Patients Who Haunt the Therapist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote:

My candle burns at both ends;

   It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –

   It gives a lovely light!

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

When Being a Therapist Means Saying You are Sorry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Each box should be labeled “Handle with Care.”


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

A Good Man is Hard to Find: Remembering Bob Calsyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alone

Loneliness is a desperate thing and a thing desperately hard to capture in words. But when the wish for connection becomes reality, the heart trembles …

We are isolated for several reasons. What happens in our head is unique. Intimate communication is a struggle. We are surprised at the blunt instruments words become. The indefinable essence is too often lost, subject to the way we sound, our facial expression; and the auditor’s capacity to listen. Without his ability to identify some likeness between his experience and our own, the effort is futile.

Nor do we even fathom ourselves fully. Messaging cannot deliver a meaning unknown to the sender. The most insightful among us still are trapped looking at themselves from the inside, unable to escape a claustrophobic perspective – unable to discern the unconscious. Meanwhile, the vantage point from outside is second-hand news, told to us, but not known by us.

Self-knowledge is imperfect, not comprehensive. Humans accept obvious motivations and easy explanations to explain themselves to themselves. Who even considers the many causes of a simple task like deciding to grocery shop today? Hunger, scheduling, a sale on peaches, your child’s request for a particular food, a friend’s comment about a good meal, a cooking show you watched, or all of these? We admit, at least, that love is inexplicable, our heart a mystery.

Hope of connection lives, nonetheless. The desire for understanding overpowers the complications. And sometimes hope is fulfilled.

Dostoevsky, the great Russian novelist, understood this. Two characters in his masterpiece The Idiot – a towering achievement in reckoning with the complexities of personality – express their separation from the mainstream of society.

Dostoevsky presents an embittered young man, Ippolit, within weeks of death; who himself believes he will never be understood, yet strains to be heard, recognized, and accepted:

In any serious human thought born in someone’s head, there always remains something which it is quite impossible to convey to other people, though you may fill whole volumes with writing and spend thirty-five years trying to explain your thought; there always remains something that absolutely refuses to leave your skull and will stay with you forever; you will die with it, not having conveyed to anyone what is perhaps most important in your idea.

The novelist’s title character is a casual friend of Ippolit, a saintly and open man named Prince Myshkin. Ippolit and Myshkin, despite their differences, both want connection.

The following narrated passage recalls a time when the young Prince was in treatment in Switzerland. Expressing himself was then a particular challenge. He led a life alone, separate, cut-off:

Once he went into the mountains on a clear, sunny day, and wandered about for a long time with a tormenting thought that refused to take shape. Before him was the shining sky, below him the lake, around him the horizon, bright and infinite, as if it went on forever. For a long time he looked and suffered. He remembered now (years later) how he had stretched out his arms to that bright, infinite blue and wept. What had tormented him was that he was a total stranger to it all. What was this banquet, what was this everlasting feast, to which he had long been drawn, always, ever since childhood, and which he could never join. Every morning the same bright sun rises; every morning there is a rainbow over the waterfall; every evening the highest snowcapped mountain, there, far away, at the edge of the sky, burns with a crimson flame; every ‘little fly that buzzes near him in a hot ray of sunlight participates in this whole chorus; knows its place, loves it, and is happy’: every little blade of grass grows and is happy! And everything has its path, and everything knows its path, goes with a song and comes back with a song; only he knows nothing, understands nothing, neither people nor sounds, a stranger to everything and a castaway.

Notice the character’s reference to a fly. He is quoting his young friend Ippolit, the man near death, the one struggling to be understood. And in this moment, the Prince recognizes his own sentiment. Dostoevsky continues:

Oh, of course he could not speak then with these words and give voice to his question; he suffered blankly and mutely, but now it seemed to him that he had said it all then, all those same words, and that Ippolit had taken the words about the ‘little fly’ from him, from his own words and tears of that time. He was sure of it, and for some reason his heart throbbed at this thought …

At such moments in the mountains – in the empty spaces of life – we wait for the voice of another to utter our thoughts, intuit our mind, touch us by understanding our sentiments. It is as close as one can come to escaping the solitude of the human species, finding a soul who matches us at least a bit, at least for a time …

Those most desolate among us, those most cut-off, quietly despair of finding such a witness: one who not only sees, but understands. The inhabitants of hope’s waiting room are on every street, in every therapist’s office. If they persist – as they often do – the moment of hope’s fulfillment is transcendent.

As William Blake wrote in Auguries of Innocence:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour.

The first image is William Blake’s Ancient of Days. Next comes Jean-Jacques Henner’s Solitude. These are both sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Finally, a photo of Cadillac Mountain in Arcadia National Park.

When Life Laughs at You

The details are a problem. Spare yourself the details. No good comes from the details.

Except, perhaps, when they help you free-up your life and recognize the grand experiment offered all of us: the opportunity to remake ourselves by caring less about those same selves.

OK. You’re still reading? You really want to know the details?

Here they are.

I am in the middle of the crusty stage. Never heard the phrase? Here is the proper placement of this particular life plateau:

  • Youth
  • Middle age
  • Crusty stage
  • Old age

The crustiness is not the kind in a good piece of French bread. The temporary condition finds your face dry, red, and raw: the expected side-effect of a dermatologist’s handiwork to keep the skin on top of its game. Not cosmetic, but medical. A good outcome is predicted. I’ll be out of the crusty stage soon.

The story improves from here, although I must relate a few more details.

Better yet, I’m going to tell you what I learned by passing through this small period of discomfort; and what you might learn, too.

The procedure left my face painful, slightly swollen, and itchy for some days: a bit mask-like. The treated skin gradually flaked off and the rosy, sunburned toastiness faded. Lots of moisturizer and other unguents made my presence shiny. I was a beacon of reflected light in the half-dark.

I considered exposing you to a picture of myself in, what I can only call, the “full crusty.” I may be shameless, but I decided not to inflict this on you. Should you be grateful, just send a donation to your favorite charity.

The question was, while I was fully into this fullness – unable to put a good face on things, Halloween-ready two months too soon – “What am I going to do with my visage?” Several possibilities presented themselves. I could …

  • hide, kind of like The Elephant Man.
  • curse the hearing-impaired, indifferent gods.
  • concentrate on the pain of the first couple of days.
  • observe it.
  • obsess about the slowness of the healing process.
  • petition the authorities to make Halloween earlier, in which case I’d be able to save on a costume.
  • shroud the mirrors in my home.
  • focus on how I was getting better and better.
  • ignore the condition and occupy my mind elsewhere.
  • count myself grateful compared to those worse off.
  • worry what others might think if they saw me.

I could learn from it.

Notice how many ways we can make ourselves miserable. Instead, I decided to treat my face as the subject of an experiment.

The first two days offered restrictions: stay out of the sun lest I become some version of Dracula in the daylight. On Day Four, however, my kids, son-in-law, and  grandson visited. The adults were slightly unsettled, the two-year-old took my appearance in stride. I was still grandpa.

Day Five offered the real experimental possibility. My semi-annual dental exam gave me the chance to create some high-pitched screaming in public (not mine). Then I needed to pick up new glasses, where the patrons at Lenscrafters would scan me through their own fresh pair and surely say, “This can’t be right. I liked my vision better before. Refund please!”

In the event, only the dental assistant noticed, the dentist and office staff treating me as they always do. This either means that my regular appearance was already brutal, or they absorbed the big picture of me being me, kind of like my grandson. I vote for the second possibility.

Next stop was to pick up my glasses. Again, no crowds ran shrieking into the parking lot once I stepped into the mall. No fists were raised, no refunds requested. The experiment ended much as I expected: attention was not paid. If my countenance had grabbed some eyes? No matter. Well, OK, being chased by a shouting, torch-bearing mob would have been trouble. Fortunately, the Boy Scout in me brought earplugs.

“Always prepared” or “Be prepared,” the Boy Scout Motto

Buddhists talk of “non-self.” No soul. Nothing permanent. They state that a belief in a “self” is one of the causes of suffering. This turns the “Me, me, me” of the West’s competitive juggernaut on its head.

I could have said this turns the view of what is important in life on its face. If you have no face, no self, you have no face to lose.

Western philosophy and people like Martin Heidegger put the problem differently: we are beings for whom “being” is a question. If we think about our being, including the impression we make, self-awareness is a challenge, something our animal friends are free of.

We are far too preoccupied with our “selves.” Some say self-awareness is a disease. Or can be.

Worried about others laughing at you?

Life will laugh at you. The universe will laugh at you. Count on it.

Laugh back.

Take it from a man in the crusty stage of life.

The top photo, Breads, is the work of fir0002 at flagstaffotos.com.au/ The second image is called Two Papier-mache Masks in the NYC Village Halloween Parade, authorized for posting on Wikimedia Commons by parade director Jeanne Fleming. The 1916 German scouting manual, “Allzeit bereit,” was made available to Wikimedia Commons by Mediatus.

The Need for Escape

The sense of being trapped may be a universal experience. Think of the small child who tries to wrestle out of his parent’s protective arms. The teen who hates curfew. The high school grad who can’t wait to leave home.

Other examples come to mind:

  • The suffocating boyfriend from whom you must free yourself.
  • The hated boss.
  • The stifling career.
  • The moribund marriage.
  • A restrictive religion and its too many rules.

Why are we so offended by the stickiness of things, of being like a fly on flypaper? Why do fences shout “Jump”? What is it about walls that beg us to climb, even as recreation?

  • Our ancient ancestors, the hunters and gatherers, needed to keep moving to find food and shelter. They profited by sensing and staying away from those animals and humans who menaced them. We inherited their survival tendencies. The complacent and trusting souls who acted otherwise and perished didn’t pass on their genes.
  • The instinctive man inside of us habituates quickly: he gets used to things, becomes restless, gets bored. Dissatisfaction is built into our nature, the better to thrive and survive. Were we satisfied by a single meal, with no recurring hunger, we’d starve. If sex so “blissed-out” cave-dwellers after one or two couplings, you and I would not exist.
  • The passage of time creates urgency. We don’t lead infinite lives. Want to be an Olympic star? Don’t wait until 30 to start practicing. The desire for love, too, means you must dive into the swim while your sparkle still can catch the eye of another aquatic creature.

The grass always being greener, where to? When? The five-year-old doesn’t run away because he can’t make a life on his own. The abused spouse with the ground-to-bits self-image holds her hopeless spot for fear worse awaits her elsewhere. The dissatisfied employee stays put in an economic depression. We all know out-of-love couples who remain married for the children, the worry of being vilified by co-religionists, and the thought of owning one dollar, where they used to count two.

We sometimes stay when we should escape and leave when we should hesitate. I’ve done both. How do you tell whether flight is best or portends even worse? A few things to consider:

  • Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman states, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”
  • Psychologists remind us that experiences, not things, have more lasting value internally and are more positively remembered than buying one more material object.
  • We cannot escape ourselves entirely. One’s innate temperament makes a significant contribution to happiness.
  • What we choose to focus on and whether we set impossible goals also factor into our sense of satisfaction. These are within our control. The long-term practice of mindfulness meditation has been associated with happiness, as well.
  • Research suggests Midwesterners who believe life will be better in California simply because of the weather tend to discover fair weather, like almost everything else, gets absorbed into the background. Not only climate, of course, is subject to habituation: think money, a new car, and today’s Christmas toy – the new delight turned stale; closeted before the weather warms. In the absence of other factors that might sustain a sense of well-being, we return to our set point, a basic and more or less enduring emotional state.
  • A richer neighbor will always be a happiness-wrecker if $$ are the measure you crave. Above $75,000 per year, your moment-to-moment, experienced well-being doesn’t improve much.
  • On the other hand, more money does tend to increase life satisfaction: your opinion of your life when you stop and think about it. And, up to about $75,000 yearly income, moment-to-moment happiness does increase.
  • Ask yourself what is your default tendency. If you tend to change jobs quickly, for example, then the next question becomes, how is that working? If you are prone to stasis when dissatisfied, the same question must be answered.
  • Are other lives involved in your decision? Maybe moving to a new house is best for you, but will it work for the spouse and kids?
  • Try to predict how you will feel about your choice in five months or five years. We tend to be poor at “affective forecasting,” the ability to gauge the emotional consequences of our actions. Still, an attempt is required.
  • A 2017 paper by Blanchflower and Oswald suggests we reach a low point to our happiness in midlife (around the early 50s). Thereafter, in general, we rebound – major life change or not.
  • You will do better to know where you are going, than just the situation from which you flee.
  • Those prone to anxiety and worry tend to exaggerate the danger of taking a risk. Judgment is questionable when angry. If you can, wait for a cool moment to make a decision.
  • Who are you? What are your values? How do these translate into life as it is lived?
  • Is there more than one way to achieve the result you want?
  • You might ask yourself whether your internal life requires attention. The externals – other people, your job, your living conditions – are less in your control.
  • If you expect utter and permanent transformation following your leap from a stuck place – well – you could be expecting too much. Remember, though, nothing in life is permanent and one can do worse than reach for the beguiling flowers still in bloom.

One last thought: we get no free lunch. Staying and going – except in extreme circumstances where life depends on it – each have a cost. Sometimes the decision is easy, often we struggle. Some doors remain open a while, others close with a rush. None of us get this right every time. Indeed, even knowing whether there is a “right” road can be challenging, since we only know with certainty the chosen path, while the other avenue lives in an idealized state within our imagination.

We’ve all read stories about the courage of people real or imagined, and the fixedness and quiet desperation of others. Those lives may provide guidance, but making choices presents a challenge unless you are an inveterate risk-taker or so frozen in place that no heat wave can de-ice and free you.

We each have only this one life. Try not to die with too many regrets.

The top image is the Vatican Museum Staircase as photographed by Andreas Tille. Next is James Jowers’s L.E. Side. These were sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Finally comes a Space Escape Grunge Sign, created by Nicolas Raymond and available from: www.freestock.ca