When Bloggers Stop Blogging

A substantial number of bloggers, like the “old soldiers” in the antique song, “never die, they simply fade away.” Some are captured by other priorities or overtaken by demanding events. A few write books or publish elsewhere. And some, I believe, are “written out.” At least for a while.

I’ve posted in this space since 2009. Almost 600 essays. From the beginning, I wondered how long I’d have something new to say; well-crafted ideas bright people might want to read. But especially to spill out my brain for my kids and future grandchildren. To leave, in the composer Bela Bartok’s words, “an empty trunk.”

I didn’t liken myself to Shakespeare and, while I note some improvement in my writing , my belief hasn’t changed. Though several dedicated readers suggest I should compile the best of these in a book, we are overwhelmed with print already. Nor does ambition drive me to take on such a task.

I wrote while recuperating from surgery. I scrawled when embroiled in difficult moments in my life. Words appeared on the page in times happy and sad, when energetic and tired, when I was kind to the people I loved and when less than my best.

That’s the way writers are. Not all of them are “called” to write, but they must expel whatever is inside. Compulsion describes the act. A real writer, adept or not, doesn’t wait for the conditions to be perfect. His industry summons the muse, rather than being summoned by it.

I have less interest now, I’m afraid. The lure of other parts of my life draws me more. I don’t intend to abandon the blog, but I imagine I will space out my attention to the space.

Thank you for reading. Please continue to read. Your kind words are appreciated. Thanks for disagreeing with me or asking questions. I’m not disappearing and I’m not dying. Whether my posting life “fades away,” I cannot predict.

Remember, you can still peruse 10 years worth of my efforts.

Or read Shakespeare.

I won’t be jealous.

—–

The top Cartoon of Skywriting Aircraft by NASA was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Looking Back: How Do We Judge Our Past Selves?

A recent exchange of comments with a talented blogger provoked the question of how each of us judges our past. I’m not talking about instant guilt, but indictments of older action or inaction. Multinomial offered the following account of her historical failure to say “no.” Here is a partial and edited quote:

(I sometimes failed to say) “no” to certain men who propositioned me for sex when I was homeless, desperate for a place to crash, and alone … in his home. I didn’t want to be raped again, and I didn’t want to be homeless. I didn’t want to be vulnerable, but I was.

I figured if I said “yes,” it would be quick, easy, my choice, consensual — and not rape. I regretted saying “yes.” I feared saying “no.” I wanted to say “no.” And the men weren’t entirely wrong to ask me. They were just being themselves. I didn’t want to find out if my “no” would have meant yet another rape.

I feared saying “no” then, but today I no longer fear it, and I wouldn’t say “yes” if I ever became homeless again in a vulnerable situation like that. I wished I had said “no” back then. I really did. I can only blame myself … .

Here is what I wrote back, also edited:

I’m so sorry you had to experience this.

No one, except perhaps another homeless rape victim in a similar dilemma, has the standing to judge you. Of more concern, however is your lasting judgement of yourself.

Holocaust survivors sometimes frame the post-war perspective of their tragedy in a unique way. They describe the world of “before and after,” as if surgically separated from the endless horror show in which they played the part of Untermenschen, the German word meaning “those who are less than human.”

The concentration camps were like another planet for which no one could prepare, a Kafkaesque place of choiceless choices

In the period between “fore and aft,” those trapped lost all possessions, their homes, their loved ones. Crushed together for days in railway box cars like cargo for transport, these Jews, Gypsies, and Homosexuals soon lost their names in return for tattooed numbers. Starvation, freezing, hard labor, and physical brutality rendered Hell a comparative vacation spot.

In such an inverted moral universe, the rules of civilized society are harder to apply, perhaps quaint. Yet many of the victims (and many of us) tend to use a “before and after” standard to evaluate what they did to survive.

I would say this to you, Multinomial. Be careful not to disparage the bygone self — the one who didn’t say “no” — by guidelines appropriate to the world you inhabit now.

Those who live in “normal” circumstances encounter a more moderate case of the same problem. A person of mature character is not identical with his younger persona. These two hold different valuations of money, risk, friendship, time, and more. Illness and injury, experienced or witnessed, remind them lifelong health is not promised. If lucky, perhaps the middle-aged are optimistic now; if unlucky, more pessimistic than the neophyte who went by a duplicate name.

A growing stockpile of deeds requires justification as time vanishes. Opportunities, like blocks of ice, melt away. The past resists do-overs or at least makes them more effortful. One can and must work to enhance and partake of what remains.

A single “best” choice or set of choices — fitting for all times and conditions — is an illusive thing. Growing up, for example, requires risk; age, not so much. The financial advisor suggests a more conservative approach in retirement. You can no longer easily make money if your gambles don’t pay off, he reminds you.

An old saying tells us, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Perchance the senior man who coined the phrase was correct for his place and time, but off-the-mark for his junior version: the one who challenged himself or raised hell or acted on impulse. And had great fun in the process.

So called “wise men” persist in preaching at graduation ceremonies. The tiresome message leaves the class reaching for their phones. The oration amounts to this: never trade “short pleasures for long woes,” a paraphrase of John Milton, a man whose authorship of Paradise Lost implies heavenly wisdom not even he possessed.

Julian Barnes’s mid-life protagonist in The Sense of an Ending could well counter those who disparage adventure:

We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.

Tread cautiously before you criticize another’s decisions. Without your feet in his Adidas, your derogation is unearned self-congratulations. The statement, “I wouldn’t have done that,” reveals your impoverished understanding of life. You glory in an imaginary identity from your self-appointed place on a pedestal you didn’t build.

Some desirable opportunities only come once, if at all. When two such roads appear equally inviting or necessary, the solo wayfarer is now forced to meet a traveling companion: the ghost of the road not taken. The specter will afflict him unless the wanderer befriends the wraith, permitting a measure of peace.

Satchel Paige, the fabled pitcher of baseball’s segregated past, advised: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Such suggestions, of course, are easier to quote than follow.

Your remembering self is a curator of treasure and heartache, joy and pain. Happiness grows if he is selective, or an expert in rationalization, denial, or self-distraction. Like a masterful mechanic, his ability to readjust the rear-view mirror of your elapsed days makes him a handy tradesman.

I’m told he is in high demand, though this wizard doesn’t advertise. If you find his phone number let me know. I’ll pass it along.


The first photo is called, Meerkat Looking Behind in the Singapore Zoo, by BasileMorin. The next two are reproductions of the same statue, Lot’s Wife, by Hamo Thornycroft. The first picture of it was taken by Stephencdickson, the next by Don Macauley. Finally, Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Thinking About Transference in a New Way

Transference — erotic and otherwise — is worth an unconventional look.

What past events push one toward an unconscious like or dislike of his therapist? What previous learning does the patient now misapply to a stranger who offers help?

A child reacts to his parents based on reiterated experience. If the adults are pleasant and welcoming, his sentiments tend toward the benign. If the guardian’s proximity signals rash criticism, irrational outbursts, or inappropriate physical contact, he associates them with troubled, private states of mind and feeling.

The young one’s mood changes even in anticipation of adult attention. Looking forward to mom or dad’s return home from work can trigger joy or fear. Repeated signals of happiness or trouble will be learned. When an alcoholic overseer opens a beer can, the internal stir tells the child what might soon happen.

The scene or place connected to a wound matters. The familiar location informs a sensitive offspring of potential discomfort. A bedroom, for example, causes alarm if sexual abuse tends to occur there. The boy or girl’s emotional alteration becomes automatic. Conscious thought isn’t necessary.

We are thus conditioned by neglectful or abusive parents. The brain is a predictor, foreseeing danger. Our time at home trained us to notice subtle warning signs of mistreatment. High alert occurs in proximity to anyone resembling those who inflicted the injury, as if we are wearing glasses enlarging false positive features of menace. The distorting lenses sometimes govern how we see employers, friends, and lovers. Youthful coping mechanisms kick into gear.

A trauma survivor’s life is one of constant reliving.

What characteristics of the therapist contribute to this? First, counselors are most often older than the patient, just as the mom and dad were senior to him. The treating professional has an advantage of authority and power in the relationship, as guardians do. He also sets rules and requires their fulfillment. Payment is expected, rather like the home stipulation to do your chores, or else.

The doctor creates the schedule and determines the length of the session. If you wanted more intimacy with your parent, you might be frustrated by your provider’s boundaries. If you never felt special in the family, the doctor’s full caseload reminds you of growing up without status. You are one of a crowd, not first in line.

A clinician needn’t do anything remarkable to provoke a facsimile recreation of a historical script he never read. As if by magic, he arranges the set for the client’s long-running drama. The latter’s well of resentment, love, sadness, and yearning reveal themselves act by act.

A considerate and wise healer gives all his attention, looks in your eyes, and accepts you without judging. You know little about his life. His imputed resemblance to the rejecting sire allows you a mirage-like new chance at the love you never won. He assumes the form of the imagined caretaker you didn’t have, now come to life.

Transference is a kind of disguise, a costume the unknowing client applies to his doctor, who is taken for someone else. The apparel designer’s imagination fills him with qualities belonging elsewhere.

A risk exists here: the mistaken identity can overwhelm the therapist’s capacity to interpret it and refer it back to the initial source.

If this sounds like a guarantee of a bad outcome, however, it isn’t.

Once you accept the idea of transference, you may begin to actively catch the triggered emotions as they develop (or soon after) and work on their underlying cause: the ancient shadow of old relationships and the need to grieve them.

An erotic transference must be more tactfully managed. Tender feelings, romantic or not, are problematic even when unmentioned. While their connection to the past is identical to more common transferential moments, the universal hope for a sainted parent or perfect mate adds a layer of complexity to emotional resolution.

In each case, if your counselor does not overreact to your unhappiness, resentments, or thirst for unique closeness, your imbedded responses should lessen: they will be extinguished or unlearned with time. Likewise, the ability to recognize the difference between your doctor and early custodians is a first step toward doing the same with bosses, companions, and suitors.

People will be recognized more as they are, less similar to Halloween characters. Improved life choices and increasing ease of intimacy becomes possible.

Life and therapy offer us endless challenges. Muhammad Ali, a man who knew a bit about contests inside and outside the ring, offered this advice:

I hated every minute of training, but I said,
‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’

——

The first and last images above are both untitled painting by V.S. Gaitonde, the last from 1953. The middle work is called Painting No. 1, 1962, by the same artist.

What Does Erotic Countertransference Look Like?

Words are hard labor. Let’s therefore add some pictures. The moving kind in matters of the therapist’s heart.

Much is written about erotic transference, but this is countertransference. Ladson and Wilton (2007) report:

The intense emotional experience of countertransference in psychotherapy … is not rare. Some studies have reported 95 percent of male therapists and 76 percent of female therapists admit they felt sexual feelings toward their patients.

The above video, from the HBO series In Treatment, offers you a glimpse. Enough to know — if you are open to knowing — how a therapist’s erotic countertransference can divert psychotherapy from its intended aim.

Observe TV’s portrayed counselor (Paul). His discomfort is evident in his speech, his body, his silences. The grip on his role is slipping.

The first and last two minutes of the nine-minute excerpt offer the session and the words. The center segment is given over to silent film.

Do you believe their relationship will turn out well? Do you think office hours will remedy the problems for which Laura booked her first appointment?

The second clip begins with Paul looking for guidance from his analyst Gina. He has lost himself to a mutating agenda. Laura came to him to improve her psychological state. This man was sought as an expert healer, not a man soon to be in love.

The pair now struggle with a different goal. Doc Paul is like a person hanging from the wet window ledge of a twenty-story building. The strength and clarity of the woman who is his client will overpower his ambivalence. The flashing EXIT sign makes no difference.

The most remarkable moment in these two fragments opens at 7:47 of the first one. Paul is told who he is, what his weaknesses are, by his perceptive patient … and that she loves him just as he is. No wonder the ledge is slippery. To be known and accepted — here is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

You might be stirred or troubled by your own transferential emotions if you are in treatment yourself. Perhaps you hope for physicality, but should the professional’s self-control crumble, the collapse renders impotent all his education and ethical resolve; and your safety with it.

A therapist must draw a line never to be crossed.

Lower your eyes to his office floor. The indelible mark was present long before your meeting.

Any other barrier, more movable or less precise and clear to him, risks injury to both of you.
STOP signs help only if you recognize where to look, and the brakes still work.

Knowing Yourself, Then Showing Yourself

Writers are reminded to “write what you know” and “show, not tell.” The instructions apply to fiction, but also pertain to the fact of who we are.

Therapists take the closed-up, armored patient, hoping to help him remove his metal plate covering.

His end goal?

To man up.

Up straight, chest out, eyes forward. Self-confidence and pride manifest themselves in the unspoken declaration, “Here I am.”

One encounters rejection this way, but our compensation is exploration of the world regardless of fear. What acceptance we obtain is less essential, but more often real; not the approval of those fooled by our costume, blinded by the bronze.

Much discussion exists on the subject of self-revelation to others, but a first step prepares you to lower your guard. It was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi over 2500 years ago:

Know Thyself

A dangerous effort? The book of Ecclesiastes warns:

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

We seem to have a conflict here. Humans use rationalization, compartmentalization and four “D” words to keep their minds off troublesome realities: denial, dissociation, distraction, and drugs.

Socrates, another son of Greece, sided with Delphi over Ecclesiastes. The legendary teacher didn’t write, wore dirty clothes, and was sufficiently disclosing of what he stood for that he was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens.”

He led them to question their own beliefs.

The philosopher chose his end over exile because he could only be himself as he wished to be, with his people.

Counselors are friendlier to Socrates than Ecclesiastes in their pursuit of the Delphian truth. They recognize no one can show himself who doesn’t know himself.  Otherwise he displays but half — the fragment of which he is aware.

The hearing impaired who are clueless to their deficiency resemble those without self-knowledge. Such men live in a world of sound, but perceive only a segment of it. The undiscovered portion leaves no evidence of absence, no apology in the form of a regretful RSVP.

But Ecclesiastes was no fool. Fearless self-insight exacts a fearful price. Once you realize how you hurt another, the recognition bleeds you. You bleed in the knowledge of who you have been, how you harmed. To the good, now you can improve, apologize. Permission for do-overs, however, is a rare, “sometimes thing.” The damaged don’t always stick around.

Nor does self-awareness recover lost time. Those who wait for aged parents to acknowledge their failure, encounter people for whom internal vision would come with an unacceptable redefinition of themselves.

Fifty-years of error cannot be borne except by the hearty in body and mind. Indeed, all of us of whatever age want to turn from the mirror’s truth, claim distortion, and blame the glass.

A splendid blogger, Clara Bridges, tells us, “I read and write poetry for myself, not for others, and in both cases the revelation is primarily of myself, to myself.”

Clara recognizes the power of journaling, not just expressive and therapeutic, but as a tool for piercing the layers of cloaking armor we wear in our everyday version of Halloween.

Bronze plate is an inflexible thing. Clanging hardware is cumbersome and noisy. All grace disappears, the wearer’s voice drowned out by the dissonance.

A Dance of Seven Veils calls to us. The music is seductive if you are open to hearing it and brave enough. Adding to Delphi’s admonition, it sings, “Know thyself, then show thyself,” one dropped veil at a time.

You partner with yourself in the first dance, others are invited later.

Who knew counselors offer dance lessons?

—–

The first image is Constance Talmadge, Head and Shoulders Portrait,1921, Library of Congress. The second is called, Looking in the Mirror, taken in Surmi, Tulgit, (a small village in Ethiopia) by Rod Waddington, 2014. Both are sourced from Wikiimedia Commons.

What are the Limits of Telling Your Patients Something Uncomfortable?

I wrote an October post offering suggestions to make oneself more interesting: Are You Boring? Words You Should and Shouldn’t Say.

Today I’ll take this another step: what should a counselor do if the patient complains of inexplicable, endless rejection and the healer believes the explanation is that the solitary creature is boring?

Not the kind of training we get in graduate school.

Most counselors first establish the therapeutic relationship, of course. They sidestep the dullness problem. But, when the uncomfortable complication remains untouched and the individual continues to experience exclusion, what then?

The “Are You Boring” article offers both dos and don’ts. Some of those remain unmentioned in the course of a routine psychological consultation.

A UK therapist, Emma Cameron, tweeted this in response to the notion of raising the issue:

But to me this seems like a recipe for increasing social anxiety, self-judgement and shame, which many therapy clients already struggle with…

I answered,

As noted within the essay, this is a risk. On the other hand, some might benefit from recognizing and improving their interpersonal skills, of which speech is a part.

Ms. Cameron is wise, but where do her point and my counterpoint leave us?

My approach in treatment was to engage in a Socratic dialogue: use questions to lead my fellow man into the light of self-knowledge. People skills, anxiety, depression, and self-image issues were addressed, as necessary. I’d evaluate whether my patient’s present relational distress caused him to offer only the safest conversation; as if he were “hiding his light under a bushel basket.”

Indirect suggestions of routes out of his tediousness might be offered. Something like, “Have you ever thought of reading this, or studying that; visiting museum X or watching movie Y? Perhaps you might enjoy trying something new.”

But what if the forlorn fellow doesn’t have much wit or wisdom worth sharing in a relationship, yet I believe him capable of striking sparks with some guidance?

Counselors and advisors ask themselves how much information is enough, how much too great? Whether the other is open to unsettling opinion and what will happen if the fraught communication is attempted? The cause of Ms. Cameron’s hesitation is to be found here.

No challenging tidings should be offered for the sake of the truth alone. Daily choices about what to say and how to say it are made by everyone.

We are now in the domain of the unmentioned and the unmentionable. Who will tell the other he has bad breath or a failed deodorant? Does your new female acquaintance mention your comb-over looks preposterous or you bore her to desperation? No, she just takes flight.

I’ve not met a single soul who needs to know everything about himself. One minute of complete self-awareness is a scorching, lazer-like invasion of insight. Inflicting pain in honesty’s name is cruelty disguised as moral superiority. The Hippocratic oath reminds us, “First do no harm.”

Let me put this another way. What does a psychologist give you and what does he take away? Therapy involves a transaction or exchange, as in all well-functioning relationships. What do you present or withhold and at what cost? How far do you go providing anyone painful knowledge?

One must not to take something useful away (including the foundation of self-esteem) without inserting a superior substitute. Mental and emotional defenses cannot be deconstructed without peril. They serve, perhaps imperfectly, but they do serve.

Some kind and decent people gain more by learning to deal with inevitable rejection than by heightened awareness of their lack of incandescence. Not a few profit from ways of enriching their lives without the degree of friendship or intimacy desired.

Do you see the problem with what I just said? The counselor who is swift to conclude his client unable to triumph over his limitations could sell him short.

Perhaps to protect the comforter from discomfort in delivering a harrowing message, he refrains from nudging the sufferer to exceed himself and improve his life.

A therapist is like a magical juggler. Before he walks off stage, he must do his best to provide as much or little of what the patient requires to stay aloft.

And understand how much weight the client’s reinforced wings can now bear.

Thanks to Emma Cameron for allowing me to quote her tweet.

The top photo is a Security Guard Sleeping on Duty, posted by Brad & Sabrina. The second image is Prince Florimund Finds Sleeping Beauty from Child’s Favorites and Fairy Stories. Both come from Wikimedia Commons.

When Words Fail — In or Out of Therapy

I recently reread All Quiet on the Western Front in a class I take. The group consists of bright, well-read folks. Thoughtful to a fault.

I say that because, to me, the better you are with words, the more likely you will try to use them to explain experiences beyond description. Yet psychotherapy is about the fullness and meaning of those incidents and one person’s effort to convey them to another.

Even the name of the novel we completed shows how communication can fail. The translation from the German is wrong.

Erich Maria Remarque entitled this tale of World War I awfulness, Nichts Neu im Westen. I grasp enough Deutsch to tell you it means, Nothing New in the West.

“Nothing new” — just a few more deaths, more pointless battles over a space of — say — one hundred yards, traded between sides, over and again.

But what I’ve written here is insufficient and that is my point. The meat of the book, as moving as it is, attempts to describe trench warfare, death piled on meaningless death; heroism and stupidity and the loss of hope. Because I read “All Quiet,” I might now know something about war, but I do not know war.

In the seminar we struggled to understand. My noncombatant friends and I squandered many words attempting to think through something having little to do with thought. We were all touched by the story, sure. This wasn’t enough.

A wartime example might help, though still fail to achieve understanding. My wife’s father manned a supply truck during WWII. His partner in the task shared the job of transporting needed goods — military hardware, food, and other necessaries — to the front. They spent over a year side-by-side and became best friends.

On a day no different than hundreds of others, talking and laughing and complaining and telling stories as they always did, a sniper’s bullet killed Tom Henek’s buddy. Covered with the blood of a man he loved, the soldier who would sire my wife drove on.

Those are the facts. The single survivor — the man who relived the murder in post-traumatic dreams — himself died long ago. No one is present to add or subtract from the description. We civilians lack the conceptual and affective adequacy to approach what the lived-experience was like, only analogues from our own terrors and near-misses.

A movie might help, perhaps the opening of Saving Private Ryan, however much falling short.

What can we impart of joy? The birth of a child, sex, whatever is your happiest memory? Those without children won’t comprehend. The solitary who never made love “in love” can’t enter the realm of the incommunicable. Poor creatures holding only gray memories of a rocky life might find their best day difficult to recall as a pulsing, radiant thing.

Yet this is what therapists do: try to understand those with a different history from their own.

Healers can’t get inside of you. They listen to the inflections, depend on the definitions they hope you share. Add your eyes, the ache in your voice, and body language. No wonder you are frustrated at times. No wonder they are frustrated at times. Nor am I including the secrets you’ve not told or the knowledge of yourself you don’t possess.

There are people in our lives — if you are like me — about whom you will learn more some time after not seeing them. I’m talking of a forest and trees phenomenon. We need to be close-up to make out some things. The rest takes form at a distance. Such perception is of little use to the departed, but the one who stumbles upon a new depth of insight is enlarged in a way I also cannot describe.

Trust me — “trust me about this” — is now a phrase that might mean a bit more to you. Perhaps you won’t be quick to trust the expression anymore. Remember, too, I’m using words to communicate; words you are encouraged to rely upon less.

Asking questions of the speaker might help him explain himself to you.

Might.

We are desperate. We wish to be understood. Do you have more than a faint sense of me, precise and perceptive in detail? To most of you I am black letters against white space on a phone or computer; perhaps a recorded voice on the Internet or a photo. In any shared real life you’d witness moments of irritation, disappointment, weariness, self-assertion, laughter and more.

No one knows the entirety of another. I haven’t told you everything, nor admitted to myself the totality of who I am.

Perhaps my tendency to answer questions truthfully is too rare a quality. Those who desire tender acceptance have no chance without frankness. Thus, I try to be frank.

Here is another consideration. Counselors often withhold the truths for which they believe their client is unprepared. Whether we are counselors or not, we are a combination of what we say and the matters we consign to silence. Listeners make assumptions about the latter with no definite idea of the unseen iceberg below the other’s visible self-presentation.

We enter relationships and conversations as if all of us — every one — wore a hair piece. An observer might detect it, but still does not perceive what is underneath.

Science fiction of the Star Trek universe offers a non-conversational way of fathoming the other: the Vulcan mind meld. Here is a completeness of intimacy to the most terrifying degree imaginable: sharing every thought, every feeling, every recollection. Imagine the holder of a pitcher pouring them into you.

I learned the unreliability of language at home. I had one honest parent and another who couldn’t bear too much truth. Therein resided the equivalent of a university education. My nature was more attuned to the former.

Forty-years after his return from the European zone of combat, I asked my dad what he recalled of his reunion with my mom. A first phone call from New York stood out. The man I loved wept reliving the moment.

Did I understand? Well, I partook of his retelling, and that was more than sufficient. If we are sympathetic witnesses to such inwardness, the two of us become closer. Patients and doctors, parents and children, friends and lovers. We don’t need to fathom everything.

I keep a scrapbook of invisible moments, often silent — a look or a touch, a smile or a tear.

The possibility of knowing sometimes depends upon the unsayable.

The first painting is called City Landscape — 1955,  by Joan Mitchell.  It is followed by Georgia O’Keefe’s White Shell with Red. Both come from the Art Institute of Chicago.