The Search for Besties and Soulmates

An old Groucho Marx joke tells us, “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.” Indeed, we often find ourselves hoping for an acceptance hard to come by, from just the right one; from a group or person who recognizes we are special: special in terms of our best qualities on our best day. The “other” uncovers us and discovers us as we’d like to be seen. When the connection clicks, we discover he has the characteristics we desire, as well.

Yes, we want a fitting kind of recognition: the key to our lock. True, we pursue enough money to live comfortably. Respect is sought for our good work, too. But lots of people accomplish those goals, even receive applause, yet don’t obtain understanding of their best inner self, the self they want to be appreciated.

Isaiah Berlin touches on this in Two Concepts of Liberty:

What I may seek to avoid is simply being ignored, patronized, or despised, or being taken too much for granted, in short, not being treated as an individual, having my uniqueness insufficiently recognized, being classed as a member of some featureless amalgam, a statistical unit without identifiable, specifically human features and purposes of my own.

We want acknowledgement from the proper person or group: a mate, our family; a religious community, perhaps. I must underline, man wants to be recognized in a particular way. Thus, if seen as “the handsome guy” or “the hot chick,” he may yet lack fulfillment when such a quality masks what is underneath.

I’d venture most of us wish to hear, “You are the one. You are the essential one” (for me or our group or our work), depending on the identification we are yearning for. I have encountered people with admirable lives, who perhaps never knew what was missing until such recognition came to them. If it came.

Recent research implies that the individuals we seek in friendship or love may be predetermined in some portion. Dr. Carolyn Parkinson, a UCLA cognitive scientist, described the possible “chemistry” enabling closeness in the New York Times article below:

Our research suggests that friends might be similar in how they pay attention to and process the world around them. That shared processing could make people click more easily and have the sort of seamless social interaction that can feel so rewarding.

Is this what some mean when they refer to a relationship as beshert (meant to be)?

Life can be thought of as an insecurity making machine. Among the young, ever-present photo-phones and internet bullies guarantee it. In the distant world of villages and small groups your place in society was not so hard to create, competition not so feverish. Your name was known and you might have been the sole local craftsman with a particular skill or the only medical doctor. There was value in being a big fish in a medium-sized pond. You were a solo-proprietor of your small business, a cottage industry, or the family farm, not today’s wage slave. The modern world makes almost all of us anonymous.

Aging, too, can reduce one’s sense of value. Beyond a certain span, women and men must work harder to hold their place. The body gives in to inertia, gravity, and fatigue. Defined features and figures blur, distractions challenge, flagging energy requires an extra cup of coffee.

But the lack of recognition is more generally present than in any one societal sector. Here is how Vincent van Gogh put the dilemma in an 1880 letter to his brother Theo:

Many a man has a bonfire in his heart and nobody comes to warm himself at it. The passers-by notice only a little smoke from the chimney, and go their way. …

No wonder the modern world also is fertile ground for demagogues who appeal to a portion of those with little sense of distinction, but much displacement. Many struggle for existence and dignity. In some cases machines replaced their labor. Life diminishes them. If a political figure conveys that he sees them, hears them, and understands them, they feel connected, enhanced. Even those leaders who might be better able to improve their lives can appear less attractive.

The former leader enlarges their sense of themselves. He resonates.

A man or woman does not simply want to own things, he wants the respect and acknowledgement offered in another’s measure of his value and stature. Indeed, the last 100 years demonstrate that many will sacrifice even their freedom for the worth conferred by a man or a movement in which the beleaguered soul believes he is important.

What can one do to find this kind of recognition?

Do not hide. Show the best of yourself. Step forward. Join, do not retreat.

You never know, even to your last day, when someone might comprehend and esteem you as significant in the world. The smoke signals from van Gogh’s bonfire may finally be noticed and read by others who value the message.

Which makes me think of my late friend, Mel Nudelman. Mel was an old friend in both senses of the phrase — I’d known him since the 1970s. At age 87 he was devasted by the loss of his wife of 50 years. To his credit, he fought through and grieved his broken heart, even making a new girlfriend! And so, Mel lived as he always did: learning, taking classes, counseling others, being with his children and grandchildren, offering friendship to young and old; ever curious about politics, music, sports, medicine, and the world. All this until death came in his 90s.

Put differently, Mel was open to life and whatever it would reveal to him; whatever it would reveal to others about him. He had something to offer the world and was recognized.

My advice then, to you and to myself, is to keep learning and keep being open to “possibility,” including the possibility there are things yet unseen, unexpected, or unacknowledged to enlighten us (and enlighten others about us) if only we keep our eyes open, our hearts open, and our guard down (at least some of the time).

If we keep looking, perhaps the right one yet will look back.

The top image is called Fall in Love. It is sourced from http://www.larsen-twins.dk via Wikimedia Commons. It should be noted, however, that the link does not lead to an active site. If anyone has such a link for Larsen Twins Orchids, I be grateful. The van Gogh Self Portrait with Straw Hat dates from 1887.

The Long-lasting Toxicity of Parental Labels

When I treated adults who had been verbally abused by their parents, I sometimes wondered if they needed a stain remover more than a therapist. The disfiguring mark was not on the surface, however. Below the scalp, the mistreatment created a misunderstanding of their human qualities and mangled the internal mental machinery; warped their reasoning about themselves. I will offer some thoughts on the confusion caused — the fouled self-image the abused soul believes to be true, not recognizing the phony bill of goods he received.

Epistemology is a word you might not know, but frames how the negative label distorts the victim’s thoughts about himself. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. The field is important because it deals with how we process information to determine what is true (factual) and how we distinguish what is supported by evidence rather than a matter of belief, misunderstanding, or a misapplied label.

When did our tarnished child become discolored? He almost always was the target of family criticism, outside bullying, or both. The young one’s actions were mocked. Names were called over and over. I’ll concentrate on the home. Children are not in a position to find another one.

Kids need whatever protection parents provide, even as little as it is. No matter what, they must stay close to the caretakers when they are small. No Plan B exists, no reason to expect more kindness outside the family than in.

The small one’s dependency on the parents requires belief in the latter’s competence and knowledge about the world.

Think of the child as both who he is objectively, that is, how we might evaluate him in the absence of any bias; and as a social construct: the person described in the adjectives and nouns of the parents’ choosing, regardless of who he is in reality.

The child holds little knowledge of the world other than what is offered in the house. He claims no other authoritative information to suggest the social construct/label is wrong. Since parents are the first and primary authorities, nothing suggests they are misguided. Especially if their words are characterized as being “for your own good.”

Any hope of parental love, approval, and protection would depend on the ability to persuade the parent that the label has been misapplied. The small one cannot afford (even to himself, even were he able to put the concepts and words together) to challenge the parents’ description of him without causing internal terror. Such awareness would require his recognition of the dilemma he is in: a tiny person at the hands of powerful, disturbed adults upon whom he is dependent. The opinion of the home’s commanders is therefore taken for truth. Only if the girl or boy can accept the verdict and do better to please those in charge might he have a chance. This necessary bit of self-delusion allows him to hope his situation might be changed by something in his control.

He already accepts the truth of something for which the evidence is weak or nonexistent. Use of his cognitive equipment is thereby impaired from an early age.

Since the label now must be considered valid, let’s think of how the labelers treat our growing child as a personality, and how they respond to his behavior:

  1. The boy’s character, nature, and existence are seen as unworthy. The parents communicate — sometimes just by a look — that he doesn’t measure up. His presence alone is displeasing. No matter how inoffensive he might be in a given moment, he inhabits the status white bigots confer on people of color. The latter would need to vanish in order to make the racists happy. The child, to produce the same result for mom and dad, would have to, as well.
  2. Mistakes (and every child makes lots of them) are used by the authority as evidence the label is valid.
  3. Any behavior that is objectively good is either minimized in importance or ignored. No amount of proper behavior nor rational argument is sufficient to change the overseer’s verdict.

All of this is bad enough by itself. Worse, however, the child carries not only a dishonest label, but a warped way of thinking about himself. The internal mental machinery continues to inflict damage — even in the absence of the parents — when he takes on the world outside. Thus, whatever success he achieves there, it is never enough.

The past becomes present.

Too often the adult will carry the internalized words wherever he goes, continuing to search unconsciously for people who are like his folks (since their authority and value have not yet been overturned), and think about his own worth in the way he was taught. He remains characterologically flawed in his very existence. He believes he is a person who behaves in negative or inadequate or foolish ways, and someone whose strengths are trivial in contrast to all of the qualities inside that count against him.

The individual lacks self-awareness. He continues to see himself in terms of the social construct given by his parents. Moreover, the deforming quality of his thought has doubtless led him to many errors in dealing with the world, further confirming the verdict he received from the biased jury at home.

Only with enough unhappiness might the pain cause him to challenge the internalized parental voice, or seek treatment which will encourage such a process. His descent into the suffering can actually be the first step to discarding the social construct he was given, alter those self-defeating behaviors he since adopted, and transform his self-image. Without opening the emotion attached to the humiliating label, therapy is not likely to succeed. Indeed, had verbal persuasion by himself or others worked, counseling wouldn’t be needed.

The mountain top of truth — knowledge of who he is — is a long distance away. But, as the old Chinese proverb tells us, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

The Conflict and Triumph of Living in a Family

Most think of a family as a place of safety. Think again. Not always.

At its best, surely it is a place of love. Yet humans interact there, with their potential for a fractious collision of moving parts. Conflict is always possible and sometimes essential, as in all groups.

Even within the nest, the big and little birds are looking for something from the other: dominance, protection, recognition, support, encouragement, gratitude, and guidance. Let’s take this apart a bit, focusing on the issue of dominance and transcendence. By transcendence I mean the individual’s desire to test himself in the peopled world: flourish, make something of himself, strive to “overcome” and take pride in his overcoming. No one wants to be last in line.

Ego and self-assertion are essential for all of us. Without a sense of our “self,” we amount to nothing, get rolled over and pushed around.

Start with the mom and dad. Cooperation is necessary between the parents, but 100% agreement isn’t possible. Definitions of fairness and equity are found in the eye of the beholder. Sexual stereotypes regarding a man or woman’s role interfere. People change over the course of a long marriage. Some of the alteration is a matter of aging, some learning, some of finding oneself. The marriage contract must be revised to accommodate transformation of even one of the mates.

I always asked a new marital therapy couple what drew them together. The answer became predictable: “He/she was hot and we had a lot of fun.” Of course, in twenty-years-time the instant heat has usually diminished a bit and the fun always has, otherwise the team would not be in for a tune-up.

We seek ourselves through others. They reflect our image back to us in work, friendship, and affection. In conflict, too. How we negotiate disagreement in a marriage leads to many possible outcomes: mutual growth, increased or diminished intimacy, and more or less security. Our well-being is affected. Does the couple triumph together, apart, or not at all?

The children, too, are impacted. A first-born can be recognized, loved, and lauded simply for his existence. He needs to test himself, nonetheless. Such challenges come first in getting the parents’ attention and care. Later, the same people will play the role of obstacle on the long road to his self-rule. Siblings (who threaten to take his spot on center stage) represent another hurdle. Outside the home, he seeks the kind of image he wants in the world of strangers.

The child (as he grows) doesn’t need approval for everything, but encouragement in his striving. He must find a place for himself without becoming a doormat at the foot of the staircase of life: someone invisible who may crave self-effacement in a misguided search for safety. Self-aware or not, he requires respect and freedom, striving to create an impact on at least a sliver of humanity, rather than existing as a mistreated and passive instrument for the fulfillment of ambitions in those around him; tossed aside when the user has no more use of him.

If the parents can manage the task, the battles within the family lead to learning and growth. Everyone wins, though bruises are inevitable. For the child to learn to bounce back, he must have someone to bounce off of. Everyone in a well-functioning home gets enough of what they need to take on the world with growing confidence. Toxic parents might enable some children to thrive, while others — those who serve as family punching bags — don’t receive adequate tools to achieve satisfaction and a measure of triumph outside of it: a victory characterized by making a mark worthy of an admiring look and respect; and the confidence to become a productive member of the human community: secure enough, happy enough most of the time, sufficiently persistent and resilient to manage the challenges that come to us all.

Looking at your family, both family of origin and the one you made, helps you to be grateful for what you did get, know what you yet must find, and recognize your part in raising your children to ensure their rising.

We are never free of the need to strive for something — to experience the sense of producing a positive effect in the world of man and nature. All goals will not be achieved by anyone, but we are so arranged that not everything one wishes for is required to make a satisfying life.

—–

The top image is The Painter’s Family by Grigorio de Cherico. The second is The Appearance of the Artist’s Family by Marc Chagall. Both are sourced from Wikiart.org/

Escaping from Ourselves: Music, Crowds, and Other Ways Out

April 21 was Record Store Day, an international event celebrating the hunt for tunes you can hold in your hands. By coincidence, this classical music lover found himself listening to a rock concert at a stop where I hoped to shop, not bop. I’d never attended anything similar, but learned something you won’t in a Mozart-friendly venue: the pain people suffer to escape themselves. Or simply to have a good time.

Only a matter of feet from the amplified band, everyone was moving to the music, ear drums be damned by snares and cymbals. What was punishing to me in sheer volume got other people out of themselves. Big music doing a big job. The point was not to use thought, but to submit to the mood-altering bombardment and escape reasoned analysis and reflection.

We do need to get away from reality. Intensity of sound was the key. The straight-jacket of our brain gets loosened and our suffering is covered-over, swamped by an aural tsunami.

Music isn’t the only way. Take the extremity of self-mutilation: cutting your body, as some do, not for decoration, but replacement of emotional pain by the application of physical pain; like a new coat of paint.

Sports venues also use loudness to launch escape from self. Conversation is difficult. Even attention to the game on the field. “Play ball?” You’ll see it, but won’t hear the infield chatter or bat striking ball. No foreground of sound and background of silence, like visual art, but all foreground all the time.

Beyond a flight from acute emotional distress, why might we want to depart reality? Life can be rather too much, don’t you think? The vocational rat race, mortality, and inevitable comparisons and competitions come to mind. No wonder we drink, smoke funny cigarettes, and overeat.

The human being is a clever creature, tricking himself to fly without even knowing what he is doing or why.

Those who dissociate in the midst of a traumatic event describe their transformation as a “going away:” separating a part of themselves from the portion encountering the unsparing awfulness. By breaking into segments, another facet of the personality experiences the grotesquery in a muted fashion or not at all.

Nearly everyone sometimes compartmentalizes his experience. We take in what distress can be managed and screen out the rest, without the extreme loss of awareness in dissociation. “I’ll think about this later,” so we tell ourselves, and a door in the brain closes.

Crowds can help you get out of yourself. Not just at concerts, but political rallies. Size matters. We give up thinking for nonbeing, joining, submerging. At the crowd’s worst, rules disappear, exchanged for bad faith. Humanity and civilization are discarded. We return to more primal roots. The unity of the group is all. You are not solo, not separate, but swept into in a mob of homogeneous excitation. No wonder the mass goes crazy and the individuals lose themselves, surrendering their agency to the power of the collective.

Talented populist orators evoke a frenzy, a single-mindedness they manipulate with our complicity. Why? Because we desire this loss of responsibility and control; the mental weight of making a decision. Once unburdened, anything is possible with someone else’s permission and direction. Think Lord of the Flies and what happens to Piggy.

Sensation of a transcendent kind is found in sex. Sexual contact allows us to escape of our bodies in the body of another. We are swept away in the stretching, sweating, touching, playing, craving, and holding. Our surrender to flooding hormones and synchronous beating hearts yields ecstasy: escape velocity that returns us to our unthinking creatureliness, our animality.

But there is more. When wills and wants and sensibilities align we exchange essences. After, we take some portion of the other’s otherness with us. Each party is completed. We are less ourselves and alone. In the consummation we escape our own boundaries.

Dancing and religious rites can create self-abandonment. Some worshipful gatherings sanctify and applaud those who “speak in tongues.” They become unmoored, taken over by a language that is not a language.

Quieter ways to lose yourself exist, but they lack the drama and require concentration; say, on a book you are reading or by the discipline of a hard-won meditation practice. We can depart our self in a state of “flow” at work, too. But, if you want to leave your consciousness behind without industrious effort, these will not do.

Standard variety vacations suffice, especially if they take you to a place of anonymity, a strange culture, away from work and obligation: in the most positive sense, out of your mind. The tendrils of thought pulling you back to homely discontent are cut.

No judgement here. Relief is necessary. Distraction and diversion take many forms. We don’t always choose our evasive poisons or medicines wisely, but one cannot make the best of reality without the occasional departure from the realm of the hard and real. Passing time without flights of fancy would be too grim.

Here’s to the high flyers, the ones climbing toward the clouds in search of cloudiness. It is true, the upper reaches are opaque, but where is it written we must always be clear-eyed?

Smile, laugh, and make love. Or, as the old verse tells us, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you will die.”

So says the Bible!

———

The first image is Tape Floor by Jim Lambie. The second is Fenix by Josignacio. Finally, Dancers by Degas. All are sourced from Wikiart.org/

What’s Stopping You from Going to Therapy?

One could almost say people require therapy in order to decide to go to therapy. Many needful of the help don’t make it. What is the way there and why do some go and others stay away?

Here are a few of the obstacles:

  1. Sensitive souls want to be seen, but are terrified of being seen. History tells them disclosure is dangerous.
  2. Psychological defenses were created before the counseling profession existed. Our ancestors needed emotional armor to survive. Those who were defenseless in the face of crushing reversals of fortune (poverty, disease, loss of loved ones) were less likely to endure. We are therefore the descendants of creatures equipped with instinctive fortifications. Many are still useful under the right conditions. Hesitation before a psychotherapeutic project designed by Freud to dismantle you should not be a surprise. A good therapist, however, will be aware of the dangers of tearing these down before providing a better alternative.
  3. Those emotional barriers include over reliance on the following: avoidance, denial, rationalization, distraction, emotional constriction, dissociation, fantasizing, compartmentalization, intellectualization/over-thinking, alcohol, food, drugs, and sex. Once ingrained, the defense tends to choose us more than be chosen by us. Reflection on one’s default tendencies is uncommon. Were we to inventory the mental habits and behaviors working for and against us, psychotherapy might appeal more. Successful defenses established in your formative years are not always the best ones to use as an adult, when your life situation is different.
  4. Many who don’t avail themselves of psychotherapy’s benefits are lost, like “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” (Oscar Wilde). They believe their vision of the world is complete. A need for treatment goes unrecognized. Their sense of relative emotional health is part of their problem.
  5. Most people think they understand themselves. Few therapy virgins, however, try to systematically look for repetitive patterns of behavior in their past. George Santayana famously said,”Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Others remind us that history rarely repeats itself literally, but often rhymes.
  6. Depending on ethnic, religious, economic, or national origins, treatment faces social prohibitions. For example, fundamentalist religions sometimes point to significant depression as evidence of a failure of the suffer’s faith. Reliance on God and a reorientation of one’s relationship to God is believed to be the solution. Psychotherapy is judged a misunderstanding of what the believer identifies as the problem.
  7. The most troubled doubt counseling will help.
  8. A preference for a passive, rapid solution: medication. The individual ignores (or may not know) that some disorders are better treated by talking than a trip to the pharmacy.

Nine more:

  1. Social and economic obstacles to therapy include the stigma of being “weak” or “crazy,” fear that self-disclosure will lead to betrayal (including the sharing of sensitive medical information with their employer), the expense of treatment, guilt at the idea of talking negatively about one’s parents, and the time in session and traveling to sessions. “Real men” comment that one should be able to solve problems without the emotional crutch of expert help. Your mom might even agree. If you fear what she thinks about your decision, you need the fix more than you need her judgement.
  2. More than a few of us persist in trying to change others. Rather than look inside, we try to alter the peopled world. While in vigorous and hopeful pursuit of this goal, the turn inward is hard to come by. Some will never realize the material for change is at hand within themselves, the only being they control. You might recall the mythic figure of Sisyphus, whose punishment for eternity was to roll a ball up an incline, watching the inevitable and dismaying roll back down each time. Those who take on the comparable job of changing another adult will first need a long period of frustration before they recognize they must begin to work on themselves. Here, then, is a hint to the kind of painful experience required to get us into the counselor’s office.
  3. Many people cannot imagine a new way of living — something substantially different from their normal existence. They lack not only the will to transcend themselves, but the imagination of what transcendence might look like. Such people are similar to the residents of Plato’s imaginary cave, who believe their shadowy cavern is the entire world.
  4. Counseling takes many forms. The potential client often has no idea how to choose from the array of options and helping professionals. This difficulty is exacerbated if the treatment candidate lacks even minimal understanding of his own psychology and well-targeted therapeutic goals.
  5. Horror stories of therapy-gone-wrong abound.
  6. The internet allows a virtual life for those who would otherwise live in seclusion. While it can serve as a stepping stone to richer human contact, the brightly lit screen may instead just prevent them from reaching for more satisfaction in the face-to-face world.
  7. Simple alternatives to therapy are appealing: move to California, get a different job, dump your mate, have an affair to remedy a mid-life crisis, etc.
  8. Self-help books can prove a waste of time or a method of avoidance.
  9. The slave in the magic mirror used by the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is unwelcome when she says Snow White is fairer than the Queen. Such a mirror also tells us when bad luck and betrayal are no longer sufficient to explain our unhappiness. Until you are willing to accept the glass’s truth and take responsibility for your life, psychotherapy will not be in your immediate future.

With all these obstacles and more, what gets a person beyond the contemplation of treatment to a voluntarily meeting with a counselor? This list of factors is shorter than the previous one:

  • Advice from a trusted friend, relative, cleric, physician, or former patient.
  • Research to discover what therapy entails.
  • Pain is almost always the key. If every other alternative has been tried and the suffering remains great enough, even the hesitant will sometimes take the leap.

Two jokes apply to the question of change through psychotherapy. The first is the better known:

How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

One, but the light bulb has to want to be changed.

The second emphasizes the hesitation of an introvert who is offered group therapy:

How many introverts does it take to change a light bulb?

Why does it have to be a group activity?*

———————–

*Thanks to Life in a Bind for the introvert joke. The top image is a screen capture from the public domain film Carnival of Souls. The second is called Modern Stress by outcast104. Finally, a picture depicting the Shyness of Tamil ANGEL by Sureshbmani. All three are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How Much Intensity? How Much Danger is Wise?

Are we too preoccupied with safety? I’m not a man perched on the razor’s edge, but sometimes I wonder about the question.

Truth is, Britain’s playgrounds are being made less safe – intentionally. The aim is to promote resilience in children. They hope to overcome the oversight of “helicopter parents” and grow some hardiness in the little ones.

After all, if we want them to become farmers or auto mechanics, they need contact with dirt; if surgeons, there will be blood.

I understand the educators’ concern about an antiseptic upbringing. The suburban life of children where I live is doubtless more protected than the one I found within Chicago long ago.

Concrete-paved alleys and empty lots were my playground, not nicely mowed and supervised school yards. Broken glass might be present from garage windows exploding upon impact with a hard-hit ball. The flat-roofed garages voiced a siren song enchantment, leading us to shinny up their drain pipes for balls lofted on top by accident. Telephone polls were part of the narrow field of play, stones pleaded to be thrown, and an occasional garage abutment was an immovable obstacle. One such clobbered me as I tried to escape being tagged in a game of touch football. Much earlier I’d lost part of a front tooth when I tripped and kissed the ground mouth-first. Might have been my first kiss, but not my best one.

Risk is unavoidable short of a straight-jacketed life. Homes and virtual friends are more sanitized than the peopled world of sex and struggle. One finds a dispenser of hand cleanser everywhere one travels, it seems. We watch our heroes, real or imaginary, taking chances on screens and in stadiums. Us? Not so much.

The ones Nietzsche characterized as the future Übermenschen (supermen) would be the bold ones, the strivers and tightrope walkers. They would stretch themselves in a search for fulfillment of all they could be. Danger was an invitation to living, transcendence of self, (and suffering, yes). Play requires this. The fenced in “herd” might be safer, with fewer challenges, but no life survived their enclosure – no dreams and little joy – only obligation, restriction, and cringing. Too much self-consciousness, for sure.

Some of us find safety in well-worn ideas, the ideas shared by our peers. Learning too can be dangerous; thinking for yourself, as well. So we cling to religious orthodoxy or the received wisdom of the tribe. For myself, I’ve grown tired of hearing the same thoughts over again, unless they offer some poetry of expression. I’d rather be stretched to see if I can think in a new way about new matters. Or reject the ideas because they are only “different,” not “better.”

I try to be an honest man for lots of reasons, aware of this cost: “The life of the honest man must be an apostasy and a perpetual desertion.” So said Charles Péguy, who thereby warned us that our honesty would often be displeasing. Frankness is dangerous enough for me most of the time.

For many, making a phone call is a challenge, raising your hand is a risk, asking for something a set-up for disappointment. Therapy, too, represents “the undiscovered country.” Perhaps you don’t want to visit. Where is danger absent? True, the wax wings Icarus wore melted when he got close to the sun, but he did have quite a ride. I guess security can found in a suit of armor, unless the metal gets rusty. Doesn’t all of our psychic armor get rusty?

The perpetual dawn we want is asking the impossible, but searching for it beats a lifetime in a cave. A part of us wants to breathe the air of another place, another planet.

What to do? First know yourself. How much intensity can you take? If you suffer from anxiety, distress will not disappear except by stretching of the rubber band of your soul; albeit little by little.

Some live for the dance, lose themselves in the music of life, and allow tomorrow to come when it comes. Yes, grief is a possibility, but, as Nick Romano (John Derek) says in the movie Knock On Any Door, you then “live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.” Sounds reckless, but we do need something to enliven us, avoid the slow-death of routine and saying a perpetual “no” to opportunity and adventure. In my estimation, many of us, much of the time, live in an emotional safe zone than permits personal and societal growth. Still, don’t be Nick Romano. Perhaps a recommendation from the stoic philosopher Seneca will appeal more than Nick’s words:

It is truly said … by Curius Dentatus, that he would rather be a dead man than a live one dead; it is the worst of evils to depart from the world of the living before you die.

Intensity can be too much. It doesn’t take long to ruin your life (or your sleep) and good judgement is a precious quality not found at the store. But don’t assume maturity always means being careful. There is wisdom, too, in finding out what you are missing before you miss it.

Can You Be Too Good? Therapy as Self-Creation

“Being good” is a much misunderstood thing. The question for today is whether goodness requires the acceptance of a place near the end of any line worth standing in … and perhaps too much reflexive obedience to authority.

Leaders often equate morality with rule following: accepting the limitations offered by those who “know better.” Such guidance comes couched in terms of superior external direction designed “for your own good.”

Beware.

The words “for your own good” have been delivered both as loving concern and an excuse to keep powerless others, especially children, in their place. Then the recipe for “goodness” creates and reinforces insecurity, hesitation, and self-doubt. Praise is cold comfort for those broken under the weight of their obligation to comply.

The counseling profession would be much smaller but for the many survivors of parental indifference, neglect, or mistreatment. The cadre of crushed lives is on high alert for signs of disapproval. Soldiers in this “battalion of the lost” ask for little. Their hopes reside in the belief their superiors will properly weigh their talents and give them what they’ve earned. They stand at attention and wait. Perhaps some think raising a hand is unnecessary in order to achieve quietly coveted recognition. Others are afraid their uplifted arm will be deemed insubordinate.

The multitudes indeed sometimes receive the desired reward. Fairness is served. But random events can disrupt their plan, as can attention paid to the more assertive. Do the meek rely too much on Jesus’s confident assertion, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”? Even though his promise was a heavenly reward, one must ask how much deference and disappointment is required in this life.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the often misunderstood 19th century German philosopher, warned that conventional morality was an inducement to timidity. He recognized it as a method of control in the hands of both church and state, a kind of spiritual tranquilizer. Nietszche believed such a morality stifled creative powers in the best of men. Instead, obedience, guilt, and servility were encouraged. Other byproducts might include loss of ambition, confidence, and pride. The “herd” humans (Nietzsche’s term) would thus hesitate to assert themselves, be vulnerable to judgement from outside and inside, and abandon their dreams and desires as too self-centered; if they even recognized they had any.

Simone de Beavoir, author of The Second Sex, put the need for self-realization this way:

Every individual concerned with justifying his existence experiences his existence as an infinite need to transcend himself. This means that in focusing on the individual’s possibilities, we will define these possibilities not in terms of happiness but in terms of freedom.

We are left to ask how much docility is necessary within a competitive society? How much vulnerability to shame is too much? How much deference to your fellow-man is required to be good? Must you routinely ask permission when no one blocks you from opportunities? Must we always give reasons for what we do? Who says the world expects them? Apology is a virtuous and necessary step toward righting wrong, but what of those occasions when no one is injured and you automatically beg forgiveness anyway?

“Wanting,” and “taking” are qualities in need of some limits, lest our lives become a free-for-all. Nietzsche would admonish you, however, not to “throw out the baby” of a fully realized life “with the bath water” of a march-step set to an alien rhythm, ignoring the drummer inside you. The human race survived because it wanted many things, including mates and the ability to defend itself. And, the philosopher would argue, to manifest a “will to power” in the most talented among us.

Thus, the question is transformed from “How much acceptance, obedience, and subordination are required?” to “What will I make of myself?”

Will you grasp the world in your hands, not hope it will come to you ready made? Therapy, within such a model, is not only injury repair, but an invitation to self-creation.

Society clearly requires rules, enforcement of the law, and punishment of those who flaunt it. How then are we to reconcile our moral and civil responsibility to “be good” with our urge to fulfill ambition and desire? Surely virtue does not demand insecurity, and a damning up of that which strains for accomplishment, recognition, and joy.

Perhaps ancient ethical guidance offers us something after all. Rabbi Hillel, the Babylonian Jewish religious leader of the pre-Christian era (a teacher who would have been admired by Jesus) is famous for two lines of thought. The first, according to Wikipedia, is authorship of The Golden Rule:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.

But Hillel also said something else:

If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?

No good person wants to cause suffering. Should he not be encouraged to avoid the unhappiness of a self-diminished, inauthentic life?

Can you walk the tightrope connecting Hillel’s ideas? To find yourself and reach your potential while fulfilling The Golden Rule?

To be an advocate for yourself, secure in your right to do so, and at the same honor and defend the rights of others — your responsibility to the community of man?

To avoid choosing self-martyrdom and passivity, passed over and passed by in the hurly-burly of each day?

To seek joy as a decent, responsive, concerned citizen of the world?

Life challenges us to do no less.

The Angel Emoji was created as part of the Noto Project and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Good and Evil Angels is the work of William Blake, sourced from Wikiarts.org