When Politics or Religion Enter the Therapy Session

We all hear stories of political differences breaking families and friendships, setting neighbor against neighbor. Romantic partners recoil upon discovery their partner excuses inhumane and unconscionable policies advocated by elected officials.

Oh, my, who is this person?enters their mind if not their speech.

But what happens to the relationship between a therapist and his patient when religion or politics slips under the door?

We don’t ask about party affiliation when someone requests an appointment. Nor do patients tend to inquire who a potential counselor is voting for, though I fielded occasional questions about my creed before a possible client booked a session.

Therefore a few did not.

Revelations about the client’s convictions are, like his history, something unveiled during the treatment’s course. Counselors try to separate political and religious ideas (indeed, values in general) from their effort to help improve their patient’s life.

Health care practitioners do not treat only those who share our world view or the prospect of a life beyond.

A majority of written records of Christian patients filled-up my locked metal file cabinets. Productive therapeutic relationships with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, atheists, and agnostics made up my practice, as well.

One who wishes to understand a new person intends to learn about his overall background, including the role faith plays, if any. I found religion to be an essential boon to some, the steadying foundation upon which they mounted their life.

I came to recognize a number, however, whose sense of inadequacy appeared tied to church teaching.

Sometimes they had so-called “devout” parents who condemned, abused, or neglected them from an early age. Others described a painful lack of support experienced in their adult faith community. Some felt judged because their reliance upon God alone proved insufficient to surmount their psychological injuries.

In these cases, I asked questions to prompt reflection on the complications of the views and people they were struggling with, as well as their benefits. If they resisted, I worked around the problem and dealt with what was permitted. My approach with the non-religious was similar.

What does this (belief, or behavior, action, or inaction) cost you?

Part of the counselor’s dilemma is this: certain viewpoints and values, scriptural or political, can be like the most important load-bearing walls within a home. To remove or fracture such supports will cause the whole building to buckle if not collapse.

Strong opinions about politics share characteristics with dogmatic religious ones. Unshakable gut reactions often drive those certainties. Reasoning about them is not the job of a helping professional and is fruitless in any case.

While a devoted person might offer a rationale for his choice of church or candidate, Jonathan Haidt’s research underlines the extent to which emotions, not logical thought, precede these convictions. Reason tends to follow long-imbedded, instinctual affiliations, not create them.

The therapeutic process of unwinding self-injurious attachments of this kind is usually more than psychotherapy can or should take on.

Healers must be wary of their own limitations and biases. A danger exists when formidable gaps take up the space between the personal ideals and principles held by their patient and themselves.

Those differences transform the doctor’s singular focus of aiding a fellow human’s quest for a better life. He now risks harming the sufferer by inadvertent indifference, failing empathy, or judgmental statements. Body language and facial expressions, as well, may intrude on the benevolence needed to help.

The individuals we take in our charge depend on our goodwill. No one desires to gaze at narrowed eyes seemingly edged with daggers. Past history has already filled their cup of accumulated unkindness above the “full” mark.

In addition to suicide, the most extreme tendencies our clients bring to us are problems of lawbreaking and a threat to the safety of the community. If we meet a spousal abuser seated in our office, it matters little whether the person claims his denomination or politics justifies his brutality.

A therapist’s responsibilities include protection of life if the patient poses an imminent risk of harm to himself or others, regardless.

I am sure there are people I could not engage in a joint healing project because of my feelings about their beliefs, especially in the current pandemic-infused election leadup. A white supremacist would be just one such example for most counselors.

Perhaps outpatient therapists are fortunate because antisocial extremists tend not to seek our service. By the time they reach the stage of showing force or worse, few unburden their souls to strangers. A therapist is neither a magician nor a divine being. More than ever, he must acknowledge his limits to himself. His job inside those boundaries is difficult enough.

———

The top image is “The Bramante Staircase,” Vatican Museums, as photographed by Andreas Tille. Next comes The Horseshoe Falls, Niagra,” by William England. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Best Man: Remembering Joe Pribyl

In a world rife with helplessness, an old friend comes to mind. His memory provides one answer to the question of life’s meaning in a moment suggestive of a heartless and strange cosmic order.

You would not think Joe Pribyl a remarkable man upon first acquaintance.

Some people possess an arresting presence. Joe did not. A stocky man, a bit under average height, he had graying hair and lacked whatever grace or style makes some people appear to be wearing a custom-made suit instead of a borrowed wardrobe.

My friend’s facial features didn’t betray high distinction either, except perhaps for deep vertical creases and old acne scars, of which Joe possessed more than a few. Yet it did convey warmth and approachability, more appreciable than any sculptural handsomeness.

At the start, I thought his everyman quality diminished him. Before the end of his life, however, I realized the inseparability of his nature and goodness from the human community.

He placed himself with and for every one of us.

Joe was a man of faith, admired by a faithless soul like me. Roman Catholic from start to finish, living his Sunday-service-beliefs every day. His grace came not from appearance, but kindness toward others, from waitresses to total strangers. The essence of his being was on display, fully himself, the rare unselfconscious human with nothing hidden.

He volunteered. He served. He raised his hand.

For years this therapist and his wife, Mary, also a psychologist in the practice they shared, organized a mission to Central America. The well-matched couple brought books to educate the sea of dispossessed, illiterate, and impoverished brown youngsters most of us don’t consider.

Doctor Pribyl did not consign a remedy for the world’s ills to someone else.

Brave enough to display tears, my friend never wept for himself, but others. Yet Joe was one of the few people I ever met who was content.

The healer displayed remarkable equanimity and courage in dealing with the near-death experience of a heart attack in a foreign and ill-equipped land. Later cancer stalked him, hanging around, as it sometimes does, never quite vanishing. Joe integrated the latter disease into the fabric of his existence as a natural event, not a matter of personal unfairness or rage.

On display was all the towering distinction my friend’s physicality lacked, but only if you focused hard, long, and understood him well.

Death came, a bigger than life opponent with an undefeated record, but not before Joe tricked the grim reaper into allowing additional time for attention to his patients, the woman he loved, the family dearest to him, and his lucky friends. I’ve never witnessed a better magic act.

In the overtime, extra-time of Joe’s life, I talked with him about my new grandson, almost two-years-old when the therapist passed. Grandparents wonder what the future holds for the little ones, who they will become.

I’m sorry Joe isn’t around to represent what one man can be, can do. If my grandsons were older and Joe still alive, I might point to him and say, “Look, look at this fine person. Look beyond appearances. This is a man. My friend is what a man should try to be.

This gentile soul, dead almost two years and a confidant for half my life, was a quiet fellow with an easy laugh. He didn’t come to impress you. While some people converse to be heard, he came to know you. There was little judgment in him.

His self-effacing way, at first, made me think nothing of his offer of friendship. Before the end, I recognized him as one of the great gifts of my life.

Thinking about Joe this morning, I reflected on the question with which I began this essay.

How do we persuade ourselves of a just deity in the face of all the world’s casualties? I imagined myself, a non-believer, asked to defend God in a criminal proceeding.

The reel of my imagination unspooled as a trial would.

First, the prosecutor made his case, piling up the innumerable instances of tragedy, natural and human. Of disease and murder, duplicity, betrayal, racism, slavery, and wartime. Of geological catastrophes sweeping the multitudes away, Jehovah’s Old Testament, self-created flood included.

The lawyer went on for hours and even cut short the presentation, convinced his case irrefutable. I doubted my argument in God’s defense: Joe’s life as an example of God’s best work, best man.

My turn came, the Lord’s defender. I told stories about my friend, including much of what you now know. I didn’t go on for long.

The verdict came from the bench, not a jury. The female presiding wore a blindfold, as Justice is supposed to. She gripped the scales in her right hand, on one side piled high with the prosecutor’s evidence.

On the other sat Joe, since no graven images or likenesses of the Almighty are allowed us. My friend’s figure lay in the shadow of the towering count of accusations against the God of his belief. The adjudicator would soon release the balance she maintained, allowing the evidence to determine the outcome.

A courtroom full of eyes were on the apparatus, waiting for its pivot, though I couldn’t watch. I’m told for a moment nothing happened, then the scales of justice shuddered and a grinding, terrifying sound came out of nowhere.

I looked up. One side plunged.

I cannot tell you how I knew, but beneath her blindfold, I’m certain Lady Justice was winking at me.

Some “Super” and Surprising Advice

Though I am not Ask Amy, Carol Hax, or Dear Abby, today I present advice over 100-years-old. Life-changing notions, many think. Below is memorable guidance on how best to live from a man famous for saying, “I am dynamite!”

While lions and tigers and bears don’t menace us anymore, the writer in question claims we face towering psychological challenges without them. The following aphorisms try to scale those heights.

I’ll reveal our secret advisor, N, before this essay’s end.

Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.

We are, according to the author, desperate to be many things to many people. The masses are hypnotized by beliefs learned long ago, beliefs repeated over and over by our parents, relatives, our community, teachers, and religious leaders.

We want to fit in and “succeed” as defined by our nation and neighbors, and rise to the afterlife. This leads to a “herd mentality,” in the words of the wise man.

Winning a mate is dependent on what others think of us and how well we conform to the popular estimate of desirability. As N observes, we wear masks instead of embracing our own inner truth. Thus, he also wrote:

Become what you are.

Put differently, he refers to a potential transformation of ourselves once we throw off the training wheels and invisible guide wires society uses to constrain us. Having accomplished this emancipation (no one else will do it for us) we can be what we should be. Humans are otherwise automatons tricked into believing they are liberated and enlightened.

Let the youthful soul look back on life with the question: what have you truly loved up to now, what has drawn your soul aloft, what has mastered it and at the same time blessed it? Set up these revered objects before you and perhaps their nature and their sequence will give you a law, the fundamental law of your own true self.

When those words are followed, N believed they lead us to discover that which is at our core. The real identity within us can be glimpsed if we possess the courage to break the “group think” of the tribe. Few will have the will power to do it. N insisted only a handful of us will identify and reject the restrictions stamped onto and into us from our beginnings.

Finally,

You repay a teacher badly by becoming merely a pupil.

Here, the German philosopher (I’m giving you a hint as to his identity) defines what he means by a student. N tells us we are pupils not only of the instructors we meet in school, but the received “wisdom” of institutions and authorities, including government, religion, philosophers, and books. We must dispense with whatever part of their thinking doesn’t survive critical analysis.

Our task is to leave behind worn-out doctrines and replace them with our own. Indeed, he hopes the beginner will, by dint of his internal strength, courage, and intellect, create a revolution in his thought. The most extraordinary among us, N imagined, become breakers of norms, inventors of a re-engineered vision of the world and our own place outside of the mainstream. The former novice thereby morphs into a superman (Übermensch).

The creator of these ideas was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), a German philosopher and cultural critic. This groundbreaking thinker had the misfortune not only of an early breakdown but an anti-Semitic sister who misrepresented his work just as it began to gain attention and after he was incapacitated.

While Nietzche rejected the doctrine of Aryan and national German superiority voiced by the reactionary writers of his time, the Nazis caused the further posthumous distortion of claiming him as their philosophical mentor.

His Übermensch was a rare and solitary hero of individualism, not part of any racial white herd who bowed robot-like before a leader, whether religious or governmental. He rejected materialism, capitalism, and outward show. Nietzche’s enlarged man, instead, met life without fear, realizing his personal (not group) potential and finding joy in his short existence, come good fortune or bad.

Shall we develop and live by our own out-of-the-box ideas, rejecting the tribal masses in their lockstep march to a tune other than their own?

Only if we are brave enough, said Nietzsche.

—–

The first two paintings are by Paul Klee: Senecio (1922) and Magic Mirror (1934). They are sourced from Paul Klee.net/ The final image is Friedrich Nietzche (1906) by Edvard Munch, from Wikiart.org/

Thirty-six Righteous People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The humble Lamedvavniks are doers.

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

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

—–

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

Is a Breakup Ever Harder Than a Death? Reflections on the Complexity of Grieving

“You need to grieve,” is easy to say, hard to do. Some equate it with “feeling sorry for yourself” or insufficient religious faith. Others tell you the endeavor is not “manly.” A few give it a time limit and cut off the process too soon.

What else might block this dark passage to recovery?

The short answer? It sometimes takes longer to recover from the end of relationships with the living than those who are dead. Their continuing life holds out the possibility of a long shot, perfected resumption: a second chance at the prize.

As terrible as it is to survive the demise of one you love, the psychological remedy is relatively direct. Death means losing not only the departed, but the disappearance of whatever future you desired. Was there an apology you never got, but awaited forever? Would he have said, “I love you,” the words you never heard? “I’m proud of you” perhaps? Were there plans in the offing for a continuation of your bond with a being like no other?

All hopes are shattered by Death, a bigger than Life opponent with an undefeated record. Grieving becomes the only way to reconcile yourself to what you missed.

But what about a person who yet lives, but not within the relationship you desire?

Let’s say you reside with your parents or an unloving spouse, are financially dependent, and the object of unrelenting emotional neglect or abuse. Your dependency evokes grudging gratitude, but also fear of losing financial support.

Were you to open the full extent of your heartbreak and anger, it might be more difficult to contend with the ones who continue to heap misery on you. The wall built to endure mistreatment could crumble. A darker depression and rage against them or yourself will not now improve your life. Postponement of this therapeutic exploration (beyond awareness that you need to get out) is often the wisest course until your living circumstances are favorable.

A faith community that believes in instant “forgiveness” (or reflexive honor to parents and spouse) is also challenging. If you lack congregational support for the therapeutic process, you are likely to experience the very kind of invalidation, guilt, and misunderstanding you want to escape. Beware, too, an internal and external pressure to “be good,” win the approval of your coreligionists and friends, and don a smiling mask disguising private unhappiness.

Parental death, at whatever age, supplies notice of one’s permanent eviction from childhood. We receive automatic sympathy upon its publication. Widows and widowers are honored in the same fashion.

Not so for the ones who cannot have the other they prefer. No plot of land called a cemetery — respected and visited — is dedicated to their loss; nor the black attire or armband officially signaling their grief.

The graveyard of ended love affairs exists only in the mind of the bereft. Visiting hours are listed in the imagination as “anytime,” the garments of mourning observed from the inside alone.

Many face this grief in the world of divorce and shared child-rearing responsibilities. Continuing friction between the adults can endanger the well-being of the child. Treatment must honor the heartbroken parent, and enable a tightrope walk over a cesspool of emotional turbulence that might swallow you as well as your offspring.

Another roadblock to ending a living grief resides in a simple word called hope. Who can say when it is time to give up hope? How do you know when hope is misplaced? Who among us is certain when a fantasized future is the equivalent of a sunk cost: in effect, throwing good money after bad because you have already invested so much in another human being?

Exit from love’s casino is always a gamble. Memory and desire insist, “‘Tis not too late. …” When friends suggest you move on, however, they are not always wrong.

I recall a young lady in her early teens. Her father’s death years before did not unmake the “relationship’s” continuation. The worshipful veneration at the shrine she erected permitted an idealization that made the stepfather pale in comparison.

The latter was a fine man who wanted to give the teen all possible affection and guidance, but could not leap the barrier with which my patient surrounded herself. Only when she recognized the cost of her preoccupation with the biological father, did she embrace the decent man holding on to his own version of hope.

Loss of love, whatever the cause or consideration it receives, is not well-captured by the clichéd word heartbreak. Rather, the heart cracks, seeps, bleeds; it shudders, submerges, or bursts. The tissue tears and weeps. For most of us, the blessed thing will force itself to repair, reform, and — yes — take heart and try again. The heart, remember, is a muscle.

Patients always need to clean their wounds and suffer the sting such cleansing brings, even if touching them requires delicacy on the counselor’s part. The demands of work, child-rearing, housekeeping, and the daily indignities of life must also be respected for the therapeutic obstacles they can be. These complications function like the huge linemen in American-style football, blocking your progress toward the place you need to go.

Like therapy, American football is played 60-minutes at a time.

The best players find a way to get around and over those giant opponents; not as fast as one would like, of course, and not without bruising. Those who “break through” to victory are talented and relentless.

Courage takes more than a physical form, you know.

I saw it displayed in my office, in the therapeutic integrity of people just a few feet away.

They have long since left that place, but my awe and pride in them have not departed.

———————-

The first image is called, Knock Apparition Cloud by Froshea. The next one is entitled, Sad Woman. Jiri Hodan is the creator. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The bottom photograph is Georgia O’Keeffe, Abiquiu, N.M., 1984 by Bruce Weber.

How Far Should #MeToo Go?

To my knowledge the dilemma hasn’t happened yet, but it seems inevitable. One of the sex abusers identified by the #MeToo movement will die and need burial. Opposition to this will come.

Someone or perhaps many will say, “Not in the same cemetery with someone I respect, someone I love. Not in the same place I will be buried.”

There are historical precedents, as related below.

The question then becomes, how far do we take punishment? Do we make it posthumous?

The link here is to an essay I wrote in 2018, prompted by the death of a World War II Nazi war criminal and the opposition to his burial, not only in particular cemeteries, but by two different countries. Ultimately, no one wanted to inter this man’s body except a group of Holocaust deniers.

I’d be most interested in what you might have to say on the subject. Here, again, is the link:

Are Villains Due Respect When They Die?

The photo of Harvey Weinstein was taken by David Shankbone on May 4, 2010 at the Time 100 Gala. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call it a survival technique.

Call it love.

Call it our duty.

We must try.

—————————

Bette Davis is the actress in the top photo.

 

What We Do in Private: the Story of a Good Man

Legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

By that standard none of us receive a perfect score. Worse still, we live in a historical moment in which the highest officials in our country don’t even pass the daily public tests. But this story is about someone who did pass. Hearing about him might allow the rest of us to take heart that virtue is still found in quiet places, where a person is willing to give up something great for something good. Where no audience will ever know.

The tale came from an unremarkable man. He was in his late 40s, a guy who blended into the crowd and had a pretty dreadful middle-management job. Not an assertive fellow. His wife had hen-pecked him into submission, inheriting the role passed to her by his parents. You could almost see the peck-marks, the little dents on his flesh. I once asked him about his sex-life and he laughed while rolling his eyes in a way that revealed he hadn’t had sex in a decade or more. If you knew about the less-than-satisfying marriage, you might have told him to “man up.”

Let’s call him T.

T was a religious person, a bloke who took his faith seriously, even if he relied too much on Jesus’s message, “the meek … shall inherit the earth.” Still, he was bright, companionable, and funny. He considered himself Republican in the old style sense of fiscal and religious conservatism, but had friends among Democrats. One other notable quality possessed by T: he knew more obscure baseball statistics than anyone I knew or know.

If you believe a good man is hard to find, he might be your guy. Or not. Too easy, too timid, too unmade and overmatched by some of the challenges of life. Like many in my generation, the Great Depression through which his parents lived left their only son with a tendency toward economy. Not rich, T drove a high-mileage, well-kept car, up in its years. He did much of the maintenance himself. A polyester kind of soul, but not without talent.

T occasionally employed a local handyman to do odd jobs around his home and another property he inherited when his folks died. The worker was a casual acquaintance, not one invited for dinner or coffee. Not even a person T talked baseball with. Just someone T knew and called if work presented itself. By T’s observation, the fellow wasn’t the best jobber, but good enough and available enough and needed the work. In other words, no one special.

Our hero heard the man was in the midst of economic difficulties. I could tell you T was always selfless, but I don’t think so. Yet, on this occasion, he did something pretty remarkable. He counted out $714 (baseball fans will recognize the number*) in fifties and twenties, a ten and four singles; enveloped the bills, walked over to the handyman’s place on a day he was out being handy, and put the money-laden wrapper in the mail box. No message, no name, no return address. He did not want to embarrass the tradesman or make an offer that might be rejected. T needed no thanks or congratulations or celebration of his good deed. He did not expect to know what happened to the cash. Helping another was the end of the story for him. I found out only in passing because I was his therapist. I’m sure T told no one else, including his wife.

We live in a time when every act of greed or self-interest can be rationalized. Where too many “know the cost of everything and the value of nothing,” to quote Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic. The yellow-fellow on top doesn’t ask, “What would Jesus do?” Or Muhammad or Moses or the Buddha or any other prophet or deity or role-model than the god he makes of himself and his wallet. No, he is not the creature you hoped your sister would marry, your daughter would date.

We Americans are said to be a charitable people, but charity too often applies only to those of our religion, our party, our tribe. Virtue signaling – trumpeting our piety or generosity – masks the misdeeds we do elsewhere. I guess it has always been so.

Research tells us people tend to look at some others as objects, the homeless for example. We hide ourselves in social fortresses of like-minded contacts who hate the people we hate (if we still consider them human) and praise the folks we like. No new thoughts are permitted, no doubts allowed, and “virtue” takes the form of rage and self-congratulations.

But when I begin to despair of the human condition, I turn my remembered gaze upon T: the most average of men, the most extraordinary of men.

He and others I can name offer me hope. He is not perfect and he would not tell you he did anything special. Just what any good person would do.

Thanks, T.

You gave me something, too.

Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The sheet music cover photo of a once popular song dates from 1918.

*The number of home runs Babe Ruth hit in his career.

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.

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.