Who Helps You Grieve?

You lose a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a spouse or a parent. Death, breakup, estrangement – all terrible. If you are wary of a therapist, who helps you grieve? This tends not to be a thought-through decision. You are in pain, if not overwhelmed. I hope to address here some of the complications of your choice or choices – steer you, too, toward who might be best.

  • Complete Self-Reliance. This is the most challenging and dangerous choice. You have lost a dear person and, perhaps, trust in the virtue of attachment. You fear losing the supportive individual, too, through death, relocation, or misunderstanding; maybe driving them away with your desolation. Grieving alone is a self-alienating process. The parts of you press against each other. Your insides ache, but the world goes by as if nothing happened. Tears are not enough unless they are witnessed by someone sympathetic.
  • A Person in the Midst of the Same Grief. Should a child go to a parent who is also bereft if the child’s father (the mother’s spouse) is the one who is gone? The choice is natural, but the mother has nothing to give. Reverse the situation: should the mother go to the adult child seeking solace when the sting from which the daughter suffers is just as intolerable? Each needs her own support. That said, a parent or an adult offspring might feel responsible and obligated to give aid, and guilty if she does not. Both are adrift. Why do we expect one person to be the life-saving lifeguard when both people are drowning? We go to therapists because they are not suffering our loss. They offer the therapeutic distance the bereft cannot. Only with such remove from personal pain can comfort be provided as needed.
  • Friends or Relatives Who are Judgemental. Some people will blame you. What did you do to drive your spouse away? Why aren’t you going to church and relying on God? You mean you’re not over it yet? You need to move on, start dating again, get a life. Some of these “friends” do not want to consider their own vulnerability to tragedy and devastation. Easier to shun you or blame you. Surprisingly, a friend who has “been through it” might be less sympathetic than one who has not.
  • A New or Potential Love Interest Who Offers Support. Pardon me for being cynical here, but one must be careful of opportunists. Even those sincere in their desire to offer a hand to hold may be unaware of the extent to which they hope for a relationship with you. I’ve seen this opportunism in both sexes. By itself, not necessarily a bad thing, unless your vulnerability finds you making a poor selection of a new lover, choosing the distraction of a rebound romance to salve your faltering heart.
  • A Friend Who is Available For Only Part of the Job. She is a good choice if she is also sympathetic. Such a person might limit contact, but be fully present when able to offer herself. These friends can’t do the complete job of helping you grieve, but a part of it.
  • An Array of Supportive Friends. If you know such people, some of whom might be in your religious community, then you can go to two or three who are free and solid enough to take on a bit of your hurt. By distributing the weight of your pain among a few people, burn-out of any one of them is less likely.
  • A Support or Survivors Group. Especially if you add such a group to the friends with whom you talk, this can provide a means to the end you seek.
  • An Individual Therapist. Again, the various choices are not mutually exclusive. With the availability of a few people to witness your pain and a dedicated professional hand, you now have a system of reattachment to the human community. A counselor has treated other bereft souls before you, the training to help you along, and the aforementioned distance from your loss.

Nothing about this process is easy. No perfect solution exists. Time helps. Love helps. People help. Work helps, too.

The sun has set on your life, but, as Ecclesiastes tells us, the sun also rises.

The first photo is of The Kiel Canal, in the German State of Schleswig-Holstein. Finally, The Sun Rising Through the Clouds, by Moise Nicu, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Halloween and the Road to Temptation

Seen Around Lincoln Center - Day 2 - Spring 2012 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

I was recently asked about the craziest thing I ever did. My answer? “Therapists aren’t known for being crazy.” Truth is, I couldn’t come up with much, but will acknowledge near-craziness a few times.

You might not think Halloween would provide the opportunity. Perhaps, then, you never went “trick-or-treating” for UNICEF. I did with my buddy Steve Henikoff in seventh grade, age 12.

The adventure began with an earnest and philanthropic gesture. Or only an excuse to go out on Halloween without the embarrassment of being too old for costumes. We heard about the possibility of a higher Halloween calling than accumulating piles of candy and looking like original sin.

UNICEF is the United Nations Children’s Fund, originally created as the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund in 1946 to offer urgently needed healthcare and food to kids in countries turned inside out in World War II. An estimable enterprise still today.

Well, we wanted to do something fun. Noble, too? As noble as lower middle-class 12-year-old boys were capable of at the time. We sent away for the proper identifying materials and began a house-to-house pilgrimage as civilians. Never having done this before, we didn’t predict what kind of response might come from the adults who answered the door with candy in their hands. Well, except for “Get off my lawn!” old guys.

The UNICEF Halloween campaign started quietly in 1950, and was unknown to lots of the folks we met. Some people didn’t believe our explanation and challenged our honesty, despite our fresh-faced innocence. Others gave us coins. So it went, for as many hours as we stayed out. I remember the weather being a bit damp, but we didn’t quit because of rain or cold. My dad worked for the U.S. Post Office, so I knew what it meant to make the appointed rounds regardless of conditions.

Our charitable haul for the evening came to about $12. By today’s valuation we had 100 greenbacks. Think of giving two 12-year-olds with empty pockets $100. My younger brothers Ed and Jack were getting 10-cents for putting a just-ejected tooth under the pillow at night in those days. Thanks to the decades old ravages of the Great Depression on my folks, money remained a hard, heavy matter for them, much like the change we carried.

Temptation, friends, on a day devoted to child’s play, had paid me and Steve a visit.

These two young boys, cloistered in a safe neighborhood, watched over by decent parents, found themselves at a crossroads of sorts.

No one would know if we kept the money or held-back a high percentage and gave a small amount to UNICEF. In a certain sense, no one cared. The only consequence would be internal. What might we think of ourselves?

No one lives a temptation-free life. Money is an ever-present lure for some people, even those who have plenty. Lying comes in handy, as TV dramas demonstrate along with the shameless, fallen state of professional and governmental ethics. Sex? What can I say? The more illicit, the more inviting. But Steve and I didn’t grasp our adult future. Life was real, not abstract, we weren’t old enough to get sexy with anyone, and the coins were speaking to us.

The two buddies conversed briefly. Very briefly. It wasn’t in our DNA to do anything but what we did. In a certain sense, there was no choice. We were just being ourselves.

The dimes and quarters and nickels – every cent – went to UNICEF and those needy kids.

In another life what might have happened? What if I had 100 lives? I can’t say I wouldn’t visit so-called iniquity more often in at least one of them, just for the joy ride, the pitch-black thrill. We don’t get the chance, do we, unless reincarnation is real? Then, we are told, the wages of becoming your evil twin aren’t pleasant.

We usually keep our dark side in the shade, not acknowledging how much we’ve already lived there, making our self-image more virtuous than we deserve.

You say you don’t?

Then you are tormented.

But, imagine a slightly older version of yours truly on that ancient Halloween night and a same-aged Heidi Klum as my trick-or-treat date, encouraging me to keep the money and holding me tight. Ah, the flesh is weak.

Would Heidi then, like Socrates, have been accused of “corrupting the youth” of Talman Avenue, West Rogers Park, Chicago? Socrates faced a jury of a few hundred Athenian citizens, all men. Acquittal before such an audience would have been the only possible verdict for the “trick or treat” hottie. As for me, so long as Heidi was nearby, I’d have been – shall we say – preoccupied; categorizing the theft as an anomaly, rationalizing as needed. We do it all the time, the better to live with ourselves.

Hey, I was a young teenage male. Give me a break. Remember, it didn’t happen.

Temptation can often be avoided – at the risk of overregulating your life. Think USA VP Mike Pence, who won’t go to dinner with a woman unless his wife is beside him with a gun trained on his privates, thus simultaneously guaranteeing his fidelity and supporting the National Rifle Association.

Others resist if they can. Resisting temptation is a bit like trying to stand straight-up and recite the Boy Scout Oath at the top of a perfect toboggan run on a cold winter’s day with the wind at your back. You are – whether you realize it or not – about to slide a long, slippery, perhaps injurious distance.

Life is probably more fun and more fraught if you don’t avoid or resist all the time and don’t think too much about who you are. When is creative risk-taking the road to a bad end? When is the straight-and-narrow the slow lane to a muted life?

If one evaluates one’s choices, much depends on when we take the measure: at the point the gambler wins his pot of gold or after he loses big-time? In youth, middle-age, or the end-of-the-line?

Still, when the tolling bell reminds us to change our lives, I don’t think it is encouraging a future in bank robbery.

I guess I was lucky never to meet Heidi Klum as a teen, who was born after Steve and I labored our single night for UNICEF.

Or, maybe, the luck would have been in meeting her.

There is always someone or something, in the domain where you are most vulnerable, that can make you want to do something crazy and enticing: becoming other than your usual self. A kind of moral Achilles heel or an invitation to freedom, depending on how you imagine it and the elasticity of your virtue.

Wanting and doing, however, are different things.

If imagination were action, we’d all be in jail.

The top two images come from UNICEF. Heidi Klum, pictured in the first one, was the 2011 Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF Ambassador.

Can You Be Too Beautiful? When Sex Gets in the Way of Love

We live in a world of appearances and surface qualities, relentlessly sold, as if only beauty matters. But what of the wreckage that comes in the package when “the package” – the outer wrapping of a gifted female form – blinds the male observer to what is inside?

A few words, then, about the desire to be “known” as more than a “hot chick,” but for the soul and the idea at your core: the craving for understanding that women, in particular, find elusive in their male partners.

Men are built to be struck dumb by beauty, females to blind them, in order to procreate little duplicates and extend our mutual genetic life in the form of offspring. At some point in civilization’s course, we learned to reign in the lust and wait a bit, the better to determine whether physical attraction can combine with compatibility, protection, and parenting. But there is tension between the urge for touch and the restraint of such desire. So the human world has always been.

Good parents, especially parents of daughters, worry about the sex thing in their growing children. My wife and I did, for sure.

One of our little lovelies was unusually sense-sensitive. She craved affectionate touch from us, skin on skin. Not as though my wife and I held back. We couldn’t get enough of holding and kissing our children, just as we fondle our grandson at every opportunity today. Our tiny lady found special joy and comfort in the “skinny” of things, as she and we came to refer to it.

Well, to the good, she didn’t become a wild-woman, as we occasionally feared might happen. Our two daughters had different natures, and we tried to respond with what each one required, not a “one-size-fits all” approach.

In my clinical practice I treated a number of women who resembled my daughter’s wish for the skinny. Some of them came by this characteristic because they’d been deprived of loving touch when young. Others, however, perhaps had my little one’s nature, desirous of physical affection more than most, sense-oriented in their genetic template. I listened to stories from females who found being held more satisfying than sex. Young and older women, both.

The early stage of dating coincides with the early stage of physical maturity. If love is blind, it is blindest when the body parts spring into action, especially the part belonging to the man. Can a young fellow understand his girlfriend when he hardly grasps life at all and hormones are flooding his brain? Not well. But, perhaps the young woman hasn’t yet discovered what a precious thing it is to be precious, treasured for reasons other than her youthful glow.

What happens then? The female gets older, but not yet old, wonders if a “good man” exists – just one – capable of understanding and sexuality; less self-love and more of a kind that recognizes the unique qualities beyond “curb appeal.” “Me, not her!” she seems to say, referring to her appearance as if it had a life of its own. “Want me not only in the bedroom: the other me is important, too.”

Some of those I’m talking about fall in love with their therapists. Beyond the traditional Freudian transference, why might that be?

Could it be because his job is to get underneath the skin, beyond the skin? And, because he is forbidden to touch? He communicates in words, words alone. He thinks about you, listens to you, analyzes you, looks into your eyes, abides with you, cradles your being (not your body) when you most need a comforting embrace.

Moreover, often a counselor is older, less driven by his own sexuality. He is not so captured by his hormones and your fetching vision. He can radiate, for all these reasons, a more fatherly presence, at least the kind of father you might have wanted if your own fell short. The best dads cherish their children of both genders, recognize the human being inside, and speak the words conveying this knowledge.

We need, all of us need, to ache for love, the ache before touch, the ache that cannot grow when want is satisfied early and often. Romance is fueled by magic, imagination, and language; physical reality can get in the way. Not that romance doesn’t crave fulfillment, but lofty affection needs time to brew, age a little before you drink.

Does this sound quaint, the musings of a man raised in a less sexually free atmosphere than we live in today? I plead guilty. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Analogues similar to the doctor/patient growth of love do exist: in bygone days, when people separated by distance wrote love letters. My dad and mom were newly married when he went to war. The ardency of his well-traveled words can be read here: Love Letters.

Is this not what you want? I sometimes wonder, in our current environment, if a man’s discovery of a woman at the most genuine level is preempted by too much, too soon. In my dad’s day, sex was more a question of whether than when. Now, consummation is expected early and almost disqualifying if one or the other wants to wait very long. But these are general statements and may not apply to you at all. My apologies.

Some women should be treasured for their intellect, kindness, and talent; for their revolt and their surrender; for their self; but settle for financial security or sex or just someone to blunt the dull edge of loneliness. These women should have their hands kissed, but the bargain doesn’t always include tenderness. Stupefied by their own stupidity, men can be blind to what they too are missing.

In the last few years, I’ve come to the point of cherishing my long-time friends, something similar to what I think a woman wants from her mate. I have begun to tell them, men and women both, what makes them special to me. To express my gratitude for their being and for being in my life.

We need to age a little to find this gratitude for the things so long taken for granted. And maybe some of us (men too) need to lose 20% of our charm so the opposite sex will be less dazzled and see farther, less physically attractive to be loved for who we are. Might we need to look middle-aged and recognize our mortality before the whole of us can take precedence over body parts and hair and symmetry and the other handiwork of the sculptor who made us? Not our fault, but still …

I could be way off, as I said. I am a married man who has received more love than I deserve and listened to intimate stories in the office, too. I can’t know by experience what any of you, dear female readers, understand from the inside. But, before you dump my words into the dumpster, consider this. This is what I think you want, in a poem of W.B. Yeats. The kind of love he had for a woman who spurned him:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Maude Gonne, the woman for whom Yeats carried a torch well-beyond the writing of this verse, did not get the fullness of his love because she jilted him. His was an abiding affection even when she was no longer the beauty of her youth.

But then, the question is, do you want this sort of love?

You already know what I think.

—————-

The top photo is A Beautiful Female Mannequin, by epsos.de. The second image is a Boston photo of Jules Aarons. Next comes Beautiful Female Avatar from Second Life, the work of Jin Zan. The iconic American Girl in Italy by Ruth Orkin follows. Finally, a painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo entitled Flora. All the female images except for the Orkin photo are sourced from Wikimedia Commons and, quite intentionally, none of them are real women (with the exception of the Orkin photo), since the essay is about believing “the package” is the real thing.

Patients Who Haunt the Therapist

It’s almost Halloween. Time to talk of a patient who haunts me.

I put her in the category of Greek tragedy. After you do therapy for a while, you get a sense of a singular place called “Grim Future;” and a person, admirable in many ways, whose tragic flaw will take her there. Usually, you only witness the first few acts of the drama.

But you are certain, even though the data say therapists are flawed predictors.

These are the patients with whom you are powerless. Not a good thing for a peculiar profession, one hoping to prevent disaster, enable happiness.

She was a university student. Her parents actually did the leg-work to find a therapist to “fix” her. I came recommended, though an odd choice for a family steeped in “hellfire and brimstone” faith, the folks who strangle nearby innocents with certainty of the right and wrong of everything. Their rigidity frightened me, people who sat so tightly wound in my office I thought they might vaporize. Hisssssssssssssssss!

I’d be seeing the daughter, however, I said to myself. I told them she would be my patient, not they; once I evaluated her and assuming I believed good might be done. I “would not, could not” (as Dr. Seuss says) report back to them; short of imminent risk of self-harm or danger to someone else. They seemed to agree.

She walked in and springtime came with her. A silvery thing, she lit the room, though I cannot explain how. A “presence.” Therapists take in everything or try to.

This young woman was tall, perhaps 5’10” and willowy; black hair against porcelain skin, a pleasant face. Her complexion was so fair I could almost see through her. Someone else had, I suspected, and seen there was no will in her to resist much of anything.

She was not the most expressive person I ever treated, more sadly placid. Not serene, but the kind of calm derived from having the fight drained from you. Almost weary. Her parents had sucked the life out of her. Think vampires. The wind would take her where it chose. Right now she had youth and beauty, but as they say about the short careers in the National Football League (NFL), the three initials really mean “not for long.” Of course, I didn’t understand all this immediately.

Her parents wanted her to follow some “serious,” academic track. She was a dancer. They wanted her earthbound. She wished to leap. Bad combination.

Many of us try to get the love we couldn’t get at home, don’t we, at least for a while? My patient was looking for such affection. Her folks didn’t like her boyfriend: he was not a member of their suburban, uppity class, and worse (to them) freighted with a minority heritage. But before you feel too sympathetic toward him, you must learn more.

I discovered he had introduced her to cocaine, which he also used: a drug, for her, like a key for her internal lock. There she found release, relief, and ecstasy. There, she was no longer anyone’s hostage. But, of course, she’d simply gone from being her parents’ chattel to that of the boyfriend and the drug.

Treatment didn’t go on for long. The job of freeing a person from parental dominance or a lover’s grip must wait if simply getting through the day is difficult.  I explored addiction treatment with her. I don’t recall if she began or not, but her interest was only dutiful. Soon enough her parents discovered her use and blamed me for not telling them. Therapy ended.

The character of Alfieri, in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, says the following:

There are times when you want to spread an alarm, but nothing has happened. I knew, I knew then and there – I could have finished the whole story that afternoon. It wasn’t as though there was a mystery to unravel, I could see every step coming, step after step, like a dark figure walking down a hall toward a certain door. I knew where (she) was heading for, and I knew where (she) was going to end. And I sat here many afternoons asking myself why, being an intelligent man, I was so powerless to stop it. And I even went to a certain old lady in the neighborhood, a very wise old woman, and I told her, and she only nodded and said, ‘Pray for (her) …’

The cynics say counselors are only interested in money, making a fine living off the pain of others. Well, some few are, but most of us want the best for everyone, not just our patients. We are rewarded by human contact and flourishing.

Yes, we cannot help without a therapeutic distance. The invisible boundary doesn’t inoculate us all the time. People we know, in and out of therapy, get inside. It happens to us as to you. We are not sculpted from stone.

Halloween is an odd day to be thinking of prayer, but apt perhaps. This year, when you tuck your candy-buzzed child into bed, and after all your treats have been gobbled up by greedy little monsters, sit back and rest and be grateful if no ghosts haunt you. Then, if you have a picture of this fragile creature because my story was well-told, pray for the (now, no longer young) woman, if she lives.

And for your counselor. This, from an ex-therapist who doesn’t believe in God.

The top painting is Marie, by Peder Severin Krøyer. The second image is The Ghost, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Tell Me What You “Want” and I’ll Tell You Who You Are

When I ask what you desire, I’m not talking about which menu item you prefer at the restaurant. This essay, instead, considers your most passionate, uninhibited, and selfish side and offers a chance to learn more. I come to praise “wanting,” not to bury it. Last stop before I take you on a roller coaster ride of a part of your nature you might hide from yourself.

What is “wanting?” At the extreme, it is taking, but playful; possessive, rapacious, covetous, but pure. Wanting doesn’t respect every rule. Desire is a thing unleashed: single-minded, obsessed, hungry, spontaneous, irrational. The undiscovered country is its goal.

Adventurers to this land seek new ground. The kind of wanting I’m speaking of lives with abandon and without self-consciousness. It inhabits a place outside the domain of evil or good, so try not to stand in judgement. This creature is feeling-dominated, not word or thought-restrained. Pre-verbal. Desire’s triumph is found in moments of joy and exploration, enough to burst the heart.

Small children possess this jubilant abandon, witness my two-year-old grandson. But I sometimes think we stake their little hearts and then call the corpses civilized.

Desire, at its zenith, is about discovery, about making something new: being alive to the world. Risk is attractive and the downside almost irrelevant. Where others slow down, desire speeds up. More constrained souls, in contrast, seek a fulfillment of duty, a chance to prove themselves by taking on challenges, and acceptance of social rules. Perhaps they are merely afraid.

Desire wants only joy. Sharing of joy to multiply it, too. Yet, in its pursuit of fulfillment (and the evolutionarily-packaged seed it carries), injuries to others can happen. The unknown spouse of a “wanted” married woman (not the kind you find on an FBI poster) can be someone invisible to the desirous one; carved out of the equation, a faceless person who won’t find out and won’t be hurt. Remember, though, no desire, no human race.

I’m not talking about people who intend to injure others, or who see the potential victim and still don’t care. They inhabit a different class.

Some souls submit to risk and adventure only in selected portions of their lives. No one can live there always – too many train wrecks come if you don’t look both ways before crossing the tracks. But, such a life is possible when compartmentalized; though rare is the highly intuitive, curious free-spirit who can keep the boxes separate. Even when they can, existence might become too intense, too high and too low, too painful too often. But the high wire is a place of dizzying delight, addictive perhaps, so don’t think you wouldn’t like it there.

Others, those of a different, more careful nature, only visit their deepest want on rare occasions. The adventurer/angel entity is then unleashed as if by a strange invading army.

You can live a happy life, as much as we are allowed, without uncaged desire. Such a life, however, will have some restraints, a lower ceiling on pleasure. No ecstatic frenzy for you. Almost all of us are conditioned by 5000 years of civilization and nearly as much religious history; by our parents, our teachers, and oceans of indoctrination; by reading, thinking, and all the “thou shalt nots.” The wise ones told us life was about giving up certain parts of ourselves, fair-play, and the pursuit of lofty places and principles: about relinquishment and acceptance and gratitude for a half-cup of coffee. Fifty-percent would be enough, they said. Our sensuality was indicted and shamed.

Most of us call cruising at a lower altitude the triumph of practical wisdom over foolishness. Desire thinks the last statement is a cheat. And if wanting is a large part of one’s nature, surely societal rules pose a greater restriction on them than for tamer souls. The former cannot comfortably be different than they are without denying themselves.

When I was in single-digits I envied my next door neighbor’s toy soldiers. Howie always got better toys than I did. So, I took one, discovering that having the thing was a less satisfying experience than I anticipated. I also felt guilty and, the next time I played at his house, returned the unmissed plastic man-of-war to Howie’s towering pile of tiny inanimate playmates.

My desire wasn’t rational, but mindless. I’d met Freud’s Id inside myself. From that moment, I understood I had this quality in me. Later, I discovered that if you haven’t satisfied your wanting in bed, you haven’t had sex.

Desire still exists post-youth, though buried deep under the weight of responsibility and family; conventional virtue and reputation. No wonder men and women have mid-life crises, do crazy things, dress like they are still young. Everyone wants to be desired. Everyone wants the view from the mountain top occasionally. Some don’t want to descend.

Do you know their names? Count Columbus and Marco Polo among them. Explorers like Scott of the Antarctic. The Homeric heroes, horse-taming Hector and Odysseus, sacker-of-cities. We need such brave dreamers, the ones who want to look behind the door, the ones who will become astronauts.

How much can one live with wanting? How much can one live without? For those high in desire, in risk-taking, free by nature, Icarus is a model to be emulated, a spontaneous young man using his wax wings to reach the sun, not a damned fool crashing to earth when the sun’s heat melts them.

Religion and society try to inoculate us to our baseness, if that’s what it is, but the untamed creature is still present, and may agree to adopting a different form: athletic competition in hope of fulfilling the want of the chase, the win, the trophy, the sensuality and exultation of the vanquished opposition; or, the rat race (because we are part-time rats, climbing over others) and wielding raw power. Perhaps even simple things like buying something you say you “can’t live without.” Here, in this last tame example of desire, is the ultimate domestication of the beast within.

You can’t be a man and a wild animal all the time, but you can’t be a man without greeting the animal you are. The ladies have him inside too, though their historic cultural prohibitions are even greater than for men. They are, therefore, less well-accepted when they exhibit their creaturely side.

If you think of yourself as a virtuous person and actually are pretty good (two different things), you are ripe for someone else’s taking and the awakening of your own wanting. Then it is like an explosion, an irresistible force that can only be resisted by a team of stallions pulling you away.

I’d say most people don’t even know they are missing anything, so accustomed are they to the socialized forms of desire. The creature is drugged to sleep. Why don’t we admit to this? Perhaps because it associates us with the animal world. We want to think we are better, deserving of a heaven that doesn’t even admit pets. We fear losing respect, hesitate to hurt others about whom we care. We fear losing our self, the person we “think” we are, the best self we can be.

Beware. Too much denial is dangerous, too. The precincts of quiet desperation house those who have never lived.

Few can sustain high-wire wanting happily. Craving is never but momentarily satisfying: they go on craving after a period of rest. The constant seekers must find other adventures. The soul is restless, also a part of their nature.

You say you don’t recognize yourself in this? Don’t knock yourself out to search for the unimaginable part. I’m not here to upset your steady, unruffled life. But it is there.

Some of you might call it crazy. If it is, there is a sublime craziness to it, not made for planet earth but some purer, loftier realm, free of judgment. A place where you can eat all the candy you want without losing your taste for more or getting sick; and give away handfuls to your friends, who will love you for sharing your bounty: the bounty in yourself.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote:

My candle burns at both ends;

   It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –

   It gives a lovely light!

The poster up top is from the famous movie, A Streetcar Named Desire. Next, is Joanbanjo’s photo of a Roman Legion from the Museum of Lead Soldiers in Valencia. Finally, Bruegel’s depiction of The Fall of Icarus. If you can’t find him, Icarus is in the water just below the boat on the right side of the painting. Surely, this placement of the title character is a comment on the indifference of the world to his calamity. The soldiers photo comes from Wikimedia Commons, the Breugal from Wikiart.org/ For those of you curious about exploring an analogous, but not identical person to the one I’ve described, investigate Meyers-Briggs personality configurations on the net, especially the one identified by the initials ENFP.

When Being a Therapist Means Saying You are Sorry

We all try to understand people. Counselors and personality experts use formal systems for the job. The therapist begins with lists of human characteristics, a bit like a Chinese menu – beef, chicken, pork. If you fall into one column or another, you are given the name at the top. Not fish or fowl, but introvert, extrovert, narcissist, schizophrenic, etc.

These systems all tend to put people into a box they fit imperfectly. We therefore add other words as qualifiers to make the label more precise. Kind of like saying a person is not merely “tall,” but “muscular,” or “slender” or also has “a winning smile.” Still, they are all generalizations and even the one with the dazzling teeth isn’t grinning all the time.

Our boxes are not made of corrugated cardboard or wood. They come from knowledge and experience, imagination and instinct. Without using them to “place” every person we meet, we’d be like small children, unable to make sense of people, neither responsive to their needs nor capable of securing our own.

On occasion the categorization strategies don’t come close to making the human world comprehensible. Not all labeled people and their motives are well-captured by name tags. They are more complex. Those individuals don’t quite think the way we do or feel the way we do, making our comprehension of their nature harder to achieve. Our effort at understanding another, too often based on how our own minds work (or we think they work) can fail. Therapists share this experience of failure with everyone else. Less often, we hope.

I’ve met only a few unique people in my life despite having more in-depth human encounters than most. These few burst any categories in which we place them. Usually, however, the boxes work well-enough or better. Indeed, many times they are spot-on.

Everyone outside the doctor’s office, however, is at risk of resorting to stereotypical, pejorative labels, condemning those who are different because they don’t understand them. The labeled crate becomes a confinement of accusation and punishment. Look around: nationalists of all countries transforming races and religions and different national groups into imagined monsters.

It makes the world less scary to do this. Life is simplified into one pile of good people and one pile of evil people. The individual doing the sorting is never in the evil stack.

Being a therapist means you must be humble and open to those who can be difficult to categorize and sometimes, just plain difficult. If you are over-matched by the task of grasping and managing the therapeutic relationship, maybe you should make a referral from the start. Usually, however, you don’t realize your understanding is flawed for a while. By then a referral will not be simple. No matter the desire to do good by the patient, your rejection is likely to sting or devastate. The client came to you for repair and you made him worse.

Some counselors will keep the same box and keep using their failed understanding to treat the person. Some try to jam the client’s body into a differently labeled container and still treat him, even when box #2 doesn’t work either. Most will try to learn more, be humble, and look for a right-sized carton or no box at all until things are clearer. None of these tacks is sure-fire, but I favored the last one when I was in practice, often with the help of a personality test.

The therapist in all such situations confronts his own limitations. He needs modesty before he can achieve mastery. He needs to acknowledge his errors. He needs to figure out what is best for the patient while keeping his brain from exploding a little from the frustration and the fear he won’t be able to handle things.

Not all of us can do this in therapy or in life, and no one does it all the time with those for whom we care and those we care about.

If you’ve read the black on white scribblings I seem to endlessly produce (to my own astonishment) you know I don’t offer too many simple answers. Like you, I keep trying to understand this thing called life that appears so simple on the surface and no one ever fully gets right.

Life is a squirmy creature. You believe she is in your grasp and one second later she wriggles away. You think you are the master of yourself until your lack of mastery can’t be ignored. People don’t fit into a carton, and life – of all things – oozes and leaps and bumps against any enclosure we attempt to put it in.

Our boxes, as essential as they are, can injure people around us and limit our own understanding: understanding of the complexities of our fellow-man and our ability to be understanding, comforting, and kind.

The irony is that our use of boxes puts us in a box, too.

The moral of this story is to acknowledge the artificiality of labeled cartons and know they are also needed to get through the day. And then, perhaps, drink a glass of wine and accept the universe as it is.

No wonder religious faith is so appealing. The idea of “giving control over” to a benign, all-powerful, all-knowing being is consoling for those who can. For others, myself included, the wine will have to do. And tomorrow you will find me, not at a wine bar again, but back at repairing and enlarging my boxes, fashioning some new ones perhaps, trying to make them work as well as they can.

To be our own best selves, therapists or not, at some point we awaken to the guidance so easy for every one of us to forget.

Each box should be labeled “Handle with Care.”


The top photo is called Box Loading and is the work of Surya Prekash, S.A. The second image features U.S. Troops Surrounded by Holiday Mail during World War II, ca 1944. It comes from the Smithsonian Institution. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Good Man is Hard to Find: Remembering Bob Calsyn

Life is a funny thing. It had been a while since I thought about Bob Calsyn, my old graduate school friend. But then I recognized that a post I wrote five years ago was getting visited more than usual today. Clearly, the fifth anniversary of Bob’s death on September 21, 2012 isn’t going unnoticed. He deserves notice and remembrance. I’ve not known a better man.

Memory has a different place in our lives than in ancient times.

The pre-literate Greeks of Homer’s day could not apply the balm of eternal life to their troubled psyches. They had no notion of the heaven Christians believe in, no sense of reincarnation such as Hindus expect, no Muslim vision of paradise, no anticipation of a reunion with relatives and friends who had predeceased them. Instead, death led to a trip to Hades, the underworld, where existence was a pale and not very attractive shadow of earthly life, not something to be eagerly awaited.

Bob would not have liked Hades. He lived for the sunlight, not the shadows.

The life of the pre-literate Greeks was painfully short. Even at the turn of the last century, around 1900, the average American survived only about 50 years. The brevity of our time above ground was certainly known to the ancients.

Greek literature and philosophy point to two driving concepts that motivated those men. (And I speak of men only, because women were extraordinarily disadvantaged, seen as having almost no function other than sex, companionship, rearing children, and producing domestic handicrafts). Honor and glory were what men sought. Honor tended to come in the form of goods, precious metal, slaves, concubines, and the like; in other words, mostly material things or things that could be counted or displayed or used.

Sort of like today, perhaps you are saying to yourself. In our world, honor is conferred by status and material things, too – the size of your house, the amount of money in your bank account, a trophy spouse, the car or cars you drive, a gorgeous vacation home, etc.

Glory (the Greek word kleos) was another matter. It took the form of reputation or fame continuing beyond death. And, since there was no written word, you and your accomplishments had to be sufficiently great to generate discussion, song, and story once you were gone. No one was going to write a book about you, since there was yet no Greek alphabet.

The point being, Bob deserved more than a little of the old-style glory. Telling you his tale once again is the best I can do and the least I can do.

As you might imagine, I have lots of feelings today. If you read this post before I hope you will take another look. And, if you haven’t, then his admirable life will be a fresh experience for you. For those of you, especially my female readers who have been disappointed with my gender, perhaps Bob’s life will give you a bit of hope to keep looking. Regardless, maybe knowing him a little will make you a better person, as knowing him a lot made me. Here is the link: Bob Calsyn