) Heffernan. The bottom photo is The Steerage taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1907. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Violence and Intimacy

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Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, but one can do the most violence to another when one is close to that person. Physically close. Pinching, punching, pushing, plucking, picking, pulverizing — actions that can only be done at close quarters, the victim is pilloried and punished. Perhaps then, it is no wonder that human kind can be uncomfortable with and afraid of intimacy.

When physical vulnerability is compounded with the psychological, we tend to be even more careful. Those who are close to us know just where to strike, where the soft and breakable parts are; and they are just in reach.

I watched a History Channel feature the other night on The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The point was made that while the Thompson submachine gun was a useful weapon for killing at a distance, many of the most important gangland assassinations were done with a pistol, while holding or grabbing the victim, or pulling him close to make certain that he couldn’t reach for his own weapon. Intimacy again — the closeness that made injury possible, more certain, more lethal.

Remember Delilah of the famous bible story that featured Samson? Again, intimacy, this time of a sexual nature, allowed her to rob Samson of his strength by having his enemies cut his long hair while he slept.

When you were a kid, do you remember an aunt or uncle or grandparent who would hold you close and then pinch (and shake) your cheek between thumb and forefinger? It was alleged to be an act of affection, but whenever it was done to me, I couldn’t quite understand how something that hurt that much was supposed to show love.

I’m sure you know the origin of the handshake — an ancient custom designed to display the fact that you do not have a weapon in your hand with which to do injury at close range.

And, in the “you always hurt the one you love” department, we should not forget that “crimes of passion” account for many of the violent deaths in this country. That is, we are harming those we know, not strangers, in fits of intense emotion and impulsivity.

How does this relate to therapy? In part, because the therapeutic relationship is a somewhat one-sided intimacy. The patient makes himself vulnerable to the doctor, displays his wounds and expresses his emotions, trusting that his secrets and feelings will be safeguarded, treated with kindness and respect, and definitely not used against him. Therapists need to keep this in mind, lest they re-traumatize the person, injuring him in a way that is similar to the very torment that he came to therapy to heal.

Although a counselor’s power can hardly be considered “great,” it is considerable when it comes to his patients. Psychologists would do well to remember the quote from the movie Spider-man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The moral of the story? Allowing one self to become close and vulnerable to another person opens the door to the best and worst that life can offer. It is therefore of great import to choose a friend, a lover, or a therapist with care.

As the Knight Templar told Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when the explorer had to pick out the Holy Grail from an assortment of old cups, “choose wisely.”

The above image is William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1850 painting Dante and Virgil in Hell sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Darkon: What Role-Playing Games Tell Us About Real Life

It is easy to dismiss people who play role-playing games.

Geeks, losers, nerds, they’ve probably been called all these things and more. As William Shatner said on Saturday Night Live to the costumed attendees at a Star Trek Convention, “Get a Life.”

But if you watch the 2006 award-winning feature-length documentary Darkon, you just might get a different idea.

Darkon is “live-action role-playing game” or LARP. That is, real people create and dress-up as characters in a quasi-medieval world. They also fashion back-stories of the origins of these alter-egos that don’t sound much different from religious and biblical legends. Perhaps Moses was found in the bulrushes by an Egyptian princess, but you can be sure that Darkon players have backgrounds no less imaginative.

The Darkon gamers affiliate with other like-minded souls within the game, inventing national groups who strategize about how to enlarge their country’s domain. In order to achieve this, some combination of negotiation and combat between armies is required. The movie Darkon shows just such activities as they are played out by the “Darkon Gaming Club” in Baltimore.

Both men and women, usually in their 20s and 30s, enact a stylized form of combat involving “weapons.” Those instruments of war must be made according to guidelines designed to insure the safety of the soldiers, but the rules permit imaginary “injury” to be inflicted and one side or the other to triumph.

Enormous amounts of energy and time go into the realization of this fantasy world. Public parks, forest preserves, and school grounds are claimed as the battle-ground upon which occur many of the negotiations and all of the wars.

One player, a stay-at-home dad named Skip, doubtless speaks for a good many of the Darkon enthusiasts, when he talks about feeling “…born out of time… I feel like I have some great destiny and I have just to find it.” Clearly, Skip looks for that destiny, in part, within the game. You may think that such people are troubled as you read this on the computer screen, but Skip comes across as an earnest, intelligent, thoughtful, and principled man within the film itself.

The central figures of the documentary include a business executive in the real world who leads the most successful and largest group of Darkonians, a former stripper who is a single working mother, a college student who works part-time as a barista, a buyer in a fabric store, an assembly line worker, and many individuals who find their real lives boring and anonymous. They make no mark and live lives outside of the game that recall Thoreau’s comment on “quiet desperation.”

For some, including the most successful player within and outside the game, this role-playing world appears to serve a therapeutic function: “Playing (my character) helped me become the man I wanted to be in real life.” Opportunities for leadership, negotiation, and political as well as combat strategy transferred to the streets, offices, and board rooms of everyday existence, building his self-confidence and changing him even when the costume came off.

Meanwhile, others struggle with marginalization both within and without the game, but live in the hope of, quite literally, “reinventing” their characters and taking a more commanding and successful role. Some recognize the need to develop social skills in order to have real-life success. But, one suspects, that others not featured in the movie get caught up in the escapism that any such exercise might provide. They never grow out of the game.

As I watched this documentary I couldn’t help but think of the changes that industrialization and urbanization brought to workers during the period known as “The Industrial Revolution.” People went from being independent solo-practitioners working for themselves as tailors, blacksmiths, farmers, and weavers, to employees of others in larger and larger enterprises. The phrase used to describe what they became was “wages slaves,” clearly no longer free and independent.

Perhaps then, the Darkonians are only looking for what most of humanity has lost in a world of big machines, buildings, computers, and cities: some sense of individuality and uniqueness.

Or, like the ancient Greeks of Homer’s day, maybe they seek honor and glory. Honor in that pre-literate day tended to come in the form of goods, precious metal, slaves, concubines, and the like; in other words, mostly material things or things that could be counted or displayed or used. Sort of like today, perhaps you are saying to yourself. In our world, honor is conferred by status and very similar material things – the size of your house, the amount of money in your bank account, a trophy spouse, the car or cars you drive, a gorgeous vacation home, etc.

Glory (the Greek word kleos) was another matter. What might glory have consisted of in a world in which the idea of heaven had not yet been invented? It took the form of a reputation or fame that continued beyond death. And, since there was no written word, you and your accomplishments had to be sufficiently great to generate discussion, song, and story once you were gone. This was usually achieved by being a great hero or warrior. In war, then, one could hope to grasp both of these things: the honor that came with sacking cities and accumulating wealth, slaves, and sexual partners; and the glory of a reputation for fearlessness, strength, and tenacity that would transcend your death.

In other words, a lot like what the Darkon players hope for inside and outside the universe of the game.

Earnest Becker, the sociologist and Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Denial of Death (a book esteemed by Bill Clinton, by the way) talked about each man’s hero-project: the attempt to distinguish himself from other men. It is an effort that Becker thought was motivated by our fear of death and a desire for a kind of symbolic immortality via achievement. Or, perhaps, a self-delusion made possible through accomplishing important feats, thus allowing oneself to deny the inevitable demise of all living things, including one’s own end.

One Darkonian states that the game is “…like watching TV, but you are the hero. If you could watch Brad Pitt or be Brad Pitt, which would you rather do?”

But, there is also darkness here, as another perceives it, “There is a certain desperation to life. It’s all terminal — we are going to die. Maybe fantasy and religion and all those things are (like Darkon), if not crutches, vehicles to get you from birth to death.”

Sometimes a game is more than a game.

The above image is a scene from Darkon.

On Sacrifice

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Would you like to know who you are? Then it is essential to know what is of real value to you. One way of finding that out is by asking the question, “What would I be willing to give up for something that I claim is important to me? What would I be willing to sacrifice for love, or great wealth, or power, or honor, or for my child’s well-being?”

What we are willing to sacrifice defines us, both as individuals and as a society. But first, let’s look at what the word sacrifice means:

The on-line Merriam-Webster’s dictionary gives the following definition of the noun sacrifice:

1 : an act of offering to a deity something precious; especially : the killing of a victim on an altar
2 : something offered in sacrifice
3 a : destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else b : something given up or lost <the sacrifices made by parents>
4 : loss <goods sold at a sacrifice>

Thus sacrifice involves loss and giving something up.

In primitive societies, it often included murder.

Human sacrifice was intended most often to appease a God, win the God’s favor, or avoid the God’s wrath. Igor Stravinsky wrote a famous ballet about this, The Rite of Spring.

More recent depictions of this sort of behavior have included Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 novel, The Visit. In this story a wealthy woman (Claire Zachanassian) returns for a visit to her home town, a place that has fallen on hard times. She departed in disgrace many years before when she was impregnated by her young lover. This person denied the charge of paternity and bribed two people to support his case by claiming that they had been intimate with her. Shamed by the townsfolk, Claire eventually turned to prostitution.

Her return home is noteworthy for a “proposition” she has for the town where her former lover continues to live as a respected businessman. She will bequeath an enormous sum to the hamlet if it will do one simple thing: put to death the man who caused her disgrace. In effect, the book asks the question of what this woman is willing to sacrifice for revenge (her money, her morality) and what the town’s people are willing to give up for money. The movie of the same name starred Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn.

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More recently, a very different sort of sacrifice is depicted in a 1967 episode of the original Star Trek TV series, The City on the Edge of Forever. While in an irrational state, the ship’s physician enters a time portal on an alien planet, one that takes him back to 20th century USA in the midst of the Great Depression.

At the instant that this happens, the Enterprise starship disappears from its orbit of the world on which the time portal exists. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, already on the planet in pursuit of Dr. McCoy, recognize that he must have altered history in such a way as to result in a universe in which their space vehicle never existed.  Kirk and Spock therefore enter the time portal themselves at a moment in history slightly before they believe that McCoy reached 20th century earth, in order to prevent whatever action he took that changed subsequent events.

While back in time, Kirk and Spock meet a social worker named Edith Keeler, who runs a soup kitchen for the down-and-out victims of the Depression. Soon, Mr. Spock uses his technological prowess to discover that Dr. McCoy will eventually have something to do with Edith Keeler herself.

In one possible historical thread, Spock finds a newspaper obituary for her. In another, however, he discovers that she will lead a pacifist movement that delays the USA’s entry into World War II, resulting in Hitler’s victory and the very alteration of events that prevented creation of the star fleet of which the Enterprise starship is a part. Thus, in order to create the more benign future known to the three officers, Edith Keeler must die.

There is only one complication. Captain Kirk and Edith Keeler (played by Joan Collins) have fallen in love.

The climatic moment comes when Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk see each other across the street for the first time on 20th century earth. As they rush to reunite, Edith Keeler (on a date with Kirk), attempts to cross the street to join them, heedless of the fact that a fast-moving truck is headed toward her. The doctor attempts to rescue Kirk’s love, but is restrained by Kirk from doing so. Edith Keeler is killed.

The heartbreak is heightened by the incredulous McCoy’s indictment of his captain and friend: “I could have saved her…do you know what you just did?.” Unable to speak, Kirk turns away while Mr. Spock says quietly, “He knows, Doctor. He knows.” Thus, Kirk has sacrificed Edith Keeler’s life and his own happiness, to prevent her from actions that would have led to world enslavement by the Third Reich.

I have always been troubled that two of the most important biblical stories involve human sacrifice. The tale of Abraham and Isaac finds the former, the founder of the Jewish faith and monotheism, asked to sacrifice his son Isaac in order to prove his devotion to God. As he prepares to do this, an angel appears and stays his hand. A lamb is slaughtered instead. Rembrandt depicted this beautifully in the painting reproduced above.

Remember now, that I’m a psychologist. I cannot look at this painting without wondering what the child Isaac might be thinking and feeling in the aftermath of this moment. How will his relationship with his father be changed? Might there have been other possible ways of testing Abraham without permanently scarring his son?

The foundation story of Christianity poses a virtually identical dilemma, with the sacrifice of Jesus to pay for the sins of humanity. I fear that we are so used to abstracted representations of these events, that we have become inoculated against the trauma depicted by them and the human, societal, and theological implications of such horrors, reportedly authorized by God.

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Of course, most of our sacrifices are much less dramatic. Do we give up eating what we might want in order to be fit and live a longer and healthier life? Do we brush off the attractive member of the opposite sex who “comes on” to us, in order to maintain our marital fidelity, avoid injuring our spouse and children, and keep whole our integrity? Do we sacrifice time having fun or attempting to climb the career ladder in order to go to our child’s boring orchestral recital and enduring hours of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” played by tiny violinists, all of whom are out of tune?

I’m sure you can imagine many more such choices and sacrifices of your own.

We make decisions, all of us, about the question of national sacrifices too. Jobs vs. clean air, tax cuts vs. social services, giving to charity vs. keeping the money for ourselves, liberty vs. the promise of security, and most poignant of all, the decision of when war is necessary despite the sacrifice of the unlived lives of our young adult children.

Just as an exercise, you might want to make a list of all those things you spend time on that are inessential, all the things that you could live without if it came to something really important.

Or, still another exercise: if you could only take 10 things or 10 people with you to a desert island, who or what would they be and who or what would you leave behind? And what cause would be great enough for you to agree to go to a desert island in the first place?

Who are we as a nation? Who are you as a person?

We might know more about our country and ourselves if we first ask what we are willing (and unwilling) to sacrifice.

The top image is the Sacrifice of Isaac by Rembrandt. The second picture, taken by Michael Gäbler, is of Adi Holzer’s hand colored etching Abrahams Opfer from 1997. Finally, Caravaggio’s version of the same scene Die Opferung Isaaks from 1594-96, sourced via the Yorck Project. All of the above come from Wikimedia Commons.