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

Why Therapists (and Others) Don’t Always Understand

How often we hear someone say, “I understand.” How often we think, “I only wish it were so.” Beyond the imprecision of language, I want to consider 10 reasons why true comprehension – recognizing the other person as he is and in depth – is difficult.

  • The fog of appearances: We instantly react to the individual in front of us, even before he makes a sound. Beauty (including a lovely voice) or its absence rose with the dawn of man. Sometimes revealing, sometimes obscuring; sometimes enhancing, sometimes diminishing. Sometimes all of the above.
  • Stereotypes: Beyond what we take from the person’s facial symmetry, shape, and size, other factors can cloud deeper comprehension. Gender, age, race, religion, and nationality interfere with vision beneath the surface.
  • Secrets and history: Polite conversation sets boundaries around self-revelation. Many of us believe we have been misunderstood – judged to the point of harm – and hesitate to reveal much. Even in therapy this is an issue, though with time and growing trust, significant secrets are often divulged. Without exposure, the job of comprehending you is far harder.
  • Our limited access to important data: Think about what information you might need to understand someone else. No one can access to all three sources below:
  1. The individual is the only person who perceives his life from the inside. He does not, however, see himself from the outside and will be shocked the first time he hears a recording of his voice. His grasp of his own motivations cannot be assumed accurate and may not reflect the work of the unconscious. Similarly, he interprets his life without the benefit of external perspective; except whatever is received, understood, and accepted of the other’s body language, tone of voice, praise or criticism. Most of us would be unsettled to know what others say about us in private.
  2. Friends and acquaintances hear what the same individual says about himself, what he reports of life apart from the observer, as well as experiencing his behavior in real time. Even his intimates must contend with the fact that “a mask of him roams in his place through the hearts and heads of his friends.” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil).
  3. Finally, the therapist has the most limited exposure to the client in real life. Ideally, however, the patient is more open to the therapist than perhaps he has even been to himself. The counselor has the training to “figure out” who is facing him, and the opportunity to ask the most essential questions with some expectation of penetrating to answers not offered in the public world. He sees not from the inside and not only from the outside, but,  from closeup, below, and through.

  • How remarkable are you? Though I evaluated and/or treated well over 3000 people, I encountered only a handful who were unique. Such individuals represent an enormous challenge to one’s understanding.
  • Countertransference: We can have reactions to our patients that grow out of our own unfinished issues with persons of consequence who they resemble in appearance or personality. This is called countertransference. Objectivity and unbiased analysis flees the evaluator under those conditions.
  • The limits of our experience. One who hopes to grasp the essence of another will not have encountered the whole of humanity. If, for example, most of his contact is with like-minded people (let’s say small town residents of one religion) he will be at a disadvantage with those whose backgrounds are different. On the other hand, therapist and non-therapist alike can meet an individual with whom he is “in sync.” In that event, both might find friendship and sympathetic intuition effortless and uncanny.
  • The listener who wants to be right. Insecure counselors can be troubled, sometimes unconsciously, by their own uncertainty. They tend to find it more comforting to put people in a box than to recognize when someone doesn’t fit. The job of evaluator (not a judge) calls for two qualities not often mentioned. First, enough confidence to say to yourself, “I don’t understand yet.” Secondly, “I can do better and I’ll work until I get this right.” Therein they offer an odd combination of humility and security. From time to time the therapist must clean the slate and start over.
  • The observer’s own emotional wounds and defenses: Our personal wounds (we all have them) place a limit on the ability to absorb, accept, and seek the truth of all humanity. Indeed, who is to say there are not many truths. The best of us never fathom all we encounter.
  • The listener’s capacity and willingness to endure the other’s pain: Hearing personal stories, even with the therapeutic distance healers work hard to achieve, still creates vulnerability to the most poignant encounters. Too many such episodes close in time risk either overwhelming the counselor or making him callous. To understand the human condition one must recognize his limits.

Final thoughts. Treatment by someone who opened-wide your self-understanding can make you believe no one on the planet will ever know you so well. I’ve long believed that if you then allow yourself to take more real-life personal risks, other satisfying and close relationships are achievable. Nonetheless, the special nature of a therapy relationship may include a hard-to-duplicate quality of perception and acceptance “as you really are.” You then will want a friend or lover who is psychologically-minded, a patient and dedicated listener, and one who makes the effort to approximate what an expert analyst can manage. This might be a tall order.

Do remember this: you and the therapist might not have much in common beyond his comprehension and kindness. Interests, compatible temperaments, and world view count for a lot. He exists, as well, in a fantasy world of your creation: literally, too good to be true. Were the light-reflecting cellophane of illusion to come off the package, you’d find his unshaven, distracted, and ill-tempered alter-ego – occasionally.

Another thought. A psychologically profound understanding of your inner workings isn’t always essential for a happy relationship outside of the office. Love and acceptance, even without full knowledge of all your moving parts, can go a long way. Not even your counselor has a total grasp of himself or anyone else. That said, his success at his work doesn’t require perfection.

Anyone close is “out of this world.”

The first image is called Rorschach-like Inkblot by Irion. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The painting that follows is Vassily Kandinsky’s Composition VI, 1913. Finally, just above, is Honore Daumier’s Couples Singers, as sourced from Wikiart.org/

How Would You Like to be Remembered?

Some people try for financial success, some for fame, others for happiness. But what about after? Thus arises a question. What might you want to be remembered for? I asked 58 of my friends. Forty-three put their words together for me. My response is also included.

Here is a selection of the answers I received. Each prefaced by a word or two from me (in bold), with a few other comments along with way. I’m going to begin with the response of the only stranger, the actor John Malkovitch. His recently published interview prompted this essay.*

  • Malkovitch: By my friends as hopefully someone who was a good friend, or at least amusing, but I don’t need to be remembered by people I don’t know.
  • A fierce protector of his family: As crafty and cunning – like a fox. Nobody messes with a fox.
  • A woman of conscience: As having been a person whose children were her highest priority, and whose husband and friends joined her children as her dearest treasures, for whom learning and growing were essential parts of her life, who tried to do the right thing in both ordinary and difficult situations, who tried to understand and be kind and compassionate, who made mistakes and tried to learn from them and make amends for them, who tried to be mindful of and was often grateful for both the obvious and the less visible blessings in her life, and who loved as well and as deeply as she could.
  • An ecumenical reply: As someone who cared deeply about people, and who tried in his own way to make the world a better place for as many people as possible. As the expression goes, “God Bless The Whole World. No Exceptions.”
  • Fathers: After my wonderful father died, my younger brother said he could feel my father’s love moving through him, as he felt so much love for his own children. I would like to be remembered for honoring my father’s legacy with the same hope, that he lingers on as we pass his name to our children and grandchildren and love all of them in the way we were loved by our father.
  • A man’s man: Honest, fair, loving, successful, a survivor.

This is not a scientific survey. It is, however, a pretty good sample of what my friends think. Who are my friends? A well-educated, mostly liberal crowd who are more than usually successful as it is defined in America. This is not a particularly diverse group. The age range begins with a few people in their 30s and many more who are seniors. Just a few more women responded than men, and this selection reflects the same proportion. I’m grateful to all who answered.

  • A quiet man of depth: As a man of integrity, respected – with few acquaintances, but for those close friends a deep and lasting friendship.
  • An answer which nobody can deny: a fun guy to be around.
  • The importance of trying: I always thought I’d like “A for Effort” on my gravestone. I guess I’d like to be remembered as warm, caring, funny, and smart. A good woman and a good (doctor) and a good wife.
  • Two strong women:
    • As a woman who questioned authority and conventional wisdom and who saw people as individuals beyond established categories.
    • As a person of integrity who was prepared to pay the price for standing up for her values and principles. (Both of these women paid the price).
  • Getting to the essentials: A nice guy. If they can’t say that about me, nothing else really matters. And, if they can say that about me, then nothing else really matters.
  • The value of joy: He enjoyed life and helped others do the same.
  • A quotation: “Changing the world is good for those who want their names in books. But being happy, that is for those who write their names in the lives of others, and hold the hearts of others as the treasure most dear.” From Orson Scott Card’s Children of the Mind (1996), the fourth book in his Ender’s Game series.
  • A gentle soul: I want to be remembered in a kind, soft, and compassionate way.
  • Beauty: I’d like to be remembered as an honest guy who did his best. A lover of music and all things beautiful.

You might wonder why the answers are short and why the response rate was high. Here is how I posed the email to which my sample responded:

I’m preparing a blog post on the question, “How would you like to be remembered?” I’d be grateful for a very quick answer. One or two sentences only. Not a word more. Your first impression. If it takes you more than three minutes, it won’t be a first impression. Your identity will be masked in both the blog post and any private conversation I have about the essay. No problem if you’d rather not reply. But, as I say, do it straight away if you’d like to do it.

  • Someone sweet: Every once in a while, I would like my family and close friends to hear a song, see a painting, smell a perfume, or remember a phrase and say to themselves: ”What a great memory. You know, she really made me feel loved.”
  • Living in the present: I don’t care whether I’m remembered.
  • A man who knows what he wants: He always insisted on finding the real problem.
  • From a wise counselor. Lawyer or therapist? You might be surprised: As one providing an ear more than a mouth.
  • A lover: I’d like to be remembered as a kind person who truly loved people and who always loved to learn – no matter the subject.
  • Let’s be frank: As a decent enough person who didn’t f **k up my kids too badly! And hopefully, I’ll have done some things to make the world a little better.

The most commonly used words were honesty, integrity, family, friends, love, and some version of the phrase “making the world a better place.” Many of those who offered such words were not included in this selection of comments in order avoid repetition. No one mentioned the word money. No one cared about their name in history books or hoped for lasting fame. If you can hear it, my friends, I am applauding you all.

  • A man with lots of awards who knows their real value: As a good person, good dad, good friend. With now a moment’s reflection, you should be able to evaluate your own professional life. The doodads you put on the wall or the desk don’t mean much.
  • The salt of the earth: Family, friend, honest, funny, Chicago, California, Texas, 2016 Cubs!
  • Someone who lives by these words, though born in 1947: As a funny, cultured pre-World War One gentleman.
  • The Hippocratic Oath from a non-physician: I’d like to be remembered as someone who cared about the well-being of others and was concerned to do no harm.
  • A survivor and more: Wonder woman-like. I’d like to be remembered for not only triumphing over traumatic adversity, but also utilizing that information to help others in some meaningful way.
  • Saving the planet: As someone who listened and tried to understand and as someone who made a very small difference to improve the lives of humans and animals. And as someone who respected nature.
  • A mom: As the creator of my family: what I brought together.
  • Last words: How would I like to be remembered? With love by those I loved.

—–

*This essay was inspired by a question Rosanna Greenstreet asked John Malkovich, as published in The Guardian on March 10, 2018. His answer is above and the full article is here: Rosanna Greenstreet/

Why We Lose Objectivity about the People We Love

Once drawn to others – in politics, love, or friendship – our ability to evaluate them realistically disappears. I’m guessing you recognize it more clearly in acquaintances than in yourself. One contributing factor is called the “halo effect.” We are susceptible to a tiny number of attractive traits positively transforming our overall opinion of a person.

You and I are not as logical as we think, especially when emotion bumps logic off the road, a regular part of its job. One might still note flaws in the other – and set them aside or rationalize them. This can produce strange contradictions. Here is a personal story as a telling example.

If I were to put the life of Leo Fabian in a few words, I’d be forced to call him a failed, irresponsible, alcoholic man. He caused lots of pain in his life, especially to his children and wife.

The contradiction? I knew all this and I loved him. He was my maternal grandfather.

Grandpa was born in Romania in 1892 and came to this country in 1912. Long before the movie, Titanic, he claimed that he traveled from Eastern Europe to England, and then proceeded to miss that very vessel. The next one, of course, didn’t hit an iceberg and his best days began soon after he read the Statue of Liberty’s welcome. My grandfather started a successful business as a house painter and owned an automobile before most others. A wife and four children later, his care-free days fell off the rails in the worldwide, decade long economic train wreck that began in 1929. Though he lived almost 35 more years, the best part of his life vanished in time.

My mother remembered the terror of bill collectors pounding their door and high school days when she had only enough money to buy a candy bar for lunch. At some point Leo couldn’t take the unhappy apartment anymore, the nagging mate and fighting offspring. He left for Winnipeg, Canada. Grandpa had relatives there, beating a solo path out of town. Solo, I repeat.

My intrepid grandmother Esther packed everyone up and tracked him down. The Fabian children lived and went to school up north for a while, a band of dispossessed refugees: not wanted by their dad, not missed by their country, creating regret only in the empty-handed bill collectors. After a time in the Canadian school system they would return worse for the wear of dislocation. No offense to Canada.

Their father’s incapacity and addiction marked them all. To cite particular scars, Uncle Sam – hardly two digits of age – had the grizzly responsibility of pulling his dad out of bars when drink had the best of him; and taking care of my grandmother when Leo was incapable of providing either food or shelter.

Up close I witnessed ugliness, too, but of a different kind. I worked after school for my uncle’s downtown Chicago business. I beheld 6’4″ Uncle Sam – my favorite relative, almost like a father to me – interact with his dad. Grandpa was by now his son’s full-time employee.

I recognized something askew as soon as I got an underage work permit and started the job: Uncle Sam called his father by his first name in public; never dad, always Leo. I couldn’t imagine myself doing this with my father or any relative other than a cousin. Was Sam trying to hide himself from the embarrassment of being this man’s offspring? But the knowledge was public, I soon discovered. Worse was to come.

Nothing in the office predicted catastrophe. The day was sunny, everyone working, chatting, listening to the White Sox game radio broadcast. But grandpa came to work hung-over a bit, enough to be inadequate to the tasks assigned. When he screwed up, Sam Fabian told off Leo Fabian. In front of all the others he employed, perhaps seven of us. All the rest kept their heads down and went about their work. The radio broadcaster, Bob Elson, paid no attention.

I alone watched it all, heard it all. Watched Sam enlarge and lengthen and tower over 6′ tall Grandpa. Watched my uncle holler and Leo shrink. Watched one man flogged by ropes of words alone, lashed-together letters all but peeling his skin. I never again looked at either one the same way. Though the repeat performances were few, even a few were too many. Sam had cause, but not license to tap his lifetime storage tank of anger to humiliate his dad.

My love for my grandfather predated this crap. He would be funny, charming, full of life and bigger than life; cutting a lean, wicked-smiling, still-handsome figure. Leo Fabian could charm the socks off anyone if you didn’t know all the rest. He spoke at least a little of multiple languages and must have been the life of every party. Grandpa was proud of me, kind to me, affectionate with me, and never said a bad word to anyone.

I remember a full-day spent with him in 1956, the nine-year-old version of myself, from the elevated train ride downtown to the movie Trapeze; starring Burt Lancaster, Gina Lollobrigida, and Tony Curtis. Complete with my grandfather’s warning that he might fall asleep on the way back (he did) and his reminder to wake him so we could get off at the Kedzie Avenue stop on the Ravenswood line.

My final memory came a few years later. He was now in his early 70s dying of stomach cancer. I visited his hospital bed with mom. He perked up as soon as I entered. He couldn’t hug me hard enough and, like him, I knew the moment was a goodbye.

Most of us automatically rationalize our beliefs and inconsistencies. Take politics and religion. Research says we come to conclusions too fast to arrive at such opinions through careful analysis. Instinct and emotion drive the decision and we then generate a rationale soon after. Even so, we believe the reasons came first.

Humans desperately want to view people as completely integrated, whole and predictable: all virtuous or all bad. I’ve met a few who came close to the former category, to the good. I’m blessed in that way.

Still, blind certainty like “My dad can beat up your dad” and “My mom is smarter than your mom” is black and white and commonplace. We usually see what we want to. Oskar Schindler, the famous savior of Jews during the Holocaust, was also a philandering husband who abandoned his wife; admirable and iniquitous both. Many are more like he, perhaps with less drama, less extremity at either end, living on a smaller scale.

Life is simpler, I think, if we do not absorb the complexity of human nature and instead draw the peopled world in broad strokes lacking troublesome detail. We need trust and comradeship, love and security, more than we need truth.

We form our opinion of ourselves with no greater insight. The Stoics say no one knows himself until he is tested, yet many think they would be heroic in the absence of the test. Even a failed moral trial can be given a pass by a subdued conscience. We are almost all conscience-tamers some of the time, without the whip and chair used by lion tamers at the circus. Unlike the beasts, the conscience tends to submit so quietly we don’t hear a thing. Fortunately, most of us don’t do it often.

I’ve never tried to rationalize my love for Grandpa. Yet I saw plenty of daily evidence of the wreckage my grandparents wrought on mom; and on Uncle Sam when I worked for him.

So, there you have it. My granddad was an irresponsible, alcoholic man who abandoned his family and (with an assist from an economic calamity) did enormous harm to his children. That’s on the one side, my love for him on the other.

They are both true.

Go figure.

The top photo is called Taking Care of the Heart by Enver Rahmanov

 

Mother’s Day Runaway

Days of compulsory celebration can produce a paradoxical effect. Some people are encouraged, once again, to confront feelings of discomfort about parents who invalidated, neglected, or abused them. The demands for holiday observance now take over the job your family and relatives expected of you early on.

The experience is rather like being caught in a vise: May 13, 2018 on one side, June 17, 2018 on the other, pushing together to squeeze the life out of you – you, who are in the middle.

Of course, you might be the lucky soul who had good, or at least adequate parenting, from those whose love and care did the job imperfectly, (it is always imperfect), but did it on balance. Or, you might be a person who was abandoned, a step-parent who never receives full acknowledgment, or simply a child who lost a parent who did the job and had the beloved mom or dad snatched away by events or illness.

How do you feel? Here is an answer from someone who has made her personal experience universal. She has done so with unsurpassed eloquence.

Life in a Bind - BPD and me

Mother’s Day can be difficult, in so many different ways, but it still feels as though only some of those ways are publicly acknowledged, or socially acceptable. It hit me again this morning, when I was listening to the radio and the presenter played a song for those who find the day painful – it was a song about a son’s grief at the loss of his mother. There are no songs that I know of, about a child’s grief at the presence of a parent; or at not having a different one. There is nowhere to hide from Mother’s Day and nowhere to run to, for those who find it difficult because they have, to use Dr Terri Apter’s phrase, ‘difficult mothers’. If this is you, I hope my post for the therapy website welldoing.org is helpful, or at least is a reminder, during the many triggering moments that…

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The Remarkable Impact of Being Seen: More on Erotic Transference and Love

I treated the unfaithful of every faith. Many led conscientious lives of mindful moral rectitude. How surprised they were when religion and family didn’t insulate them from infidelity.

What is the magic in the eyes of another – including a therapist – who looks, hears, and understands you? What characteristic of new love turns people upside down, in or out of marriage?

Let’s begin with what is believed about straying spouses. Conventional wisdom in the United States labels extra-marital sex as a matter of evil intent (active pursuit of someone else), lust, and “trading up” to an attractive partner who is often younger. Potential injury to the spouse is an afterthought, when thought at all. You are “bad” to cross the line. A more charitable opinion indicts absent willpower. Perhaps I believed such views myself when I began my practice.

Then I encountered people who were wracked with guilt and still loved the mate from whom they’d strayed. These folks led principled lives and consciously avoided or resisted such opportunities for years, until …

The secret ingredient explaining the attraction of a new person may be the same quality many a patient finds in her therapist.

Yes, most everyone wants sexual intimacy, but put warm bodies aside for a moment. Let us also set aside those who do seek to “trade up.”

Recognize this: we all want to be known or “be seen,” and once seen, embraced for the entirety of our being. Some don’t receive this gift because they hide themselves from others, avoiding openness. One can disguise oneself in public, creating a persona quite different from the truth of your existence. Then, even if people enjoy or admire you, the stunt double receives the applause, not you.

For many, the externals get in the way of being understood and accepted in totality. I’m speaking of those who are too beautiful, too plain; too fat, too thin; too rich, too poor; too young or too old. Even too gifted or too “average.” The barrier of these qualities is not surmounted. The other’s X-rays do not penetrate the dominating impression made by those outward facts. The “package” remains unwrapped, the contents unrevealed.

Now think of what a good therapist does. He gradually understands you, comes to know your secrets, observes how you think, what makes you laugh, grasps why you cry. He cups his hands and catches your tears. You become more than your externals to him. You experience less emptiness in his presence. Indeed, you might believe you have been newly minted because, for the first time in forever, someone perceives you with fresh eyes.

When you look in his eyes you see your reflection. In a flash the disjointed world takes form. For the first time. At last.

Think of a small child who loves you. You might be his mom or dad or grandparent, his aunt or uncle, his baby sitter or neighbor. You come into his home and he runs to you, embraces you, and shines the light of his being on your being. Therapists come close to having this effect on some of their patients. A new lover shares the capacity of the small one to make your heart full to bursting. You are their universe, the focal point of their life. The longer you have lived as an “unknown,” the more likely you will be overwhelmed.

Even in good marriages we can get taken for granted and take the other for granted. Or perhaps one’s universe was never fully encompassed by the spouse. Maybe the routine of working, getting, spending, raising kids, cleaning house, and mowing the lawn wears us down, dulls our vision. You might not have known the room of your life was dark and cold until an attractive stranger shines his light on you: looks at you in a way that makes you remember the long missing warmth of the summer sun. It is not only the sex that draws one to stray, it is the sparkle in the other’s eyes.

No, I’m not giving the unfaithful a pass. I am trying to understand them.

New or old, in love or friendship, we must see the other with new eyes. That is what therapists do.

Call it a survival technique.

Call it love.

Call it our duty.

We must try.

—————————

Bette Davis is the actress in the top photo.

 

Looking Through Another’s Eyes: More on How Things End

The death of a parent compels attention. Last week I described how my mother’s end allowed me an enduring and touching memory after a difficult history. But I’m not her only son, and my brothers hold different images, early and late. You should know of one I witnessed. To set the stage, I’ll say more about the Stein household we all grew up in, all with our particular vantage points.

Imagine Milton Stein forever working one of his multiple jobs and Jeanette Stein overmatched by raising all of us on her own. Sibling rivalry became inevitable. We all wanted more time and attention and a different kind of time and attention.

From dad, a focus on us as individuals and our specific interests and talents would have been welcome, instead of the distracted and generic love of a man in motion: about to leave for work, at work, back from work, or worried about making a living. He designed his life to prevent a “Second Coming” of the economic hardship he’d endured in the 1930s.

Mom’s life had no such organizing principle to supply ballast. Perhaps as a result, her internal turmoil wasn’t contained. Relating to her was a tightrope walk.

The challenge of dad’s early life was exceeded by mom’s catastrophic upbringing. Her father Leo: a charming, alcoholic bon vivant. Her mother Esther: a suspicious, hard of hearing woman who cycled between vicious criticism of her children and a claustrophobic, suffocating love of them. Perhaps worst of all, the family’s frank poverty allowed my mother only enough money for a candy bar at high school lunch. Malnutrition made her an easy target for tuberculosis, while the clan’s economic desperation and social chaos stole any sense of value other than her physical beauty.

Her papa and mine abandoned her, each in their own way. To grandpa, drunken outings grabbed him; for dad the need to work. The turmoil of a childhood household with lots of little kids left an ill-equipped mother at the helm; exactly where my mother found herself again, this time assigned the role her mom played years before.

The frustration and anger boiled over at us rather than her parents or her husband. Routine comparisons occurred. “Why aren’t you more like ______.” We all heard this and sometimes thought ourselves the least favorite child because we didn’t know the game permitted no winners. What you did well didn’t count for nearly so much as what you didn’t or did wrong.

Jealousy grew, each boy short-changed. But our mother could also be extraordinarily warm, your fiercest defender against the outside world, and heartbreakingly sad, as she struggled with her own parental and sibling relationships. Only later did I realize I got the best of both of my folks, their adored only child for most of my preschool years.

Maturity was required of me as the oldest. Job #1: take some pressure off my parents and be a protector of Ed and Jack.

Eddie was an active, eager, smart little guy, while Jack as huggable as could be. Like all younger brothers (Ed is four years my junior and one year older than Jack), Eddie wanted my time and companionship; more perhaps because of dad’s absences and Ed’s quick displacement by Jack as the youngest. But, of course, big brothers don’t have the time or want to give it. I’m sure my rejection hurt.

Our temperamental differences made things harder. I was scholarly and reserved, carrying the family banner through academia. He was active and devilish, the kid who rushed in and sometimes made a mess. We didn’t always get along.

Yet there were moments when I did the right thing. Though I was no fighter, I took on our next door neighbor when the older boy pushed Ed around. I didn’t win, but the point was made. My mother said my opponent now had a hard time combing his hair at the place on the side of his head where I landed my most forceful blow. Later an older kid from the local parochial school harassed Eddie. This time I wound up on my back. I am not in the Boxing Hall of Fame.

Superman, starring George Reeves, was one of the most popular American TV shows of our youth. Reeves (not the late Christopher Reeve) starred as the handsome, muscular hero who every little boy emulated. He fought for “truth, justice, and the American way” as the idea was understood in the 1950s. Thus, TV provided an iconic image even more potent than the comic books we read, while the alley behind the house gave you a playing field to enact whatever heroism might come to mind.

Eddie showed some particular compassion for me in the alley. I was in the seventh grade. The sport was a two vs. two touch football contest. In trying to elude a tag I dodged to the right – and slammed into a jutting garage abutment. The right side of my head made the crunching contact. I knew the contest was now no game.

Eight-year-old Ed saw me – saw what I’d done to my ballooning forehead and my blood-filling, closing eye – and wept.

When Ed and Jack got older we played in summer softball leagues in Chicago and Evanston. Ed became a fine first baseman and a power hitter who once hit three homers in a single contest. Jack, the best athlete among us, was a gifted, strong-armed, left-handed outfielder; fleet afoot and capable of slashing line-drives to all fields. He went on to become an award-winning amateur body builder and a successful business man. These were the guys you wanted on your side.

Not everything in Ed’s life came as easily as hitting a long ball. School was a hard place despite Ed’s intellectual gifts. The rules chaffed. Trouble beckoned. The wrong friends, the kind your folks tell you to avoid, weren’t helpful. Some of them would later die of their own recklessness. Accidents, suicide, murder, drugs? In a wild crowd everything is possible. The coin of a life – the heads or tails of it – turned in the air.

Finding your way is rarely easy. Ed managed – through intellect, hard work, and courage – to shed the bad influences and create a wonderful business as a home remodeler of artistic sensibility and refined craft. He is a devoted husband and father; a smart, generous, and decent man who you still want on your side.

Somehow, though full-up with sadness, the death of our parents meant an escape from the adult version of the crazy-making sibling animosity my mom never stopped fomenting. Such losses don’t always result in closer sibling relationships, what with fighting over estates and bequests. But in our family everyone played fair and reconciliation came in its wake.

Ed, Jack, and I figured out that being friends, not only brothers, was desperately important. That grudges, regardless of the cause, needed setting aside. Love, after all, matters more than just about anything. The things binding us – our memories of the folks, the time together growing up, and a desire to live by the Golden Rule – became more important than our differences.

One afternoon in our childhood, while I played in the backyard, Ed was indoors watching Superman. When the program ended, he decided the day begged for a solo flight. A white towel mom must have tied around his neck made a makeshift cape. He pushed open the window facing the backyard and got out on a ledge perhaps 12-feet off the ground, preparing for launch.

By the time I noticed him, Ed knees flexed like Superman preparing for take-off. I yelled for him to stop. He hesitated. But how to turn him around and back into the house? Before I could get upstairs Ed might crash.

A sewer manhole cover lay below the window, the place where Eddie would land, not the more forgiving grass. Mom didn’t answer my frenzied shouts.

I got underneath the ledge, braced myself, and asked Ed to jump into my arms. He didn’t take much persuasion. We both survived.

Fast forward now.

My mother lay unconscious in the hospital. She had a living will, with Ed assigned the power of attorney for healthcare. She’d told us she wanted no extraordinary measures. Mom told us all, over and over after the death of our father, she wished to die.

My brothers and I visited the hospital daily. Ed arrived first on the day in question. Mom’s physician entered her room. He wanted to perform an invasive, long shot procedure. No matter what mom might have asked for, the M.D. knew Ed had control. A conversation ensued. The doc tried to persuade Ed, then talked of Ed’s responsibility to the woman who raised him, guilted him and guilted him and guilted him. At last the “healer” ended his assault and threw up his hands, the indictment now delivered, the verdict of “bad, ungrateful son” rendered. The unstated implication was that mom’s money was more important to Eddie than her life.

Eddie walked out of the room. I’d entered the building minutes before and was strolling toward him down the hospital corridor. At a distance he was still my brother Ed; still a handsome, put-together man’s man with a steel core of toughness that could withstand anything. Wrong. He broke down in my arms.

Most of us could have rationalized conceding to the medical man. Jeanette Stein was now silent, the M.D. was not. Ed put her first, not himself.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing lots of courageous people, folks I met in my practice and elsewhere. Still, there are never enough.

When I think about Ed’s story, Ed’s last stand in defense of our dying mother, I recall his effort to be Superman at the backyard window.

I wonder, did I have to break his fall? In the last moment, Ed Stein – the real Superman who sacrificed a piece of himself in a hospital room – might have been able to fly. Yeah, compared to that, flying was easy.

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For the most part, the images should be readily identifiable: two of my parents, Ed Stein in a photo I took of him hitting a double in a softball game, a cartoon of Superman, Jack Stein, the entire family around 1960 (with Jack, Gerry, and Ed from left to right), and Ed and the author in our backyard. Unfortunately, you can’t see the area of the intercepted Superman flight, which we are facing. Our garage, behind us, stands between us and the alley separating Talman Avenue from Washtenaw Avenue.