Do You Believe? Your Answer May Surprise You

You’ve listened to people ask, “Are you a believer?” 

Some answer, “I trust in Him. I believe.”

The word belief is often attached to religious faith. Those who do not have such convictions are called agnostics or atheists. But the word has a broader scope.

Those who deny faith continue to believe differently.

Allow me to explain.

Perhaps unaware of it, they appear to rely on others in a manner similar to how religious people depend on a deity. This is not to say true believers lack the same everyday bolstering backstop found in non-believers.

Consider the pedestal occupied by physicians, especially those doctors we appreciate through long familiarity. They earn our trust if they are confident, knowledgeable, and kind. We turn to them for the maintenance of our lives and health. We entrust them with the well-being of our children.

Their role is godlike, without the ritual, ancient scripture, prayer, and attendance at a house of worship.

Such women and men provide confidence and strength, the ability to persist, the knowledge we are not alone, and, often, that all will be well. Healing us is their business, and sometimes we consider our survival miraculous.

Ah, but perhaps you recall times when a physician did not save you from disability or someone you love from dire illness.

Then you may have a crisis of faith in him, not unlike the intrusion of doubts about God. You might reject one or both, but not everyone does. Many recognize the medical profession’s limitations and continue to hold on to their confidence in a doctor’s value. Or, they might search for another practitioner to take his place.

The human response to tragedy is not so different in those who are religious. Blaming your God or yourself is common. Uncertainty frequently arises about why the misfortune was permitted by an all-good and all-powerful being.

“What did I do to deserve this?” can be followed by self-incrimination or pointing the finger at a deity. Just as the atheist might seek another doctor, the believer may seek another sect — or none.

Yet many — perhaps more — recover their belief and reliance, and the shaken trust regrows. The New Testament provides consolation and an alternative view of adversity:

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

Regardless of the particular religion, the sufferer might accept the limitations of a superior being alongside the strengths attributed to him.

The need for assurance provided by a cosmic entity or influential person on our side is vital. To be without faith in anyone, mortal or immortal, is a lonely and terrifying human experience. 

We desire others we can trust with parts, if not the whole, of our well-being. They come to recapitulate our parents’ role as protectors in our early lives, if not to the same extreme.

Unfortunately, the urge to lean on someone or something more substantial can also be misplaced.

Some are vulnerable to the allure of charismatic, persuasive political leaders who disguise their corruption with smoke and mirrors. They offer much the same sense of caring about us, defending us from real or imaginary enemies as our mom and dad did, and offering the belief in a better future. To an extent, these individuals might be perceived as the agents of the actual deity, doing HIS work on Earth.

If officeholders are unscrupulous, sound evidence of their iniquity is sometimes shrugged off. More than a few followers find the need to believe is more essential than being alone without a worldly savior. The tricksters can appear as necessary as a God in the heavens and reinforce the thought HE has willed the anointed one’s presence.

Facts fail to defeat our reliance on a dynamic and persuasive duplicitous leader if his departure would leave us with no substitute champion to fill his role. This woman or man stands unique and extraordinary, occupying a position reminiscent of the physician or loved caretaker.

We live in hope and belief.

In their search for someone or something more extraordinary than themselves, the faithful and the faithless are not as different as they sometimes think.

In a world of uncertainty, we are thereby sustained.

=========

Both of the photographs were provided with the kind permission of Laura Hedien: Laura Hedien Official Website. Both date from this year. The first captures a Sunrise in the Italian Dolomites in early September. The second offers the Dolomites in the Clouds.

The Occasional Value of Looking Away From Reality

You might have noticed that many of us don’t accept the truth, no matter how much “proof” is offered. I’m not talking just about politics but our daily lives.

In fact, “looking away” has its uses.

Years ago, I believed one could convince someone else with a persuasive, logical, well-organized argument. There would be an “aha” moment, and the speaker would have shown the light to the other. Not simply displayed it but caused the illumination of another mind, without which the brilliance of the day or cloudlessness of the sky made no difference.

Few of us always want the truth, and some don’t want uncomfortable truths for multiple causes of which they possess little awareness. We are often metaphorically blind at those times. Our emotions play with the possibility of clear-eyed consideration of ideas without our knowledge of having done so.

Why might that be? Many reasons.

  • When you are a child, you need your parents. Best to recognize them as the ones who guarantee the well-being of your tender life rather than as people who haven’t mastered the job, especially if they are unkind. Even adults can carry their childhood desire for their parents’ love in the hope of obtaining it … finally.
  • We want to get along with others: neighbors, friends, co-religionists, family members, and co-workers. Well-functioning relationships often require compromise and depend on seeing the best in those near us.
  • If unsure of what to think or believe, it’s nice to go to experts who claim to be more learned. Financial advisors and almost all other professional disciplines rely upon this to make a living. Trust is necessary unless we wish to go through life alone.
  • Counting on those exuding confidence and a record of success transmits assurance to us. Relief and appreciation upon hearing their apparent truths are byproducts.
  • Our high-speed lives and responsibilities are pressured with complexities. Simple solutions relieve stress and doubt.
  • Not knowing the proper direction to go is troubling when the map of life is confusing. Happiness and satisfaction appear attainable if we receive straightforward instructions, “the” solution (so we are told) to problematic issues.
  • We are prone to perceive people as if they are one thing. Good or bad, bright or dull, kind or harsh. Once placed in a category, humanity tends to stick with such impressions despite future contradictory information. No one is great, generous, loving, and self-sacrificing in every circumstance. Halos are for the divine.

  • Most of us not only wish to be seen but care about being recognized, accepted, and admired for something close to the fullness of our personhood. Con-men figure out this vulnerability and exploit the qualities that enhance their value to us.
  • Truth can be painful. When discerning a devastating or costly truth, the draw of fantasy is powerful.
  • Certainty in your spouse’s fidelity sometimes lasts longer than the actuality of it. Few mates seek to break up families, hire lawyers, and face this challenge to a historically loving foundational relationship. Looking away may be a comforting alternative if we succeed in self-persuasion and ignorance.
  • Passionately spoken untruth, if repeated many times, often seems more convincing than raw facts.
  • Imagine telling a friend about someone you both know and reporting the fellow’s deceit. Assuming your comrade did not witness the misbehavior, his hesitation in accepting your observation is understandable, all the more if your buddy has a long positive history with the miscreant.
  • As death is not considered a fun topic, many avoid the issue, including some of the implications that demand our attention in creating a fulfilling life.
  • Homo sapiens must envision the world’s doubtless beauty and capacity for enhancement. If humans consider the planet beyond repair, it would be harder to sustain any sense of optimism or find courage when difficulties arise.
  • Some knowledge also fails the test of usefulness. Assume you require surgery. Not everyone can understand all possible side effects, make wise choices among different types of procedures, and interpret medical research that helps inform such decisions. Nor is the ability to choose doctors always easy.
  • Sometimes, the patient might enlist a friend or loved one to take over a good-sized portion of the task, ask questions, process information, and make suggestions. Doing so might reduce the stress of those in need without endangering the medical outcome.

Taking in too much of the world carries the potential to disable us. The challenge for everyone is knowing how much we can handle and under what conditions.

Whether we comprehend it or not, prioritization or triage is required, thereby recognizing what is essential to face and what can wait. This is easier than it sounds, of course, because the unconscious plays its shadowy role.

Not everything must be known, and not every battle be fought to have a good life.

You might consider this … every so often.

======================

The first image is a Dark Matter Map from Hyper Suprime-Cam survey, 2018. Beneath is a Blindfold Hat by Dale and Kim Schoonover. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

On the Need for Privacy

We are much occupied with public words these days. They often involve the need for privacy. Others focus on what is patriotic and nationalistic and whether you and I are one or both.

We think we understand the meaning of all these words, though some people express certainty about the interpretation of the U.S Constitution without having read it.

Not that such reading is time-consuming. I own a small paper-covered booklet of 38 pages containing every word. It is in the back pocket of my blue jeans right now, with room to spare.

I won’t go on at great length here. I am not an attorney, though I know the document just mentioned and studied it a bit with a gifted scholar on the subject.

What I will do instead is to provoke your thought with the brief and wise words of two people more knowledgeable than I am.

The first is Louis Brandeis, who offered an opinion on privacy in a 1928 Supreme Court Case: Olmstead v. United States. Brandeis was an Associate Justice of the Court at the time.

The second comment attempts to distinguish between the motivations of two different groups of people. The thoughts come from Jill Lepore’s short 2019 book, This America: The Case for the Nation. The author is a Professor of History at Harvard.

You can read these excerpted thoughts in a minute or two. I hope you think about them much longer.

1. Louis Brandeis:

The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings, and of his intellect. They knew that only part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone — the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.

2. Jill Lepore:

Patriotism is animated by love, nationalism by hatred. To confuse the one for the other is to pretend that hate is love and fear is courage.

=====

The first photo is of Louis Brandeis by Harris & Ewing. It was sourced from Wikipedia Commons. The second one is Jill Lepore from Amazon.com/

Men Who May Be Trouble for You: Five Signs of How to Spot Them

How do we know when an attractive person might not be right for us?

Here are some suggestions with visual aids for identifying men to avoid.

1.

The fellow above is up in the air, feet not close to the ground. He believes he possesses many ideas and schemes to make him rich, but few, if any, are realistic.

Such people tend not to take responsibility, instead blaming others for the endless failures of plans whose time never comes. Take special care not to lend these fellows money. The promise of sure-fire success is usually too good to be true.

2.

We live in a world where drugs and alcohol are everywhere. Numerous websites list the signs of alcoholism.

Some alcoholic men are charming, hold down decent jobs, and tell you they can quit at any time. Denial is a hallmark of the condition. Unfortunately, as the old play on words tells us, “Denial is not a river in Egypt.”

The addiction can creep up and overtake life’s every aspect but is challenging to reverse. The ancient Chinese proverb states, “First the man takes the drink, then the drink takes the man.” Women, too.

3.

The sculpture depicts a man who cannot keep his pants on. While a healthy sex life is an evolutionary necessity, I have met ladies who knew the totality of their worth beyond appearance and allure. They also desired respect for their intellect, artistic giftedness, career, sensibility, and kindness.
 
Once past the honeymoon stage, a relationship must include more than the flesh. You might want to find out early whether the gent considers you more than a plaything unless you conceive of that as an acceptable long-term role.

4.

If you wish your male partner to leave you alone and focus on his career, the chap above is the man for you.

Whether he is interested or capable of offering more than a paycheck remains an open question. Nor will the preoccupied gentleman share in the responsibility and joy of parenting his children.

The sculpture is intended to represent any man standing near and viewing it. The nameplate behind the bronze figure in the right corner of the photo features the following poem by Philip Levine:

They said I had a head for business
They said to get ahead
I had to lose my head.
They said be concrete
& I became
concrete.
They said,
go, my son,
multiply,
divide, conquer.
I did my best.

Reading it on site requires a position similar to the one displayed by the incomplete metal man in front of you. The viewer bends over just behind the thing he imitates.

5.

In a well-functioning twosome, we must listen to our lover.

Many people attempt to impress by speaking. More than a few seek to influence another.

Of special value is a rarer person who listens with quiet intensity. Such a one evaluates the moment and what the other needs rather than jumping forward for the next thing he wishes to utter. Slowing the conversation and thinking through what has been said allows him to learn more.

Beware of anyone who talks over (or interrupts you) with regularity. It is a matter of incivility and disrespect in failing to allow you to finish your thought.

Words needn’t collide. In some moments, silence draws us closer. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, understood there were limits to what speech could communicate by itself. His most famous quote was this:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

=======

The top sculpture photo is called Slight Uncertainty by Michael Trpak. It is located in Prague. The picture below it shows Two Friends Enjoying Their Belgian Beer in 1971, sourced from History Daily. The next figure of the Man Who Can’t Keep His Pants On is by Jean-Louis Corby. It is followed by Corporate Head by Terry Allen, at the Ernst and Young Plaza in Los Angeles. Finally, Le Silence (An Homage to Salvidor Dali). 

The Arguments We Lose Even When We Win

Our differences with people sometimes must be set aside.

When I was younger, I took on several such complicated issues, believing the verbal conflict was worth the effort, especially if the other party was critical of me. Some generated an intensity, overheatedness, and tendency to linger because each side wanted the final word.

Too many carried too high a price except as teaching lessons, but I was slow to learn.

Please understand. My default way of living was to get along with others, show respect, and display diplomacy.

Yet, as I reflect on my life, I realize I sometimes went too far to make a point. I recognize that the cost, even when I won, didn’t equal my emotional pain and the injury I inflicted.

I’m not discounting that some with whom I butted heads were dishonest or wrongheaded. I wasn’t false, but not every skirmish in the name of truth, right, or correctness is worth the clash.

—–

Everyone should learn the meaning of “Pyrrhic Victory.” Here is what Wikipedia tells us:

A Pyrrhic victory is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. Such a victory negates any true sense of achievement or damages long-term progress.

The phrase originates from a quote from Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose triumph against the Romans in the Battle of Asculum in 279 BCE destroyed much of his forces, forcing the end of his campaign.

Anger gets the best of us. When it does, we are not at our best. Moreover, we justify more conflict by all the labor and frustration we’ve endured.

This is called a “Sunk cost.” Wikipedia again comes in handy:

The Sunk cost fallacy has also been called the “Concorde fallacy”: the UK and French governments took their past expenses on the costly supersonic jet as a rationale for continuing the project, as opposed to “cutting their losses”.

In economics and business decision-making, a sunk cost (also known as retrospective cost) is a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered.

In wartime, this means throwing away more lives, contributing to further suffering, and spending money on prolonging what may turn into an endless war. If you long carry a grudge, you risk digging your own grave.

Winning won’t retrieve our honor or the push, pull, and unhappiness of the past. Nor will the dead come back to life.

Concerning personal differences, we need to consider a better way.

Some suggestions may minimize the wrongheadedness of unneeded, unhelpful discord:

  • How much do you value the person with whom you are at odds? Will losing or ending the contact be worth whatever is straining your connection?
  • Any conflict discussion should discuss concerns, not call names or overtalk the individual on the other side of the table.
  • Slow down, take breaks, and cool off. Listen more than you speak. Try to find something you can agree on. Master self-control.
  • Accept that some disagreements are unresolvable. Such is life. Those who hold contrary ideas needn’t be monsters.
  • Hesitate to say, “If I’d been in his situation, I wouldn’t have acted as he did.” Unless you’ve walked in his shoes, you can’t be sure.
  • If the circumstances permit it, express your sensitivity to the other’s feelings, but don’t say, “I know how you feel.”
  • Avoid raising your voice or speeding up your standard rate of expression.
  • Know yourself. Develop quiet confidence leading to self-assurance. Negative opinions about you will become less impactful. Your self-esteem need not require the approval of people who don’t share your views.
  • Practice the art of graceful surrender. If you lead a life of repeated battles, you should first give up the goal of life satisfaction and contentment. Alienating oneself from the human race leaves us in a lonely place.
  • Accept the world as a habitat where a landslide win in a U.S. presidential election includes at least 50 million people who don’t want you.
  • Be careful of becoming the kind of person you hate.
  • You will not obtain vindication or apology from everyone who does you wrong in life. Grieve and come to terms with the inevitable.
  • We do not have control of everything, including the notions of others. Work on what you can control.
  • Take on tasks within your power that don’t turn your stomach and brain inside out.
  • Cultivate humility. Don’t let self-righteousness take you over.

You can do all this and “fight the good fight” on the essential and inescapable conflicts. Even in those cases, we don’t win them all.

====================

The top image is called “Jealousy,” as created by Tumisu. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Laura Hedien’s Sunset Colors in Late May 2022 follows with her permission. It is a joy to feature her artistry: Laura Hedien Official Website.

How Does Love Change? “What Love Tells Me”

Of all the challenges of defining love, maybe the most significant is how the squirmy word “love” can change its romantic shape and meaning over a lifetime.

Consider it this way: When we are young, the fall into the bewitchment of love feels like a force from outside our universe that claims us and won’t let go. We are occupied — taken over as if by a foreign power.

It carries us everywhere as we pass through time. While the train of life moves forward, the romance whirls, touches, enlarges and plays with us.

We might notice a weightless quality, a lightness to our being if the rapturous madness arises in the bloom of youth.

If the lover departs, we believe we’ve lost an irreplaceable creature without whom we will never be complete. In agony, such broken ones wonder what happened and what they did wrong, hoping for a chance to fix the crumbled attachment. The mood darkens to deep sadness and tears.

===

The largeness of love is too big a topic to address in a short essay. Instead, I’ll concentrate on heterosexual men in love, based on the stories of male patients and friends.

Within this limited group, their voices will focus on initial encounters with endearment and the arc traversed by this fondness from early to late. Simply put, how they and their experience of affection changed over their lifetime.

This information is not something easily shared. Most men don’t want to think or talk about it. In my case, as an “old friend” in both senses, a dedicated listener, and a retired clinical psychologist, I’ve heard more than most.

First, what is a man’s experience of love under 30?

If we break it into parts, several come to mind.

An honest young suitor admits he is led by his body. Call it passion, desire, or lust, but let’s add some other qualities of love after putting this one at the top. The remaining items appear in no particular order:

  • Passion, Desire, or Lust
  • Admiration of the partner
  • The other’s Admiration of You
  • Affection evocative of Poetry (though men live in a world of prose)
  • Care or Concern for the lover’s well-being
  • Respectful or Kind behavior toward the cherished person.
  • Enchantment to a state of Idealization, as in the phrase “love is blind.”
  • Companionship: the wish to share encounters, events, and ideas, the better to enhance their enjoyment
  • Thinking of the loved one when separated
  • The Joy of meetings
  • Displaying Generosity in non-material and material ways
  • Consideration of the beloved’s opinions and thoughts
  • The Expression of Fondness in words
  • Gratitude for the sweetheart’s presence
  • Sharing in the work of keeping a romantic connection and a household functioning well
  • Devotion “in sickness and in health”

Time works its will — in small steps. The body’s capacity and interest in “the sex of things” achieves an incremental decline from its teenage peak.

By middle age and beyond, fatigue, medication side effects, pain, and sleep difficulties often jump into the bedroom and stand between the once indefatigable lovers.

When I asked couples in marital therapy about what first attracted them, the answers became predictable and identical in long-married twosomes:

My wife and I laughed a lot, and my partner was hot.

Twenty years on, neither of these were as present as they once were.

Here is an old joke:

If you put a penny in a jar every time you have intercourse in marriage’s first year and take one out each time after that, you will never empty the jar.

An exaggeration for sure. Yet, in the best marriages, there are changes in the loving tie, less preoccupied with the physical element of attraction.

Or, in still other words, here is a bit of humor offered by a fellow in his early 50s:

I’m not the man I once was, but once — I’m the man I was.

As those words suggest, the decline in male sexual drive and capacity contributes to the relationship change. To the good, one of the possible alterations is surprising and joyous. 

According to those with whom I spoke, when the erotic thirst diminishes enough, it stands aside, revealing the fullness of the person they thought they knew. The man might recognize the importance of characteristics underappreciated before.

His gratitude grows if he simultaneously comes to terms with the inevitable irritations between any two roommates or lovers.

Libido remained alive in those I talked to, but not so much their master, no longer compelling and narrowing their focus to one dominating thing. Their appreciation of the partner depended less on expectations of everlasting beauty.

There was an ease to the togetherness thus produced and a lack of pretense, bravado, and a young person’s sense of being judged or needing to prove himself.

For other men, however, as erotic physicality slips lower in the ranking of what is essential, so does the need for regular female companionship. Since he is no longer so prone to becoming” crazy in love,” he finds romantic partnership less essential to his being.

But let’s end with a return to the lucky ones in love and their fortunate mates.

The transformation of craving is captured in Tobias Wolff’s short story “The Liar.*

The couple’s son asks himself questions about the relationship between his mom and dad:

I wondered if they’d had a good marriage. He admired her and liked to look at her; every night at dinner he had us move the candlesticks slightly to the right or left of center so he could see her down the length of the table.

It pleased him to behold his no-longer-youthful wife. Not pleasing to the world, perhaps, but beautiful to him.

No one else’s opinion mattered.

==========

*”The Liar” comes from Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories. The second image is from an Engagement Photo Session by Arash Hashemi. The last shot is called Old Couple in Love by Ian MacKenzie. Both come from Wikimedia Commons. The phrase What Love Tells Me was part of the original programmatic title Gustav Mahler gave to the finale of his Symphony #3.

A Path to Understanding Others

In the early days of the internship program at Forest Psychiatric Hospital, I was one of the psychologists who fashioned the training experience for the grad students newly invited to spend a year with us.

I recall suggesting the interns occupy the role of patients on their first day. The staff was told they were graduate trainees but not actual residents. The real patients stayed in the dark.

Everything else proceeded in the usual fashion for new admissions, including entering the facility, rooming with the inpatients overnight, attending group therapy sessions, and eating in the cafeteria.

At the end of 24 hours, the play-acting ended, and the future counselors began the formal part of their experience in a different psychiatric unit, as I recall.

Neither my colleagues nor I recognized the questionable nature of this deception, and ethics committees within universities and hospitals didn’t exist everywhere. I recommended it because I thought it essential for future psychologists to stand in the shoes of those they would be ministering to.

Nothing could compare to the lived experience, or so we believed.

Later, when I received supervision in administering and interpreting neuropsychological tests, I applied the same principle to myself. I asked the senior psychologist first to give me the examination. I wanted to “duplicate” the position of those who I would be evaluating. Only could I thereby create their “first-time” experience before I ever took the “doctor’s role.”

Now jump with me to what allows us, you and me, to understand people who live in circumstances different than ours.

Our automatic attempt to fathom their behavior and thought process — to see into their hearts and heads — comes from the perspective of the sense organs, what we have been told, our inborn nature, and conclusions based on the world we know.

The joys and sorrows our world has brought us, perhaps of a very different kind than they’ve faced, can only be used to approximate or serve as a translator to help us achieve understanding from our limited perspective.

Can we then latch on to the motivations and actions of those whose life experience is unusual to us? I am questioning not only mental health professionals but every one of us. Identifying with others takes an uncommon level of training and introspection.

Sometimes we humans draw the wrong picture of others, piling up distorted figurations like misshapen pancakes.

Our judgments are generally self-serving. We simplify the human experience and don’t wish to blame ourselves. Adverse reactions to those unlike us, those of less status and those who are “different,” are as plentiful as the fruit on a flourishing banana tree.

Herb Childress, in a brilliant book dealing with higher education, wrote about how we dismiss the complicated and unfortunate lives of others while taking on a sense of superiority over them:

There’s a strong hindsight bias that works to confirm one’s own positive traits, whether those traits are skill, talent, hard work, ot persistence.

Moreover, he continues:

But when successful people don’t acknowledge the role that things outside their control have played in their success, they don’t think to create those conditions for others; they imagine that the less fortunate are simply less worthy.*

It is easy and comforting to think the world is a controllable place where people usually get what they deserve and deserve what they get. If individuals dissimilar to “our people” encounter misfortune, we tend to prefer an explanation exempting us from the possibility it will happen to us. We sleep better if we think this way.

In a world fraught with differences, it becomes apparent how far many of us misunderstand the imagined lives others experience.

Do you really think you can get inside of (take your pick) a differently gendered soul situated in an unfamiliar social class, race, native language, or nationality? How about the personalities of those who have known periods of starvation, served in battle, been raped or molested, or beaten? I could go on.

Do you recognize the challenge of grasping the viewpoint, fear, or heartbreak of people who endured wartime, life-threatening disease, poverty, or genocide? Or lived 40 years before your grandparents did or began life 40 years after you, like your grandchildren?

Without knowing it, as a young psychologist, I was already blessed to observe the world within an island of relative safety and the misfortunes I missed.

Why? First, mine was a limited, cloistered encounter with the globe, born in a time of prosperity. My family met the criteria of the period for lower-middle-class. Mom and dad did their best to raise me in a neighborhood with uncommonly good public schools. College education was cheap, scholarships were available to win, and pollution and climate change were not yet on the radar.

The Chicago summer skies almost always displayed a beautiful blue instead of gray. I received a healthy body and a decent brain in the lottery I won from Mother Nature.

Gerry Stein was a white male in a white man’s world before civil rights legislation became national law.


But the limitations of my experience also told against my ability to understand the folks I treated. Apart from my training and the supervision I received, I was innocent of much about life, though my shelves included plenty of books and my ears had heard of terrible turns and tragedies.

Once in a therapy practice, the stories I listened to from the sufferers stood out. They educated me, though not by intention. Story after story, multiple layers of individual memories, thousands of tales and perspectives.

Yet I was still outside of them, away from them, as if peering through binoculars or a telescope. Some of my patients related their early life hardships involving disease and starvation, not anything I’d personally encountered or endured. Their emotions were not mine nor their wisdom, poor judgment, or sheer awful luck.

To better understand our fellow humans, we need to climb into their lives imaginatively, reimagine and extend our imagination beyond stereotypes into a different time, place, body, heart, and brain.

No one will require you to enter the psyche and anatomy of someone traumatized, desperate, horrified or delighted, ecstatic, or entitled. Going that far, the next step requires recognizing your limits of thought and feeling to grasp theirs.

It is essential, then, to create thought experiments, submerging oneself in “the heart of darkness.” It might be a precarious place of less control, more random acts, fewer models of successful coping, having to choose between medication and food, negative judgments, and the difficulty of finding someone trustworthy or understanding.

This is becoming harder to do these days, I would argue. When the USA had a military draft, abled-bodied men from different backgrounds shared the experience of basic training and going to war. Now we let the children of others “volunteer” to fight for us (making for wars we promote or oppose) without any of our “skin in the game.”

Inevitably, the offspring of wealth and education are more likely spared, while those without better job prospects enter combat more often than those who were “born on third base and thought they hit a triple.”

The warriors of whatever class suffer. According to the NY Times, “at least 6,261 veterans died by suicide in 2019,” and “nearly 16% of (those) deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD.”

People at a physical distance from us are easier to misjudge, demonize, or forget and ignore in their pained existence. Indeed, from his contemporary home office, the boss can fire a person he rarely sees by emailing him a virtual pink slip. No one need ever speak to him to say the words.

No muss or fuss, no eye contact, nor an instant given to the essential humanity of the “other” — the soul dismissed both as an equal and an employee. War is also fought at distances of thousands of miles. Drones destroy people like us, operated by people like us seated in front of computers that might as well be video games.

How often do we think about someone in a third-world country making a garment we praise as “beautiful and oh so cheap!” Of course, it is inexpensive because the worker in a dirty, unairconditioned factory receives far less payment than she would in wealthier nations.

Her life is a mystery and misery to us, and we don’t want to hear more. It would be too hard to know. Challenging to consider, harder still on the dressmaker and her children to withstand.

We objectify those invisible to us or make them into cartoons. We think we understand their inner workings when we have no idea. The world becomes impersonal, good or bad, made of fellow humans we make into saints, sinners, or vague aberrations we describe as stupid, lazy, or evil.

They are placed by us into one category, not in a position to straddle the line between worthy and imperfect, as actual beings do, including ourselves.

Once necessary for early man to survive, tribalism makes us quick to judge those who come from a distant place, look different, speak another tongue, and are as wary of us as we are of them. We fail to socialize with them, and our tendency to make them foes first and ask questions later diminishes us all.

It is too easy to think the evils of this world are due only to one group spawned far away who we can keep away. It is easy to think “they” plot against us and lie all day, every day. We degrade ourselves, no matter that some of the “misdeeds” of “those people” are real and some few corrupt.

If I were back in the position of training young adults, I might make another suggestion, more extreme than the one I described earlier.

I’d advise young people at an early stage of political life, law, or the ministry to spend several months living in the neighborhood of groups different from themselves. They’d seek medical care from their doctors, wear the same clothes, and eat the food typical of the location and its people.

Their job would include getting an ordinary job and making friends as newcomers. If these future authority figures took such training, participants might return to their homes with a fresh perception of the “strange place” they’d lived, now aware “they” are not as strange as previously believed.

A “draft” of young women and men into this kind of service to the world would also be a service to them.

I’d hope for a gradual enlargement of civility toward and appreciation of those encountered. It is even possible some of the young adults who ventured to do this might acknowledge that their judgments had been wrong and begin to hesitate to project their traits and biases on people outside of their close acquaintance.

Since this idea isn’t likely to happen soon, what can the rest of us do?

As a start, consider reimagining your parents’ lives before your birth. Talk to them or, if they are gone, interview their living relatives and friends — people who lived in the same place and time.

Assuming you knew your parents and have some memory of them, think and look through their departed hearts, experiences, schooling, and every other aspect of the time before you arrived and the possible impact your new life had on them.

If you are bolder, find someone on the other side of whatever divide you find most troubling these days. Exert the effort to find out their point of view, but only after first becoming friends. Ask questions and try to set aside prejudgments.

Talk less and listen more.

Perhaps someday, there might also be a virtual way for men to spend time carrying a child inside them and going through labor. No joke.

Enlightenment would grow from such an opportunity.

So would hope for ourselves and the future of the world.

========

All but Laura Hedien’s photo were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The first image is a Looped MRI Video of a Healthy 13-year Old Female’s Heart Beating. Alith3204 created it. Next is a Green Banana Tree by Rosendahl.

A Pile of Stacked Gold Bars was photographed by Stevebidmead. Laura Hedien’s Chicago River Downtown appears here with her kind permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

A 1919 Newspaper Ad for the Movie “You’re Fired” comes after Ms. Hedien’s work. Last is a shot of Two Blossom-headed Parakeets, a picture taken by Touhid biplop.

Erotic Transference in a World of Online Therapy

 
What happened when therapy became virtual at the pandemic’s beginning? Did erotic transference die quietly because of the physical separation of counselor and client? Did the small screen reduce the scope of sexual feelings?
 
Perhaps not, since I read no obituary in the news. Still, it is worth thinking about what has become of the inevitability of desire in the human interaction of some who seek treatment.
 
Erotic transference refers to the patient’s growing sexualized affections for the clinician in talking about her feelings and the significant players in the drama of her life. Parents, caretakers, past lovers, abusers, or others might metaphorically slip into these one-to-one settings unseen, producing an outsized and complicated response to the therapist.
 
The analyst begins to evoke dormant emotions he didn’t create.
 
In the pre-pandemic period, all sorts of detailed cues existed within the office, qualities that might have contributed to the sexualization of the other. The consulting room made these accessible to the client in a way they are not on a computer screen.

A shortlist included the following:

  • A view of the entire face and clothed body, front and back, bottom to top.
  • More noticeable eye contact.
  • Grooming characteristics and their impact on the sensory organs of the observer. Subtle skin tones, makeup, natural bodily scents or odors, perfumes, shampoo emanations, cologne, and pheromone production could encourage sexual arousal.
  • The way the person walked, moved, sat, reached, and shook hands.
  • His attire.
  • An intimate and unvarying background domain, quiet and the same each week.
  • The healthcare professional’s voice was unaffected by the distortion of a computer speaker or headphones.
  • Small facial expressions.
  • An absence of distractions as opposed to a less controlled setting.

Put simply, the office was an environment decorated and modified by the healer, made consistent and safe by him. It included objects little changed in successive sessions. Physical nearness to him was one of those stabled features.

Unintended changes from the old way of doing things should have worked against the emergence of passion in post-COVID treatment relationships. But perhaps there are other considerations:

  • The current unavailability of nearness to a doctor or psychiatric social worker might make them more attractive to some people. Imagine a client whose past experience with parents or lovers included their tendency to push her away or display inconsistency in expressing affection.
  • A new analyst, “out of reach” due to a change in the provision of psychotherapeutic services, could serve unconsciously as another chance to achieve the kind of love she’s searched for, the person “difficult to get.”
  • Unlike the doctor’s office, online contact gives the patient possible control of 50% of the framework for the meeting. Clients set up computers in bedrooms, bathrooms, automobiles, nearby pools, and other locations.
  • Although not all possess the ease of finding privacy, some capacity to arrange the decoration, lighting, and background is more available than prevails in another person’s building.
  • Since travel to and from the psychologist’s location is unnecessary, attire can also be controlled and sexualized.
  • Without the need to leave home, it becomes easier to drink alcohol or use other substances to disinhibit one’s emotions and become more provocative.
  • Many people watch TV and movies on their computers, iPads, and phones. The device thus transforms into a place of “performances.The sexualization of the session exists in a world of potential unreality, encouraging a client’s inclination to take a performative risk.
  • The power of words, an analyst’s kindness, and a level of attention the patient might never have experienced can still serve as potent aphrodisiacs. Remember, love relationships began and survived in the pre-computer age of letter writing.
  • In 2020 pet ownership rose to 70% of American households. Pandemic-driven starvation for physical contact and touch (skin hunger) may explain a part of this phenomenon. It might motivate an increased want for the caress (and more) from someone who appears devoted to your wellbeing.

To sum up, we don’t know the extent to which virtual (online) therapy increases or diminishes erotic transference. Many of the various effects of the pandemic are little studied, leaving anecdotal evidence at best.

We all recognize that humanity would not exist but for sexual appetite. Sex and love endure through wartime, plagues, environmental destruction, and more.

Think of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey. She waited 20 years for her husband’s return when he left to fight in the Trojan War.

The power of another’s gaze, warmth, careful listening, and voice remain available to us, no matter the change in therapeutic format. The enlarged distance from the therapist might even enhance his sense of mystery.

The hope for intimacy and the heartbeat of desire have survived with less assistance.

=================

The first image is called Sculpture in Paradise by Philip Jackson, located at the center of the cloisters of Chichester Cathedral. The photo is by surreyblonde from Pinterest. Next comes Khao Luang Cave Temple, Phetchaburi, Thailand, sourced from Cheezburger.com/ Finally, Factory Butte, Utah, a 2019 work by Laura Hedien with her permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.

The Difference Between Winning and Losing

Much of the Western World preoccupies itself with winning and losing. Think of sports, getting the highest grade at school, job promotions, and making more money than your neighbor (though you’d never say so).

The woman featured in this essay wished to instruct us of an essential, uplifting difference between winning and losing as we tend to define these two easy words.

Gerda Weissmann Klein understood the importance of things on a scale we cannot imagine unless we endured her late teens and early 20s beside her. Born in 1924, the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 led to the loss of her family and a series of slave labor work camps, detestable treatment, and a starvation diet.

Forward-looking advice helped save her. Her father insisted she wear ski boots if the new authorities took her away from home.

The ever dutiful teen complied with her dad’s wishes despite the approaching summer. The youthful Ms. Weissmann otherwise might not have survived repeated below-freezing winters. Such circumstances predicted near-certain death for those without adequate footwear.

An imaginative, dissociative skill enabled her tenuous existence, too. Some days, she occupied her head with frivolous, trivial things like a party she’d host after the liberation.

Holocaust survivors speak of whether each prisoner fully faced the otherworldly horror show of their lives. It helped if one intuitively blocked a part of one’s psychological vision rather than reckoning with the frank catastrophe enveloping them without letup. These responses were a matter of natural tendencies, not a thoughtful choice.

Those who dissociated (as Gerda did when she planned her party) had some slight chance of survival if enormous luck was also on their side.

The depth of the abyss then lost some of its downward pull.

—–

This woman’s father also required another promise of her: never to commit suicide, no matter what.

That, too, would be tested.

Sometimes we stay alive for others, for promises made to them, and for lives cut down.

It would have been easy for a person robbed of the early years of her life, family, and friends never to forgive those responsible for the crime, including the country from which they came.

Not so for this lady. Shortly after her experience of slave labor began, she arrived at a factory producing fabric for the German Army. There she faced a 40-year-old female guard wearing black: Frau Kugler.

I never (before) heard a human voice that barked.

She had a face like a bulldog. But her looks completely belied what was underneath it all.

She turned out to be the hope, the inspiration, perhaps the knowledge that all Germans weren’t cruel. She was a warm, caring human being who’d been given the job obviously because of her looks and because she had worked at the factory before the war.

She put a lie to the lips of all those who said they had no choice.

On one occasion in the same installation, Gerda and three other young women awoke in their barracks almost too ill to move. Kugler came to them and tied Weissman’s shoes.

“Girls, get yourself together. It is life or death today,” dragging them to their work positions and propping them up at the machines they needed to operate.

The sick, weakened girl noticed a man behind her later.

He dispatched those unable to perform to Auschwitz, a place of even greater jeopardy — an extermination camp. The lady guard was not kidding when she urged and helped them get back to work.

—–

The group to which Ms. Weissmann belonged moved from place to place, subjected to the whims of their overseers. The killing could be arbitrary, disfiguring brutality just as random. When not laboring on textiles, they laid bricks and emptied coal cars.

Yet friendship was also part of her strange existence, and unexpected kindness could be a balm.

My friend Ilse Kleinzahler, who died a week before we were liberated, once found a raspberry in the gutter on the way to the factory. It was in Grunberg, one of the most miserable camps, and she saved it all day long.

Ilse carried it in her pocket. The temptation must have been incredible, (but) she gave it to me that night on a leaf. She had plucked a leaf through the barbed wire, washed it, and presented me with one slightly bruised raspberry.

Most people think of (the Holocaust) as unrelieved horror. I like to remember some of the things in camp, how people helped each other. I want to tell young people about that, that there was friendship and love and caring.

Still in those ski boots, a three-month, 350-mile forced winter death march represented this survivor’s final trial during the war. Those who tried to escape or were unable to keep up were shot.

That strange road of winter woe began for about 2000 young Jewish women, all of the camp’s occupants. Fewer than 150 survived.

As the conflict wound down, the enemy army recognized their own lives were in peril and fled the approaching Allied Armies. This was the day before Ms. Weissmann’s 21st birthday.

Gerda and the human remnants of the experience remained in an abandoned Czech bicycle factory after the soldiers took off.

Much luck is involved in all such stories as if some sadist throws dice to determine people’s destiny. A demolition device set by the Nazis to destroy the female population within the building failed to detonate.

Gerda was standing in the doorway of the factory when a U.S Army jeep could be seen in the distance.

The driver saw her and stopped. One of the men inside walked up to her.

I remember the aura of him, the awe of disbelief … to really see someone who fought for our freedom. He looked like a God to me.

The Lieutenant asked if she spoke German or English. Ms. Weissman nodded, then added, We are Jewish, you know.

The soldier stood silent for what seemed a very long time, his eyes hidden behind the sunglasses he wore.

So am I,” he said.

Kurt Klein, the man she talked with, later became her husband.

He continued, using a formal manner of address unused by the Nazis because they believed the incarcerated “not worthy of life” (Untermenschen): Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others, including their own mentally ill.

Instead of disrespect, Lt. Klein asked if she might take him to visit the other “ladies.Then, as they entered the factory together, he opened the door for her. His words and actions opened something more.

This was the moment of restoration of humanity, humanness,” she said in her post-war descriptions of returning to civilization.

The officer was overwhelmed by the sight inside. Women wasted away, near death, staring with vacant eyes.

With a sweeping motion of her hand toward the emaciated crowd, his white-haired, 68-pound, 21-year-old “guide” uttered a quotation she learned in school during the “before” times.

Noble be man, merciful and good,” wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet. They both shared in the grim irony of words they knew from a poem called “On the Divine.”

Gerda Weissman Klein became a public face in the United States for the survivors of the genocide and those less fortunate. Living in Buffalo, NY, and later in Phoenix, AZ, the couple had three children, eight grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Klein’s story is conveyed in her own spoken words and those of her husband in the 39-minute 1995 movie, “One Survivor Remembers.The film won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject and was based on her book, “All but My Life.

At the 1996 Academy Award ceremony, she was on stage beside the film’s director Kary Antholis as he spoke. Her turn came, but a musical cue to depart began just as it did, along with the gentle prodding of an usher.

Mrs. Klein remained silent at the microphone.

The applause and the orchestra stopped. She then offered words to an audience of people who had been thinking and talking all night about winning and losing:

I have been in a place for six incredible years where winning meant a crust of bread and to live another day.

Since the blessed day of my liberation, I have asked the question, ‘Why am I here?I am no better.

In my mind’s eye, I see those years and days and those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home.

On their behalf, I wish to thank you for honoring their memory, and you cannot do it in any better way than when you return to your homes tonight, to realize that each of you who know the joy of freedom are winners.

Gerda Weissmann Klein passed away on April 3, 2022, aged 97.

==================

The top image is the early teen Gerda Weissmann during peacetime. It is followed by A Helping Hand, the work of Safiyyah Scoggins and Laura Hedien’s Alaska Road Sign, 2021. 

Finally, the U.S. Lieutenant Kurt Klein, who became Gerda’s husband, and her speech at the Academy Awards Ceremony in 1996. A Helping Hand was sourced from Wikimedia.org/

What is Your Legacy? The Simple Answer is Within Your Reach

The future is like a taxi driver awaiting our direction. “Where to?”

What we leave behind at the end of our trip — our legacy — attempts to answer the question, “When I pass the baton, what will the next runner receive?”

Does emphasizing personal success, outsized ambition, and individual prosperity leave something worth a lifetime?

Will a career of stature make the best life and legacy?

Here are two alternatives routes worth considering. The first is the path one woman pursued searching for “the good life.” The second adds you to the picture.

Really.

To begin, please read this eloquent description of the female I mentioned:

Legacies are hard things. As a teacher, you have no idea, usually, what’s going on on the other side of the table, and you won’t know for 20 years, 30 years, 50 years — you probably will never know what the lasting effects are, so I wouldn’t claim much. But I’ll say that Amy was an absolutely masterful teacher.

I was pretty good, but she was fabulous. And she was fabulous because if a student asked her a question, she turned it back on them. She didn’t feel obliged to give answers. She was there to make them think and think harder.

A student would say something, and if it was halfway good, she would say, “Another sentence …,” and it was flattering to the student to think they had another sentence in them, besides the best that they’d give you.

They searched for it, and they found it.

The other thing to say about her is that the women students, especially, saw and treasured in Amy the fact that she integrated naturally and easily a beloved life of teaching and learning, and a beloved life of marriage and family.

She wasn’t proving a point. She just did it. The students were invited into our home. They saw all aspects of her, and a lot of the students gravitated to her for this reason.

I am sure you realize the last sentence identifies the speaker as the husband of this remarkable educator. Amy Kass died in 2015, and the quotation comes from her mate, Leon Kass. If I listed all their combined achievements, you would be humbled, but they include books, civil rights activism, medicine, and much more. Concerning what her husband highlights, she was an instructor in the humanities at the University of Chicago.

What else do the words from the man tell us about his wife, the direction of her life, and the possibility of one’s own legacy?

He underlines a grace in her interactions with the young people who wished to learn from her. She lifted them by evoking their best — thoughts unexpressed but for her attempt to provoke their self-questioning, careful reading, and rejection of easy answers.

Amy Kass must have been the type of instructor you encounter once or twice in a lifetime — if you are lucky.

The kind you never forget.

Her partner mentions more than her professional attainments. He highlights how she lived, emphasizing her love for him and their family. She opened herself to other relationships out of her love of people.

As a professor of classics, she not only talked with her students about how thinkers in antiquity valued nobility of character, but she provided an effortless illustration in her everyday actions by being generous, eager, honorable, devoted, strong, and considerate in the classroom and beyond.

Now, the second answer I promised follows from the first. To leave a fine legacy, you needn’t become famous, make tons of money, or raise heroic children.

Attempt to match the guidance Marcus Aurelius, the ancient Roman emperor, gave himself:

No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be good. Like gold or emerald or purple repeating to itself, ‘No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be emerald, my color undiminished.’

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.15

This much — to be good — we all control. There is no need to listen to all the bullying or tempting voices which diminish or entice you.

The word legacy might sound too grand for such a modest approach to each day, but it is also brave. You will touch many lives and leave behind invisible traces of yourself by taking the advice of this statesman and Stoic philosopher.

Virtue is possible now, this instant, and all the time ahead of you. It is yours if you make it so. I’ll bet Amy Kass would have agreed.

=========

The painting is called School Teacher by Jan Steen. It is followed by Holger Ellgaard’s photo of the Carl Milles sculpture, Guds Hand (The Hand of God). They are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.