A Path to Understanding Others

In the early days of the internship program at Forest Psychiatric Hospital, I was one of the psychologists who fashioned the training experience for the grad students newly invited to spend a year with us.

I recall suggesting the interns occupy the role of patients on their first day. The staff was told they were graduate trainees but not actual residents. The real patients stayed in the dark.

Everything else proceeded in the usual fashion for new admissions, including entering the facility, rooming with the inpatients overnight, attending group therapy sessions, and eating in the cafeteria.

At the end of 24 hours, the play-acting ended, and the future counselors began the formal part of their experience in a different psychiatric unit, as I recall.

Neither my colleagues nor I recognized the questionable nature of this deception, and ethics committees within universities and hospitals didn’t exist everywhere. I recommended it because I thought it essential for future psychologists to stand in the shoes of those they would be ministering to.

Nothing could compare to the lived experience, or so we believed.

Later, when I received supervision in administering and interpreting neuropsychological tests, I applied the same principle to myself. I asked the senior psychologist first to give me the examination. I wanted to “duplicate” the position of those who I would be evaluating. Only could I thereby create their “first-time” experience before I ever took the “doctor’s role.”

Now jump with me to what allows us, you and me, to understand people who live in circumstances different than ours.

Our automatic attempt to fathom their behavior and thought process — to see into their hearts and heads — comes from the perspective of the sense organs, what we have been told, our inborn nature, and conclusions based on the world we know.

The joys and sorrows our world has brought us, perhaps of a very different kind than they’ve faced, can only be used to approximate or serve as a translator to help us achieve understanding from our limited perspective.

Can we then latch on to the motivations and actions of those whose life experience is unusual to us? I am questioning not only mental health professionals but every one of us. Identifying with others takes an uncommon level of training and introspection.

Sometimes we humans draw the wrong picture of others, piling up distorted figurations like misshapen pancakes.

Our judgments are generally self-serving. We simplify the human experience and don’t wish to blame ourselves. Adverse reactions to those unlike us, those of less status and those who are “different,” are as plentiful as the fruit on a flourishing banana tree.

Herb Childress, in a brilliant book dealing with higher education, wrote about how we dismiss the complicated and unfortunate lives of others while taking on a sense of superiority over them:

There’s a strong hindsight bias that works to confirm one’s own positive traits, whether those traits are skill, talent, hard work, ot persistence.

Moreover, he continues:

But when successful people don’t acknowledge the role that things outside their control have played in their success, they don’t think to create those conditions for others; they imagine that the less fortunate are simply less worthy.*

It is easy and comforting to think the world is a controllable place where people usually get what they deserve and deserve what they get. If individuals dissimilar to “our people” encounter misfortune, we tend to prefer an explanation exempting us from the possibility it will happen to us. We sleep better if we think this way.

In a world fraught with differences, it becomes apparent how far many of us misunderstand the imagined lives others experience.

Do you really think you can get inside of (take your pick) a differently gendered soul situated in an unfamiliar social class, race, native language, or nationality? How about the personalities of those who have known periods of starvation, served in battle, been raped or molested, or beaten? I could go on.

Do you recognize the challenge of grasping the viewpoint, fear, or heartbreak of people who endured wartime, life-threatening disease, poverty, or genocide? Or lived 40 years before your grandparents did or began life 40 years after you, like your grandchildren?

Without knowing it, as a young psychologist, I was already blessed to observe the world within an island of relative safety and the misfortunes I missed.

Why? First, mine was a limited, cloistered encounter with the globe, born in a time of prosperity. My family met the criteria of the period for lower-middle-class. Mom and dad did their best to raise me in a neighborhood with uncommonly good public schools. College education was cheap, scholarships were available to win, and pollution and climate change were not yet on the radar.

The Chicago summer skies almost always displayed a beautiful blue instead of gray. I received a healthy body and a decent brain in the lottery I won from Mother Nature.

Gerry Stein was a white male in a white man’s world before civil rights legislation became national law.


But the limitations of my experience also told against my ability to understand the folks I treated. Apart from my training and the supervision I received, I was innocent of much about life, though my shelves included plenty of books and my ears had heard of terrible turns and tragedies.

Once in a therapy practice, the stories I listened to from the sufferers stood out. They educated me, though not by intention. Story after story, multiple layers of individual memories, thousands of tales and perspectives.

Yet I was still outside of them, away from them, as if peering through binoculars or a telescope. Some of my patients related their early life hardships involving disease and starvation, not anything I’d personally encountered or endured. Their emotions were not mine nor their wisdom, poor judgment, or sheer awful luck.

To better understand our fellow humans, we need to climb into their lives imaginatively, reimagine and extend our imagination beyond stereotypes into a different time, place, body, heart, and brain.

No one will require you to enter the psyche and anatomy of someone traumatized, desperate, horrified or delighted, ecstatic, or entitled. Going that far, the next step requires recognizing your limits of thought and feeling to grasp theirs.

It is essential, then, to create thought experiments, submerging oneself in “the heart of darkness.” It might be a precarious place of less control, more random acts, fewer models of successful coping, having to choose between medication and food, negative judgments, and the difficulty of finding someone trustworthy or understanding.

This is becoming harder to do these days, I would argue. When the USA had a military draft, abled-bodied men from different backgrounds shared the experience of basic training and going to war. Now we let the children of others “volunteer” to fight for us (making for wars we promote or oppose) without any of our “skin in the game.”

Inevitably, the offspring of wealth and education are more likely spared, while those without better job prospects enter combat more often than those who were “born on third base and thought they hit a triple.”

The warriors of whatever class suffer. According to the NY Times, “at least 6,261 veterans died by suicide in 2019,” and “nearly 16% of (those) deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD.”

People at a physical distance from us are easier to misjudge, demonize, or forget and ignore in their pained existence. Indeed, from his contemporary home office, the boss can fire a person he rarely sees by emailing him a virtual pink slip. No one need ever speak to him to say the words.

No muss or fuss, no eye contact, nor an instant given to the essential humanity of the “other” — the soul dismissed both as an equal and an employee. War is also fought at distances of thousands of miles. Drones destroy people like us, operated by people like us seated in front of computers that might as well be video games.

How often do we think about someone in a third-world country making a garment we praise as “beautiful and oh so cheap!” Of course, it is inexpensive because the worker in a dirty, unairconditioned factory receives far less payment than she would in wealthier nations.

Her life is a mystery and misery to us, and we don’t want to hear more. It would be too hard to know. Challenging to consider, harder still on the dressmaker and her children to withstand.

We objectify those invisible to us or make them into cartoons. We think we understand their inner workings when we have no idea. The world becomes impersonal, good or bad, made of fellow humans we make into saints, sinners, or vague aberrations we describe as stupid, lazy, or evil.

They are placed by us into one category, not in a position to straddle the line between worthy and imperfect, as actual beings do, including ourselves.

Once necessary for early man to survive, tribalism makes us quick to judge those who come from a distant place, look different, speak another tongue, and are as wary of us as we are of them. We fail to socialize with them, and our tendency to make them foes first and ask questions later diminishes us all.

It is too easy to think the evils of this world are due only to one group spawned far away who we can keep away. It is easy to think “they” plot against us and lie all day, every day. We degrade ourselves, no matter that some of the “misdeeds” of “those people” are real and some few corrupt.

If I were back in the position of training young adults, I might make another suggestion, more extreme than the one I described earlier.

I’d advise young people at an early stage of political life, law, or the ministry to spend several months living in the neighborhood of groups different from themselves. They’d seek medical care from their doctors, wear the same clothes, and eat the food typical of the location and its people.

Their job would include getting an ordinary job and making friends as newcomers. If these future authority figures took such training, participants might return to their homes with a fresh perception of the “strange place” they’d lived, now aware “they” are not as strange as previously believed.

A “draft” of young women and men into this kind of service to the world would also be a service to them.

I’d hope for a gradual enlargement of civility toward and appreciation of those encountered. It is even possible some of the young adults who ventured to do this might acknowledge that their judgments had been wrong and begin to hesitate to project their traits and biases on people outside of their close acquaintance.

Since this idea isn’t likely to happen soon, what can the rest of us do?

As a start, consider reimagining your parents’ lives before your birth. Talk to them or, if they are gone, interview their living relatives and friends — people who lived in the same place and time.

Assuming you knew your parents and have some memory of them, think and look through their departed hearts, experiences, schooling, and every other aspect of the time before you arrived and the possible impact your new life had on them.

If you are bolder, find someone on the other side of whatever divide you find most troubling these days. Exert the effort to find out their point of view, but only after first becoming friends. Ask questions and try to set aside prejudgments.

Talk less and listen more.

Perhaps someday, there might also be a virtual way for men to spend time carrying a child inside them and going through labor. No joke.

Enlightenment would grow from such an opportunity.

So would hope for ourselves and the future of the world.

========

All but Laura Hedien’s photo were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The first image is a Looped MRI Video of a Healthy 13-year Old Female’s Heart Beating. Alith3204 created it. Next is a Green Banana Tree by Rosendahl.

A Pile of Stacked Gold Bars was photographed by Stevebidmead. Laura Hedien’s Chicago River Downtown appears here with her kind permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

A 1919 Newspaper Ad for the Movie “You’re Fired” comes after Ms. Hedien’s work. Last is a shot of Two Blossom-headed Parakeets, a picture taken by Touhid biplop.

Does Your Therapist Laugh with You?

She was a retired woman, a bit hard of hearing but quite pleasant. I saw her Monday afternoons, and she always opened our session by asking me about my weekend. One particular day, I answered this way:

          “Oh, we went to a tapas place.”

           “A topless place!

She shrieked the words, almost hysterical.

Well, eventually, I was able to calm her down. I repeated the problematic word and described the Spanish-style restaurant I’d referred to, not a burlesque show.

Did she ever look at me as she did before the misunderstanding? I sure hope so!

Another question: Is an occasional intentionally humorous quip from your counselor a good idea? What guidance might indicate when and how to use this form of conversation? Not everyone can or should.

Many therapists are serious, reserved, or seriously reserved. They view a “therapeutic distance” as if it is an ethical necessity accompanied by a subtle chill. Others never dismount their professional or “doctor” pedestal.

For those who use a strictly Freudian model, the patient is on a couch from which he cannot see the analyst. Without seeing him, the listener might miss or misinterpret the healer’s clever intent. Since the psychiatrist also remains quietly listening much of the time, he is a bit like the Wizard of Oz, a dignified magician behind a metaphorical screen.

I laughed a lot in my practice, as I hope my writing reveals. While I agree with the need to retain an element of professional detachment for everyone’s sake, I also know humanizing yourself has a place on flat ground. At times, bringing a smile salves a broken heart.

A practitioner’s infrequent levity can lighten the mood. If the client is weeping or relating something uncomfortable is not the moment to attempt this, but some others are.

To insert a giggle, you need to “read” the patient’s emotions and share a comfortable relationship. Thus, the healer must know the sufferer enough to understand when humor will work.

A chuckle should never come at the patient’s expense. Minimizing suffering while it is fresh is also to be avoided.

Making someone laugh is a gift. What’s more, I doubt whether anyone can be instructed in this talent. You have the knack, or you don’t.

My personal physician has it. Years ago, I went to JN with a skin complaint, and he referred me to a dermatologist. The specialist inspected my face and asserted I’d get skin cancer within 10 years.

No hesitation, no other possibilities, no doubts.

Not great news, either.

When I returned to my general practitioner, I reported what the man said. My doc responded, “Did he tell you the date?

I broke up. My internist lightened my worry with those six words. The other guy was wrong, by the way.

Comedians describe comedy as “tragedy plus time.They recognize many overwhelming wounds fade, to be laughed about later, sometimes much later if at all.

Well used, mirth permits people to recognize they remain capable of joy, even if for a second. Future happiness might therefore appear possible despite their current circumstances. When that awareness comes with the right touch of lightheartedness, it needn’t always be explained.

Not every unhappiness benefits from this remedy, but it sometimes opens the possibility of a new attitude toward our passage through life.

Jollity introduces the unspoken awareness that life is full of laughable indignities, near misses, and inevitable bruises that could have been much worse. We ruin our lives by making each one unforgettable and indelible, like covering every inch of ourselves with large and small frowning tattoos, all staring back at us.

We are such frail things at times. Comfort comes from knowing others are in the same club and just as vulnerable. By recognizing the absurdities of existence we fortify ourselves for the uncertain days ahead.

The human form is like a tiny spaceship launched without our permission by the folks called mom and dad. No trustworthy map presents itself. Unexpected comets, meteors, and black holes are dark surprises. Brighter and better ones include a moonlit night with someone you love.

Smiling at the small shocks and the narrow escapes allows relief from a dim view of what lies ahead. We even may learn how to prepare for challenging events by noting the errors of others, as well as our own.

Laugh when you can, including at yourself. Merriment and glee make life worth living as much as heroic accomplishments and the offspring who will speed our genes forward in their own spacecraft.

Our parents do right to send us off with hope, a hug, and a smile. What better way to launch the future?

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

The single-cell cartoon is Doctor Visit. Author and source unknown. Next comes Spirit of Civilization from Puck magazine, June 17, 1903, housed in the Library of Congress. Finally, Amazing Laughter, photographed by BMK in the Sculpture Park of Vancouver, Canada. It is the work of Yue Minjun. The last two of these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Erotic Transference in a World of Online Therapy

 
What happened when therapy became virtual at the pandemic’s beginning? Did erotic transference die quietly because of the physical separation of counselor and client? Did the small screen reduce the scope of sexual feelings?
 
Perhaps not, since I read no obituary in the news. Still, it is worth thinking about what has become of the inevitability of desire in the human interaction of some who seek treatment.
 
Erotic transference refers to the patient’s growing sexualized affections for the clinician in talking about her feelings and the significant players in the drama of her life. Parents, caretakers, past lovers, abusers, or others might metaphorically slip into these one-to-one settings unseen, producing an outsized and complicated response to the therapist.
 
The analyst begins to evoke dormant emotions he didn’t create.
 
In the pre-pandemic period, all sorts of detailed cues existed within the office, qualities that might have contributed to the sexualization of the other. The consulting room made these accessible to the client in a way they are not on a computer screen.

A shortlist included the following:

  • A view of the entire face and clothed body, front and back, bottom to top.
  • More noticeable eye contact.
  • Grooming characteristics and their impact on the sensory organs of the observer. Subtle skin tones, makeup, natural bodily scents or odors, perfumes, shampoo emanations, cologne, and pheromone production could encourage sexual arousal.
  • The way the person walked, moved, sat, reached, and shook hands.
  • His attire.
  • An intimate and unvarying background domain, quiet and the same each week.
  • The healthcare professional’s voice was unaffected by the distortion of a computer speaker or headphones.
  • Small facial expressions.
  • An absence of distractions as opposed to a less controlled setting.

Put simply, the office was an environment decorated and modified by the healer, made consistent and safe by him. It included objects little changed in successive sessions. Physical nearness to him was one of those stabled features.

Unintended changes from the old way of doing things should have worked against the emergence of passion in post-COVID treatment relationships. But perhaps there are other considerations:

  • The current unavailability of nearness to a doctor or psychiatric social worker might make them more attractive to some people. Imagine a client whose past experience with parents or lovers included their tendency to push her away or display inconsistency in expressing affection.
  • A new analyst, “out of reach” due to a change in the provision of psychotherapeutic services, could serve unconsciously as another chance to achieve the kind of love she’s searched for, the person “difficult to get.”
  • Unlike the doctor’s office, online contact gives the patient possible control of 50% of the framework for the meeting. Clients set up computers in bedrooms, bathrooms, automobiles, nearby pools, and other locations.
  • Although not all possess the ease of finding privacy, some capacity to arrange the decoration, lighting, and background is more available than prevails in another person’s building.
  • Since travel to and from the psychologist’s location is unnecessary, attire can also be controlled and sexualized.
  • Without the need to leave home, it becomes easier to drink alcohol or use other substances to disinhibit one’s emotions and become more provocative.
  • Many people watch TV and movies on their computers, iPads, and phones. The device thus transforms into a place of “performances.The sexualization of the session exists in a world of potential unreality, encouraging a client’s inclination to take a performative risk.
  • The power of words, an analyst’s kindness, and a level of attention the patient might never have experienced can still serve as potent aphrodisiacs. Remember, love relationships began and survived in the pre-computer age of letter writing.
  • In 2020 pet ownership rose to 70% of American households. Pandemic-driven starvation for physical contact and touch (skin hunger) may explain a part of this phenomenon. It might motivate an increased want for the caress (and more) from someone who appears devoted to your wellbeing.

To sum up, we don’t know the extent to which virtual (online) therapy increases or diminishes erotic transference. Many of the various effects of the pandemic are little studied, leaving anecdotal evidence at best.

We all recognize that humanity would not exist but for sexual appetite. Sex and love endure through wartime, plagues, environmental destruction, and more.

Think of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey. She waited 20 years for her husband’s return when he left to fight in the Trojan War.

The power of another’s gaze, warmth, careful listening, and voice remain available to us, no matter the change in therapeutic format. The enlarged distance from the therapist might even enhance his sense of mystery.

The hope for intimacy and the heartbeat of desire have survived with less assistance.

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

The first image is called Sculpture in Paradise by Philip Jackson, located at the center of the cloisters of Chichester Cathedral. The photo is by surreyblonde from Pinterest. Next comes Khao Luang Cave Temple, Phetchaburi, Thailand, sourced from Cheezburger.com/ Finally, Factory Butte, Utah, a 2019 work by Laura Hedien with her permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

When Emotions Get the Best of Reason

Part of what makes life challenging has to do with overestimating our self-knowledge. I have many friends with prodigious intellectual qualities, but few whose behavior suggests they understand themselves as well as they think.

Indeed, I’ve been known to fall into the same confusion they do.

People find it far easier to identify the flaws in others than in themselves.

We raise a critical finger at those who vote for the “wrong” candidates, date ill-suited members of their preferred gender, and behave in a mind-boggling fashion.

Less time is spent pointing at the person in the mirror.

Why might that be? The question is complex, but I’ll offer you a simplified answer of significant, if incomplete, merit. It comes from a 17th-century Dutch philosopher who might have passed as a therapist if such a profession existed.

Can you guess his name? Of course not. Baruch Spinoza: 1632 – 1677.

Spinoza attempted a logical proof of our weakness in the face of external events and the disorganizing, confusing moods and temperaments they produced inside of us. Further, he thought our minds are easily fooled by misleading images of the nature of a universe full of things, plants, animals, and people.

Take man’s long-held opinion about the earth’s shape. Look outside, and remember everyone once trusted the absolute flatness of the planet. If you thought otherwise, no one believed you.

We now know better, I hope.

The philosopher points to several causes of our limited ability to think clearly. He considered men undercut by emotions impairing their capacity to reason. Furthermore, the ideas we form by reliance on our senses are inadequately thought out. Most of us become “slaves” to our feelings in Spinoza’s chosen word.

If we think of the world of today, examples come to mind. Many of us favor politicians who excite us to a state of blind trust. When those leaders deny the evidence of well-crafted science, their followers fall in line.

These demagogues make some “feel better” about themselves. They offer someone else to blame for their problems and, like Pied Pipers, take their “believers” toward a cliff they are unaware of.

Intellectual arguments alone don’t carry much power to alter fixed, erroneous thoughts underpinned by strong emotions. In Spinoza’s judgment, no feeling can be countered by “true knowledge” beneficial to well-being unless it carries emotional weight consistent with that truth.

I’m sure you’ve attempted to persuade acquaintances through well-organized reasoning and impressive evidence without success.

Ah, but the situation is not hopeless, indicated our friend Baruch. He believed “the more an emotion is known to us, the more it is within our control.” This argument came from Freud over 300 years later. The same ancient Greek maxim of “know thyself” arrived centuries before.

As Freud also knew, “true knowledge” or insight had to be attached to emotions to change thought and behavior. Once this combination finds its place within an individual, Spinoza tells us the person will no longer be enslaved by his feelings but become a “free man.”

In our own century, psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s research confirms Spinoza’s recognition of our tendency to overvalue our intellectual gifts and discount the role of emotions in our lives.

Another point is worth underlining. The philosopher knew perfect understanding was available to no one. Perfection resided in God, according to the Dutchman, a God of marked differences from the usual definitions. Regardless, Spinoza conceived women and men as capable of improving their realistic awareness of the world as it is instead of being abducted into the bondage he described.

To end this oversimplified essay on a philosophy of significant difficulty, Baruch shows you and me the starting place from which we can improve our knack for steering clear of harmful temptations and desires: from overeating to choosing friends and mates ill-suited to our best interests.

Moreover, he predicted his recommended approach to life would enhance our contentment and reduce the number of misguided goals we seek. He meant those whose pursuit impairs us.

This long-departed man’s writings claim we cannot find fulfillment while dragged by emotions like wild horses off the path of self-empowerment.

First, however, we must accept our limited rationality and imperfect thought instead of assuming we routinely display excellent self-awareness and wisdom about what is to our advantage.

Ready to start?

========

The painting of Spinoza is the work of Alexander Roitburd. It is sourced from Wikiart.org.

Outgrowing Our Problems

At our best, we don’t so much solve our problems as outgrow them. We add capacities and experiences that eventually make us triumphant over many of them.

An example: the luckiest of us sustain few losses early in life. With time the balance begins to shift, often with the departure of friends, but most of us can discover and recover the ability to flourish.

We persist. Moreover, according to Spinoza, the drive to persist appears to be built into us — part of our essence.

Those who understand the conditions of human existence realize tests of our competencies don’t end. These require the development of self-assertion, controlling our emotions, discovering how to persuade others, making and sustaining friendships, and giving up the dependence on defenders because we believe ourselves incapable of self-defense.

The unhappiness following disappointment and loss can stop us if we allow it to become a permanent limitation.

Life gives us many challenges and chances to learn from such situations. Backing off as a strategy invites severe consequences. The problem dominates us, and the impediment grows. The failure and trepidation wait for us to find the bravery inside. They are supremely patient.

If we reach the point of taking on that which defeats us, the dilemma recedes. The Goliath-like stumbling block shrinks, and our strengths increase.

We have grown out of the trouble, taken confidence from victory over the internal issue, and moved on to greater assurance in the capacity to master what comes next. Life may begin to appear less threatening.

Our scope has widened. We are no longer children competing with older kids or adults or humans confronting imaginary giants. Thanks to self-enlargement, our vision might even recognize happiness in the distance or present.

People have no choice but to make peace with life’s demands. Acceptance, gratitude, and the necessity of action are fundamental. Knowing when each of these fits the moment is essential.

The demons within exist side by side with the knowledge to surpass them, awaiting our discovery.

Success needn’t be defined as the acclaim of a crowd. Owning shortcomings and facing what we must do to overcome them achieves self-generated wealth in human, not financial terms: a gift we earn ourselves.

========

The photo called Happiness is Wellness is the work of GiftedLydia and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How a Family Changes When a Parent Dies

About 20 years after our last meeting, I shared brunch with a girlfriend of my college years. We were then in our early 40s.

Her Chicago mom died a year before, and I offered some memories I had of her late parent. Janet’s eyes moistened, and she said, “No one knows mum anymore.

She told me that after her move to the East Coast in her early 20s, she’d lost touch with the friends of her youth who were familiar with her family. Now, no one but Jan’s husband and her sister shared the recall of her folks, and the spouse was no fan.

As a result, something was missing beyond the woman’s presence. Once someone departs, they still occupy a living memory space that continues so long as any “rememberers” live. The unreality, loneliness, and despair attached to the misfortune are magnified when few witnesses remain.

That nonphysical library of recollection houses stories, funny and sad, and knowledge of the good and bad — a repository of the essential players and their experiences in the place and time they were all alive.

While sharing memory space with sisters and brothers may mitigate the hardship, it tends not to erase it. The demise causes an unpredictable number of potential changes. Few adult children see this coming.

They’ve known mortality was inevitable, but the suddenly silenced voice creates new realities unless a prolonged illness happens first.

Here are a few possible transformations involving relationships among the offspring.

1. We do not all respond identically to the death of a loved one. Some are stoic, some overwhelmed, others relieved. For example, adult children who did not resolve differences with the deceased may wish they had spoken earlier or made one last effort.

2. Differing reactions to the passing can cause siblings to think a brother or sister is making too much of the event. Or exposes less pain than is proper.

3. Sibs can also become closer in their mutual sadness and the process of offering and receiving comfort. In the most benign of circumstances, they show kindness and convey the sense that death demands the best of them because life and their loving attachments are all they have.

Recognition of the shortness of life and the significance of setting aside grudges can bond these witnesses to the life just gone by.


4. Some offspring recognize the importance of sustaining the memory of the departed one. Shared recollections and family jokes form a portion of their inheritance, an automatic bequest to survivors. Efforts to preserve that legacy might gain energy.

5. For those who share the extremity of the loss, reliance on the other for support presents a challenge. Imagine two swimmers beside each other, both sinking. Moreover, dealing with the details of funerals, memorials, unpaid bills, and managing the estate and the division of property tends to take precedence.

Attention to such practical and legalistic considerations holds the potential to disappoint those who interpret a sibling’s soldier-like necessity as a disrespectful lack of emotion. Alternatively, those who feel at sea can experience gratitude toward an individual who relieves them of a piece of the dark weight pulling them down.

Siblings process their internal complexities at different speeds. Anger and denial present themselves dramatically. Devastation creates slowed motion — the sense of walking as if in a fog, out of touch and forgotten by the rest of the world

All this carries surprise. Some who were weak might discover strength. Sibs who lived a life of authority may be bowled over by the tragedy.

6. There is still more to the family’s cleanup, reassembly, and repair than tasks uncompleted by a late parent. Caretaking if the senior was already in decline should be included in any accounting.

The challenge is more formidable if animosity between siblings exists concerning “who didn’t do his part” in taking on oversight of the failing sire.

No less is the resentment carried if they consider themselves a child disfavored by either a parent or a sib.

Feelings emerge about an unpaid indebtedness owed by those who did little or nothing for the folks, including phone calls or visits. Of course, whether and how much gratitude is due resides in “the eye of the beholder.

The extent of those unfairnesses and the need for acknowledgment, thanks, and compensation depend on one’s perspective. If one of the folks survives, this further complicates what must be done to sustain the widow or widower.

7. Inequity of a different kind occurs if one of the parties removes heirlooms or other material things such as jewelry, paintings, and objects of unique meaning. Conflicts arise when verbal promises or understandings of “who gets what” haven’t been put in writing, were changed or ignored after wills were written.

8. A respected and respectful family head, often by his presence alone, enables civility in his children’s actions and reactions toward each other during his lifetime. Once departed, old differences between his offspring may erupt, and more recent ones emerge. In a sense, the authority figure kept everyone in line.

9. Multiple possibilities exist for the “afterlife” of the brood.

For example, if the parent set one child against another, his absence as an instigator of bitterness gives the siblings room to reduce or repair past difficulties.

Another possibility includes drifting apart from the family of origin. When the elder functioned like glue holding his descendants together, it is common for the sticky substance to disappear along with his life.

The physical distance between the adult children creates little chance for complete involvement of everyone in all the details of putting an earthly life to rest. Moreover, shared mourning must surmount one more hurdle when family members soon need to return to faraway locations and their lives and responsibilities elsewhere.

Similarly, focusing on the next generation and living in-laws can loosen the bonds between brother and sister. Sibs now have one less reason to get together on holidays.


10. Imagine a group with leaders and followers, funny and serious members, optimists and pessimists. Include whatever other characteristics you have noted within family groups. The removal of one such person might provide an open space, a type of vacuum in the form of an empty slot to be filled.

Think of what follows as an attempted corporate takeover, either a happy enhancement of the family’s togetherness or a ruthless change of ownership. Relationships and alliances shift and reshape themselves while adjusting to the recent vacancy.

If not well managed, a kind of game of musical chairs can make one or another feel left out or disadvantaged by the loss of status and influence.

11. Finally, the departure of a parent marks an end, not only of his literal availability but of a continued sense of him as a guiding, almost eternal protector and comforter.

When soldiers sustain severe wounds on the battlefield, it is common to hear them calling for “mother.This unconscious notion of one’s progenitor as a stabilizing life force takes on godlike qualities beginning in childhood — the ability to assuage injuries and heal them with a kiss or a hug.

Obviously, if mom or dad died at a point after aging rendered them unable to occupy such a role, the disappearance of this security needn’t be so disturbing. Yet our perception of those we have depended on from the start doesn’t always agree with their aged capacities.

We carry the psychological desire for a devoted and unconditionally loving caretaker who supports us throughout our lives. Ideally, the parent figure has our back, cheers us on, and will “be there” when the chips are down.

Instead, the new reality tells us we must bolster our own confidence and take on the world with less help, a lonelier task now than before. It also informs us of our place next in line, moving toward the end of things.


If the upbringing we received is adequate and our will strong enough, we will grow into the job mom and dad held, providing reliance and a model for our own children.

Meanwhile, the connections among siblings can be thrown into the air like a deck of cards. The rearrangement can be painful, disorienting, or beneficial.

Much depends on what they do with it.

How do I know? Apart from my experience working with families, I also came from one that needed some work, as most do. I have two stalwart brothers, and we try hard to show respect and affection, sharing memories along the way. Our parents continue to “live” in the hearts they left behind.

I consider my fellowship and love for Ed and Jack a responsibility, a necessity, and one of the most important things I’ve ever participated in, not simply for them but for myself.

The Stein family of my generation is not finished yet.

Of that, I think Milton and Jeanette Stein would be pleased.

==========

The top photo is The Gribith Brothers and Sisters by Misterbowls. It is followed by Cold Sunset in Wyoming, 2022 by Laura Hedien. Next comes Brother and Sister, 1974, the work of Phongpaseuth.

The oldest photograph is a portrait by Berget of Andrew Winberg with Brothers and Sisters in Warren, Minnesota, around 1903, now housed at the University of Washington. Finally, a late 1959 picture of my family of origin. Jack, myself, and Eddie from left to right. Behind us, Dad and Mom — Milton and Jeanette Stein.

All of these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons with the exception of the Stein family and Laura Hedien’s wonderful shot: Laura Hedien Official Website.

Thank you, Laura, for your art and your permission to feature it here.

What is Your Legacy? The Simple Answer is Within Your Reach

The future is like a taxi driver awaiting our direction. “Where to?”

What we leave behind at the end of our trip — our legacy — attempts to answer the question, “When I pass the baton, what will the next runner receive?”

Does emphasizing personal success, outsized ambition, and individual prosperity leave something worth a lifetime?

Will a career of stature make the best life and legacy?

Here are two alternatives routes worth considering. The first is the path one woman pursued searching for “the good life.” The second adds you to the picture.

Really.

To begin, please read this eloquent description of the female I mentioned:

Legacies are hard things. As a teacher, you have no idea, usually, what’s going on on the other side of the table, and you won’t know for 20 years, 30 years, 50 years — you probably will never know what the lasting effects are, so I wouldn’t claim much. But I’ll say that Amy was an absolutely masterful teacher.

I was pretty good, but she was fabulous. And she was fabulous because if a student asked her a question, she turned it back on them. She didn’t feel obliged to give answers. She was there to make them think and think harder.

A student would say something, and if it was halfway good, she would say, “Another sentence …,” and it was flattering to the student to think they had another sentence in them, besides the best that they’d give you.

They searched for it, and they found it.

The other thing to say about her is that the women students, especially, saw and treasured in Amy the fact that she integrated naturally and easily a beloved life of teaching and learning, and a beloved life of marriage and family.

She wasn’t proving a point. She just did it. The students were invited into our home. They saw all aspects of her, and a lot of the students gravitated to her for this reason.

I am sure you realize the last sentence identifies the speaker as the husband of this remarkable educator. Amy Kass died in 2015, and the quotation comes from her mate, Leon Kass. If I listed all their combined achievements, you would be humbled, but they include books, civil rights activism, medicine, and much more. Concerning what her husband highlights, she was an instructor in the humanities at the University of Chicago.

What else do the words from the man tell us about his wife, the direction of her life, and the possibility of one’s own legacy?

He underlines a grace in her interactions with the young people who wished to learn from her. She lifted them by evoking their best — thoughts unexpressed but for her attempt to provoke their self-questioning, careful reading, and rejection of easy answers.

Amy Kass must have been the type of instructor you encounter once or twice in a lifetime — if you are lucky.

The kind you never forget.

Her partner mentions more than her professional attainments. He highlights how she lived, emphasizing her love for him and their family. She opened herself to other relationships out of her love of people.

As a professor of classics, she not only talked with her students about how thinkers in antiquity valued nobility of character, but she provided an effortless illustration in her everyday actions by being generous, eager, honorable, devoted, strong, and considerate in the classroom and beyond.

Now, the second answer I promised follows from the first. To leave a fine legacy, you needn’t become famous, make tons of money, or raise heroic children.

Attempt to match the guidance Marcus Aurelius, the ancient Roman emperor, gave himself:

No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be good. Like gold or emerald or purple repeating to itself, ‘No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be emerald, my color undiminished.’

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.15

This much — to be good — we all control. There is no need to listen to all the bullying or tempting voices which diminish or entice you.

The word legacy might sound too grand for such a modest approach to each day, but it is also brave. You will touch many lives and leave behind invisible traces of yourself by taking the advice of this statesman and Stoic philosopher.

Virtue is possible now, this instant, and all the time ahead of you. It is yours if you make it so. I’ll bet Amy Kass would have agreed.

=========

The painting is called School Teacher by Jan Steen. It is followed by Holger Ellgaard’s photo of the Carl Milles sculpture, Guds Hand (The Hand of God). They are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Psychologists Know: Two Resources for Self-Improvement

Therapists are flooded with information, challenging them to “keep up” with recent developments in their profession. It should be no surprise, then, if clients often come unprepared to aid themselves or a loved one in a pressured moment.

Here are some free and helpful resources. The National Register of Health Service Psychologists offers podcasts on various treatment issues. The programs run for about 15 — 40 minutes.

Among the topics available thus far are:

  • reducing chronic pain
  • the impact of stress about climate change
  • racism in therapy
  • treating gambling disorder
  • anorexia
  • male clients in counseling
  • psychological services for firefighters
  • transitioning from in-person to telepsychology
  • autism spectrum disorders
  • weight management

You can find links to these and more topics here:

Podcasts

While the programs are intended for professionals in the field, my sampling of the recordings suggests they have something to offer to intelligent listeners outside of it.

One such example is Dr. Beth Darnall’s podcast on “The Role of Psychology in Treating Chronic Pain.” The Professor includes a discussion of a new treatment not requiring medication.

Empowered Relief” is a brief approach for the approximately 50 million Americans with this condition.

A second series of podcasts features the work of famous Yale Professor Laurie Santos and The Happiness Lab/

Consider this more like an informal, practical talk with your favorite teacher and guests.

Dr. Santos takes “you through the latest scientific research and shares some surprising and inspiring stories that will forever alter the way you think about happiness,” according to the website.

Podcast topics include:

  • improving your relationship to anger
  • forgiveness
  • avoiding burnout
  • embracing sadness in the pursuit of happiness
  • guilt
  • reducing anxiety
  • grieving
  • feed yourself like you’d feed a loved one
  • working your way to happiness
  • a happier Christmas

I hope you find these helpful.

========

The top image is A Helping Hand (Sunset Along the California Coast) by Damian Gadal. It is sourced from Wikimedia.org/

Recapturing the Joy of Childhood

Do you remember back when you were nine years old? How the prospect of turning 10 stood like a skyscraper, a monumental achievement, a towering number in two digits? You — yes, you — transformed into something larger, more important, closer to grown-upness?

For small children, imagination and reality exist on the same level. When you play a soldier, you turn into one. When you put on your Superman outfit, the fake muscles become real, and your thoughts take flight. A princess costume creates enchantment and elegance.

The magic mirror confirms, “You are the fairest of them all.

Playing these parts is unselfconscious, the pleasure joyous, the movements spontaneous. Summers seem endless, and the friends of every day never imagine a future without you.

Mom and dad demonstrate how to do things, read stories leading you to master the skill yourself, and are lovelier, brighter, and stronger than others who use the same pronouns.

The idea of illness never enters. The body housing you heals minor injuries in the time it takes for mom to give you a hug. Chicken soup and kisses serve as unfailing elixirs.

Limitless destiny carries the belief everything is achievable. Life (with the help of parents) offers gifts, birthday celebrations, prepared meals, and treats you like royalty. The guarantee of your guardians’ immortality and your own is never in doubt.


Gradually something happens. Imagination loses some of its footing while reality claims more of the ground. Spontaneity and uninhibited joy no longer arrive with the sunshine. Yet, the far side of childhood needn’t be as challenging as this sounds.

Yes, the magical healing power of mom’s touch has passed into yesterday, but other affections offer compensation.

Once middle-aged, long-standing friends don’t expect you to prove yourself. If you’ve done moderately well in pursuing your goals, achievements don’t insist on so much attention. Aches and pains may not be fun but are just the cost of living, companions reminding you to relish each instant.

Without childrearing responsibilities, more time exists to admire the sky and salute the moonlight. Meanwhile, experience has taught you the value of nature’s poetry and human kindness, evoking your gratitude. If you’ve largely escaped harm’s way, you recognize the life-enhancing necessity of giving something back, as well.

The delight of early life grows out of parental love, the dazzle of “first times,” and mastering the new world. In a sense, it also depends on the ignorance of life’s demanding adult future.

For those on the far side of youth, reclaiming joy requires something different. It asks for knowledge, not naivete: awareness of the inevitable end of things.

Recognizing that truth, all our remaining abilities and opportunities can grow in importance. We have the chance to learn and laugh, treasure precious friends and those we love even more, and savor nature’s beauty anew. They enlarge gratitude in what remains, so much of which was taken for granted before.

Life will never be perfect, but its imperfections provide perspective on what is essential at the day’s end. Chicagoans who remember Studs Terkel’s name will recall his gift of eliciting the best from the thousands he interviewed, the qualities we must seek for ourselves with age.

And, as if to remind us how to live, Studs always signed off his radio program with the words, “Take it easy, but take it.

=====

I am sure many of you have been moved by the human tragedies unfolding in Ukraine. Read more on how you can help Ukraine here.

—–

The sculpture is called Joy by Bruce Garner, located in Ottawa, Canada, as photographed by Jeangagnon. Beneath it is The Joy of Playing Together by Rasheedhrasheed. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Have You Been Morally Lucky?

In the year my wife and I returned to Chicago from my stint as an East Coast college professor, we encountered a surprising November snowfall. I remember heading for work on the morning after the Thursday evening whitening of the autumn world.

We lived in an apartment building located in the city’s Northwest corner. My work-a-day routine was always the same. I drove the half-block west from Summerdale toward a dependable stop sign. It never failed to be on the job.

The speed limit on the perpendicular road ahead was 35 miles an hour. I needed to take care and look for a break in the traffic before making a 90 degree right turn.

The snow said otherwise.

My sedan skidded as I approached the stopping place and knifed forward. No stop, no checking for other cars, just a horrifying bolt into no-man’s land.

Nothing happened, no other vehicles. I reached the opposite side of the thoroughfare feeling hugely lucky. Not only in the conventional sense but “morally lucky.”

What does that mean?

Though I didn’t exceed the required pace as I neared the STOP, the law argues I was going too fast “for conditions.”

Yes, I could have been injured, perhaps killed. Yes, I could have done the same to someone else.

What is less obvious is a hypothetical responsibility. A typical reaction to my story lacks the unfortunate ending to call the thought to mind. No harm, no moral implications. This is as much or as little as we think about it.

But what if my misguided missile shot into the intersection and killed someone? Then, I guarantee you, blame enters the theater. Then, part of the human race says I was irresponsible or careless. “He should have known better.”

I’d not disparage those who judged me in the lethal version of the incident. Indeed, I can’t find any unfairness in finger-wagging at a less than 100% irresponsibility or carelessness on my part. I drove the car, and the license allowing me the privilege demanded I do better.

Please understand, I’m sure no one would think of my behavior in moral terms, good or bad, but for bodily injury to another. Without an accident, the label “lucky” alone applies.

I offer this meditation on an everyday occurrence to reveal two things:

  • Human well-being, positive or negative, turns on incidents like this.
  • The judgment rendered by that same humanity rests on many such accidents or their absence.

But it is even more complicated.

Are you inclined to fault a person born under different conditions than your own who becomes a drug addict, a criminal, or a vagrant? Does the place you and the other land on the first day of life alter your chances of being a “good” person?

Is this not another version of the slippery street and the happenstance of a late-night snowfall? Is this not akin to my ramming someone or entering an empty boulevard?

Most of us applaud the hard work, resilience, or wisdom we possess, pointing to such qualities when explaining our relative “success.”

I encourage everyone to reflect with gratitude on the genetic lottery’s part in predetermined advantageous physical, emotional, and intellectual gifts. Thank God if you choose.

You and I are among the morally lucky some of the time. Who might any of us have become in another setting? With other parents or in a different country?

For myself, on another day, or a minute earlier or later, I might have caused another’s death driving along as I did.

=======

The images are the work of Laura Hedien with her permission: Laura Hedien Official Website. The first is called Metra Train Platform, 8/20. The second is an Alaska Road Sign, 2021.