Persistent Depressive Disorder: Not All Depressions are Alike

Some therapists don’t talk much about diagnosis, but it is essential they think about diagnosis. Proper treatment depends on the correct classification.

In the case of longstanding depression, here’s why:

  1. Effective therapy for Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD) differs from approaches to other types.
  2. Persistent Depressive Disorder consists of a distinct set of symptoms not typical of the broad range of mood problems.

How is PDD different from other periods of unusual sorrow? Duration is emphasized.*

The syndrome lasts longer (at least two years) and often starts early. Symptom-free periods, if they happen, last no more than two months. More comorbidities are present: that is, other diagnosable conditions.

Among additional distinguishing characteristics, traumatic and abusive childhood experiences are frequently a part of the individual’s back story. In general, the younger the patient was at onset, the more limited his problem-solving skills are today.

Though the above list may be daunting, the evidence supporting the effectiveness of the Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System of Psychotherapy (CBASP) is impressive. Indeed, an extensive review of the scientific literature endorsed by the European Psychiatric Association recommended it as a top-line psychotherapeutic procedure for people with PDD.**

Perhaps not surprisingly, significant improvement tends to demand an extended therapeutic regime. More than a year would not be uncommon, with an indefinite but lengthy course of less frequent follow-up sessions to maintain gains.

The prescription of psychotropic medication in combination with the “talking cure” is customary, as well.

One of the most notable features of CBASP is its focus on fragile self-esteem. The client views himself as unable to produce satisfying encounters with acquaintances, coworkers, and friends. Nor does he realize the degree to which his words and deeds (or their absence) cause some of his unhappiness.

While his pain is acknowledged as genuine, CBASP views the new client as someone with chronic and pessimistic expectations of the world: self-fulfilling prophecies.

History informs him of how his life has worked out and, he believes, will work out. The evaluation of the patient, therefore, seeks to uncover the ways he contributes (without intention) to the repetition of disappointments characteristic of his past.

Moreover, the practitioner expects such counterproductive social interactions not to be restricted to life outside the consulting room. Comparable events are predicted in-session. The provider of treatment discusses this prospect with the sufferer.

Together they analyze what the depressed individual forecasts will happen between them, along with the actual effects of his behavioral choices. The atmosphere of the conversation must ensure a feeling of safety, not judgement.

An enlargement of the patient’s self-awareness develops as his anticipation of the psychotherapist’s behavior is explored. The Socratic dialogue with the healer should lead him to conclusions he comes to on his own.

This enlightenment is also fostered when the therapist tells him of his own internal reactions to what the client is doing: the feelings or thoughts emerging inside himself (the analyst) in-the-moment. In this way, the patient begins to become aware of his impact on others.

When the process works as designed, the outpatient starts to try out what are novel efforts to accomplish the kind of responses he desires. This begins in the office and extends to people he encounters elsewhere.

Thus, the transference relationship with the counselor is key. The system builds toward recognition of the healer as somebody who responds differently from those in his pretreatment life who caused harm or neglect.

Just as he comes to grasp he was mistaken in many of his beliefs about the adviser, so he begins to recognize routine errors in expecting the worst from much of the rest of the human world.

Progress relies, in part, on the subject’s growing ability to sense his own power to affect how people react to him. Another marker of improvement is his expanding understanding of how failed actions and inactions have added to his fixed sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Increased flexibility in both cognitive and emotional domains is a goal.

The therapeutic conversation includes a step-wise analysis of how troublesome situations in the client’s life developed – what happened at the start, in the middle, and at the end of them. Questions include, for example, “How did you interpret what occurred?” “What did you do?” “What did you want” and “Did you get what you wanted?”

A successful course of CBASP empowers the patient to gain insight through the emotions and thoughts evoked by inquiries like this. The ease of performing similar analyses on his own expands. He reaches the point of engaging the interpersonal world with an enhanced belief in what is possible.

Hopefulness comes to occupy an enlarged place in the client’s vision of what lies ahead. As a result, he risks letting go of passive-aggressive, hostile, submissive, and avoidant strategies. Friendly and assertive advances toward society increase.

Put simply, while there are no guarantees, the news is encouraging for those long-depressed souls who have yet to find a satisfying route to the alleviation of their unhappiness.

—–

*The complete diagnostic criteria for Persistent Depressive Disorder can be found here: https://images.pearsonclinical.com/images/assets/basc-3/basc3resources/DSM5_DiagnosticCriteria_PersistentDepressiveDisorder.pdf

**Jobst, A., Brakemeier, E. L.., Buchheim, A., Caspar, F., Cuijpers, P., Ebmeier, K. P., … Padberg, F. (2016). European Psychiatric Association guidance on psychotherapy in chronic depression across Europe. European Psychiatry, 33, 18-36. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.eurpsy.2015.12.003

The bottom photo is Central Utah in Late Summer at Sunset by Laura Hedien, with her kind permission: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/

Wisdom in Common Things

A typical zoo, lots of kids, and two bears. Or is it something more?

Perspective is everything.

We are in Berlin. The time is the early 1930s.

The question becomes, who is behind bars and who is on the outside looking in? The past gives us one answer. The photographer’s subject appears to be German Jews or any people imprisoned within a totalitarian state.

Yet the image provokes us to reflect upon our “point of view.” Do we accept our way of perceiving the world as the only valid one? Do we think twice, look again, reconsider our history, our actions, and the people around us?

The process of psychotherapy demands this on a personal level. Peaceful protesters in the streets also challenge us to recognize conditions we don’t wish to confront. The psychologist and the demonstrator carry the same message. As Rilke wrote, “You must change yourself.”

Counseling should cause the client to alter his frame of reference, clean the mirror he holds to his face, reevaluate whether his approach to life is working. If he does not, he remains like those children in the menagerie, on the wrong side of a high fence. But unlike them, he is incarcerated in a cage of his own making.

Try this photograph:

There’s a bit of a story here. I was on a morning walk. If you inspect the photo you will notice a quarter: a 25 cent piece. I bent to pick it up.

The hard object could not be separated from the walkway’s grip. What caused its fondness for the ground?? I suspect the coin dropped before the cement dried. The metal stuck.

Was it an accident or the result of someone’s plan? With what intention?

Several possibilities come to my mind:

  • to make a permanent mark lasting as long as the sidewalk. A kind of immortality.
  • As an experiment. Imagine the experimenter stationing himself nearby and tabulating how often people awaken to the object and hesitate over it. Or recording how many passersby attempt to dislodge the quarter and for how long.
  • Perhaps a prankster wished to frustrate anyone wishing to put it in his pocket.
  • Did the “two bits” offer philosophical instruction on the question, “how important is money, and what are you willing to do to get some? Break the pavement? Break the law? Where does the dollar fit in your system of values? Will you get on your knees in worship before its streetside alter?”

Here is one last picture to contemplate:

We all carry secrets. Perhaps the boy is sharing one and cautioning nondisclosure. The observer is left to consider how genuine and open we are. Anton Chekhov composed this about a man with a hidden life:

He began to judge others by himself, no longer believing what he saw, and always assuming that the real, the only interesting life of every individual goes on as (if) under cover of night, secretly. Every individual existence revolves around mystery, and perhaps that is the chief reason that all cultivated individuals insist so strongly on the respect due to personal secrets.

One wonders. For some of our friends, even those closest, is the most essential element of their life unknown to us? Might we also be unrevealed to them? If so, what is the cost of our concealed state?

They and we connect the observable dots of words and behavior, hoping we know the whole. Do we harbor shameful moments, episodes of cowardice, a haunted gender complexity? Is a sequestered, buried heart still bleeding, a boxed-up desire locked away, an ancient loss lurking?

Inertia resides in an undisclosed soul, just as stubborn in its stuckness as the 25 cents on my local sidewalk.

Will someone tell the person who left the melded money that there are those who would cherish the other side of the coin? Like the boy’s inner life, we only see half.

Shall I talk to the immovable, rounded copper the next time I pass its way? I’ll read him the Rilke poem about change. You’d think changing would come easily to a piece of change.

—–

The Rilke quotation is the last line from his poem, Archaic Torso of Apollo. The Chekhov quotation comes from his short story, The Lady With the Dog. The first photo is Roman Vishniac’s People Behind Bars.

Is There a Downside to Beauty?

The legend tells us that King Midas, given a choice of any reward in the world, requested “the golden touch.The fulfillment of his wish left him overjoyed. Everything at hand could be turned to gold!

When dinner arrived, however, the greedy regent discovered a downside. The food, once meeting his flesh, became the inedible precious metal.

He starved to death.

With Midas as an example, we might ask ourselves what becomes of those who receive another much wished-for gift: beauty.

The upside is well-known: attention, popularity, crowds of suitors, and more. Data suggest this group gets higher ratings on a wide range of characteristics. More social and career doors are thought to open, too.

The challenges of being adorable receive less comment. Here are a few of the problems attached to living inside a lovely face or form. Not every such individual suffers them all, but please imagine I’m talking about you.

  • Start with stereotyping. Think of golden curls atop your head. Some will suppose you are foolish, scatterbrained, and insubstantial. Thoughtless discounting of your loftier attributes must be overcome, at least in the USA.
  • What happens when you speak? Will your voice and words alter your appeal? Might dullness downsize the appraisal?
  • Acquaintances sometimes think physical charm places the lucky one at the front of every line. Such onlookers suppose your innate power to enchant obliterates all obstacles. They misunderstand your life.
  • Jealousy follows from the idea of “unearned rewards.” Some conclude your professional achievement came because of a “special relationship” with a supervisor or boss. Sexual harassment and gossip remain a hazard for all women.
  • If you are introverted, the buzz of attraction you create might overwhelm and fatigue you. The world expects you to be delighted to mingle among multiple eyes and swiveling heads. Refusal to attend group events can label you as rude or “stuck-up.
  • The potency of physical allure lays a trap for the gorgeous. Shall you depend on your attractiveness alone to generate a satisfying life? Perhaps you can prosper without much education, wit, or humanity – for a while. You would do better to recognize your season comes – and goes.
  • Aging for the comely one, when her self-image depends too much on the mirror’s reflection, carries dreaded anticipations of future invisibility. The male gaze includes no lifetime guarantee. Cosmetic surgery can slow but not stop the clock. The battle with a younger self is unwinnable.
  • A life graced by a perfect “package” does not eliminate all the hurdles and heartbreaks suffered by homo sapiens. Work, dating, friendship, athletics, and raising children offer satisfaction, but also potential woe. This fact remains unknown to those who think your angelic wings lift you beyond everyday travail.

  • Comparisons abound. You will be compared to your friends and offspring by the friends and offspring themselves. Observers note the pecking order in any lineup and coworkers join in the chorus of the judges and the judged. Many will name you a blessing, some a complication to their place in the world.
  • Your life as an object of desire means categorization as a competitor. The insecure will be troubled by your presence. If you divorce, do not expect your position within your community of friends to go unaffected. You are now a threat.
  • The exquisiteness of a woman both enhances and complicates the search for a mate, scares some men off, and causes commodification by the players. The role of a trophy – shiny, polished, and metallic – won’t keep you warm inside.
  • All of us understand society through the lens of personal experience. With enough time and interaction with people, we begin to fathom those who are different from us.
  • The magnetic life of a radiant creature presents her with the task of grasping the psychological state of peers who sit below the radar she never escapes herself. Since ravishing visions are always in short supply, those who are “easy on the eyes” tend to lack a confidant who identifies with being “the fairest of them all.

Even if you are a member of the club I’ve described here, you needn’t fit my description. On balance, it is thought far better to be attractive than not, just as it is preferable to be the tallest candidate for President of the USA. He wins the popular vote in most elections.

Few of us would turn down a pleasing combination of body and brain. I’m not suggesting you should. But when we think of the best-looking mermaids in our pool, perhaps we might recall they occasionally envy our safety from fishermen and their hooks.

—–

The three images above are publicity photos sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Ingrid Bergman picture was used to promote her 1944 MGM movie Gaslight, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Next comes Joan Crawford in a 1936 shot taken by George Hurrell. Finally, Dorothy Malone as captured in 1956 by Universal International Pictures.

Thinking About the Erotic Leap in a World Without Touch

The human world is aching. Hands and shoulders and skin are beyond reach. We have awakened to a sensual world in flight, moving at least six feet away.

What would you give for a handshake or a hug, a kiss independent of memory, arousal satisfied by a hand not yours. Perhaps you recall your head resting over another’s heart, hearing the life pulse, moved by the rise and fall of breath.

There are fleshly palms I’d like to surround, soft cheeks to brush past, downcast heads to lift in my hands. I’d spread high-fives all around, eyes close up, too.

Our on-guard stance against illness doesn’t permit either the comfort or intensity we seek in embracing. Our passions are chilled, bottled-up, beaten down. The perspiration of the skin almost asks permission to release itself.

We are amid a famine, even we lucky ones who remain nourished by food and don’t live alone. We want the bodies, the faces, the nearby smiles we lack. Artificial substitutes are earth-bound and distant, no matter that man was not meant to be alone.

We make do. The voices speak on phones across the world. Masks hide faces speeding through stores. Proximity is shunned. The Zoom-altered space-time continuum offers lips that move … followed by broken, inhuman sounds. If space aliens appeared, immune from our looming affliction, we would surrender and rush into their strange arms … all five of them.

I once treated a woman so starved for affection, she coupled with a canine. I believed her at the time but now understand her more.

We want sex, no mistake. But I heard many female patients talk about their need to be held – just held, including those with a regular bed partner. It is worth remembering what one hears on the battlefield among the wounded. They call not to lovers but to mothers.

Humans survived because love and care and emotional intimacy signified more than lovemaking. The buttons to such responses overlap the erotic zone, but one can also be mistaken for the other.

The sex of things is not solely dependent upon what catches the eye. It can be kindness or words or a voice or a gentle touch as much as security or a reminder of someone else. No wonder we experience the presence of erotic transference in the therapist’s office.

We are befuddled creatures, we humans: confusing and confused, less rational than we’d like to believe, unable to predict our feelings far ahead of the present. Kirkegaard acknowledged this truth:Life can only be understood backward, but must be lived forward.Backward, indeed, but not always grasped even then.

In 1900 the average life expectancy for men in the USA was 46.3 years. People laughed at home and made love at home. They gave birth, got sick, and died at home.

The cycle of life had many witnesses. Death made his place in the next room, overheard in an unfair wrestling match, an unbeatable competitor you recognized. Those people knew what we have been reminded of.

Perhaps hellos and goodbyes meant more in those days. No planes eased the route to reunion. Travel required time and patience. Letters were sent by snail mail while the writer lived, many arriving when he or the reader or both were dead.

Now we recognize (or should admit) “next time” is a wish without guarantee, a blessing when fulfilled. We’ve sobered up from a mass delusion of early death as an oddity, a fantasy never bothering to say goodbye. It left too many the parting gift of the grim reaper’s embrace.

The lessons of our ancestors need relearning. Catastrophe has a way of forcing its muscular arms around us. Remember that when all the unhugged-hugs – the ones pressing out from the prison of your skin – finally emerge from captivity.

Like Times Square at the end of WWII, when strangers swept each other into their arms, the reborn world will discover our reconstituted virginal state.

Our mundane existence will be reenchanted.

There are simple things worth waiting for.

—–

The three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. First comes The Embrace by Auguste Rodin, then William Adolph Bouguereau’s Admiration (Cupid). The final artwork is Mary Cassatt’s Maternal Caress.

What Do We Mean When We Speak of Happiness?

Is happiness possible?

Yes, if you put into your life a broader set of ingredients than those in the recipe for “success.

But no, if you wish for a steady-state of joy.

Yes, again, if you lead a life with realistic expectations.

Another no if you expect to avoid all knee-buckling episodes of sadness, loss, and disappointment.

The real question is whether (you are) capable of interpreting life in a dimension sufficiently profound to understand and anticipate the sorrows and pains which may result from a virtuous regard for (y)our responsibilities; and to achieve a serenity within sorrow and pain which is something less but also something more than “happiness.

These words of Reinhold Niebuhr emphasize the necessity of finding life satisfaction when the good times stop, since difficulty and tragedy fall to everyone. A sense of equanimity is unsustainable if good luck must always be present. His writing further underlines the often challenging and burdensome pursuit of goals beyond personal needs and desires: the “virtuous ... responsibilities” of which he speaks.

By this phrase, he means our moral obligations to the human community, a world above the gravitational pull of “me.

The author suggests peace of mind is not identical to bliss. He tells us that if you are a generous soul who does his part for others, you can’t assume you will become prosperous or enjoy good fortune. As well, prosperity is no assurance of goodness in any heart.

We search for a “rational” understanding of what it takes to get ahead in life. Meanwhile, we are flooded with personalized messages from people who recognize us as a market for their products. These enticements are distilled into advertising catchphrases directing us along a different path.

Be the best you can be.” “You deserve it,” where it is a treat or a material thing of which you alone will partake.

Some of us want a world in which it, including happiness, is the consequence of hard work and a persistent climb to the top of something undefined: maybe the zenith of our talents, the pinnacle of a pile of money, the summit of luxury, or the apex of recognition.

Too many therefore self-congratulate if they win an office with a glorious view or purchase a beautiful home. Missing is any thought of gratitude.

Gratitude for what? Perhaps thanks for being born at the right time in the right country, having the right teacher or good-enough parents, courageous predecessors who died for freedom, a decent brain, and a serviceable body.

More than a few pat themselves on the back and say, “I earned it.Maybe, but not on their own.

We quantify our values, worshiping numbers as we do religious icons. Ratings, IQ points, class ranks, salary, bank accounts, and the weight we can lift. Me against the competition at work, the company next door, and my classmates.

Advisers of self-promotion propose the creation of an individualized brand to set apart our personality and talent, as if we were each a pair of designer shoes. We diminish ourselves even by use of the word brand, a stamp better applied to things in a department store than a living being.

We have cheapened our value in so doing, underestimated the desirability of qualities like wisdom, kindness, helping, and teaching.

There is much talk about the importance of community and religion, but do we live it? Do the people we know know us beneath the surface? Do we know them? If “getting and spending” is the path to delight, then why don’t we feel satisfied with “enough,” but need to get more and spend more and ascend higher?

Here is another voice:

I cannot help but regret that I did not live fifty or a hundred years sooner. Life is too full in these times to be comprehensible. We know too many cities to be able to grow into any of them, and our arrivals and departures are no longer matters for emotional debauches – they are too common.

Similarly, we have too many friends to have any friendships, too many books to know any of them well; and the quality of our impressions gives way to the quantity, so that life begins to seem like a movie, with hundreds of kaleidoscopic scenes flashing on and off our field of perception – gone before we have time to consider them.

These words come from a 93-year-old journal entry by George Kennan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, diplomat, and scholar. He was 23 when he wrote them in 1927.

Like Niebuhr, this statesman realized the flood of events, information, and technological changes complicate the challenge of figuring out how to live.

If the world was already “too much” in 1927, I cannot map a straight path leading with any certainty to any certain destination today.

The reason, in part, is also because happiness comes in moments most often found when we escape our self-consciousness and embrace without judgment the features of the always moving objects and lives around us.

I mean “moving” in two ways: never static and capable of touching the heart. But the same pleasure or gladness or awe disappears as soon as we push for it.

Choose instead close attention to those details … and the moment expands. Choose some fulfilling work, hobby, calling, or relationship – a transcendent meaning for your life and your actions – and solace arrives unannounced.

If sustained elation is unattainable, extended periods of serenity are achievable in the acceptance of what life permits us.

Still, if you are now struggling to find employment or food or health … someone to touch or simple safety, my words might appear more fitted to a hoped-for future when your concrete circumstances have improved. We are creators of our lives, but also created by events outside of our control except in our reaction to them.

This much I believe. All of us are small creatures soon to vanish, visitors to what we call civilization. We might think of life as a relay race in which we were handed a fragile baton a few inches long at the time of birth.

Such batons are intended to be passed on, but you need enough sustenance, confidence, and strength to be able to do so. You require sufficient attention to your well-being to possess the capacity to offer this invitation to life to those awaiting you. But the self must be recognized as something less than the ultimate end.

We can choose to glorify the baton we carry, making it into an outsized, ponderous symbol of our personal significance or work to improve the conditions of the track on which we speed. If the latter, the baton’s burden will then rest more easily in the hands of the next racer.

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved (fully) in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

—–

Beneath the quotations are two paintings: Franz von Stuck’s Sisyphus and Jan Davidsz de Heem’s A Still Life Upon a Hard Stone Table in Front of a Stone Wall. They were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Finding Trust Without Guarantees

In village days a scoundrel couldn’t conceal his character for a month. But today every time I take my car to the garage or have a prescription filled, I have to trust people I don’t know about things I don’t understand.

Those comments were made over 60 years ago by Huston Smith, a transcendent philosopher of morality and religion. His statement remains valid today. Where does this leave the wisest and most secure of us, not to mention those for whom trust is a luxury of someone else’s unimaginable life?

Smith found reason to believe in many of his fellow-men. He sought those who wrote about virtue and, more crucial, those who lived it.

He knew iniquity exists, as did those he spoke with, but is not the whole of existence.

All of us suffer betrayal. An ex-patient I’ll call by the initials KF told me a tale of uncommon cruelty.

KF was a college student out West during the Vietnam War, before the volunteer army. He commuted to school from home. The husky, black-haired young man was free from military service so long as he remained in good academic standing and carried a full course load.

His father, who abused this fellow when he was small, now charged him rent for shelter and food. Though my client managed the tuition, the old man offered no consideration on living expenses.

Knowing he was at risk of eviction, KF dropped out of school. The military came for him.

During combat in Southeast Asia, KF escaped physical injury, but letters home went unanswered. Once home, he discovered his father had thrown away or sold everything he owned.

Nonetheless, he surmounted the challenge of finding love and making a family better than the one from which he came.

Not all of us are as afflicted as my former patient, but we share his hope of intimacy. James Baldwin recognized the desire and the risky necessity of letting down our guard to get it:

Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

Yet so many of us do go without – without companionship, absent a confidant, and lacking at mate. Some believe the world wouldn’t care if we disappeared from its face.

Anonymity seems the better choice if your pattern is to encounter bullies and the unfaithful. Thieves, narcissists, alcoholics, and abusers possess their own imperfect radar attuned to human vulnerabilities.

Some people hesitate to trust because they have no confidence in their capacity to distinguish the dangerous from the safe. This leaves them writing-off all of humanity or attempting to obtain information from every possible source, as if diligent detective work guaranteed discovery of unquestionable virtue.

Neither approach works. The former souls inhabit a cloud of ignorance and take a stance of perpetual defense. The latter never find “the truth” because they seek endless data, never realizing there will always be a sliver of doubt.

Both types of individuals remain isolated or disguised, little better than existing in a bunker far from anything but momentary ease. Both are exhausted by near-constant scanning for the self-interested and evil. They suffer preoccupation with misgivings over incidental events others forget.

Because they skate past those who might give them respect and kindness, the negative experiences of their life do not find a counterweight on the other side of the scale to persuade them intimacy is worth the risk.

Everything they believe confirms the danger of mankind. They also discount their own value to those few they acknowledge could merit knowing.

There are no perfect people, no purity even among those who give their lives for others or their country. We all hold to our self-interestedness in no small part of our behavior. Such quality enables us to survive.

In his 1788 essay Federalist No. 51, James Madison wrote:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

He and the men whose thoughts inform the U.S. Constitution knew they were not to be found either in government or out.

Nonetheless, our necessary concern for our well-being still permits the possibility of understanding and decency. Humans pull through because of the ability to join together, trust each other, and benefit from the comfort, love, and security they provide and receive from others.

Disappointment in relationships is inevitable. Those you fear may well also be disappointed by your words or conduct. Avoidance or rejection of available friends or lovers can inflict the equivalent injury on them you wish to avoid for yourself.

These challenging times present the opportunity to discover the best and worst of our brethren and the identical characteristics in ourselves.

No guarantees come with a new relationship. Remember this, however. The person who represents to you the potential for connection also looks for the same fulfillment himself.

Perhaps he even searches for it because of the qualities he recognizes in you.

—–

The three photographs are the work of Laura Hedien, with her permission: https://twitter.com/lhedien?lang=en. The first is of Mountain Reflections Near Salt Lake City in January 2020. Next comes A Lightening Storm With Stars Above in Western New Mexico. Finally, Factory Butte, Utah, 2019.

For the Curious and the Brave

Are you an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist? Are you curious? Are you brave?

Think of your life as a challenging but unique voyage. Just as we find ourselves in the churn of a pandemic, so others we call heroes endured and survived their own dangers.

Take the ever-resourceful Odysseus (Ulysses) in Homer’s Odyssey.

The 10-year Trojan War is over. Ulysses and the men of his isle-domain proceed home to Ithaca. The warrior soon angers the sea god Poseidon. The fleet is taken off course, all but his own ship destroyed.

The journey home will match the length of the siege of Troy.

Can our protagonist “bend history” as it is happening?

Observe his encounter with a set of lovely-voiced, lute-playing enchantresses. Odysseus has been warned of them by the sorceress Circe.

First you will raise the island of the Sirens; those creatures who spellbind any man alive, whoever comes their way. Whoever draws too close, off guard, and catches the Sirens‘ voices in the air – no sailing home for him, no happy children beaming up at their father’s face. The high, thrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him, lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones. ...

The greathearted leader discerned more than caution in Circe’s advice. He recognized a chance to listen to songs so lovely they would make him oblivious to the danger of mindless drowning.

In effect, he wondered whether he might find a way to have his cake and eat it!

Ulysses directed his crew to plug their ears with beeswax, as his advisor suggested. All but his own.

He ordered the men to lash him to the ship’s mast and ignore whatever ravings and directions he shouted until they were past the singers’ reach.

The crisis revealed an opportunity for Odysseus. Our own challenges are less fantastic, but perhaps not less mindless. The times require the best of ourselves for ourselves and the fraternity of our fellow humans.

We can weep the fate of flash-frozen, aborted plans. Many are deserving of tears. But, our wits have not been lost. If we can keep them, and benefit from luck, sound judgment, and those who take risks on our behalf, calmer waters may yet appear.

Ulysses had no guarantee of achieving his goal of reaching his loved ones, but a god bent on frustrating him. He survived to attain Ithaca, embrace his wife Penelope, reunite with his aged father, and clutch his grown son Telemachus for the first time. Moreover, he regained his kingdom.

Though the resourceful one was no longer a young man, Alfred Lord Tennyson imagined him speaking of leaving home once more with vessel and company of sailors:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Ulysses’s desire to leave home once again is the English poet’s invention. It is not present Homer’s original tale. Indeed, the Ithacan had wept for Penelope more than once during their separation.

Why might the poet’s version of Odysseus wish to depart for further adventures?

Did he regret giving up the offer of immortality, love, and comfort proposed by the beautiful Calypso? Might his nature simply have been restless? Did this “master of exploits” hunger for attaching more glory to his name and legend?

Perhaps the camaraderie of his Greek companions in wartime made him most alive. Or he felt empty except when the Sirens shared their melody.

Decide for yourself. But whatever you believe, your immediate task remains this:

Find the music in your confined life.

Even now.

The first image is Ulysses and the Sirens by Léon Belly. Next comes The Sirens (1872) by Gustave Moreau followed by Odysseus and the Sirens by Otto Greiner. The same title describes the Attic Red-figured Stamnos, ca. 480-470 BC (a type of Greek pottery used to store liquids). All were sourced from Wikiart.org/

Sensuality Is More Than Sexuality

James Baldwin, the towering black writer, can widen your comprehension of things you thought you understood. Take the word sensual.

The essayist and activist wrote this in The Fire Next Time:

To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.

Baldwin feared for those who are unable to “renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives.”

At times he found such renewal in his black community of the ’50s and ’60s, a quality “of zest and joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster. … a freedom that was close to love.”

He observed this characteristic at “church suppers and outings … where rage and sorrow sat in the darkness and did not stir, and we ate and drank and talked and laughed and danced and forgot all about the (white) man. We had the liquor, the chicken, the music, and each other, and had no need to pretend to be what we were not.”

Baldwin is talking about being in touch with all emotions and all five senses. A thing natural and unstudied.

He noticed this in unself-consciousness, in losing oneself to the sound and feel and texture of things. We see it in a gifted athlete’s abandon and grace as he speeds toward a distant, perhaps catchable ball and the same young man’s sense of muscular weariness after expending all his energy at the game’s end.

You needn’t search far for these experiences. One can reach down and claw up a clump of earth on a rainy day. The fragrance is the aroma of life and the potential for regeneration.

The sensual is at hand in rejoicing over birdsong and the concentrated, savoring, unrushed consumption of a tasty meal. It is there without charge in a subtle perfume evoking the skin of someone you love and the heartache when you are distant from her.

The songs that quicken us access the hidden truth we know of ourselves and in ourselves. When we say we are “moved” by an event, we should remember this: movement speaks to the urgency of the body to do what it was made for.

Sensuality inhabits the morning light of the bluest skies and the coyness of a shy smile. You recognize the sensual in the goosebumps of a homecoming where everyone waits for you – when you and they know of their incompleteness without you.

Perhaps you’ve found sensuality in poetry recited in hoped-for words from the right voice or a father’s protective arm around your shoulder. The mutual grip of his handshake would do as well. Your senses are engaged in each of these.

We give away too much of this in a cloud of unawareness. Routine and habit kill our aliveness to the world. Now is a moment to attend to our forgotten contact with nature outside of us and our nature inside of us.

Traps we call custom and convention interfere with showing our emotional response to the sensory corporeal world. We make sure no one sees our openness and sensitivity to the planet’s pulse, lest we become ashamed.

Concern about the opinion of others is necessary for civility, but causes us to hide anything the group might question. Religion’s focus on the sin of the erotic, for all that institution’s civilizing effects, inhibited mankind by comparison with our freer mammalian cousins.

One can find the possibility of the sensual in walking instead of riding in cars, in the buoyant life of the ocean’s salt rather than the antiseptic backyard or public pool. The computer screen offers digits and electric communication, but not the enlivening smell and slipperiness of sweat.

Weather makes no difference to our senses. Each season and atmospheric change presents its own physical gifts. Sensuality is not buttoned up or closed down, but the drumming heart of our essence, no matter the forecast.

Even in a time of limitation and disease, you can discover the reason you want to live in photos, melodies, and trees. No wonder children love fingerpainting. They don’t care how their art turns out so much as how the paint feels in their hands. They remain more at one with their bodies, joys, and sorrows than many of us.

Reawaken yourself.

All you need is in you.

All of the photographs are the work of the extraordinary Laura Hedien, reproduced with her generous permission: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/ The first was taken at Wasatch Mountains, Utah. The second image depicts the Bobby Sock Area of Yellowstone National Park. The final picture shows The Milky Way and a Southwest, USA Arch. The single painting comes from Wikimedia Commons. It is Jan Davidsz de Heem’s Still Life with Ham, Lobster, and Fruit, c. 1653.

Managing Your Anxiety in an Anxious Time

Even in a normal world, we encounter unwanted thoughts: fear of injury to our children, self-doubt, financial concerns, and more. These are not routine times, so they come in a flood. Yet distress needn’t become your new full-time occupation.

It is possible to get more comfortable with the uncomfortable despite daily reminders of illness and economic upheaval.

Vexing contemplations are like an undesired guest at a party. The gate crasher won’t leave as soon as we want, but perhaps we can have pleasure despite him. In a sense, now our job is to come to a truce with intrusive, unwelcome ideas.

The invading reflections can be viewed from the outside, not as part of your being or a mark against you.

Though this historical moment is extreme, no life escapes misfortune. Whether the days are down or up, our healthiest option requires the willingness to experience disquiet when it appears. Uncertainty and surprise come with every life.

On the train of your journey, you will pass through many challenges. Understand them as temporary, as nearly all are. The locomotive will move on and you with it.

Routines have been disrupted and the immediate future made unpredictable. In addition to obtaining the necessities of existence, time can be used to ask yourself about your values: what is important to you and what you can do, even now, to advance their achievement?

We must learn new skills, the environment still needs tending, our political life demands alteration, and fellow men need our help to survive. Assertive action and direction will lessen the anguish that waits for the empty space in any mind not occupied with purpose and creation.

There is an opportunity to build a tolerance to fear and worry. Not easy, but attainable.

Self-blame is not required. ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) recommends you catch a thought in mid-flight. Then take a moment to step back and note any accompanying brooding or tribulation as separate from yourself.

Wrestling with the feelings, trying to push them away, is a less winnable fight than if you permit them to remain and, with time’s passage, dissipate. Accept their presence and live with them in place of suffering in a struggle. The exhaustion of a skirmish only fuels your unhappiness.

End the battle with that which is in your head. Instead, watch the anxieties as if you were a spectator at a baseball game not involving your favorite team. A measure of separation from them and their anguish is thereby enabled. Social distancing is not the sole type of remoteness we need today.

No benefit arises from judging them as good or bad. Other things merit attention, some of which will allow you to achieve readiness for useful action, an ability less manageable when focused on the chattering voice of dread, helplessness, and catastrophization.

Anxiety comes in two parts. First to arrive is the fear of an event that may be near or far, likely or not. The second is the evaluation we make of those anticipations and the way our fight with their torment amplifies them, along with any self-condemnation for having them. An overvaluation of this unbidden visitor swells a component of misery: anxiety about our anxiety.

Within us exists the talent to distance ourselves from the alarm, recognizing the shrillness of the sound rather than enabling its power to ratchet up pain. At the least, the consternation can be incorporated as a part of life, not consuming all else of importance.

I do not mean to dismiss the extremity of the conditions faced by some of you and much of humanity. Rather, I hope to enable you to manage the challenging moment.

The three short videos illustrate and add to what I’ve written. The darkest, late-night places of the soul need not be an inescapable residence.

Who Was That Masked Man? Psychological Self-protection in an Age of Masking

Stepping out of my home early Tuesday morning, I stepped into a strange world. Nature wore a mask of fog. Not me, mask free. Well, unless you believe I am a man of false faces.

We outfit ourselves with disguises. One mask fits atop another. Some use different camouflage depending on the set of friends nearby.

For the dress conscious, clothing plays its part in the costume, hiding that which we don’t want revealed. Rather like an actor’s stage makeup or Halloween for the kiddies.

The coverups take many forms. First, there are the ideas we don’t share. Next come the beliefs we don’t believe, but repeat to get-along.

Feelings and weaknesses are on display without trickery, the ones of which we are aware and those too crushing to accept.

Sometimes the concealing tarp drapes over our opinions, while secrecy extends to our plans. For example, the-intention to rob a bank.

Our face covers save us from relationship troubles, too. Remember four-months-ago when you recognized someone at a distance, a character you wished to avoid? Now you can cross to the other side of the street without hesitation or worry.

Time and circumstance have transformed the meaning of our action, changed it from a dis to distancing.

Alcohol has long been a tool like a self-protective armor plate. “Take a drink, you needn’t think,” says the bottle. “Dispense with your memories and feelings. I am your magic potion. I’ll erase your internal maelstrom – for a little while.”

Denial pursues this end, too, shrouding all our mirrors so we can’t recognize who we are, what we do. Others admit themselves to themselves but rationalize the necessity of being so.

Remember Salome? The girlish teen was Herod’s step-daughter, the child of his wife in the age of Jesus. The regent wanted the erotic young woman to dance. She did so with seven veils at the start and none at the finish.

The temptress then accepted payment for her star-turn: the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter, the better to kiss a decapitated man. The watchful Herod found the latter so disturbing he had her killed.

Removing veils can be a risky business.

Back to the present, our century encourages coverups via computer technology.

Are you uncomfortable on the phone? Want to dump someone? Turn away and send a text.

Are you bursting with unexpressed electoral anger or racism? A fake name and an itchy Twitter finger will fire the ballot bullet.

How about flirting or infidelity? The online world offers a digital dodge and a new name to hide behind.

A therapist is challenged by those patients who have never been unmasked. The sun never reaches their pale faces.

Take one mask off and you’d find another, masks on masks, layers piled up. The wearers have never seen themselves. The person underneath is a mystery.

And yet there is hope. Here is an example, a fellow I’d treated for some time.

Q: What price do you pay for the psychological protective equipment you employ?

The gentle soul lowered his head. His shoulders trembled as he wept.

A: Everything I want in life, friendship and love. I act like I’m a spy, in the shadows, on duty 24/7.

The door to recovery thus opened.

Like Tuesday’s lifting fog, a new day in my client’s life took a peek at possibility. The more we depend on masks, the less we own the joy of recognition and acceptance by another.

He discovered his disguises hid the best of him.

My advice? The next time you remove a cloth mask from your face, ask yourself this: Am I still wearing a mask?

Until then, donate what you can to a food bank.

The top image is Paul Hartland Carnival. Composition with Two Masks, 1934, by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. Next comes Mask, 1919, by Marcel Janco. Finally, Lady Taking Off a Mask, 1906, by Konstantin Somov.