Disarming Your Negative Thoughts: How Meditation Helps

We expect too much of language. People use it to console, laugh, and express love. Phrases manage our relationships and help us make a living. We grab them to persuade and to injure.

Regrettably, our words also damage us. I refer to the private internal self-torture we alone can hear.

One remedy for this problem does not involve the pitiless expressions themselves. Instead, the method helps get us away from the typed black and white creatures inhabiting dictionaries, the ones we utter within our inner sanctum.

Allow me to explain the background first.

In cases of depression and anxiety, the voice inside our head is leaden, crushing. The word contraption called the brain pumps out endless discouragement, self-doubt, potential catastrophe, regret, and self-blame. All in letters of the alphabet, all caps in a giant font.

Some of this is caused by our genetic wiring, some learned. Homo sapiens survived because ancestors could anticipate problems and plan for defense. Communication helped. Thinking ahead and in our head was vital, allowing reflection on the past and learning from personal history, too. We take in criticism as they did, especially when young, to better adapt to conditions, meet inescapable demands, and achieve acceptance by the community.

For the troubled among us in particular, when nothing else occupies our attention, invading armies of words sometimes describe an unfortunate back story, accuse one of inadequacy, and generate fear of the future. The space between the ears is filled with emotionally charged, unsettling sentences. We try to avoid or escape them by occupying our time in productive and joyous activities, embracing love, and engaging in hobbies.

Some use the radio or TV to drown out their self-loathing. Books might distract, video games entertain. Others imbibe alcohol or take drugs. The lucky sleep self-recrimination away, fortunate unless slumber is all they can do.

When work and play are done — often late at night or when we are by ourselves — the loquacious intercranial attack picks up. Try as we do to kick the phrases away, they rebound in our direction. The more our ideas are repeated internally, the more they boomerang, as if connected to a rubber band we can only stretch so far before a snapping return to the original shape, shooting the trouble back at us.

The harsh routine at its worst implies, “Sorry, your lifetime allotment of happiness is used up.”The task for winning the battle for our distressed brain’s attention is to drain the words of their power. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) can do some of that, increasing our ability to talk back to irrational cognitions.

Traditional dynamic psychotherapy, in addition, aims to relieve us of our sense of unworthiness based on mistreatment by parents and other misfortunes. Grief-work is necessary.

As for the rest, all of us benefit from being calmed and relieved of the tendency to give too much desperate meaning to the reflexive thoughts that seem to think themselves into us and against us.

Mindfulness meditation can address this. The usual instruction is to concentrate on your breathing. If you are like me, a few seconds into early meditation sessions a distraction will pull you away from a focus on the breath. Many of the intrusions are benign and random. This is typical and not a bad thing.

Once you recognize what happened you are informed how your mind works. Even more so, if the topic taking your attention off breathing is challenging and you notice this. Maybe it’s anxiety or worry about what is before you, perhaps downing yourself over a comment you made or sadness and anger about what a neighbor said about you.

The new meditator’s job is observing the unpleasantness and then returning attention to his inhalation and exhalation. You don’t flee the interruption, indeed you recognize it without judgment. Meditation experts tell us our value judgments (good/bad, right wrong, pleasant/unpleasant, positive/negative, wise/foolish) make such disruptive notions and feelings more painful than would otherwise be the case.

When everything goes as planned, a practice of daily meditation allows you to accept these thoughts for what they are (just thoughts). Life gets a bit easier. One’s intelligence is pulled away from self-disparagement, concentration improves, and you become calmer. Your head is emptied of incessant involuntary terminology and its tag-along emotions. Words separate from their previous emotional resonance and residue.

In one sense you have grown more observant of your cognitive and affective private life while more distant from it: less trapped and victimized by the historically fraught words. Their grip on you is loosened. A state of liberation follows, along with an experiential realization the punisher inside is not your master any longer: not essential to who you are.

A personal example: I once went to the Emergency Room with unendurable, hours-long pain from a kidney stone. I’d encountered a few such hard but injurious objects before, but never so lasting and punishing. I was given morphine, a narcotic.

Once medicated my body reminded me the affliction was yet there, but I was distanced and detached from the hurt: more accepting of it. I no longer cared. My feelings about the discomfort dissolved. For a meditator who is far enough along, the concepts once capable of hijacking your well-being lose the authority to harm you, though you still sometimes note the same terms in your head. You stop giving them importance, thus robbing them of their “truth” and impact.

Instead, you deem the terms as arguable statements, not indictments of your worth. They rest easier, not allowed to be a part of you, not taken to heart. These perceptions and notions have detached from your identity. The experience is like reading a book or watching a movie about someone else, not you. Separation from such things permits you to see the world and yourself in a more objective fashion.

In effect, the meaningful labels you attached to many of these internal communications lose their sticking ability, as if the “glue” adhering to your self-image dried up. The stickers fall off. The readiness to judge falls away. Room for beauty and fascination take up space once occupied by darkness.

Nor is your decision-making as likely to be influenced by the hyper-emotional thought-generation machine. The enemy within the language has been disarmed. Life can be more in your control, free of the ever-growing clutter of self-inflicted emotions and concepts you’ve been living with. The reprogrammed cerebral cortex is more settled. Moments of serenity are possible.

Do not minimize the amount of work involved in the process. Most people I’ve known who try meditation give up early. They believe they are “bad at it,” bored, or report the assault of troublesome beliefs and worries entering their attempt to quiet the mind makes them worse than before. Others only begin when their suffering is already at a peak rather than when depression or anxiety is not so present. Some find the needed time and discipline of a once-a-day devotion to the endeavor more than they can do.

I can only say that persistence, dedication, and the capacity to wait for delayed gratification are useful in meditation and much else in life. Combined with CBT (including any needed grief-work), the world may open to you in a new and better way.

—–

The first photo is of Cadillac Mountain in Arcadia National Park. Next comes Composition VII by Kandinsky, followed by 72 Seconds Before Actual Sunrise, Southern California, USA by Jessie Eastland from Wikimedia Commons. Finally, The Rayleigh Effect, Seconds Before Sunrise in New Zealand by Moriori, also from Wikimedia Commons.

Some “Super” and Surprising Advice

Though I am not Ask Amy, Carol Hax, or Dear Abby, today I present advice over 100-years-old. Life-changing notions, many think. Below is memorable guidance on how best to live from a man famous for saying, “I am dynamite!”

While lions and tigers and bears don’t menace us anymore, the writer in question claims we face towering psychological challenges without them. The following aphorisms try to scale those heights.

I’ll reveal our secret advisor, N, before this essay’s end.

Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.

We are, according to the author, desperate to be many things to many people. The masses are hypnotized by beliefs learned long ago, beliefs repeated over and over by our parents, relatives, our community, teachers, and religious leaders.

We want to fit in and “succeed” as defined by our nation and neighbors, and rise to the afterlife. This leads to a “herd mentality,” in the words of the wise man.

Winning a mate is dependent on what others think of us and how well we conform to the popular estimate of desirability. As N observes, we wear masks instead of embracing our own inner truth. Thus, he also wrote:

Become what you are.

Put differently, he refers to a potential transformation of ourselves once we throw off the training wheels and invisible guide wires society uses to constrain us. Having accomplished this emancipation (no one else will do it for us) we can be what we should be. Humans are otherwise automatons tricked into believing they are liberated and enlightened.

Let the youthful soul look back on life with the question: what have you truly loved up to now, what has drawn your soul aloft, what has mastered it and at the same time blessed it? Set up these revered objects before you and perhaps their nature and their sequence will give you a law, the fundamental law of your own true self.

When those words are followed, N believed they lead us to discover that which is at our core. The real identity within us can be glimpsed if we possess the courage to break the “group think” of the tribe. Few will have the will power to do it. N insisted only a handful of us will identify and reject the restrictions stamped onto and into us from our beginnings.

Finally,

You repay a teacher badly by becoming merely a pupil.

Here, the German philosopher (I’m giving you a hint as to his identity) defines what he means by a student. N tells us we are pupils not only of the instructors we meet in school, but the received “wisdom” of institutions and authorities, including government, religion, philosophers, and books. We must dispense with whatever part of their thinking doesn’t survive critical analysis.

Our task is to leave behind worn-out doctrines and replace them with our own. Indeed, he hopes the beginner will, by dint of his internal strength, courage, and intellect, create a revolution in his thought. The most extraordinary among us, N imagined, become breakers of norms, inventors of a re-engineered vision of the world and our own place outside of the mainstream. The former novice thereby morphs into a superman (Übermensch).

The creator of these ideas was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), a German philosopher and cultural critic. This groundbreaking thinker had the misfortune not only of an early breakdown but an anti-Semitic sister who misrepresented his work just as it began to gain attention and after he was incapacitated.

While Nietzche rejected the doctrine of Aryan and national German superiority voiced by the reactionary writers of his time, the Nazis caused the further posthumous distortion of claiming him as their philosophical mentor.

His Übermensch was a rare and solitary hero of individualism, not part of any racial white herd who bowed robot-like before a leader, whether religious or governmental. He rejected materialism, capitalism, and outward show. Nietzche’s enlarged man, instead, met life without fear, realizing his personal (not group) potential and finding joy in his short existence, come good fortune or bad.

Shall we develop and live by our own out-of-the-box ideas, rejecting the tribal masses in their lockstep march to a tune other than their own?

Only if we are brave enough, said Nietzsche.

—–

The first two paintings are by Paul Klee: Senecio (1922) and Magic Mirror (1934). They are sourced from Paul Klee.net/ The final image is Friedrich Nietzche (1906) by Edvard Munch, from Wikiart.org/

Is There a Better Path to Happiness?

Most of us wish we were happier at least some of the time. In the West, we pick from a list of goals expected to boost well-being, targets outside ourselves: a better job, a more pleasing mate, and more status; money, too. But if we extend our reach in a different direction, we might find an unexpected road to joy: one demeaned or ignored by much of the human community.

I suggest we start by looking East and backward about 2500 years. An ancient teacher thought mankind’s flourishing required relationships invested in ceremony and ritual, in deference and respect. Here was a far more formal, harmonious way of interacting with others than we observe today.

The way fathers and sons addressed and behaved toward each other, for example, was a matter of custom and civility. Love, in part, was demonstrated by investing ritual deeds with sincerity, not grudging routine. Virtue and benevolence flowered in the performance of patterned actions and words. They became embedded in how people went about their lives, made their living, and honored the family.

What might be a ritual? Utterances and gestures as simple as our handshakes or embraces and expressions when greeting or parting. Somewhat more elaborate customs include how people are seated at a meal, who is served first, and who takes precedence in getting extra food. Use of stately words of address replaces familiar pronouns.

Voices don’t talk over others, but convey honor and recognize a hierarchy of roles. How we dress for dinner matters. So too, all expect the meal to unfold in a relaxed fashion. Our behavior indicates the importance of the event, not something less significant than whatever comes next.

Delight is taken in the simple presence and happiness of loved ones and guests. Think of conversation within appropriate boundaries, not a script.

This might sound unnatural to you in a world where time is money and ceremony reeks of elitism. Before you dismiss the notion, however, consider the growing incivility in our much less formal, modern, Western civilization, where corrosive vulgarity and worse are often excused.

Think, as well, how we skate over opportunities for rich and meaningful social contact with friends and relatives, speeding through meals, checking the iPhone, and treating wait-staff in an indifferent or demeaning fashion. We do so at the risk of diminishing ourselves and triggering a reciprocal lack of kindness, patience, and interest from those we claim to care about.

Confucius, whose Way I am referring to, formalized his guidance during the chaotic and dreadful Warring States period in China. Little happiness was present. People, we are told, were reduced to animals.

Herbert Fingerette put the Confucian view this way:

To become civilized is to establish relationships that are not merely physical, biological, or instinctive: it is to establish human relationships, relationships of an essentially symbolic kind, defined by tradition and convention and rooted in respect and obligation.*

No zero-sum game of winners and losers lives here. Every honorable person has a place.

As Confucius wrote, “Virtue does not exist in isolation; there must be neighbors.”

Many of us, trying hard to get through a challenging day, are not at our best. For those who attempt to follow the Way, however, the danger is in performance done solely out of duty, to signal our goodness, or curry favor.

Were such self-interest and riches enough to guarantee happiness, the USA would be the happiest place on Earth. Instead, it ranks 10th of 40 rated countries in life satisfaction in the 2017 OECD report.

Fingarette adds:

Society is men treating each other as men … according to the obligations and privileges … out of love and loyalty and respect called for by their human relationships.*

In so doing we prioritize the group over the individual. We invest this beautifully choreographed social dance with a gracefulness that offers us grace. Profit, ego, and selfishness are restrained. Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom enlarge.

Our human potential grows, not to become athletes of conventional success, but like those whose humanity, not financial or political triumph, we say we admire the most.

Nor is this an extreme form of self-sacrifice. We are still permitted to make a good and honorable living. We needn’t give away decent clothing and a place to live, but are discouraged from taking license just because we can.

Reciprocity thus increases. Barbarism justified as a necessary means to a desired end meets with shame. We serve as models and thereby bring out the best in those we care about. They are drawn to us.

The elusive notion of happiness resides in the group’s ritualized performance, which, like a theatrical production, is larger and more meaningful than the individual players. In embodying our role, we share the bounty of human contact where all partake.

Can we do better for ourselves and our fellow creatures by striving to be members of an orchestra rather than itinerant soloists?

Confucius believed changing the world starts with what we control, what any single person begins to reflect upon and do.

We can do worse than find out if he was right.

——-

The top photo comes from the Himeji Oshiro Festival, June 26, 2010. It is the work of Corpse Reviver. The Respect Expressway, a hallway sign, was created by rrafson. Finally, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra by Dan Lutz, date unknown. The first two are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; the last, from the Art Institute of Chicago.

*Fingarette, H. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. Prospect Hts., IL: Waveland Press, 1972.

Why Therapists Search for Your “Useful Discomfort”

One of the therapist’s first tasks is to gauge the new patient’s discomfort. If he is drowning, the doctor’s job is like that of a lifeguard, to secure and elevate him straight away. But if he is treading water, head still well above the chance of a big gulp, the inexperienced counselor’s mistake must be bypassed: taking or allowing the sufferer into the swirling downspout of his emotional whirlpool.

Entrance there leads to a subterranean dark place on a high-speed descent. His well-being and stomach for counseling might be left behind.

The depth of psychic trouble will often — and often must — wait. Trust in the relationship and safety come first. Only when some grounding work is done can you best search for a place I’d call “a useful level of discomfort.”*

Useful how? The patient, assuming the distress is not entirely new, waited for some time to come to a professional. The woman or man lived a complicated life, tried self-help books or will power or faith or work or drugs or sex or each of these to better himself. Arrival at the clinic means nothing worked or worked enough.

He needs to move past his sticking point, the concerns he didn’t want to think about, open up about. If he becomes overwhelmed, however — by too much, too soon — a premature end to the office visits is likely. Stopping short of the mucky floor of his emotions is necessary. There is a zone of useful discomfort in a less acute, sustainable place higher up.

The in-session professional senses this, watches for it. Imagine the consulting room divided in half. On one side of an invisible partition sits the counselor. On the other, his client resides in a breathable, transparent fluid. Much movement occurs within the liquid, high and low, serene or agitated or depressed: the entire range of possibilities to which our hearts are subject.

The individual requires acute attention. Where he exists within his emotional space might change a dozen times before the clock suspends his share of the therapist’s face-to-face focus; in the same place or another, up or downriver.

Here is one of the reasons the doctor monitors the elapsing passage of the hour. He must, if he can, retrieve the drifting, disconsolate patient before session’s close; get him to shore. Leaving him with “useful discomfort” is often acceptable. A client who is worse off with regularity as he leaves the building is a guarantee of treatment failure. Health care professionals don’t want those in their care suffering the engagement too much.

The time is and is not the patient’s, though he purchased the visit. He owns that it happens, but the provider’s job is to manage the way it happens. Think of the latter as a traffic cop of sorts, the conductor of the flow of ideas and moods. The doctor reinforces the guard rails, keeping his charge from careening off the tracks, the chasms in his psyche through which he will fall if the session ends in the wrong place.

Those in psychotherapy possess many escape hatches. Full frontal immersion in a place they have avoided will force them to rely upon these old survival techniques and defenses. Only these, not their healer, then signal possible relief. The patient will have returned to the place of his former misery, but be glad because the prescribed ministrations, interpretations, and nudges made him worse.

The lesson of useful discomfort takes you forward, not retreating from life. Much of our flourishing depends on finding a way to tolerate unpleasant situations, not flee them. Resilience and courage incubate here. With experience, the formerly uncomfortable territory becomes less noxious. The circle of life enlarges.

The therapist should not be like a sadist slow-cooking you on a spit. His desire for your useful discomfort is to sustain your capacity for facing your issues without making the offered remedy either a feel-good waste of time or an intolerable ordeal guaranteeing a defeat of the therapeutic project. In effect, he is saying, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, ‘”you are not in Kansas anymore,’ but this is the necessary place for you now. I will do my best to make it manageable.”

Like Dorothy’s “yellow brick road” Odyssey, the effort leads to discovery of the strength inside you. From there, whether home or away, new adventures are possible. You are now the master of your self.

——-

The second image is Ancient Harmony by Paul Klee. *The expression “useful discomfort” is borrowed from a recent article about climate science/

What if We Could Erase Painful Memories?

Why is memory this way? Why isn’t it content to hurt you once? Why must it remind you of all the times you’ve been hurt before?

If this doesn’t sound familiar, you have been asleep for a while.

Our hearts are given as hostage when we love. The kind of love doesn’t matter: children, friends, romance, and more. Our core is at risk when we treasure books and eyes fail, or music and hearing dims, or running and knees collapse.

Think of our loves as on loan from a magical library. This institution specifies no due date for the materials checked out.

Are we fools because the absence of a precise cutoff allows us to believe our possession is secure?

Perhaps someone already grabbed the object of our desire off the shelf. Will waiting help, hoping for the item to be returned?

You say rapture is yours? Then, suddenly, the library police snatch it away. No warning. No time to prepare. Maybe an accident robs you of your mobility or another love of a lover. No aid for this, no higher authority to whom you can appeal.

The officers provide only cruel compensation: a hole inside. The happiness of what remains begins to leak, the substance of life tunneling down the bottomless sink. Food doesn’t taste right, jokes don’t make you laugh, sleep gives no rest.

You climb in and reach for what is moving away. Or lack even the strength to lift you arm, open your hand, and try.

Oh, but shards of the remembrance cut, edges slow to depart.

Where is the repair shop when you need it, something to fill up the hole, smooth the jagged places? A replacement for “one of a kind” now gone? No second hand stores carry it, no reseller offers the missing part. A proprietor says they have something like it. You know they don’t.

What if you could simply forget you’d ever had the precious commodity, as if a surgeon removed an unwanted scar?

The top quote comes from Mem, by Bethany Morrow. The novel deals with some of the implications of memory erasure, also treated in the 2004 movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Outside of fiction, scientists envision a possible future including electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), brain implants, or other methods to treat PTSD by deleting disturbing memories.

The researchers make an assumption: the stinging, sorrowing, traumatic remembrances are distinct, limited, and not integrated with the rest of you. Not all troubling events fit into this tiny package, however.

Stop for a moment.

Would you sign up?

Many questions can be expected to arise if such a tool comes to the hospital nearest you. How would the doctor measure whether a memory is terrible enough and fenced-off enough to qualify for medical vanishing cream? Would the emotion disappear along with the recollection or might one experience the trauma without the reference to what caused it?

How would a forgotten past allow us to learn from our mistakes? Some amount of pain is both inevitable and necessary for human development.

What might such experiential carve-outs do to our humanity? How might we relate to those who remember the event, but didn’t use the medical white-out?

Could the richness of life and our capacity for empathy — our moral growth and resilience — diminish with a too ready instrumental “end (to) the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?”*

If the technique were extended to matters of romantic heartbreak, would the wonder of love vanish too? Might our species turn reckless once assured that losses needn’t last past our next doctor appointment?

Remember, taking something away doesn’t add anything back. Would these scrubbed souls become like white boards without the written names and meanings of the people who were once our “everything?” Does spotlessness await or just mindless?

For now we must weather the bad luck and pack an umbrella. Perhaps go to a therapist or seek the drug dispensers, insurance approved or otherwise. We count on time to pass so we no longer count the time “since” and “after.”

I wish we were guaranteed a puddle remover for the rain and a hole closer for the drain. At least they tend to get smaller.

Gratitude for what abides offers consolation, though hard to summon with speed. New people, new tasks, new beauties beckon. Acceptance, too, is instrumental in healing, another job needy of practice and patience. Religion helps some find solace.

To me, the essential lesson is to live with urgency. Not stay up nights wondering when the librarian will demand the book back. Rather, to be exhausted by bedtime for having embraced the fullness and possibility of the sunlight. If, by evening, the tale of your life is claimed, the desk won’t be piled high with regret.

Your library card might appear battered by then. Look carefully, though, and recognize something else. Good use was made of your time and the invitation to enter a wondrous place called the globe. I mean the bounty offered there: books and relationships, work and sport, nature and laughter and fulfillment from striving to repair the world.

In a place where everything is borrowed and brief, Andrew Marvell’s centuries old advice, To His Coy Mistress, still applies:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

——–

The second image is Erased de Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg.

*Excerpt from the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, Scene I.

Finding Your Father in Yourself

It was a strange meeting, but there was a symmetry to the event. A circle closed, like the earth coming round the sun for a new try at the thing called a day. The father coming round the son, too.

How could he? My dad died 19 years ago.

Death is a vanishing, an evaporation of substantiality, an empty place. I no more see my author as a breathing, touchable creature looking back at me. He won’t tap on the bottom of the always necessary ketchup bottle at supper. Milt Stein’s eyes will never sparkle delivering jokes he can’t tell, nor a rare tear reappear for a last bow.

So I thought, until he showed up on Father’s Day, 2019. A strange meeting, as I said.

Shopping with my wife I spotted a set of adhesive, black, cloth mustaches hanging from a shelf.

“Buy me,” the product whispered. Little persuasion was necessary. I figured my eldest grandson would get a cheap boost of happiness. The pint-sized person is easy to please just by showing up. His smile alone juices my serotonin, too. Market this small man if you can and he’ll replace antidepressants.

When we arrived at his home two days later I grabbed W, who reminds me often he is “a big boy.” My little descendant is almost four and, indeed, sizeable for his age. An outgoing spirit who loves to laugh and read, with a specialty in all things dinosaur. A strong personality like his mom.

“I got you something, W.” The lad couldn’t wait. The fake facial accessories were opened right away. The largest attached to my grandson’s upper lip, another clung to my own.

My youngest daughter photographed us. A baseball cap covered my broad expanse of scalp. The picture of me was not me, however.

A revenant appeared, a ghost. Did you hear the door creak? My father snuck in and emerged from the pixels.

More snapshots got taken with my grandson. My wife, daughters, and brothers all remember dad. They concurred in my transformed likeness.

“Rain or Shine” Milt Stein was present. Here was a man who claimed fame for pitching every day, the make-believe star hurler of the Chicago Cubs. Here materialized the indefatigable and reliable husband and sire he made himself into.

The family joke-of-a-story never failed to amuse us. Had my wife and I created a male child instead of our wonderful girls, we intended to name him Rainer. The old man knew our plans.

I wear baseball caps a lot, but the addition of the facial, felt, fakery did its magic. Dark mustache added, baldness subtracted, I was he. That and no longer being the younger man I look like to myself most of the time. Research suggests we begin to think of ourselves as 15 years below our step on the chronology ladder once we land on the rung marked “Middle Age.”

Unlike me — his oldest son — dad retained a decent head of hair all his life. Somewhere near 60 padre added to his masculinity with a mustache. I must have asked him why, but don’t recall the answer.

The additional hair favored him, so he displayed himself to the world this way for the last 30 years or so of his life. His three boys, Ed, Jack, and I, remember him in this post-prime, but still genuine version.

I now live with my father, I suppose. OK, we all do, but I mean in a new way. He is nearby externally as well as inside. With a few adornments I am a visible reincarnation of him.

Perhaps I’ll go out and acquire several more top lip appendages for those moments I wish my father close-at-hand again. I’d stand before the mirror, of course.

If I have the urge to reach forward the whole enterprise would collapse. Too full of unfulfilled emotion, something life inevitably acquaints us with. But if I could peer straight ahead, smile, and sense a bit of the warmth and love he brought me, then … well, then …

Fill in the blanks however you desire. Maybe your experience would be different. Anyway, this Father’s Day was memorable and surprising.

Go shopping. Buy whatever speaks to you. Bring a camera. You never know who you will meet when you get home.

——-

The top photo of Jeanette and Milton Stein was taken around 1990, the year of their 50th wedding anniversary.

The Critics Among Us and Those Who Raise Us

The standard method to make a child to dislike himself is to contrast him with a sibling, one alleged to be superior in behavior or personality. It takes a kind of misbegotten skill, however, to use the technique on every one of your offspring. The destructive parent tells son X he isn’t as well-behaved as his brother Y. Meanwhile, the mom or dad complains to Y that he isn’t as smart as X.

“Try to be more like X. I’m only saying this for your own good.”

Both end up disliking themselves and their competitor, not knowing the other receives the same treatment.

Therapists, were they loathsome enough, might put such caretakers on commission, since they drive droves of the walking wounded to an eventual meeting with a counselor.

Ah, but wordy wickedness was practiced even in ancient times. Some parents unknowingly model their actions after the Greek god Momus, so foul he was expelled from Olympus, the gods’ heavenly home.

Aesop included Momus in a couple of his fables. In one he presides over a competition between a man, a bull, and a house. This ungodly judge gave no trophies, finding fault with them all. The man’s failure was to hide his heart, causing Momus to claim he could therefore not evaluate the merit of his makeup. The bull fell short because his horns included no eyes, the better to guide him whenever he charged.

My own favorite, however, was the umpire’s indictment of the house. The god of blame found the residence lacking in the wheels needed to avoid difficult neighbors. Momus might have a point here.

Critics also attract their own critics. A world famous musician on the downside of his career gave the local music scribes a name: eunuchs. Why? “Because they can’t do it.” Meaning, in his case, they wrote in complaint of him because they lacked his musical talent to perform.

The player’s bitterness revealed one of the dangers of being the target of denigration: becoming like the person who castigated you.

The “eunuch” example is odious. The extremity of such word-use is the point. Exaggeration is valuable to those who wish to damage; injure in an indelible, lasting way. We can all remember personal examples.

Who do verbal abusers and bullies aim for? Those weaker (children, subordinates) and the targets who betray their vulnerability, terror, or timidity by facial expression, downcast gaze, words, neediness, or posture. These are the preferred victims, though anyone will do. Protest their sarcasm and they’ll say you can’t take a joke.

Rise higher and you encounter a few jealous backstabbers. Fall down and you serve some as a doormat. But don’t discount life’s frustrations as a driver of lashing out under pressure. Almost everyone has a boiling point.

The right criticism is worthwhile. Corrective instruction and rigorous expectation by a mentor or supervisor are both necessary and inevitable. One only finds resilience in taking on that which is painful and challenging. If we received 24/7 adulation and applause, whether inside ourselves or out, the world of excellence would be beyond us.

Still, one must distinguish between those whose words can help or spur us on and the people intent on our obliteration. When you have been raised by folks who pretend the former, but shoot for the latter, confusion follows. Life requires us to identity disguises. False friends display affection so long as we are of use, not longer.

With therapeutic guidance it is possible to improve at ferreting out adversaries, the wolves clothed as sheep or protectors; those who vilify and believe your weakness is their strength.

Remember, no one is so fine a judge of character as to be foolproof. Disappointment and hurt contribute to the price we pay for love and participation in the human group.

Some flee from appraisal and keep out of range of the quiver full of arrows we all carry at times. Here is the best argument not to run, captured in the last line of a quote from a Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel.

“The opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

He did not survive the murder of family and friends to die inside, but to live with people, many of whom were kind.

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The first two photographs, both taken on May 24, 2019, come from Shasta County, south of Redding, California. The first is by Angela Walfoort, the second by Monica Leard. The final image is the work of Hans Hillewaert: Angola at Dawn on the Kunene River, seen from Epupa Falls, Namibia. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.