Thirty-six Righteous People

If you are looking for meaning in life, you could do worse than to consider three dozen people who don’t even know who they are.

The Lamedvavniks are 36 righteous souls whose role in Jewish tradition is to redeem mankind in the eyes of God: by their decency, to compensate for the imperfections of humanity. Their identities are unknown to each other, unknown even to themselves.

Should a Lamedvavnik realize his true purpose and value, he soon dies and his function is taken by another, innocent of the special place he now occupies in the fabric of existence. But for the presence of such precious beings, the Almighty would destroy every human on the globe, as he came close to doing during the Great Flood and at Sodom and Gomorrah.

Each anonymous member of this select group, we are told, is otherwise ordinary. Humility prevents them from any awareness of their uncommon position.

Some religious scholars think the idea of a handful of essential men comes from Genesis, Chapter XVIII:

“And the Lord said, ‘If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.'”

Whether one believes in the literal truth of this part of our ancient inheritance, perhaps these stories offer guidance. The question thus becomes, where does the example of the Lamedvavniks take us?

Though I’m no theologian or moral philosopher, this tale suggests to me that each of us holds responsibility for the condition of the world and our fellow-man. Rather than saying, “They should do something!” perhaps we should ask, “What can I do?”

The humble Lamedvavniks are doers.

Act or stand aside. Do right. Repair the world of men and women or let others take it where they wish. Is the planet so peachy a place we are guaranteed to survive nicely without any effort on our part?

All I can say is, if you believe that, please pass whatever you’re drinking this way.

—–

The paintings are both by Paul Klee. The first is called, Two Gods. The title of the second is, The Saint of Inner Light.

On Human Inconsistency, Hypocrisy, and a Touch of Genius

We think of ourselves and others in simple words and categories: good/bad, outgoing/bashful, assertive/passive, and so forth. Friends are offered halos until we are sad or angry enough to be done with them, and then the devil’s pitchfork becomes a part of the vision we recreate.

Not always, but often.

We are not all one thing or another. Consistency is more self-delusion than a reality. A close inspection suggests carve-outs, areas of our life where we are perhaps better or worse than our “imagined self:the way we like to think of ourselves or the way we can’t help but think of ourselves.

These are boxes and compartments of our unconscious making, to a degree. The parts we like are visible to our internal eye. More dubious sections live behind partitions.

Were the various zones fenced off by fixed lines with clear borders, we’d manage them with less trouble. The blurry, fuzzy, porous demarcations are scarier for us. We sense the leakage of our darker truths, harder to rationalize, harder to live with.

Life would be more fraught if we kept asking the question, “Who am I?Then we would be near relatives of the Wicked Queen in Snow White , who asked instead, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?I’m told her therapist suggested she stick with the first pleasing answer and put the looking glass away.

All of us are hypocrites at times, but call others by the name. When was the last time someone told you, “Yes, I am a hypocrite. I said one thing and did another” — or “I believed one idea yesterday, but acted today as if I didn’t because, well, uh ... ”

Too often the changes are opportunistic, impulsive, or driven by fear. An admirable new direction requires the never-easy task of soul-searching, not a backflip.

Want a dramatic example of human inconsistency? If you are acquainted with Holocaust literature, you know some of the children of war criminals claim the apparent contradiction of having kind parents. Take Edda Göring, who died in December, 2018. She was Hermann Göring’s daughter, the man who headed the Third Reich’s Luftwaffe (air force), and a potential successor to Adolf Hitler.

Here is what Edda said about her dad:

I loved him very much, and it was obvious how much he loved me. My only memories of him are such loving ones. I cannot see him any other way.

Were this lady alone as an example of faith in a corrupt father, we might doubt the possibility. Again, people are self-contradictory. Perhaps Göring’s brutality stopped at the door of their home. He could have separated his villainous inhumanity from his private life.

Who among us, if well-treated by mom and dad, would believe he is the offspring of monsters?

Can anyone bear full self-awareness? Defenses, rationalizations, and mind-tricks must be acquired. Those drowning in self-criticism live in floundering guilt. They struggle to advance, to adapt, to be anything but transfixed by an accusatory finger before their face. The digit is theirs, at least by the time they are adults.

One of the hardest lessons in the social world is this: we must accept people whole — other than the abusers and unrepentant users — or become forever disappointed or resentful. Yes, humans can change, but it is easy to expect or demand too much.

Within our confusing and confused bipedal race, a handful of creatures display a genius of which inconsistency is an essential component. Their elements don’t appear to fit together, but the ensuing unpredictability itself produces fascination. When combined with an untroubled, occasional defiance of convention, their acquaintance causes diamantine delight.

They exist at the intersection of innocence and adventure, vulnerability and bravery. Four-way stops signs are not always observed in this spot. No wonder you wonder how they can survive at all.

Like Vincent van Gogh, you might call them intensifiers of experience and emotion, mimicking his search for a more yellow yellow, a more blue blue, a greener green. Life becomes like a canvass, filled without aid of paint or brush, textured as compared to the flatness many of us exhibit.

Such unparalleled spirits live to their fullest in moments both spontaneous and unselfconscious. Immersion in the present, however, comes at a cost. The world is encountered more through intuition and feeling than among those who lead with thought. Mindfulness of possible danger is given up in the embrace of the now.

Such precious artists of living should take care not to die for their art. Each one is the sole representative of an endangered species, missing even in Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings.

Few understand them. Perhaps no one can, including the specimen himself. Indeed, if one greets you, you’ll blink before letting their light in again, the better to make sure no hallucination stands at a handshake’s distance.

Don’t mention the meeting to anyone, by the way. Like a unicorn or UFO sighting, no one will believe your report. Keep quiet and consider yourself lucky for the encounter.

If you are looking for consistency in passersby, here’s some advice. Stop looking. It isn’t there. Watch the sky instead for flying things or search the ocean for the life that swims. No complexity will be found in our winged, finned, and four-legged neighbors. You can live with them unperturbed.

Back here in the peopled world, little chance exists of finding individuals who are wholly integrated, top to bottom.

But the inconsistencies make life interesting, don’t they? Here’s to our contradictions. Let’s join van Gogh’s Drinkers, just above; the baby, too.

Salute!

——-

The second and third paintings are by van Gogh: Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle and The Bedroom. The next image is Picasso’s Man with a Pipe. Finally, three more from van Gogh: The Poet’s Garden, The Drinkers, and Red Vineyards at Arles. All of these come from the Art Institute of Chicago with the exception of the last, which derives from Wikiart.org.

Are Freudian Slips Real or Just Another Female Undergarment?

If my friend “Buffalo Bob” were still alive he could tell you a tale about Freudian slips. He learned the challenging way we all learn essential lessons, an awkward episode I will recount.

My better-half and I were having dinner at Bob’s place — the home my grad school alum occupied with his second wife. This was our first chance to meet her. Before he divorced the mother of his children, of course, the future Steins spent many a double-date with Robert and his first spouse Karen.

On this occasion we shared old stories about our school days at NU’s Psychology Department. A swell time was had by all until Bob turned to Mate #2 and called her by Mate #1’s name.

Oh no!

The temperature in the room descended in the direction of numbers common at the South Pole. The hostess soon vanished and the remaining three of us finished the feast by ourselves.

An embarrassment, for sure. But a carrier of hidden meaning? Was there some unconscious animus toward the current spouse? Did the psychologist equate her to the dark lady of yesteryear? Or did Bob miss his early love?

Perhaps none of these.

Here is an alternative interpretation: Remember, Bob and I were talking about our four-year quest for a Ph.D. and the people we palled around with way back. What notable female name most claimed my chum’s attention at the time? Karen. The conversation triggered the old habit of saying her name.

To my mind nothing sinister underpinned the mistake, though I was sympathetic to the lady’s upset. Her husband never made unflattering comparisons to her predecessor, harbored no buried wish to hurt his present love; a woman who, everyone agreed, was a far better match for him than he’d made at school.

Let’s take a different approach, a statistical one, in defense of my amigo’s utterance. The research evidence says written Freudian slips are random missteps. When we write penis for peanuts, slap for slip, or breast for best, the misstatements lack significance unless we make much of them.

Whence comes this information? Seth Stephens-Davidowitz gives the answer in his book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.

Stephens-Davidowitz studied

more than 40,000 typing errors collected by Microsoft researchers. The agglomeration included mistakes people make but then immediately correct. In these tens of thousands of errors, there were plenty of individuals committing errors of a sexual sort. (Things like,) ‘sexurity’ for ‘security’ and ‘cocks’ instead of ‘rocks.’ But there were also plenty of innocent slips. People wrote of ‘pindows’ and ‘fegetables,’ ‘aftermoons’ and ‘refriderators.’

The researcher created a computer program to mistakenly switch particular letters in the way his sample did. For instance, replacing ‘”a t with an s , a g with an h as often as people do.

This social scientist wanted to see how the machine would handle words vulnerable to Freudian slips: terms like rocks and peanuts, etc. Put another way, if the supposed verbal missteps made by humans are driven by the unconscious, the device should have produced fewer such slip-ups than people would have.

Rather, the software generated sexually-tinged blunders at the same rate as the rest of us, all without the subconscious reasons Homo sapiens alone possess.

The study suggests Freud was wrong. I’ll admit, however, oral communication around a sexually attractive person might be a different matter. More research will tell us, I’m sure.

No matter the applause I’ve received for psychological wisdom, with passing time the more I realize the limits of our comprehension of ourselves and others. We approximate. We simplify. We project our motives on to parents, children, and neighbors.

Human nature causes us to whitewash the sins of those we like, and inflate those of ones we suspect. Each day would be too fraught if it required everyone to treat all casual interactions as fact-finding espionage missions of desperate importance. Freudian slips, in a small way, make us think we are wise when we aren’t.

Imperfect understanding of acquaintances is serviceable enough to help us through most days, but sometimes we miss not the bull’s eye, but the whole target.

Humanity is prone to believe it understands the totality of another’s character based on limited experience. Our slice of his way of being — say, in a daytime working group — might not tell us what he is like by himself or when the night is late or he is intoxicated and in love. Who knows what manner of creature he will be when giving a speech, playing a game, or in an emergency?

Everyday errors in predicting how he reacts under pressure should be no shock; nor his reaction when torn between duty and desire. The secrets of another, from us and from himself, cannot be x-rayed or scooped out for study like ice cream in the freezer.

Remember this: sometimes a Freudian slip is a meaningless bungle or blunder spoken without aim, like a banana peel waiting to tip us over.

Even better, a slip of the tongue to make us laugh at ourselves.

Bob laughed at himself a lot.

—–

The image on the CD cover featured at the top is by Yuly Perevezentsev. It comes from his Architectural Fantasies. To me, it looks like a reimagining of “The Tower of Babel.”

When Bloggers Stop Blogging

A substantial number of bloggers, like the “old soldiers” in the antique song, “never die, they simply fade away.” Some are captured by other priorities or overtaken by demanding events. A few write books or publish elsewhere. And some, I believe, are “written out.” At least for a while.

I’ve posted in this space since 2009. Almost 600 essays. From the beginning, I wondered how long I’d have something new to say; well-crafted ideas bright people might want to read. But especially to spill out my brain for my kids and future grandchildren. To leave, in the composer Bela Bartok’s words, “an empty trunk.”

I didn’t liken myself to Shakespeare and, while I note some improvement in my writing , my belief hasn’t changed. Though several dedicated readers suggest I should compile the best of these in a book, we are overwhelmed with print already. Nor does ambition drive me to take on such a task.

I wrote while recuperating from surgery. I scrawled when embroiled in difficult moments in my life. Words appeared on the page in times happy and sad, when energetic and tired, when I was kind to the people I loved and when less than my best.

That’s the way writers are. Not all of them are “called” to write, but they must expel whatever is inside. Compulsion describes the act. A real writer, adept or not, doesn’t wait for the conditions to be perfect. His industry summons the muse, rather than being summoned by it.

I have less interest now, I’m afraid. The lure of other parts of my life draws me more. I don’t intend to abandon the blog, but I imagine I will space out my attention to the space.

Thank you for reading. Please continue to read. Your kind words are appreciated. Thanks for disagreeing with me or asking questions. I’m not disappearing and I’m not dying. Whether my posting life “fades away,” I cannot predict.

Remember, you can still peruse 10 years worth of my efforts.

Or read Shakespeare.

I won’t be jealous.

—–

The top Cartoon of Skywriting Aircraft by NASA was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Looking Back: How Do We Judge Our Past Selves?

A recent exchange of comments with a talented blogger provoked the question of how each of us judges our past. I’m not talking about instant guilt, but indictments of older action or inaction. Multinomial offered the following account of her historical failure to say “no.” Here is a partial and edited quote:

(I sometimes failed to say) “no” to certain men who propositioned me for sex when I was homeless, desperate for a place to crash, and alone … in his home. I didn’t want to be raped again, and I didn’t want to be homeless. I didn’t want to be vulnerable, but I was.

I figured if I said “yes,” it would be quick, easy, my choice, consensual — and not rape. I regretted saying “yes.” I feared saying “no.” I wanted to say “no.” And the men weren’t entirely wrong to ask me. They were just being themselves. I didn’t want to find out if my “no” would have meant yet another rape.

I feared saying “no” then, but today I no longer fear it, and I wouldn’t say “yes” if I ever became homeless again in a vulnerable situation like that. I wished I had said “no” back then. I really did. I can only blame myself … .

Here is what I wrote back, also edited:

I’m so sorry you had to experience this.

No one, except perhaps another homeless rape victim in a similar dilemma, has the standing to judge you. Of more concern, however is your lasting judgement of yourself.

Holocaust survivors sometimes frame the post-war perspective of their tragedy in a unique way. They describe the world of “before and after,” as if surgically separated from the endless horror show in which they played the part of Untermenschen, the German word meaning “those who are less than human.”

The concentration camps were like another planet for which no one could prepare, a Kafkaesque place of choiceless choices

In the period between “fore and aft,” those trapped lost all possessions, their homes, their loved ones. Crushed together for days in railway box cars like cargo for transport, these Jews, Gypsies, and Homosexuals soon lost their names in return for tattooed numbers. Starvation, freezing, hard labor, and physical brutality rendered Hell a comparative vacation spot.

In such an inverted moral universe, the rules of civilized society are harder to apply, perhaps quaint. Yet many of the victims (and many of us) tend to use a “before and after” standard to evaluate what they did to survive.

I would say this to you, Multinomial. Be careful not to disparage the bygone self — the one who didn’t say “no” — by guidelines appropriate to the world you inhabit now.

Those who live in “normal” circumstances encounter a more moderate case of the same problem. A person of mature character is not identical with his younger persona. These two hold different valuations of money, risk, friendship, time, and more. Illness and injury, experienced or witnessed, remind them lifelong health is not promised. If lucky, perhaps the middle-aged are optimistic now; if unlucky, more pessimistic than the neophyte who went by a duplicate name.

A growing stockpile of deeds requires justification as time vanishes. Opportunities, like blocks of ice, melt away. The past resists do-overs or at least makes them more effortful. One can and must work to enhance and partake of what remains.

A single “best” choice or set of choices — fitting for all times and conditions — is an illusive thing. Growing up, for example, requires risk; age, not so much. The financial advisor suggests a more conservative approach in retirement. You can no longer easily make money if your gambles don’t pay off, he reminds you.

An old saying tells us, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Perchance the senior man who coined the phrase was correct for his place and time, but off-the-mark for his junior version: the one who challenged himself or raised hell or acted on impulse. And had great fun in the process.

So called “wise men” persist in preaching at graduation ceremonies. The tiresome message leaves the class reaching for their phones. The oration amounts to this: never trade “short pleasures for long woes,” a paraphrase of John Milton, a man whose authorship of Paradise Lost implies heavenly wisdom not even he possessed.

Julian Barnes’s mid-life protagonist in The Sense of an Ending could well counter those who disparage adventure:

We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.

Tread cautiously before you criticize another’s decisions. Without your feet in his Adidas, your derogation is unearned self-congratulations. The statement, “I wouldn’t have done that,” reveals your impoverished understanding of life. You glory in an imaginary identity from your self-appointed place on a pedestal you didn’t build.

Some desirable opportunities only come once, if at all. When two such roads appear equally inviting or necessary, the solo wayfarer is now forced to meet a traveling companion: the ghost of the road not taken. The specter will afflict him unless the wanderer befriends the wraith, permitting a measure of peace.

Satchel Paige, the fabled pitcher of baseball’s segregated past, advised: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Such suggestions, of course, are easier to quote than follow.

Your remembering self is a curator of treasure and heartache, joy and pain. Happiness grows if he is selective, or an expert in rationalization, denial, or self-distraction. Like a masterful mechanic, his ability to readjust the rear-view mirror of your elapsed days makes him a handy tradesman.

I’m told he is in high demand, though this wizard doesn’t advertise. If you find his phone number let me know. I’ll pass it along.


The first photo is called, Meerkat Looking Behind in the Singapore Zoo, by BasileMorin. The next two are reproductions of the same statue, Lot’s Wife, by Hamo Thornycroft. The first picture of it was taken by Stephencdickson, the next by Don Macauley. Finally, Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Thinking About Transference in a New Way

Transference — erotic and otherwise — is worth an unconventional look.

What past events push one toward an unconscious like or dislike of his therapist? What previous learning does the patient now misapply to a stranger who offers help?

A child reacts to his parents based on reiterated experience. If the adults are pleasant and welcoming, his sentiments tend toward the benign. If the guardian’s proximity signals rash criticism, irrational outbursts, or inappropriate physical contact, he associates them with troubled, private states of mind and feeling.

The young one’s mood changes even in anticipation of adult attention. Looking forward to mom or dad’s return home from work can trigger joy or fear. Repeated signals of happiness or trouble will be learned. When an alcoholic overseer opens a beer can, the internal stir tells the child what might soon happen.

The scene or place connected to a wound matters. The familiar location informs a sensitive offspring of potential discomfort. A bedroom, for example, causes alarm if sexual abuse tends to occur there. The boy or girl’s emotional alteration becomes automatic. Conscious thought isn’t necessary.

We are thus conditioned by neglectful or abusive parents. The brain is a predictor, foreseeing danger. Our time at home trained us to notice subtle warning signs of mistreatment. High alert occurs in proximity to anyone resembling those who inflicted the injury, as if we are wearing glasses enlarging false positive features of menace. The distorting lenses sometimes govern how we see employers, friends, and lovers. Youthful coping mechanisms kick into gear.

A trauma survivor’s life is one of constant reliving.

What characteristics of the therapist contribute to this? First, counselors are most often older than the patient, just as the mom and dad were senior to him. The treating professional has an advantage of authority and power in the relationship, as guardians do. He also sets rules and requires their fulfillment. Payment is expected, rather like the home stipulation to do your chores, or else.

The doctor creates the schedule and determines the length of the session. If you wanted more intimacy with your parent, you might be frustrated by your provider’s boundaries. If you never felt special in the family, the doctor’s full caseload reminds you of growing up without status. You are one of a crowd, not first in line.

A clinician needn’t do anything remarkable to provoke a facsimile recreation of a historical script he never read. As if by magic, he arranges the set for the client’s long-running drama. The latter’s well of resentment, love, sadness, and yearning reveal themselves act by act.

A considerate and wise healer gives all his attention, looks in your eyes, and accepts you without judging. You know little about his life. His imputed resemblance to the rejecting sire allows you a mirage-like new chance at the love you never won. He assumes the form of the imagined caretaker you didn’t have, now come to life.

Transference is a kind of disguise, a costume the unknowing client applies to his doctor, who is taken for someone else. The apparel designer’s imagination fills him with qualities belonging elsewhere.

A risk exists here: the mistaken identity can overwhelm the therapist’s capacity to interpret it and refer it back to the initial source.

If this sounds like a guarantee of a bad outcome, however, it isn’t.

Once you accept the idea of transference, you may begin to actively catch the triggered emotions as they develop (or soon after) and work on their underlying cause: the ancient shadow of old relationships and the need to grieve them.

An erotic transference must be more tactfully managed. Tender feelings, romantic or not, are problematic even when unmentioned. While their connection to the past is identical to more common transferential moments, the universal hope for a sainted parent or perfect mate adds a layer of complexity to emotional resolution.

In each case, if your counselor does not overreact to your unhappiness, resentments, or thirst for unique closeness, your imbedded responses should lessen: they will be extinguished or unlearned with time. Likewise, the ability to recognize the difference between your doctor and early custodians is a first step toward doing the same with bosses, companions, and suitors.

People will be recognized more as they are, less similar to Halloween characters. Improved life choices and increasing ease of intimacy becomes possible.

Life and therapy offer us endless challenges. Muhammad Ali, a man who knew a bit about contests inside and outside the ring, offered this advice:

I hated every minute of training, but I said,
‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’

——

The first and last images above are both untitled painting by V.S. Gaitonde, the last from 1953. The middle work is called Painting No. 1, 1962, by the same artist.

What Does Erotic Countertransference Look Like?

Words are hard labor. Let’s therefore add some pictures. The moving kind in matters of the therapist’s heart.

Much is written about erotic transference, but this is countertransference. Ladson and Wilton (2007) report:

The intense emotional experience of countertransference in psychotherapy … is not rare. Some studies have reported 95 percent of male therapists and 76 percent of female therapists admit they felt sexual feelings toward their patients.

The above video, from the HBO series In Treatment, offers you a glimpse. Enough to know — if you are open to knowing — how a therapist’s erotic countertransference can divert psychotherapy from its intended aim.

Observe TV’s portrayed counselor (Paul). His discomfort is evident in his speech, his body, his silences. The grip on his role is slipping.

The first and last two minutes of the nine-minute excerpt offer the session and the words. The center segment is given over to silent film.

Do you believe their relationship will turn out well? Do you think office hours will remedy the problems for which Laura booked her first appointment?

The second clip begins with Paul looking for guidance from his analyst Gina. He has lost himself to a mutating agenda. Laura came to him to improve her psychological state. This man was sought as an expert healer, not a man soon to be in love.

The pair now struggle with a different goal. Doc Paul is like a person hanging from the wet window ledge of a twenty-story building. The strength and clarity of the woman who is his client will overpower his ambivalence. The flashing EXIT sign makes no difference.

The most remarkable moment in these two fragments opens at 7:47 of the first one. Paul is told who he is, what his weaknesses are, by his perceptive patient … and that she loves him just as he is. No wonder the ledge is slippery. To be known and accepted — here is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

You might be stirred or troubled by your own transferential emotions if you are in treatment yourself. Perhaps you hope for physicality, but should the professional’s self-control crumble, the collapse renders impotent all his education and ethical resolve; and your safety with it.

A therapist must draw a line never to be crossed.

Lower your eyes to his office floor. The indelible mark was present long before your meeting.

Any other barrier, more movable or less precise and clear to him, risks injury to both of you.
STOP signs help only if you recognize where to look, and the brakes still work.