Is Religion Necessary for Morality?

Therapists hear many opinions from their patients. Such beliefs are not always the focus treatment or what the client came to work on. They simply “appear” in the course of conversation. One of those ideas, quite common, has to do with religion. On numerous occasions my clients mentioned, unprompted, that a religious upbringing was essential to raising “moral” children. Without the guidance of a perfect, all-good, all-powerful being, the successful raising of an upright person was hard for them to imagine.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th century German philosopher, disagreed. So did moral theorists like Immanuel Kant.

Schopenhauer thought religion clouds our capacity for rationality. According to him, early religious training creates an intellectual blind spot persisting throughout life. We then become susceptible to accepting ideas “on faith” instead of reason. Our dispassionate, analytic abilities are crippled, in Schopenhauer’s view. Childhood religious indoctrination requires us to “believe” (lest God punish us either now or in the hereafter) rather than search for truth with whatever logical tools and evidence we can muster.

Early acceptance of miracles and supernatural beings were, to Schopenhauer, the beginning of a path to intellectual and behavioral ruin. He feared religious education would hamper our ability to separate truth from falsehood. Bad behavior, excused by our confused thought process, was considered another potential consequence of a religion-created blindness.

Schopenhauer offered ancient Athens, the city-state of Plato and Aristotle, as a counter example: a moral community not produced by religion and one he thought functioned better because of its absence.

Athens was a genuine democracy: all the citizens voted on every important issue (as opposed to representative governments in which individuals are elected to do the actual voting in legislative bodies like the U.S. Congress). Schopenhauer argued that religion did not exist in Athens in the period to which he refers. Yes, there were gods and some people made sacrifices to them; but no organized, regular religious services were observed with a formal priestly hierarchy and a carefully prescribed method of worship. Nor did religious documents exist (like the Bible or Koran) or any “inspired” list of good and bad behavior similar to The Ten Commandments. Yet, Schopenhauer reminds us that laws were respected, justice was important, civility was maintained, and philosophical schools like Plato’s extraordinary Academy flourished. The question of the good life and how best to lead it was discussed among educated citizens.

At this point you might complain about the lack of rights for women in ancient Athens or the slavery prevalent there. Do remember, however, equality of the sexes is a relatively new issue despite over 2000 years of Christianity. Moreover, the Confederacy during the U.S Civil War justified the hideous institution of slavery by reference to its presence in the Bible. Nor is slavery condemned in that book.

Schopenhauer believed compassion, not religion, contributed to moral conduct, and such compassion was in man’s nature (making religion unnecessary). Indeed, the ability to identify with our fellow-man seems in short supply these days, whatever the cause. The more closely we identify with the superiority of our national, racial, or religious group, the more we are at risk of excluding feelings of sympathy for those who don’t share our nationality, skin color, or faith.

Immanuel Kant, an earlier German philosopher, argued for a different (but still secular) foundation for morality: the categorical imperative. Kant recommended we each ask a question when evaluating our behavior: should my personal moral standards be made into a universal law — a requirement and duty for everyone without exception, or, as he called it, a categorical imperative. Additionally, in considering our answer, he would remind us to respect the dignity of our fellow-man simply because he is human. “Using” others is therefore immoral.

For example, if sexual fidelity and honesty are deemed proper, they must be required of everyone in all circumstances. Adultery, by contrast, however much you believe it would be in your self-interest, would be of no moral value; because proper action is not a matter of how much you might profit from it, but rather, a duty to what is good in itself.

Let’s say you are unfaithful, steal, lie, and break promises. Are you prepared to give permission for everyone to act the same way against you and everyone else? If not, he would argue you have exposed the moral failing of your own behavior.

These thinkers make demands on us to consider whether what we do is justifiable by a process of reason: to look in the mirror at who we are, beyond any religious rule we follow.

Clearly, whether religion is essential to implant the seed of a life-long moral rootedness, one can argue it provides many other things, including a sense of comfort, order, and hopefulness in the most fraught moments of life, as well as a supportive and congenial community of fellow-believers.

The question remains, however, whether there is something Schopenhauer and Kant are missing in their quest for moral grounding, beyond these potential benefits of faith. Do you believe religion provides some necessary ethical guidance for our children that these men miss?

I look forward to your thoughts on the subject.

The top image is Man Praying at a Japanese Shinto Shrine. It is the work of Kalandrakas and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Question Mark is sourced from the Monroeville Community Website.

Becoming a Traitor to Yourself

All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.

So begins Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. But these words apply to more of us than the black protagonist of his novel. A careful reader will recognize how many psychotherapy bloggers are quick to condemn themselves. They define themselves as terrible human beings, inconsiderate and selfish. They believe their resentments should neither be felt nor displayed. A “better” person would be kinder, forgiving, more generous. Their unhappiness is taken as a commentary on their value, a failing grade in the class of life.

You will see them marching voluntarily to the world’s slag heap of unnecessary and misshapen things, beyond repair or redemption. They say, in effect, “If you wish to find me you must dig deep in a landfill, where I belong.” I asked one, in light of her self-assignment to the discard pile of life, how then she might describe herself if she were a spouse abuser or terrorist. These are far worse human behaviors than she’d reported and, it seemed to me, her self-condemnation went too far.

Here was a lady who sprinted to the local lumber yard, bought some wood, constructed a cross, and nailed herself to her destiny. To my mind, the bowels of hell (if such exist) are occupied by a group to which she doesn’t belong. They’d laugh if she requested admission.

I might have said, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”

We can, in just this type of self-punishment, turn traitor to ourselves. I’m not suggesting anyone is perfect. But few of us are so unworthy that we must become our own dartboard. We bleed enough at the hands of fate without offering ourselves as a pin cushion. Some of us have been assigned a shape not our own. Life seems inauthentic. We must reform ourselves, shed the shape assigned, and work to improve it.

First, however, we must buy a new flashlight, stand in a new place, and look with new eyes.

Ellison’s fictional young man sought answers about a path forward. He wished to know who he was. The earnest fellow thought it best to ask others wiser and older. No flashlights for him.

Asked or not, those others give us our first sense of self by what they say and do. Their kindness suggests we are worthy. If they blame us we might think we are not. If they offer false gods, we get a counterfeit sense of what life is or “should” be. We are in the dark.

Ellison’s protagonist tells us he was indoctrinated for 20 years and needed another 20 to achieve self-awareness: to throw-off the self-destructive beliefs he had about himself and the nature of the world. Where can you go to find out whether you are as awful as you think, assuming you don’t like yourself?

Some begin by questioning the most basic assumptions they have. These include whether authority figures are usually right. Which authority figures?

All of them: your parents, government officials, best friends, clergy, and spouse are not exempt. The ones in power and the ones who want it. The pretenders and their defenders. The crowd and the solitary man. The critics and the critics’ critics, the know-nothings and the do-nothings, the show horses and the work horses. Include your therapist, too.

Even your God.

What do I mean? If you have been shamed and demeaned or neglected, especially in your early life, such treatment came from those on this list. If you accept their judgment then you internalize the guilty verdict on your character and talent. You will judge yourself as they have, carrying their voice, now your own, inside you. Indeed, if even a house of God is the source of repeated reminders of the indelible blackness in your heart, a religious book can become a cudgel to beat you with.

Worse still, believing them, you will continue to seek their “wisdom” and approval; desiring a possible reconsideration of your character since their magnetic attraction remains powerful. Or, you may search for others like them, those who claim they are only doing this (injury to you) “for your own good;” in effect, redefining harm as “caring.”

Here is the first bit of “fake news” we receive in life, making us vulnerable to those who offer us — their sheep — a caring hand that will instead shear us of the goods we own and the belief in our own goodness. These “wrong choices” of association with “wrong” people depend on the magnetism they share with those who began our “wrong” indoctrination.

Their magic only disappears when you recognize who they really are; and, who you really are.

Some authority figures deserve to pass the test. Others do not, nor should you return to them. You may be scared to be without their shoddy shelter. The security you believe they offer, however, is an illusion. You can only get out and get away.

All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.

The first painting is George Hooker’s The Subway (1950). The second is the work of Tetsya Ishida: The Servitude and Deforming of the Salary Man.

Being the Odd Man Out in Your Family

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Every home is a theater. Every family has its roles to cast. Even with no outside director, positions must be filled, characters assigned. We are all auditioning in each moment of early life. Someone must “wear the pants” in the family, whether he or she wears a dress, a suit, or shorts. The ensemble requires a caretaker, not necessarily the adult variety. In dysfunctional homes one role is the most challenging: the person who recognizes the dysfunction for what it is.

You don’t get paid for taking this part, except in tears; nor will your fellow cast members applaud. Indeed, you become the clan’s scapegoat, the one who takes on most of the blame for the whirling, muddy mess of life at home. The part can kill you or liberate you, or both. One thing for sure: you will need strength and endurance.

The job of portraying “the bad one” doesn’t always demand that you do any major wrong. A fine student and a good citizen can fit the slot so long as he is not what a parent was hoping for. Were you supposed to be a boy, but turned out a girl? Are you artistic when an athlete was expected? Were you required to be forever devoted, but began having ideas of your own, a life of your own? Do you bear a resemblance to someone a parent disliked? Perhaps the elder is jealous of your beauty, intelligence, or his spouse’s affection for you. Maybe the issue comes down to knowing too much for the comfort of others.

Your character’s script gives voice to pained pleadings for the guardian’s approval, but allows only inconsistent success, at best. The parental judge is not impartial. Brothers and sisters, better treated than you, won’t acknowledge the truth in your complaints. Perhaps the other parent instructs you not to upset his spouse, as if you own more power than you do, as if the trouble is your fault and not his.

The odd man out attempts to find a regular ally. No takers, I’m afraid. This job would not only put him in the crosshairs, but worse. He’d have to know the family for what it is, share the psychic pain of realizing its truth is false; its court unjust, with no hope of appeal.

Sides must be picked, teams chosen. You might have a single ally only on occasion, but not anyone with the courage and insight to make common cause with you and speak truth to power.

A kind of brainwashing occurred in your home. The family “drank the Kool-Aid” or breathed in the air of the household delusion. They are blinded to the truth, as you are not.

The one who is immune to the family’s warped vision is dangerous. What might happen if everyone recognizes the reality of the home dysfunction? No, this can’t be permitted. The play would fail, the audience depart. The odd man out must be crushed.

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Such a person is likely to become the “identified patient (IP)” of the family, the one who is “wrong,” the one with the problem. He may be depressed, angry, rebellious or all of these.  The IP can lose years, decades to the stamp of imperfection emblazoned on his personality. A lifetime is not long enough for such a one to find approval on this morally bankrupt stage. If, however, he enters treatment he might grieve the undeserved contempt that is his lot. Now, finally, he escapes from home psychologically, perhaps physically.

The family condemns him for betrayal, of course. Disloyalty is added to his list of transgressions and if guilt can be induced he will return to them for more of the same life: more of the same mistreatment. His role in the play resembles Sisyphus, the mythological character who was assigned the punishment of pushing a huge boulder up a hill until it rolled back down; up and down, never reaching the top, for all his days.

The identified patient can be drawn to a mate who also rejects and ridicules him, persuading their children our hero is the problem. Thus, we reach the second act of the performance, where the lead character enacts a new version of the torture, one he has chosen, unconsciously replicating his early misfortune. Perhaps he resembles Tantalus in his futile, unending search for that which is unreachable. Despite knowledge of the familial corruption, he cannot resist the temptation, the desire for proper acknowledgement. The Greek myth tells us Tantalus stood in a pool, forever hungry, forever thirsty. Bending, the water receded, leaving him parched. Reaching for fruit from a branch just above, the nutrition raised itself and could not be grasped. He was “tantalized.”

Do not lose heart. With sufficient courage and time in treatment our protagonist can become the healthiest person in the clan. The rest, you understand, continue bumping into many of life’s obstacles, the parts to which they are blinded. They too play a role assigned in childhood. They do not know themselves well, since this would require seeing the family as it is, not the imagined world of pretend functionality that was the first lie taught at home.

Terrible choices? Yes. Victims all, but in different ways. Yet a scapegoat need not enact the role night-after-night, as if indentured to a long running play. All of the players in the small ensemble can, at last, say “enough.” Ironically, the one who saw the home-grown theater for what it was — the one who suffered the most — has a head start for the sign marked EXIT. The bright letters shine in the darkness and lead to a world of possibilities.

The top painting is Franz von Stuck’s Sisyphus. An illustration by Koloman Moser follows: A Modern Tantalus. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Thoughts about Dependence on My Grandson’s First Independence Day

This morning I found myself thinking about my grandson’s first Independence Day: how he is growing, keen to learn and master the world, but also how he will react to the dazzle and display of fireworks. Thrilled, I’m sure, whenever he can stay up late enough to watch. And, I couldn’t help but wonder about an implicit trade-off as children begin to master the world, but perhaps lose some of its magic in the process.

My free association took me to a 1956 nighttime baseball game my uncle promised to take me to — take me to watch the great center fielder Mickey Mantle. I fairly burst with anticipation to monitor Mantle in a contest under the lights, the latter still a novelty for the adults and a first-time experience for me. I continue to enjoy baseball and have traveled to nearly 20 cities for games in ballparks old and new. But I’m not anymore the nine-year-old boy blown away by the idea — the impatient, invisible, excited expectation of attendance — or the youngster of a similar age on another occasion who was stunned by the color green and the expansive daytime beauty of Wrigley Field as I walked up to the concourse from the shadowy underworld of the old stadium, feeling as if I were in a better place — as if the gates of heaven opened for me.

We become more experienced, more confident, and wiser while losing a bit of the thrill of accomplishment. You notice the growing security in any small child and the tenacity and curiosity driving it, but he can’t yet imagine his adult self who will be more used to things, less overwhelmed; a person who, having “seen it all,” won’t get as excited, stimulated, and intoxicated. Perhaps, in part, that’s why we drink or drug to mimic the feelings of a world from which the cellophane wrapper has just been removed.

The little one is so desperate to get away. Yes, he checks over his shoulder to assure himself that the parent has his back, but eventually no longer checking and no longer wanting to be checked, supervised, reigned in. Freedom and competence and recklessness rule. Later come maturity and jadedness, too. We are like toothpaste out of the tube, pristine for a moment, then losing something hard to define. The rewards of the life of one who has broken free are different, more dependable and therefore more essential, but less remarkable and joyous. The colors are duller.

Perhaps, as adults, some of us go places not seen and seek the thrill of a fresh relationship with a younger body to recapture the old intensity: an unconscious effort to touch an uninnocent-innocent in the hope her relative newness will rub off.

Our mature challenge is to make the day new, a bigger effort than for the 10-month-old for whom it simply is new.

But, little boy, I’m sure you wouldn’t be happy as a forever dependent oldster, even for all the moments of untarnished delight joined to your present dependency. Yours is the wonder of a life of constant enlightenment and unfolding, but there is no profit in perpetual incapacity, of reliance on your parents. You must know this deep down because you work so hard to escape it and enter an existence full of mastery achieved at the expense of routine.

One of the happiest memories of my life took place after being taken to a drive-in movie by my parents. It was not only the first film I’d ever seen and the first outdoor movie I’d ever attended, but 3-D to boot! You had to wear special glasses to get the effect, of course. (The trailer above displays an over-the-top promotion of said entertainment: The House of Wax).

I possess little memory of the video. What I do recall is the ride home in the family Chevrolet. The horizontal, seven-year-old version of myself drifted into that Neverland between waking and sleep on the pre-seat-belted bench behind my parents. I was as content as I have ever been, fully confident of having mom and dad to myself (since my two little brothers were back home with a sitter) in the days when I still thought of my elders as Zeus and Hera, god and goddess of the universe. I was sure of being taken care of: safe, serene, and inexpressibly happy, as though a fairy god-mother had touched me with her wand.

I have no advice for the little guy who will visit our home today: it would make no impact on his not-yet-perfected word processor-mind. But if my experience would make a difference, I’d say this:

Don’t grow up too fast, tiny man. Your parents will never again be so young, handsome, and wonderful. You will never be loved with more self-sacrificing intensity. The sparklers on this still dependent Independence Day will never so astonish you.

Seize the day, now and forever.

How We Grow Up — Confused

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We grow up by inches. The pencil marks on the wall measure our lengthening.

Or perhaps we grow up by pinches: the painful squeeze some adults perform on us, unasked. They reach for a cheek, grab skin between thumb and curled index finger, then tug. They smile and say something complimentary. Confusion follows. The friendly face and the pain are at odds. What we make of the event informs our understanding of love.

Did anything similar happen to you? A young person can miss how language sometimes disguises the infliction of injury. The smiling words say, in effect, nothing is wrong. Stress results. Some children reduce their anxiety by ignoring the contradiction between words and deeds. A blind spot is thus born.

Too bad. The immediate relief of your worrisome thought (“He doesn’t love me”) sets you up for greater harm. You become unable to distinguish those who hurt you from others who are genuinely loving. You’ve been conditioned to accept that an excruciating squeeze signals something good, at least occasionally — even though your nerve endings tell you otherwise.

Life requires us to make sense of nonsense. Our youthful minds are confounded. Who and what are we to believe?

I was probably under 10-years-old when my dad first took me to a White Sox game at old Comiskey Park in Chicago. He found a space for our Chevrolet on a street near the stadium.

A small boy about my age rode up on his bicycle.

“Watch your car for a quarter, mister?”

“No, thanks,” answered dad.

We walked toward the giant steel and brick amphitheater.

“Why would we need our car watched?” I asked my father.

“Protection. He was selling ‘protection’ — that something would ‘happen’ to the car if we didn’t pay him.”

“What do you mean?”

“He or one of his buddies might damage the Chevy.”

“Are you afraid they will?”

“No. Don’t worry.”

The car survived unscathed. Remember, though, we lived in Chicago. I learned my town was a place where mobsters once sold shopkeepers an adult-sized version of protection: pay us every month or we will wreck your business, destroy your merchandise, break your legs. What I’d seen was a mini-version of an Al Capone universe, all disguised as a proper business deal: standing guard over dad’s property, providing him a service. A contradiction again. Like the squeeze your relative expects you to believe is a sign of love, the protection offered was no protection.

You wet your bed. The parent screams at you.

“You’re too old for this. Look at the mess you made. Now your mom has to wash the sheet and covers again!

Mom comforts you.

“Dad didn’t mean it. He was frustrated. He did it for your own good. Your father really loves you.”

Really? Love = screaming? Since the math doesn’t work, you choose one or the other. Love feels better. When you are yelled at again will you believe you are loved? The worse for you if you do. Especially later.

By adulthood, friends are puzzled.

“How can you let him do that to you? You’re too good for him. You’re beautiful and smart. Why do you stay with him?”

We are misled by those whose unkindness is hidden by smoke and mirrors. They can be understood only by a fog-piercing X-ray vision we don’t possess. If blinders to inconsistency are put on early, they turn invisible, but still restrict our sight. Incomprehension becomes automatic, unconscious.

No wonder we go to therapists. No wonder they say, “Tell me about your childhood.”

The top image is Scolding by José Ferraz de Almeida, Jr. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

My Seven Fathers

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This comes late. Late because Father’s Day was last month and late because this essay was appropriate 50 years ago.

I read several “Father’s Day” blogs this past June. Only then did I realize I had multiple dads. To discover this in my seventh decade was quite a surprise.

When I say I had more than one, I don’t mean official stepfathers. Nor did my dad die young, followed by others trying to fill his spot. Yet, the truth is, others did, with his knowledge. I bear no grudges about this. My father was, as the trite saying goes, “doing the best he could,” working as many as four jobs at a time, providing for us all. I never doubted his love. I never doubted his pride in me. Still, he was not present a lot. Not for me, not for my brothers Ed and Jack, and not for my mother.

Not there physically. Elsewhere. Away.

Part of a parent’s job is to be home, but that’s not always possible or easy. It wasn’t for him, a child of the Great Depression, claimed by the necessity of making a living. Every other consideration came after the long shadow of a scary time.

There we were, Milton Stein’s family, with him in the lead, racing hard to escape his shadow. My mom ran to catch up, pursued by her own shadow, holding hands with me and my brothers. All of us were in a dash for dad and his time. To the good, dad won the race with the specter of financial ruin, in reality if not psychologically. Ed, Jack, and I settled in the second shadow behind mom, a darker place than the first: a mixture of her personal insecurity, teenaged malnutrition and tuberculosis, poverty, her alcoholic dad and paranoid mother.

I like to say I came upon my interest in psychology honestly. Including the extended family, living examples of text-book emotional problems could be studied every day.

Other father figures embraced me. Did they recognize what I needed? I’ll never know. What follows is a tribute to these men and all the nameless adults who fill-in for a biological parent. They are rarely acknowledged. It took me much time to realize they should be.

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One was a portly, white-haired, candy store owner named Mr. Sharon, who talked with me about our favorite team, the Cubs, and called me “son.” A neighbor — movie-star-handsome Mr. Maddock — sometimes played catch with me. Add to the list Mr. Hanel, a tall man with a small dog. On his walks down the alley behind my house he let me play with his pet, something my brothers and I didn’t have. The roster includes a fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Friedman, who believed in me enough to give me a double-promotion. Nor should I forget Jim Bryan, my adviser in graduate school. His letter from Northwestern, informing me I’d be his teaching assistant, said he would “work with me and on me.” He did, to my benefit.

By far the most important father substitute was my Uncle Sam, mom’s only brother. As the first Fabian grandchild I received lots of attention, the most from Sam. My parents, Sam, and his wife purchased a two-flat building together in West Rogers Park, Chicago, when I was six. Sam and Charlene Fabian lived upstairs and the Steins lived downstairs. Until Sam had a male child (Marty) I was almost his adoptive son. My cousin calls us brothers of a different mother.

Uncle Sam took me bowling, to baseball games, and introduced me to famous bowlers. My dad didn’t know anybody famous, so you can imagine the thrill of meeting the keglers I witnessed on TV. I met Carmen Salvino, Don Ellis, and even received bowling tips from an older bowler, Joe Wilman, who’d once been named Bowler of the Year in the 1940s.

Sam secured autographed pictures inscribed with my name from Hall-of-Fame baseball player Luis Aparicio and Billy Pierce. We watched Mickey Mantle, the Yankee slugger, hit two home runs (one batting right-handed and the other left-handed) from box seats on a May evening in 1956. Mom’s brother built a table-top basketball game we played, carving the “shooters” and the baskets out of wood with his own hands.

Best of all, my uncle talked about his view of life. Sam offered guidance in how to live — how to “make it” in the world. My youthful home provided little wise parental advice. The house was a place where I often had to figure out how to proceed by my own inexperienced wits.

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Most of the adults I knew reacted to the world. Unlike them, my uncle took charge, created a business, displayed leadership. Sam was 6’4,” outgoing, generous, and unafraid of voicing strong opinions — a person with a large presence in every sense. His fatherly embrace and powerful hands offered a tangible understanding of what it meant to be a “man.” His interest in me conferred a feeling of worth almost by osmosis.

Things changed between us when his son, Marty, was born. I became yesterday’s news and, in retrospect, I can’t imagine how it could have been any other way. At 16, I worked a regular after-school job for Sam, but my employment loaded the relationship with unbearable emotional weight. We occupied the dual roles of uncle/boss and nephew/employee at a time when even one role was too much.

The growing psychological distance became a physical one, too. My folks purchased Sam’s portion of their two-flat at his request and the Fabians moved from Chicago to the suburbs. With the end of high school I saw relatively little of him. Sam died of a heart attack at age 49, leaving a wife and three children with an emotional vacuum impossible to fill.

Perhaps we expect too much of relationships: that they should be forever fulfilling, at least as long as both parties live. Experience tells us most serve for a time, not more. We change, the other changes, the times change. Life goes on with new people and fresh concerns. Accepting this reality is difficult. Sam served more than well in his fatherly role and, perhaps, I was what he wanted for a time: a son borrowed, not yet born. As Marty says, we are “brothers of a different mother,” and therefore sons of the same father, in tandem.

Still, when I think of Sam it is with a sense of wistfulness. I regret few things in my life, but wish we had been closer at the end. Given a magic wand, I’d like to spend a few more minutes with him, knowing all I know now. I’d give him a big hug and say thanks.

Seven fathers. A lucky number. I could have done much worse.

Much worse.

The top photo displays four generations of the Hebert family, three of whom are (or are about to be) dads. From the rear, Tom, David, Keith (my son-in-law), and ______? The fourth generation is shown in an ultrasound image. The compilation was created by my daughter  — Keith’s wife, Carly.

The second photo was taken at my Uncle Sam’s wedding. Left to right: Aunt Charlene, me, Uncle Sam, and Aunt Florence Fabian. The final image is of my father and mother.

A Big Question You’d Like to Ask Your Therapist: “What is Your Story?”

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The ultimate question is always: “What is your story, doc? Not just hints about your life or anecdotes that are instructive or amusing, but a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. What is the truth, if there ever is such a thing, about how you came to be the person you are?”

To start, I didn’t learn anything in my first 20 years. OK, I did learn some things, but many of those needed unlearning over the coming decades.

I listened to stories and — much later — became a good story-teller, to which my children will attest. I had to get over the awful stories I imbibed in order to tell my own. Mom’s stories were tragic, a snapshot of her childhood unhappiness as Jeanette Fabian: the misery of her starvation due to poverty, tuberculosis due to starvation, and the Great Depression driving it all. From these I learned fear of what might (and would, in her estimation) go wrong. Much time passed before I recognized many things were already going right for me; and I could improve still more if I took hold of the chances before me and deafened myself to the footsteps of disaster at my back.

My father, Milt Stein, told funny tales he made up out of nothing. Dad and I were co-hosts in an imaginary radio program of his invention when I was tiny. The “broadcast” was called the Jedna Chennai Peanut Show, named after two Polish language newspapers he sold on Chicago streets as an 11-year-old; and, I imagine, I was the “peanut,” an edible he loved to the end of his days. Real peanuts and me, I mean.

The major stories of dad’s life had to do with acts of self-assertion, something he didn’t always do, but made a difference when he did. The tales were told and retold. For example, he took a course in wood shop in high school, requiring him to make things with saws, planes, and other tools. He was poor at this, but did manage to build a shield, one of the items the instructor said was enough to pass the course.

Somehow he failed. Undeterred, Milt reminded the teacher of his statement about the requirements to get a passing mark. The instructor grudgingly changed dad’s grade to that of a “conditional” pass: if he completed the next course in the sequence with an acceptable mark, dad would be awarded the lowest possible “pass” in the one just finished, thanks to his barely adequate shield. It didn’t occur to me then, but there was a message within the oft-told anecdote: to stand up for yourself and keep plugging. In other words, not mom’s prediction of impending disaster: in effect, that a brick will inevitably fall on your head if you walk beside tall buildings.

My mother was trying to protect me from repeating the trauma of her own life, but succeeded only in terrifying me. How difficult for a parent to grasp the world has changed — the world of their child is not the world of their childhood. I spent 20 years and parts of several more living in the shadow of Jeanette Fabian’s catastrophic youth. Sometime later the sunlight conveyed indirectly by my father broke through the threatening clouds called “your future.” Dad’s “shield,” quite real in my imagination, might be used to push through the everyday battles of life. I needed only to decode his obscure message: the advice to stand up and keep plugging; the advice I don’t think he realized he conveyed, but awaited my discovery nonetheless.

LESSON: You are going to grow up with stories; the things said and those unsaid, like pieces of a puzzle; the anecdotes of your parents and perhaps your grandparents, and some composite version of all the tales you hear as they collide with each other and form a “family” story. You will also fashion a tale from the lived experience of your own existence. NONE OF THESE STORIES IS TRUE! They represent, instead, one of many possible ways to make sense of life in general and the specifics of our time on the planet, in particular. DON’T BELIEVE ANY OF THEM. DON’T IDENTIFY TOO CLOSELY WITH ANY OF THEM. Your relatives’ stories are not yours. You can’t relive them, even if that were a good idea.

As far as your narrative is concerned, you are in the middle of it now. Your story is malleable, like bronze in the hands of a metal sculptor. The creation is a work of imagination and slant, giving you lots of room to experiment — to change its shape. The architecture isn’t frozen until you live it. Indeed, not even then, as you reinterpret the events. You can be the guy who didn’t pass his wood shop course cleanly or the one who persuaded the teacher to do the right thing.

Change your story and you will change your life, your life satisfaction, and the lives of those around you. Think you will crash and burn, and you cut the chances of prosperity. Believe you are as good as your press releases, a self-made person who never benefited from any luck or help from others, and you will be full of hot air and look down on those around you. Every one of us must change our story as we walk through time — refining, redefining, recreating; and making the best of what we have learned from others, all we’ve experienced, heaps of our successes, and a dash of suffering.

What’s your story? You never know whose tiny ears are listening.

The top image is the April-May, 1939 issue of Marvel Science Stories. The artist was Norman Saunders, restoration by Adam Cuerdan. The cover is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.