A Therapist Attends a Party. Does He Analyze Everyone He Meets?

Yes.

Not satisfied with my answer? Alright, I’ll say a bit more …

First, can you imagine a counselor going to a party? OK, I know it’s a stretch, but we do have lives.

Some of us, I’d say the best functioning souls in our profession, lead lives and need lives outside of the job. Still, if we are well-integrated, we’ve been changed by the work we do, by our experience and training, and we don’t (entirely) turn off our penetrating, “x-ray eyes and brains” when we meet someone new.

What do we notice? First, the usual things: how you look, dress, the sound of your voice, jewelry or its absence, any significant aromas (including too much aftershave or perfume), the “intelligence” in your face, height, weight, and – yes — sex appeal, at least if the diagnostician still lives by the pace of a beating heart. Crucially, too, your emotional state.

But there is a difference. We’ve seen, perhaps, thousands of patients and draw hypotheses about new acquaintances. We are the kind of people who – by nature – are more than usually fascinated by the process of understanding our fellow creatures.

Thus, to some degree, you (the creature) are slotted and categorized, pigeon-holed and measured against the silhouettes of innumerable people we’ve come to know in-depth. Nothing certain, but a formulation of ideas and character type that will, automatically, even without trying, be revised and refined if we get to know you better. Kind of like orchestra musicians who say – and I believe them – their experience allows them to size up a new conductor within minutes of the beginning of a first rehearsal.

Staying with music for a second, imagine a professional musician attending a concert. Would all his musical culture – his trained ears – vanish because he sits in the audience? Of course not.

The effortless, incomplete analysis of our party-goer is spontaneous because of who we’ve become. Ours is not the studious effort we make in the consulting room and we aren’t so rude as to ask the “personal,” penetrating, and imperative questions out-of-place at a party. Tentative assumptions just happen.

Another difference from a professional setting: we are now free to dislike the new person. We are not required to work hard to see the best in him. One can react to political differences, take issue with ideas, even walk away, as you cannot in your own office. Thus, there is a combination of automatic “evaluation” of the acquaintance as a function of the information we absorb and the reflexive processing we perform without intention, as well as freedom to act on all the human responses common to non-therapists and counselors alike.

Whatever “analysis” occurs is not methodical and therefore not as “expert” or expertly done as the “on-the-job” version. The impromptu assessment takes the form of informed opinion, not rigorous and thought-through. We are also dealing with first impressions, another reason for imperfect judgment.

Mental health professionals often get predictable responses in non-professional settings once a person finds out how we make a living:

“Ohhhh – I’d better be careful what I say to you,”

or

“Ahhh – does that mean you are analyzing me?”

One learns to take it in stride.

If you were at the imaginary social event, however, we might or might not meet your expectations. No boundaries exist when the doc is on the street or at the party; at least not doctor/patient relationship boundaries. You might be surprised to discover, too, how energetic or withdrawn the counselor is, outgoing or quiet. Remember, your therapist commands his domain, the little space called “his office,” but isn’t conferred the role of master of ceremonies anywhere else. Nor is he laser-focused on anyone he is talking to unless he wants to be. Again, unlike the consulting room, his attention can go anywhere he wants it to or it wants to. Under these circumstances, you might find him less “sensitive” than you expect. Remember, he is “off-the-clock.”

He could be “the most interesting man in the world” or more common than you expect.

The counselor is permitted to be bored. He is allowed to become a bit “under the influence” of the local brew. He might even bore you, too.

Bored, he won’t be at his best in forming an impression of you. Intoxicated, he will be useless in that and other departments.

Could be he is just another guy, in this case, one too full of suds and his own bad jokes.

I’m reminded of the old Woody Allen story about how his first marriage collapsed. The problem was that he put his “wife underneath a pedestal.”

Some therapists, in some situations, belong there too.

The top plate is called Ubu, a 1974 work of Enrico Baj. The second image is Laughting, an 1898 painting by Filipp Malyavin. Both are sourced from Wikiart.org.

The Taoist Farmer and a Patient’s Search for Answers

Part of the human dilemma is the trap of unhelpful, but habitual ways of thinking. Cognitive behavior therapists call them thinking errors or cognitive distortions. On occasion you probably have made one or more such wrong-headed mental turns into an emotional sink hole. Catastrophization is an example: predicting the worst possible outcome you can imagine happening to you, sure the expected calamity will finish you off, even when there are many less dire potential futures and most bad results are temporary. But other mental traps wait for us, ones not so commonly found in a therapist’s lexicon. Good/bad, right/wrong, lucky/unlucky are not as clear as we think.

Take the old story of the Taoist farmer.

There was a farmer whose horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, “Maybe.” And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg.

Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, “Maybe.” The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, “Maybe.”*

As with any parable, multiple interpretations exist. Sometimes apparent bad fortune – like a broken relationship – leads to someone who is a better match. Being fired from a job can be a step toward a better one, even fuel your search and foster your growth. This is not to suggest all tragedies are the yellow brick road to Oz. Yet, we tend to recover, even if recovery can be lengthy, fraught, and incomplete. Then again, luck depends on when you take a measure of your situation. The farmer believed there was still time ahead, and the present moment represented a temporary vantage point: another evaluation down the road might change the assessment of his life.

One alternative way to think about this story is to recognize the problem of “keeping score.” We look around and ask, am I getting ahead or falling behind? In the West, the so-called First World of capitalism, we are trained in ladder-climbing, money counting, and concern with the opinions of others. A bit crazy-making, since someone else always owns “more,” and we are inclined to compare “up” rather than “down.” Put another way, we measure ourselves against those better off rather than those less fortunate. We also tend – after a moment of delight – to take for granted the Christmas toy for which we waited a year. Great honors don’t seem so great after the award ceremony is over.

Is there another way?

A Buddhist (or a Stoic philosopher) might tell you to become less attached to all things in the world: status, property, money; even relationships and health. Put differently, to give up clinging and craving, while practicing loving kindness and steadfast integrity. The more attachment, the more you will lose, so they say. Such an existence – preoccupied with getting and spending and fear of losing (and regret over what is already lost) – is a guarantee of suffering.

Yet another view is this one: maybe life is not a matter of assigning a grade to what we think or do, but to be experienced with little evaluation: passed through, lived. To be in the swim, not outside the pool, watching and afraid of the shock of the cold water if we should jump in. Not asking whether our stroke is beautiful enough, our pace fast enough, the distance traveled far enough.

To this way of thinking, failure and rejection are normal parts of life. They indicate we are still trying; necessary parts, too, because resilience grows from the knowledge you can come back from defeat.

Perhaps winning the game is not as important as playing the game. Perchance the world is to be tasted: different cuisines and flavors, not just chocolate and vanilla. If so, a person would experience many colors, sizes, possibilities. Engage in multiple careers. Know lots of people. Have your heart broken and sewn up and torn again and stitched until the twine itself breaks. And to read and discuss all the worthy books, play all the sublime music, climb walls until your muscles and tendons hurt. No, even past the time they hurt, adapting to the hurt. Not an either/or existence but “all-in.”

Or, is life properly understood to be perplexing and without a “solution”? If so, any belief in your own secret formula is misguided: your solution is, at best, temporary. You are not only fooling yourself, but missing the point. Which is? That the pursuit of happiness is more a journey than an arrival. That when traveling to the airport we should always go to “departures” instead of “arrivals” because we are forever “taking off” for whatever is next and never reach a static endpoint while alive.

Left to you is the creation of a personal meaning, not to be found in a book or a place of worship or from a mentor, whole and flawless; unless, that is, you are among those for whom the answer is unquestioning faith and an ultimate, unworldly reward.

Still another path: one is told the most satisfying existence requires living for bigger things than ourselves, including the future of the planet, our children, and the lives of others. We are warned not to count on or crave a posthumous glory. Unless someone else is doing the scoring, the record book will be lost along with our names, in a fast-fading blue ink on a yellowing parchment. Or, as Arthur Miller suggested, on a block of melting ice.

Is human existence perhaps a multifaceted combination of tragedy, joy, inevitability, necessity, laughter, devotion, confusion, sacrifice, and the way things are until, too soon, they aren’t?

Having written all of the above, I fear my message – the answer without an answer to conceptualizing life – is unsatisfying. I’m not even satisfied. I have given you no certainty, nothing definite. Some of you will reject the inconclusivity. I won’t hold it against you.

To my way of thinking, therapy cannot provide “the answer” either. The counselor instead offers a remedy for specifics. He can help reduce or eliminate your anxiety or depression or some other malady in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. No text-book or training, however, offers a step-by-step solution to dealing with the human condition. I’m sorry about that, really.

We do what we can.

I offer this consolation to you, nonetheless:

No matter what we look like, no matter how happy or sad we are (or seem to be) for the moment – calm or stressed, wise or foolish – we are all in this porridge together. Sometimes we swim within a tasty bowl – “just right,” as Goldilocks said – though not for every meal and every appetite. Look around you and see all the swimmers. Tiny like us, precious like us. They come in all strengths and varieties, but they will not always be there.

No wonder we search for love.

*Source: Tao: The Watercourse Way, by Alan Watts. The first image below the youtube video is Ilja Richter rehearsing for his play Altweibersommer in Munich. The next photo is the work of SuzannePerry.enoughofit7. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

One Holiday, Two Americas: Memorial Day Thoughts

Some of our fathers and brothers, even our sisters and aunts, served in wartime. Some serve now. Perhaps you too.

Today is the day we honor the fallen in all the many conflicts of this, our country.

Can two Americas fit into a holiday designed for one?

Thus do the two Americas array themselves: those for whom service is a calling and those for whom it is an economic necessity; those powerful and those without prospects; those respected and those afraid; those with fat wallets and those with empty purses; the few who are part of our volunteer army and the majority who choose not to be.

When my father did his duty in World War II, walking the Champs-Élysées on the first Bastille Day after the liberation of Paris, there was such a thing as military conscription: able bodied young men were required to participate. In post-war Germany, as part of the occupying Allied forces, he related the following in an October 19, 1945 letter to my mother:

We have two colored boys in our convoy who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper … the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent made the rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.

So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.

Some of us thought we were beyond the racial animus of a time 70 years past. Not just the discrimination, but the idea of discrimination. Still, no matter our domestic troubles, we must honor the fallen. My father, who served but did not die in service, would be troubled at our regression; yet he would honor the fallen, as we all should, amid the burgers and bratwurst and beer we inhale today. In this, at least, we can still be one country, even if the ritual unites us only for a few hours.

I wrote some of this seven years ago. Other parts are new:

If you are unhappy about the polarization of our society, think about the differences institutionalized by the volunteer army’s creation. However much good was achieved by the elimination of conscription, surely the absence of shared sacrifice contributes to the ease with which we oppose our fellow-citizens.

No longer does the USA pull together in the way possible during World War II, “the Good War.” In part, “the Good War” was good because enough people believed in the values for which the USA fought, knowing their children, husbands, and brothers would defend those same values with their lives; and it was good because those at home (regardless of class) shared in the rationing of goods, the terror of having loved ones in harm’s way, the heartache of their absence, and a preoccupation with the daily progress of the conflict.

The soldiers shared something more, and more widely than the smaller fighting force of today. Men of different religions, regional accents, political opinions, and ethnicities depended on each other for their survival and discovered the “other” could be depended on, laughed at the same jokes, and partook of the common fear and dedication all brought to the war effort. Even though military segregation deprived brave blacks and Japanese Americans of the opportunity for such camaraderie except with men of the same color, the nation benefited from the portion permitted. The soldiers benefited by the love and mutual reliance of those in the same foxhole. Our fathers and grandfathers were woven together in a way we are not today.

These thoughts occurred to me as I listened (on CD) to the book Final Salute by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jim Sheeler. The volume is about the officers who inform families they have lost a loved one; and of the families who suffer the unspeakable pain of the death of a son, a husband, a wife, a brother, or a sister; a dad or a mom.

Several survivors become your acquaintances in this narrative, as well as the warriors — the Marines — who died serving our country. And you will get to know Major Steve Beck, a Marine who delivers a message nearly as shattering as the projectile that killed their loved one.

Major Beck and the Marines live by the creed of leaving no comrade behind. Consistent with this value, Major Beck leaves no family behind, providing comfort and support long after the knock on the door that changes everything, creating a “before and after” without end.

I wish I had the words to convey what is in this book. I don’t. I only will say it is plainly written, eloquent in its simplicity, aching in its beauty, profound in its impact. It does not make melodrama of what is already poignant enough. Rest assured you will contemplate war, any war, differently after reading Final Salute; unless, of course, you are a member of the “other America,” the one fighting the wars and sending its loved ones into conflict. If you belong to the bereft group within this group, then there is nothing here you do not already know at a level too deep for words.

To those who have lost just such a one as the young men portrayed in Final Salute, I can only give my condolences to you and your kin.

We — those of us in the non-fighting America, those of us for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are abstractions — perhaps remain too comfortable, detached from something of desperate importance: the duty done far from home in our stead by the children of other people. And removed and distant from how the “best and brightest” of their families risk and sometimes give up everything they hold dear.

For such families, the human cost never fully goes away, for there is no inoculation against the plague of war, nor any cure.

They are out there, these inhabitants of “the other America.”

We walk past them unaware …

Once a year we give their departed a day of remembrance, if that’s what you call taking an extra day off from work, singing the National Anthem, looking at the maimed soldiers standing at attention, and then forgetting why we sang before our bottoms touch the seats. The words “play ball,” don’t quite capture a sentiment of honor or atonement, do they?

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

All the images above are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. 1. “Vice Admiral Scott Swift, Director of Navy Staff holds Savannah Wriglesworth of Bowie, Maryland during a group photo with families of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) before taking a tour at the Pentagon May 23, 2014. The children of fallen U.S. service members toured the Pentagon seeing different exhibitions from the Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force including Klinger the horse. Klinger has served at more than 5,000 military funerals and has a book published about him called “Klinger: A Story of Honor and Hope” and is often a warm and comforting face for the children to see when making their final good-byes.” (Department of Defense photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo). 2. and 3. The work of Allstrak. 4. “Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt looks on during the singing of the National Anthem before his squad’s Memorial Day Major League Baseball matchup against the San Diego Padres at Chase Field in Phoenix, May 26, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Brandon Kidd, right, was on hand to represent the United States Marine Corps during pre-game dedications.” (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tyler J. Bolken).

What a Woman Wants of Love

I would be presumptuous to tell you what a woman wants from a man (or any romantic partner) in the way of love. But I told you my intentions in the title and I do not mean to disappoint. Moreover, the description of such love will come from another man — just as doubtful a source as I.

I have it on good authority that this other man, Wendell Berry, should be trusted. High praise of Mr. Berry’s insight comes from a wise and lovely lady named Priscilla, who told me (and several of her friends and classmates) Berry got it right. The class includes a number of the Ms., Miss, and Mrs. persuasion, including the instructor. There was no dissenting opinion from even one of them.

Berry’s conception of amour comes from his 1971 poem, The Country of Marriage. As the poet says, “love is always too much.” And later, “We enter, willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.” I find the last three stanzas especially touching.

I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

If your partner doesn’t understand what you want, you can always hand him the poem. If, on the other hand, you are pursuing a female and wish to know her heart of hearts, the verse offers you a lesson in love:

The Country of Marriage

I.

I dream of you walking at night along the streams
of the country of my birth, warm blooms and the nightsongs
of birds opening around you as you walk.
You are holding in your body the dark seed of my sleep.

II.

This comes after silence. Was it something I said
that bound me to you, some mere promise
or, worse, the fear of loneliness and death?
A man lost in the woods in the dark, I stood
still and said nothing. And then there rose in me,
like the earth’s empowering brew rising
in root and branch, the words of a dream of you
I did not know I had dreamed. I was a wanderer
who feels the solace of his native land
under his feet again and moving in his blood.
I went on, blind and faithful. Where I stepped
my track was there to steady me. It was no abyss
that lay before me, but only the level ground.

III.

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

IV.

How many times have I come to you out of my head
with joy, if ever a man was,
for to approach you I have given up the light
and all directions. I come to you
lost, wholly trusting as a man who goes
into the forest unarmed. It is as though I descend
slowly earthward out of the air. I rest in peace
in you, when I arrive at last.

V.

Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange
of my love and work for yours, so much for so much
of an expendable fund. We don’t know what its limits are–
that puts us in the dark. We are more together
than we know, how else could we keep on discovering
we are more together than we thought?
You are the known way leading always to the unknown,
and you are the known place to which the unknown is always
leading me back. More blessed in you than I know,
I possess nothing worthy to give you, nothing
not belittled by my saying that I possess it.
Even an hour of love is a moral predicament, a blessing
a man may be hard up to be worthy of. He can only
accept it, as a plant accepts from all the bounty of the light
enough to live, and then accepts the dark,
passing unencumbered back to the earth, as I
have fallen tine and again from the great strength
of my desire, helpless, into your arms.

VI.

What I am learning to give you is my death
to set you free of me, and me from myself
into the dark and the new light. Like the water
of a deep stream, love is always too much. We
did not make it. Though we drink till we burst
we cannot have it all, or want it all.
In its abundance it survives our thirst.
In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill, and sleep, while it
flows through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us, except we keep returning
to its rich waters thirsty. We enter,
willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.

VII.

I give you what is unbounded, passing from dark to dark,
containing darkness: a night of rain, an early morning.
I give you the life I have let live for the love of you:
a clump of orange-blooming weeds beside the road,
the young orchard waiting in the snow, our own life
that we have planted in the ground, as I
have planted mine in you. I give you my love for all
beautiful and honest women that you gather to yourself
again and again, and satisfy–and this poem,
no more mine than any man’s who has loved a woman.

Wendell Berry, from “The Country of Marriage: Poems”

All the images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons, beginning with The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. A Kiss between Bride and Groom is the work of Bleiglass, followed by Hands Free of Takuma Kimura. Finally comes The Kiss by Bernardien Sternheim.

Dying to be Seen, but Afraid to be Seen: Where Insecurity and Invisibility Meet

The quiet ones envy those who are sociable. Not always, but often. They wish for an ease of contact which is not theirs. Too many hunger for understanding, for a kind person to recognize them, accept them; even love them. They are dying to be seen, but afraid to be seen.

Anonymity is the preferred choice. Many escape to the shadows, at least if they can.

Don’t raise your hand, says Mr. Anxiety, even if you have the right answer. Too risky. Your voice might quiver, your hand might shake, and there could be a follow-up question which leaves you speechless.

The insecure ones make a trade. They take the apparent safety of invisibility at the price of being ignored, misunderstood, or quickly forgotten. They leave no mark on the world, hoping to avoid criticism and ostracism. Better to take yourself out of the competition for attention than be told to go away. Of course, you wind up alone, but you persuade yourself this is better than rejection.

Instead of belittlement you opt for the shrubbery, hiding behind the bushes. True, sometimes you get wet when the lawn sprinklers go on. Occasionally a kid throws a ball that hits you or a dog sprays you, but you get used to it.

Group conversations are the worst. When might I jump in? My face will flush. They’ll think I’m an idiot, too boring. I’ll just sit tight or stand and nurse my drink.

Who would have thought a man could dive into his glass, hide behind its opacity? Or imbibe enough to shed his disguise and turn into a more outgoing, confident version of himself?

Once you sober up, you will still be like a person with a fire inside who is afraid of venting a smoke signal. The result? You are consumed from within and your glorious flame is unnoticed.

Mark Twain said, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” Change two words and the sentence becomes: the man who does not speak has no advantage over the man who cannot speak. Will you be thought of as the latter? Are you already?

Or have you become someone who is told what he thinks, afraid of challenging a rude or wrong idea? You will be outdone by those with half your intellect. They, the half-brained, are kings and queens in the land of the mute.

You remain unknown, even if others think they’ve sized you up. Many believe you are stuck-up because you avoid them. Some say you are kind, several imagine you lack “personality,” others reckon you stupid, a few timid: an easy mark to be pushed around. Most strangers form no opinion. Not one of them will be completely right, know the whole package. You won’t even be seen in full by yourself.

Your attempt to vanish is exhausting. The task is like running a race, trying to escape the eyes of others, but distancing yourself from yourself. If all escape routes close you will grab your throat and squeeze, stifle your emotions and ideas so as not to offend anyone.

Do you wish asphyxiation by your own hands?

I hear you gagging.

Do I know you? Not completely. But I’ve seen you and I might have been you a long time ago.

It wasn’t fun.

It’s not as if everyone else is completely visible. No one is. One might display an eyebrow or an ankle, even a heart: that most precious portion of ourselves when offered as a present. Such a one is trying, practicing, gathering momentum.

A gradual path toward self revelation can grow on you.

In the end, however, if you are seen but unseen, dying to be seen but afraid to be seen, you should realize something: you cannot be both.

You must choose or remain in torment.

The therapist’s door is waiting, but even there you can try to be invisible.

A pity.

Counselors, you understand, don’t do their best work blindfolded.

The top image is a photo of the cover of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. The cover was illustrated by Ludvik Strimpl and the photo taken by Gallica/Sudoc. The image was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Becoming a Traitor to Yourself

All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.

So begins Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. But these words apply to more of us than the black protagonist of his novel. A careful reader will recognize how many psychotherapy bloggers are quick to condemn themselves. They define themselves as terrible human beings, inconsiderate and selfish. They believe their resentments should neither be felt nor displayed. A “better” person would be kinder, forgiving, more generous. Their unhappiness is taken as a commentary on their value, a failing grade in the class of life.

You will see them marching voluntarily to the world’s slag heap of unnecessary and misshapen things, beyond repair or redemption. They say, in effect, “If you wish to find me you must dig deep in a landfill, where I belong.” I asked one, in light of her self-assignment to the discard pile of life, how then she might describe herself if she were a spouse abuser or terrorist. These are far worse human behaviors than she’d reported and, it seemed to me, her self-condemnation went too far.

Here was a lady who sprinted to the local lumber yard, bought some wood, constructed a cross, and nailed herself to her destiny. To my mind, the bowels of hell (if such exist) are occupied by a group to which she doesn’t belong. They’d laugh if she requested admission.

I might have said, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”

We can, in just this type of self-punishment, turn traitor to ourselves. I’m not suggesting anyone is perfect. But few of us are so unworthy that we must become our own dartboard. We bleed enough at the hands of fate without offering ourselves as a pin cushion. Some of us have been assigned a shape not our own. Life seems inauthentic. We must reform ourselves, shed the shape assigned, and work to improve it.

First, however, we must buy a new flashlight, stand in a new place, and look with new eyes.

Ellison’s fictional young man sought answers about a path forward. He wished to know who he was. The earnest fellow thought it best to ask others wiser and older. No flashlights for him.

Asked or not, those others give us our first sense of self by what they say and do. Their kindness suggests we are worthy. If they blame us we might think we are not. If they offer false gods, we get a counterfeit sense of what life is or “should” be. We are in the dark.

Ellison’s protagonist tells us he was indoctrinated for 20 years and needed another 20 to achieve self-awareness: to throw-off the self-destructive beliefs he had about himself and the nature of the world. Where can you go to find out whether you are as awful as you think, assuming you don’t like yourself?

Some begin by questioning the most basic assumptions they have. These include whether authority figures are usually right. Which authority figures?

All of them: your parents, government officials, best friends, clergy, and spouse are not exempt. The ones in power and the ones who want it. The pretenders and their defenders. The crowd and the solitary man. The critics and the critics’ critics, the know-nothings and the do-nothings, the show horses and the work horses. Include your therapist, too.

Even your God.

What do I mean? If you have been shamed and demeaned or neglected, especially in your early life, such treatment came from those on this list. If you accept their judgment then you internalize the guilty verdict on your character and talent. You will judge yourself as they have, carrying their voice, now your own, inside you. Indeed, if even a house of God is the source of repeated reminders of the indelible blackness in your heart, a religious book can become a cudgel to beat you with.

Worse still, believing them, you will continue to seek their “wisdom” and approval; desiring a possible reconsideration of your character since their magnetic attraction remains powerful. Or, you may search for others like them, those who claim they are only doing this (injury to you) “for your own good;” in effect, redefining harm as “caring.”

Here is the first bit of “fake news” we receive in life, making us vulnerable to those who offer us — their sheep — a caring hand that will instead shear us of the goods we own and the belief in our own goodness. These “wrong choices” of association with “wrong” people depend on the magnetism they share with those who began our “wrong” indoctrination.

Their magic only disappears when you recognize who they really are; and, who you really are.

Some authority figures deserve to pass the test. Others do not, nor should you return to them. You may be scared to be without their shoddy shelter. The security you believe they offer, however, is an illusion. You can only get out and get away.

All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.

The first painting is George Hooker’s The Subway (1950). The second is the work of Tetsya Ishida: The Servitude and Deforming of the Salary Man.

The Music of Catastrophe

If music means something important to us, our contact with a new person finds us trying to discover what musical loves we might share. Thus do friendship and romance begin.

In a world where isolated suffering comes easily, music, like some of the other arts, reveals we have much company in our emotional distress.

Songs add language to instrumental expression, making them more precise in meaning than purely instrumental music. Vocal composition is literally sung to words, but there is just as much of the human experience in the more abstract forms, even if a symphony is not so easily identified with the particular circumstance (say, a broken heart) described in lyrics.

Sound offers solace if a composition reaches the tender, injured place inside. Few pieces, however, deal with cataclysm and collapse. To my ears, one of those is the Symphony #4, the last such work of German composer Johannes Brahms.

Brahms was a life-long bachelor from Hamburg, who died in 1897. He achieved recognition early and much success afterwards. The major unhappiness of his life was his unfulfilled romantic attachment to Clara Schumann, 14 years his senior; the widow of the man who first recognized his genius, the composer Robert Schumann. Some believe their age difference, his virtual adoption by the couple, and the shadow of Brahms’s indebtedness to her late husband made the consummation of his ardor impossible. Brahms’s final symphony reveals he knew much about human calamity, whatever its source.

Lacking a description from the composer about what his symphony “meant” — if anything or nothing — we are left to make our response personal. Perhaps no language exists with which to “understand” Brahms’s Fourth and my use of catastrophe is misplaced, but I am not alone in the opinion.

That disaster, if there is one, occurs in the fourth and last section of the work, the concluding 10-minutes or so. There, too, you will hear a much commented upon “conversational” quality in Brahms, when the wind instruments “speak” to each other. David Hurwitz of Classics Today, finds “active rage and impassive grandeur” in the ending. Jerry Dubins wrote, in Fanfare magazine, of the “final rush to oblivion … on the symphony’s preordained appointment with disaster and annihilation” in “a score of gloom and doom.”

Why might one want to listen given this description?

To me and the many who rank the work one of the most perfect and moving in the entire classical repertoire, much poignant beauty accompanies the ride into the abyss; indeed, because of it. The reasons for listening are no different from those causing us to appreciate a sad song. In Brahms’s 40-minutes we become the composer, inhabit his intellectual and emotional journey, and are seized by towering grandeur; perhaps even  swept away, exhilarated by the suspense and power, and moved to tears. Some would say a great work of art, if masterfully performed, can change us.

Franz Kafka knew the power of all art forms and wrote about the potentially transformational impact of writing:

What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be like an ax to break the frozen sea within us.

Will you be changed?

You can find out in 40-minutes time.

The top photo is the work of Ville Miettinen. It is described as, “A crevasse (moulin) in the Langjökull glacier, Iceland. At the time it was perhaps three or four meters long, a meter wide and some 30-40 meters deep.” The second image is the 20-year-old Brahms in 1853. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.