The Curse of Being Average and How to Flourish Anyway

FIRST, THE BAD NEWS: you are not permitted to be average. There is a rule. Surely you know this, even if the requirement is not written. It just “is.”

We think of the rule as a “curse,” one of life’s biggest problems, even if not much discussed. We therefore try to disguise our “averageness,” overcome it, hide it under a sofa.

When it doesn’t fit we get cosmetic surgery, tutoring, and take courses to improve our college entrance exam scores. Or lift weights, get tattoos, use makeup, wear fine clothing, comb-over a receding hairline, and rent the right apartment in the tony neighborhood. We even cheat on tests.

Have you ever met a person who prefers mediocrity? Who shoots for a pedestrian education at a run-of-the-mill school; or wishes he’d come from lackluster parents? “My dad is more average than your dad!” is not heard on the playground. We don’t want an undistinguished job at an average salary in an unremarkable town.

Why do so many worry about this? A few reasons:

  • There are no more small ponds. That is, you can’t easily be a “big fish in a small pond,” a standout in a village. TV, the internet, and the global economy make comparisons with the best people worldwide inescapable.
  • Many others are trying to “pretend” they are not forgettable. We often compare ourselves – knowing our personal deficits all too well – to the surfaces and self-reported glory of those who aren’t always honest in portraying themselves.
  • Life isn’t fair. The Theory of General Relativity had already been invented when you were born. Doing it a second time gets you no points on your score sheet. Nor can you split the atom or invent the steam engine.
  • We tend to compare “up.” We might remind ourselves that we aren’t at the bottom of the scale, but are more inclined to make comparisons with those we believe are “better off” and more worthy.
  • Much of the First World encourages the lie “you can be anything you want with enough effort.” Tell that to the guy who can’t tie his shoes but expects to compete in professional basketball or the lady who fails high school algebra and still wants to win a Nobel Prize in Physics. The media singles out the one person who triumphed over astonishing odds as an example of what is possible, not the tens of thousands who did not. We believe the media.
  • All of us have been transformed by evolution. Our ancestors succeeded in producing offspring who survived. Being above average tended to help in finding healthy mates and outmaneuvering bad guys. We instinctively aim for the same goals.
  • There is no escaping the bell-shaped curve. Think about intelligence. Assume all people fit into the bell-shape below. As one moves to the right of the tall vertical line marked 100, you find those higher in IQ (intelligence quotient). Moving from 100 to the left, the IQ scores get lower. Fifty-percent of all people fall below the arithmetic average of 100. Yikes!

THE GOOD NEWS: Being average doesn’t consign you to life’s landfill. If you don’t believe me, read The Invoice.

You have not only the inherent worth of your humanity, but whatever contributions you can make to society, friends, and family, even if those acts are not recorded in the history books. By the way, my contributions won’t be there either.

Be the best you can be, which in some areas may be above average, in others not. Giving maximum effort is within your power, even if sometimes you will only get a mediocre result. Such is life, no matter what you are told.

Be defiant in the face not just of worldly injustice, but nature’s random assignment of physical and intellectual gifts. Rip your life from Mother Nature’s hands and remake the internal qualities still in your control.

I have watched some of those gifted in the unequal genetic lottery – people of towering intellectual firepower – sink under the weight of a self-imposed desire to be “great” in the judgment of the world. They are like the mythological Icarus, who thought he could (and should) fly close to the sun, not remembering his wings were made of wax and would melt. Icarus fell to earth.

Some journeys are just too dangerous and difficult for all but a tiny few. Some journeys are not necessary unless your make them so. You can enjoy most other trips as long as a rarely achieved destination is not one of your requirements.

Near the end of our days most of us keep our own score – or no score at all. “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,” as William Bruce Cameron wrote.

If you are preoccupied by the placement of your face on the totem pole of life, the higher the better, you may be missing some things: the appreciation of experiences good and bad, what you can learn from failure and the different lessons taught by success; the value of friendship and love, the taste of food you prepared even if you followed a recipe, the wind in the trees, the smile between you and a stranger, a good novel, laughter …

You cannot make yourself grow six more inches, but you can change your character, make yourself proud of yourself because of your virtue and acts of kindness or fairness, emotional generosity or courage. We must accept some of our limitations. Socrates, still discussed over 2400 years since he died, was said to be a homely, penniless man. He was not concerned. He also married a woman who wouldn’t stop criticizing him. He wasn’t much concerned about this either. Be like Socrates but marry better.

If you stop condemning yourself for “not measuring up,” then you will have more time to enrich your humanity. The loftiness of your character is in your power. If you become an honorable person who demands basic decency of himself, not just others, you will have accomplished something beyond price or rating.

As Queen Elizabeth II said, “the upward course of a nation’s history is due in the long run to the soundness of heart of its average men and women.”

The top image is called Daruma by Soen Kogaku. It is sourced from Wikiart.org/ The Bell-Shaped Curve comes from IQ Test Labs.

A Therapist Attends a Party. Does He Analyze Everyone He Meets?

Yes.

Not satisfied with my answer? Alright, I’ll say a bit more …

First, can you imagine a counselor going to a party? OK, I know it’s a stretch, but we do have lives.

Some of us, I’d say the best functioning souls in our profession, lead lives and need lives outside of the job. Still, if we are well-integrated, we’ve been changed by the work we do, by our experience and training, and we don’t (entirely) turn off our penetrating, “x-ray eyes and brains” when we meet someone new.

What do we notice? First, the usual things: how you look, dress, the sound of your voice, jewelry or its absence, any significant aromas (including too much aftershave or perfume), the “intelligence” in your face, height, weight, and – yes — sex appeal, at least if the diagnostician still lives by the pace of a beating heart. Crucially, too, your emotional state.

But there is a difference. We’ve seen, perhaps, thousands of patients and draw hypotheses about new acquaintances. We are the kind of people who – by nature – are more than usually fascinated by the process of understanding our fellow creatures.

Thus, to some degree, you (the creature) are slotted and categorized, pigeon-holed and measured against the silhouettes of innumerable people we’ve come to know in-depth. Nothing certain, but a formulation of ideas and character type that will, automatically, even without trying, be revised and refined if we get to know you better. Kind of like orchestra musicians who say – and I believe them – their experience allows them to size up a new conductor within minutes of the beginning of a first rehearsal.

Staying with music for a second, imagine a professional musician attending a concert. Would all his musical culture – his trained ears – vanish because he sits in the audience? Of course not.

The effortless, incomplete analysis of our party-goer is spontaneous because of who we’ve become. Ours is not the studious effort we make in the consulting room and we aren’t so rude as to ask the “personal,” penetrating, and imperative questions out-of-place at a party. Tentative assumptions just happen.

Another difference from a professional setting: we are now free to dislike the new person. We are not required to work hard to see the best in him. One can react to political differences, take issue with ideas, even walk away, as you cannot in your own office. Thus, there is a combination of automatic “evaluation” of the acquaintance as a function of the information we absorb and the reflexive processing we perform without intention, as well as freedom to act on all the human responses common to non-therapists and counselors alike.

Whatever “analysis” occurs is not methodical and therefore not as “expert” or expertly done as the “on-the-job” version. The impromptu assessment takes the form of informed opinion, not rigorous and thought-through. We are also dealing with first impressions, another reason for imperfect judgment.

Mental health professionals often get predictable responses in non-professional settings once a person finds out how we make a living:

“Ohhhh – I’d better be careful what I say to you,”

or

“Ahhh – does that mean you are analyzing me?”

One learns to take it in stride.

If you were at the imaginary social event, however, we might or might not meet your expectations. No boundaries exist when the doc is on the street or at the party; at least not doctor/patient relationship boundaries. You might be surprised to discover, too, how energetic or withdrawn the counselor is, outgoing or quiet. Remember, your therapist commands his domain, the little space called “his office,” but isn’t conferred the role of master of ceremonies anywhere else. Nor is he laser-focused on anyone he is talking to unless he wants to be. Again, unlike the consulting room, his attention can go anywhere he wants it to or it wants to. Under these circumstances, you might find him less “sensitive” than you expect. Remember, he is “off-the-clock.”

He could be “the most interesting man in the world” or more common than you expect.

The counselor is permitted to be bored. He is allowed to become a bit “under the influence” of the local brew. He might even bore you, too.

Bored, he won’t be at his best in forming an impression of you. Intoxicated, he will be useless in that and other departments.

Could be he is just another guy, in this case, one too full of suds and his own bad jokes.

I’m reminded of the old Woody Allen story about how his first marriage collapsed. The problem was that he put his “wife underneath a pedestal.”

Some therapists, in some situations, belong there too.

The top plate is called Ubu, a 1974 work of Enrico Baj. The second image is Laughting, an 1898 painting by Filipp Malyavin. Both are sourced from Wikiart.org.

The Taoist Farmer and a Patient’s Search for Answers

Part of the human dilemma is the trap of unhelpful, but habitual ways of thinking. Cognitive behavior therapists call them thinking errors or cognitive distortions. On occasion you probably have made one or more such wrong-headed mental turns into an emotional sink hole. Catastrophization is an example: predicting the worst possible outcome you can imagine happening to you, sure the expected calamity will finish you off, even when there are many less dire potential futures and most bad results are temporary. But other mental traps wait for us, ones not so commonly found in a therapist’s lexicon. Good/bad, right/wrong, lucky/unlucky are not as clear as we think.

Take the old story of the Taoist farmer.

There was a farmer whose horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, “Maybe.” And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg.

Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, “Maybe.” The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, “Maybe.”*

As with any parable, multiple interpretations exist. Sometimes apparent bad fortune – like a broken relationship – leads to someone who is a better match. Being fired from a job can be a step toward a better one, even fuel your search and foster your growth. This is not to suggest all tragedies are the yellow brick road to Oz. Yet, we tend to recover, even if recovery can be lengthy, fraught, and incomplete. Then again, luck depends on when you take a measure of your situation. The farmer believed there was still time ahead, and the present moment represented a temporary vantage point: another evaluation down the road might change the assessment of his life.

One alternative way to think about this story is to recognize the problem of “keeping score.” We look around and ask, am I getting ahead or falling behind? In the West, the so-called First World of capitalism, we are trained in ladder-climbing, money counting, and concern with the opinions of others. A bit crazy-making, since someone else always owns “more,” and we are inclined to compare “up” rather than “down.” Put another way, we measure ourselves against those better off rather than those less fortunate. We also tend – after a moment of delight – to take for granted the Christmas toy for which we waited a year. Great honors don’t seem so great after the award ceremony is over.

Is there another way?

A Buddhist (or a Stoic philosopher) might tell you to become less attached to all things in the world: status, property, money; even relationships and health. Put differently, to give up clinging and craving, while practicing loving kindness and steadfast integrity. The more attachment, the more you will lose, so they say. Such an existence – preoccupied with getting and spending and fear of losing (and regret over what is already lost) – is a guarantee of suffering.

Yet another view is this one: maybe life is not a matter of assigning a grade to what we think or do, but to be experienced with little evaluation: passed through, lived. To be in the swim, not outside the pool, watching and afraid of the shock of the cold water if we should jump in. Not asking whether our stroke is beautiful enough, our pace fast enough, the distance traveled far enough.

To this way of thinking, failure and rejection are normal parts of life. They indicate we are still trying; necessary parts, too, because resilience grows from the knowledge you can come back from defeat.

Perhaps winning the game is not as important as playing the game. Perchance the world is to be tasted: different cuisines and flavors, not just chocolate and vanilla. If so, a person would experience many colors, sizes, possibilities. Engage in multiple careers. Know lots of people. Have your heart broken and sewn up and torn again and stitched until the twine itself breaks. And to read and discuss all the worthy books, play all the sublime music, climb walls until your muscles and tendons hurt. No, even past the time they hurt, adapting to the hurt. Not an either/or existence but “all-in.”

Or, is life properly understood to be perplexing and without a “solution”? If so, any belief in your own secret formula is misguided: your solution is, at best, temporary. You are not only fooling yourself, but missing the point. Which is? That the pursuit of happiness is more a journey than an arrival. That when traveling to the airport we should always go to “departures” instead of “arrivals” because we are forever “taking off” for whatever is next and never reach a static endpoint while alive.

Left to you is the creation of a personal meaning, not to be found in a book or a place of worship or from a mentor, whole and flawless; unless, that is, you are among those for whom the answer is unquestioning faith and an ultimate, unworldly reward.

Still another path: one is told the most satisfying existence requires living for bigger things than ourselves, including the future of the planet, our children, and the lives of others. We are warned not to count on or crave a posthumous glory. Unless someone else is doing the scoring, the record book will be lost along with our names, in a fast-fading blue ink on a yellowing parchment. Or, as Arthur Miller suggested, on a block of melting ice.

Is human existence perhaps a multifaceted combination of tragedy, joy, inevitability, necessity, laughter, devotion, confusion, sacrifice, and the way things are until, too soon, they aren’t?

Having written all of the above, I fear my message – the answer without an answer to conceptualizing life – is unsatisfying. I’m not even satisfied. I have given you no certainty, nothing definite. Some of you will reject the inconclusivity. I won’t hold it against you.

To my way of thinking, therapy cannot provide “the answer” either. The counselor instead offers a remedy for specifics. He can help reduce or eliminate your anxiety or depression or some other malady in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. No text-book or training, however, offers a step-by-step solution to dealing with the human condition. I’m sorry about that, really.

We do what we can.

I offer this consolation to you, nonetheless:

No matter what we look like, no matter how happy or sad we are (or seem to be) for the moment – calm or stressed, wise or foolish – we are all in this porridge together. Sometimes we swim within a tasty bowl – “just right,” as Goldilocks said – though not for every meal and every appetite. Look around you and see all the swimmers. Tiny like us, precious like us. They come in all strengths and varieties, but they will not always be there.

No wonder we search for love.

*Source: Tao: The Watercourse Way, by Alan Watts. The first image below the youtube video is Ilja Richter rehearsing for his play Altweibersommer in Munich. The next photo is the work of SuzannePerry.enoughofit7. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Dying to be Seen, but Afraid to be Seen: Where Insecurity and Invisibility Meet

The quiet ones envy those who are sociable. Not always, but often. They wish for an ease of contact which is not theirs. Too many hunger for understanding, for a kind person to recognize them, accept them; even love them. They are dying to be seen, but afraid to be seen.

Anonymity is the preferred choice. Many escape to the shadows, at least if they can.

Don’t raise your hand, says Mr. Anxiety, even if you have the right answer. Too risky. Your voice might quiver, your hand might shake, and there could be a follow-up question which leaves you speechless.

The insecure ones make a trade. They take the apparent safety of invisibility at the price of being ignored, misunderstood, or quickly forgotten. They leave no mark on the world, hoping to avoid criticism and ostracism. Better to take yourself out of the competition for attention than be told to go away. Of course, you wind up alone, but you persuade yourself this is better than rejection.

Instead of belittlement you opt for the shrubbery, hiding behind the bushes. True, sometimes you get wet when the lawn sprinklers go on. Occasionally a kid throws a ball that hits you or a dog sprays you, but you get used to it.

Group conversations are the worst. When might I jump in? My face will flush. They’ll think I’m an idiot, too boring. I’ll just sit tight or stand and nurse my drink.

Who would have thought a man could dive into his glass, hide behind its opacity? Or imbibe enough to shed his disguise and turn into a more outgoing, confident version of himself?

Once you sober up, you will still be like a person with a fire inside who is afraid of venting a smoke signal. The result? You are consumed from within and your glorious flame is unnoticed.

Mark Twain said, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” Change two words and the sentence becomes: the man who does not speak has no advantage over the man who cannot speak. Will you be thought of as the latter? Are you already?

Or have you become someone who is told what he thinks, afraid of challenging a rude or wrong idea? You will be outdone by those with half your intellect. They, the half-brained, are kings and queens in the land of the mute.

You remain unknown, even if others think they’ve sized you up. Many believe you are stuck-up because you avoid them. Some say you are kind, several imagine you lack “personality,” others reckon you stupid, a few timid: an easy mark to be pushed around. Most strangers form no opinion. Not one of them will be completely right, know the whole package. You won’t even be seen in full by yourself.

Your attempt to vanish is exhausting. The task is like running a race, trying to escape the eyes of others, but distancing yourself from yourself. If all escape routes close you will grab your throat and squeeze, stifle your emotions and ideas so as not to offend anyone.

Do you wish asphyxiation by your own hands?

I hear you gagging.

Do I know you? Not completely. But I’ve seen you and I might have been you a long time ago.

It wasn’t fun.

It’s not as if everyone else is completely visible. No one is. One might display an eyebrow or an ankle, even a heart: that most precious portion of ourselves when offered as a present. Such a one is trying, practicing, gathering momentum.

A gradual path toward self revelation can grow on you.

In the end, however, if you are seen but unseen, dying to be seen but afraid to be seen, you should realize something: you cannot be both.

You must choose or remain in torment.

The therapist’s door is waiting, but even there you can try to be invisible.

A pity.

Counselors, you understand, don’t do their best work blindfolded.

The top image is a photo of the cover of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. The cover was illustrated by Ludvik Strimpl and the photo taken by Gallica/Sudoc. The image was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Is Religion Necessary for Morality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look forward to your thoughts on the subject.

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

Becoming a Traitor to Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even your God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Music of Catastrophe

If music means something important to us, our contact with a new person finds us trying to discover what musical loves we might share. Thus do friendship and romance begin.

In a world where isolated suffering comes easily, music, like some of the other arts, reveals we have much company in our emotional distress.

Songs add language to instrumental expression, making them more precise in meaning than purely instrumental music. Vocal composition is literally sung to words, but there is just as much of the human experience in the more abstract forms, even if a symphony is not so easily identified with the particular circumstance (say, a broken heart) described in lyrics.

Sound offers solace if a composition reaches the tender, injured place inside. Few pieces, however, deal with cataclysm and collapse. To my ears, one of those is the Symphony #4, the last such work of German composer Johannes Brahms.

Brahms was a life-long bachelor from Hamburg, who died in 1897. He achieved recognition early and much success afterwards. The major unhappiness of his life was his unfulfilled romantic attachment to Clara Schumann, 14 years his senior; the widow of the man who first recognized his genius, the composer Robert Schumann. Some believe their age difference, his virtual adoption by the couple, and the shadow of Brahms’s indebtedness to her late husband made the consummation of his ardor impossible. Brahms’s final symphony reveals he knew much about human calamity, whatever its source.

Lacking a description from the composer about what his symphony “meant” — if anything or nothing — we are left to make our response personal. Perhaps no language exists with which to “understand” Brahms’s Fourth and my use of catastrophe is misplaced, but I am not alone in the opinion.

That disaster, if there is one, occurs in the fourth and last section of the work, the concluding 10-minutes or so. There, too, you will hear a much commented upon “conversational” quality in Brahms, when the wind instruments “speak” to each other. David Hurwitz of Classics Today, finds “active rage and impassive grandeur” in the ending. Jerry Dubins wrote, in Fanfare magazine, of the “final rush to oblivion … on the symphony’s preordained appointment with disaster and annihilation” in “a score of gloom and doom.”

Why might one want to listen given this description?

To me and the many who rank the work one of the most perfect and moving in the entire classical repertoire, much poignant beauty accompanies the ride into the abyss; indeed, because of it. The reasons for listening are no different from those causing us to appreciate a sad song. In Brahms’s 40-minutes we become the composer, inhabit his intellectual and emotional journey, and are seized by towering grandeur; perhaps even  swept away, exhilarated by the suspense and power, and moved to tears. Some would say a great work of art, if masterfully performed, can change us.

Franz Kafka knew the power of all art forms and wrote about the potentially transformational impact of writing:

What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be like an ax to break the frozen sea within us.

Will you be changed?

You can find out in 40-minutes time.

The top photo is the work of Ville Miettinen. It is described as, “A crevasse (moulin) in the Langjökull glacier, Iceland. At the time it was perhaps three or four meters long, a meter wide and some 30-40 meters deep.” The second image is the 20-year-old Brahms in 1853. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.