I suppose every young man, at least in his dreams, imagines being chased by a throng of attractive admirers. Like most, however, I live in relative anonymity. If there were ever any mobs in hot pursuit of me, they must have been invisible and remarkably quiet.
Until recently, that is.
No, I haven’t become a rock star. Indeed, if crowds were to gather around me, I might have expected the attention in the heady days of my early life — back when I was a “stud-muffin.” Since you will not necessarily take the latter description on faith, you can see the proof in this detailed, antique photo. The young woman has asked that I not reveal her name:
In any case, the pursuit I shall describe began in August. A little background is required. Stick with me.
I live in the 10th Congressional District of the State of Illinois. My representative is Republican Robert Dold. In the last Congressional election he defeated incumbent Democrat Brad Schneider. Congressman Schneider wants to take another crack at the seat he lost. The contest will be close, probably less than 5000 votes separating the winner and loser. The candidates are battling for every one of them.
That’s where I come in.
Several weeks back I wrote Mr. Schneider about a policy position on which he and I disagreed. I mentioned my past support of him and present doubts. Within a day or two, I was surprised to get a response from one of his staffers. Not the boilerplate, “form letter” email one usually gets from elected representatives, but one crafted only for me. He wrote to tell me Mr. Schneider wanted to talk to me.
Within days my wife and I had a phone conversation with the former congressman about the issue in question. “Brad,” as he asked me to call him, was a good listener, very bright, and made his case. No one changed positions, but I appreciated the 20-minutes of his time. I thought it would be a “one-off” — something not to be repeated.
This past week, Twitter sent an email informing me of a new “follower” (see below). No, not Mr. Schneider, but his opponent, Congressman Dold. Since I never use Twitter except to announce a new blog post, his “following” can mean only one of two things:
- My representative wants to read future blogs or
- One of his staffers is making an effort to flatter me and, I suspect, every blogger in the 10th Illinois Congressional District expected to vote.
I am not so full of myself to think Mr. Dold wishes to read my blog or even knows of its existence. I do believe, however, his staff is doing everything to garner votes, as one would expect, even to the point of dressing their candidate in the uniform of the Chicago Cubs (again, see below), a baseball team that last won a World Series in 1908, but with a large fan base in our district.
I now feel foolish for never having thought to wear a Cubs uniform in order to increase the size of my therapy practice.
Earlier I failed to mention a third player in the race. Mr. Schneider is opposed in the Democratic Party primary election by Ms. Nancy Rotering, the Mayor of Highland Park, IL. I must say, however, I’m a bit disappointed not to have been contacted by her. Doesn’t she value my vote just as much as Schneider and Dold? Who does she think she is?
What’s more, she is the only female candidate. While my wife and I are happily married, my fantasy didn’t involve being pursued by men. Moreover, I never hoped to be wanted for my vote, but for something more tangible.
The proverb tells us “everything comes to him who waits.”
Well, almost everything.
The “stud muffin” poster is the work of Lauren Eldridge-Murray and can be purchased at http://www.redbubble.com/people/retrocharm/works/6008982-hi-cupcake-hi-stud-muffin?c=109437-funny/ If you mention my name, you will receive no discount. In fact, the poster might cost you a bit more.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 13 so far )
Joe and Laura Hawkins are having marital issues. Laura just left the house without explanation. Joe wonders if she has a lover. He is alone with Anita, the family robot: a “synth” or “synthetic” (pictured above). After a couple of drinks, Joe “turns on” the robot’s sex program and makes use of it. This scene comes from the AMC TV series, “Humans.” The fictional possibility will soon be a present reality.
Question: was Joe unfaithful to Laura? She certainly thought so and kicked him out. The fact that Anita wasn’t “human” was a defense Joe offered — one dismissed by Laura. Where is the line? When do our thoughts, conversations, or physical interactions constitute infidelity?
The easy answer: unfaithfulness consists of sexual intercourse outside of a relationship based on monogamy. But let’s think about other possibilities. You be the judge whether these fit your understanding of “cheating:”
- Oral sex. Bill Clinton’s statement, “I did not have sex with that woman,” was not especially persuasive.
- Intercourse with a non-human, including not only an artificial life form, but any living thing. I once treated a lonely woman who copulated with a large dog. She was not being unfaithful (there was no human lover to betray), but her example offers an unusual extra-marital option for those with a partner who is drawn from Homo sapiens.
- Mutual masturbation.
- Naked kissing and fondling short of either oral sex or intercourse.
- Making out and fondling while clothed.
The above five categories all include physical contact with a person who is not your spouse. Might interaction without touching the other be a betrayal of the monogamous promise? Consider the following:
- Phone sex or other electronic forms of sex play.
- Fantasizing about someone else while having sex with your significant other.
- Masturbation to an image of another. Not just pornography — perhaps only a face or a person clothed.
- Masturbation to the idea (memory) of another without using a visual stimulus.
- Intimacy without physical contact, e.g. shared personal revelations, and mutual psychological support.
- Emotional preoccupation with a former lover without any present communication with the person. Indeed, he needn’t be alive any longer.
- Closeness between a parent and child where the offspring is pressured to be a kind of surrogate spouse, but without sex. The adult shares his troubles with the child. The latter is relied upon to help solve the elder’s problems. Roles are reversed.
As you ponder the question, consider the following true story. An old friend wrote a freshman college essay. The required topic was, “Something to Make the World a Better Place in Which to Live.” My buddy proceeded to describe a masturbation machine. He reasoned that our civilization is full of lonely people without a sexual outlet. Moreover, he believed his invention would cut prostitution and sexual assaults. Such devices now exist, but didn’t then.
What was his reward for an idea before its time? A mandated visit with the school psychiatrist!
Would use of a masturbation machine constitute adultery?
Let’s look at the issue differently. Should infidelity be permissible if
- your spouse refuses sex? You have not copulated in years.
- your partner is or was unfaithful, the latter in the recent past?
- the loved one can’t engage in conjugal relations with you because of a permanent infirmity?
- the spouse is abusive?
- you are stranded on a desert island with only one other person. Is it OK if, after a period of years with no hope of rescue, the two of you become Adam and Eve?
- the husband or wife back home (in the desert island example) at last gives up and begins to date after the same long wait?
In these six conditions, do the special circumstances make the behavior acceptable? In effect, we now have two queries before us:
- What is the definition of infidelity?
- Are there any conditions which remove the moral stain? Put differently, do you believe fidelity is a moral absolute or dependent on the situation? A moral relativist would refrain from a uniform ethical condemnation without considering the details. The Ten Commandments and similar religious prohibitions, however, exemplify an absolute rule: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
If you believe in any mitigating circumstance — an instance in which adultery is OK — remind yourself that infidelity usually involves hiding the truth or frank lying. The ingredients in an extra-marital potion are a combination of breaking with promised monogamy and deceit.
I’d be delighted to read your comments, short or long, on these questions. I hope you will indulge me.
Remember one other thing: where there are already robotic cars, there will soon be synthetic humans with artificial intelligence (AI) superior to mortals. Not to mention bodies impervious to aging (or replaceable with ones as good or better). Human flaws will have been programmed out, but the creation will possess emotions.
The concerns I’ve raised about extra-marital contact will only get more difficult.
Sooner than you think.
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Is erotic transference merely a sexual fantasy about your therapist? Is it a desire for steamy, big screen sex with him? Might something else be happening?
Erotic transference is about more than these brief descriptions suggest. First, let’s deal with what simple “transference” is. Here is Wikipedia’s take:
One definition of transference is “the inappropriate repetition in the present (moment) of a relationship that was important in a person’s childhood.” Another definition is “the redirection of feelings and desires and especially of those unconsciously retained from childhood toward a new object.”
I prefer to broaden the definition a bit. Let’s assume you meet a new person who reminds you of someone else — someone you knew well at an earlier point in life. The resemblance might not even register. Instinct leads you to make certain assumptions about him and to impute qualities to him similar to those of the man in your past. In effect, you are reaching back into your history and transferring feelings and beliefs to your present understanding of the new individual. Moreover, it is likely you will react to this acquaintance as you responded to the previous one, including whatever hopes or desires you unload from man #1 and redirect to man #2.
An experimental or behavioral psychologist would call this “stimulus generalization.” You are acting and reacting to person #2 in a style somewhat like your behavior toward person #1 because of your perception of similarity between them. They needn’t look alike or act identically. Rather, something about them or the situation triggers unconscious feelings and behaviors.
Think back to Pavlov’s dogs. If a dog learns to salivate to the sound of a bell (because the noise precedes the delivery of food), he will also begin to get his juices flowing when a different bell-like sound is heard. The canine, of course, doesn’t say to himself, “Oh, food is coming!” He simply reacts. Transference is like that.
This type of transference or stimulus generalization needn’t be sexual. That is, it need not generate erotic sensations and preoccupations. You can simply enjoy being around the freshly contacted person because of the underlying unconscious affinity toward him derived from the earlier relationship. Similarly, you can automatically dislike, distrust, or detest him, any of which would constitute “negative” transference.
Still with me? Now let’s apply this to your therapist. Add other sentiments (I’ll talk about only positive ones) to those already mentioned. These might include tremendous respect (even reverence) for your healer, confidence, or gratitude; as well as putting him on a pedestal because he is an authority in a position of power relative to you.
Can you now imagine how affection might enter the equation? This man listens to you, comforts you, and works toward your well-being. The therapist is calm and benign. Your relationship is not (I trust) fraught with lack of consideration, conflicts of interest, and the disregard present in all our lives outside the doctor’s office. The consulting room becomes a place of refuge, hope, and possible growth. Your counselor morphs into a magician of the soul, a person who is hard not to idealize. Should he possess a fine physicality, then the slide is further greased to generate sexual attraction; if he is not handsome, the absence of surface beauty may make no difference at all. Even shrinks unpleasing to the eye can carry the same kind of transferential aura.
Last, add one more ingredient to this witches’ brew: the sexual nature of the human race. Spend enough time with a particular member of whichever gender you prefer and, assuming there is even a small amount of appeal, you might discover the affinity grows. Were it otherwise you and I wouldn’t be here. We were built to mate and create offspring who do the same thing. Those ancient humans who didn’t are not the ancestors of the seven billion of us on the planet today. Nature imbedded this prescription in our DNA.
Positive transference toward the doc is rather like a trance. Indeed, the first syllables of transference and trance are similar. Think of the honeymoon period of a romantic relationship or the youthful idealization of a parent or professor. Elements of awe are present. Rationality is not the driver.
Transference can also be triggered by unresolved issues with a parent, as the Wikipedia definitions quoted above suggest. A client might perceive the counselor as a love object in all senses. The doctor’s presence in the patient’s life may silently signal the opportunity to win (at last) the perfect love of a parent substitute. Ironically, the shrink is (or should be) as unobtainable as a time machine designed to give you a better childhood than the one you lived.
Rather than altering the past, transference provides the chance to “work through” old feelings about parents or previous lovers within the consulting room. The counselor helps to grieve the original loss and disappointment of the client’s life in the hope of resolving both the unfinished business of the patient’s emotional past and letting the air out of his irrational attachment to the therapist.
What other meanings can a sexual preoccupation with a therapist indicate? I treated patients who tested me — wanted to find out if I would take the amorous and sensual “bait,” in order to discover whether I was really trustworthy. A patient’s attempt to persuade the therapist to violate his professional ethics can also be, in part, a way to avoid underlying treatment issues. Clients will sometimes use their sexuality in the pursuit of power within a relationship which would otherwise leave the doc “in charge.” Still others confuse love and sex, wanting to be held by the doctor as much or more than penetrated by him.
How do you know whether you are experiencing an erotic transference? Dreaming about your therapist from time to time isn’t remarkable, even if sexualized. I’d say there are two practical markers of a strong erotic transference:
- You are so preoccupied with your therapist as a potential sexual object that you can’t focus on the important treatment issues.
- You become repeatedly aroused in the session to the point of becoming lubricated (if female) or erect (if male).
Your shrink is unlikely to address the issue unless you take the initiative to do so first. Why? Suggesting you are sexually motivated can be profoundly embarrassing to the patient. It might be taken as a rebuke. Moreover, the therapist isn’t always right. Trust and safety are big issues in treatment. Good counselors avoid fueling the discomfort of what is already a risky business of self-disclosure and “naked” examination of the psyche. Pointing to possible sexual arousal in the patient is often interpreted as erotic interest from the doc.
Should you experience an erotic transference that interferes with your psychotherapy, the question of mentioning it to your therapist arises. If the healer is well-practiced, ethical, and wise, he has heard and accepted such revelations before. He will try his best to treat you with gentleness while, at the same time, informing you that such relationship (if acted upon) would injure both you and himself. Questions of your attraction to him are irrelevant (except as grist for the therapeutic mill) if he is good at his work and maintains the barrier to sexual intimacy that is for your benefit.
Your feelings are not good or bad. The garment of lust misplaced on your therapist’s shoulders, however understandable its arrival there, must be unraveled.
The best counselors might be thought of as guides through a maze. Life is full of mazes. Each of us has our own and all of us feel confused or lost at times. Erotic transference is just another part of the puzzle, another challenge along the path. Not abnormal or bizarre, but the material of life subjected to the alchemy of therapy; from which, we hope, to create sustenance for the journey home.*
*Thanks to Tina at her blog, xrsize12, for suggesting I write about this topic. The images both come from the 1963 movie, Charade, with Carey Grant and Audrey Hepburn. The first of these was downloaded to Wikipedia by BlueStar.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 35 so far )
The brain and the heart converse, but don’t always listen. They are like the angel and the devil (or vice versa) each whispering into a different ear. This is a problem when it comes to romance — especially on the lonely rebound — especially for women.
The stereotype tells us women are less able to separate sex and love. Enter the interim boyfriend — the one you are intuitively drawn to despite his deficits: “Mr. Right Now.” Intuition, loneliness, or boredom start the process and reasons are created to justify the inclination. So instructed, the head says some version of the following:
Well, he’s not perfect, but he is a good companion for the time being. I know he does (or doesn’t do) ____________ (fill in the blank with whatever disqualifies him from becoming a first class companion). I know he’s got some defects. I’ll keep myself in check. I’ll be in control. I’ll be safe. He’ll fill the gap until “Mr. Right” turns up. I won’t be so lonely in the meantime, because “Mr. Right Now” will be fun.
The heart is still. Unengaged. Untroubled. Quiet. Deaf. The intuition-led brain is in charge and says all the right things. The man’s deficits — perhaps overuse of alcohol or free spending or immaturity or selfishness — are noticed but not troublesome. He is, after all, temporary. The couple talk about the “no strings” nature of their interaction, their “sexpectations.” There is a promise not to get too involved. They might describe their connection as “friends with benefits,” as if words collar feelings — leash the heart against leaping.
As the old saying goes, if you want to hear laughter, tell God your plans!
Time passes. Familiarity brings comfort. Sex adds excitement and closeness.
The heart begins to flutter. That is why the heart exists. The brain had been in charge and made promises the unhearing heart did not keep. Love conquers. The head still recognizes all the defects of “Mr. Right Now” — the things that disqualified him from the lead role. He auditioned for the understudy position, the guy who fills in when Mr. Right isn’t available.
The heart is now in charge. The shortcomings of the short-term fellow no longer matter. He is the leading man. The brain, if it ever was in charge, is either silenced or ignored.
The heart has the whip hand. Reasons are manufactured to justify feelings:
Well, he’s not perfect, but who is? I’ll talk to him about the things he needs to change, what I need from him. He’ll listen. He’ll change. Besides, he has so many good qualities. He’s a wonderful person, he just needs to (pick one or more):
- grow up a little
- be honest
- spend less time with his friends
- put me ahead of his family
- be more (or less) concerned with money
- be more ambitious
- be more (or less) preoccupied with work
- become more sensitive, especially to me
- listen better
- be neater
- drink (or use drugs) less
- _________________ (Fill in the blank)
Unfortunately, before long you are a prisoner in a trap you set yourself. You recognize the impossibility of your magical plans for the lover’s transformation, but you are hip deep in love. The chains of affection are heavy and take you under. You are straightjacketed like Houdini, but don’t have his gift for escape. Too late, you realize you fooled yourself. You are sinking. You mistook the straightjacket for a life jacket.
The inoculation against the love bug failed. Your heart is now infected. The new BF (boyfriend), lover, companion, stud puppet (whatever you want to call him) is in your blood.
Like any infection, some time is needed to recover. The task is easier if no children are involved, no marriages planned, and you have the courage to look hard at reality. Sooner is better than later. “The heart is a lonely hunter”* and, once that vital organ snuggles up to someone, detachment isn’t easy.
At best, you learned some painful lessons:
- First, all important lessons are painful.
- Second, you aren’t as smart as you thought.
- Third, there are worse things than loneliness.
- Fourth, temptation is easier to avoid than resist.
- Fifth, your reasons followed your intuition, your biology, your neediness, or all three. You wanted to go out with someone who wasn’t right. No wonder your reasons weren’t reasonable or ultimately effective in protecting you.
Most people, including more men than will admit it, make some version of the same mistake. You are human, so you make mistakes.
You might know someone about to step on the slippery slope I’ve described. You are welcome to share my post, but don’t bet big money on persuading your friend of the dangers. Spilled milk, spilled tears — without them we learn very little. “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” as Alexander Pope wrote three centuries ago. There are times when we are all fools. Get the tissues ready.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a 1940 novel by Carson McCullers, adapted into a 1968 movie of the same name and a 2005 play.
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Early in my life, as I lay in bed in the brief dreamy but not dreaming moments before sleep, I’d think up a short list of things I wanted. These were experiences or objects or abilities I believed might make me happier — improve my life in some significant and permanent way. The list included learning to drive a car, having a girlfriend, being as good in science as my friend Steve — those sorts of things.
While I never became the world-famous scientist Steve Henikoff is, I achieved much of value both on and off the lists I imagined when I was 10 or 15. Later the practice of making nighttime aims fell away. No, I didn’t get A’s in all my school work or win every girl I fancied, but few people do.
I discovered goals on a list are a bit like the candy in a PEZ dispenser. The candy is spring-loaded into its container. As soon as you remove the piece at the top, another piece is pushed up to take its place. So long as the dispenser holds more candy, one morsel is replaced by the next. Just so, as soon as you check-off an item on your goal list, another pops to the top.
We don’t seem to remain satisfied. You eat a meal, but before long you get hungry again. You have sex, but, however wonderful, you won’t remain ecstatic forever. You eat a piece of chocolate, but it’s not so fulfilling as to satiate you. More is usually required. Robert Wright, the Princeton psychologist, talks about this in his lectures on the subject of Buddhist psychology. Moreover, he says, this is part of the reason people are so often dissatisfied with the way things are.
The Buddhists call the experience (and much worse catastrophes) dukkha or suffering. To them dukkha is the central part of life. In their view, emotional pain is caused by grasping for things we don’t possess, the endless wish for fame or money or acclaim we don’t have, or holding tightly to those same things for fear of losing them. The Buddhists contend our misconception of how to live contributes to dissatisfaction and anxiety. They point to a path away from unhappiness and toward acceptance instead of grasping, contentment with our lot in life, and living in the moment. In effect, they tell us we are trying to fill up a pail with a large hole in it and can never make our lives whole in this way.
There should be no surprise people make poor choices of how to live. We see it all the time in acquaintances, but perhaps less often in ourselves. Research concludes we are not good at knowing in advance what things or activities will offer happiness — give some lasting satisfaction. In fact, psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Charles Wilson coined a phrase for this: “miswanting” or desiring things that won’t provide the emotional benefit we expect. Dukkha here we come.
Perhaps even worse, because the mind drifts so easily to what is wrong in life, we try to keep busy and distract ourselves. We fail to take time to focus on the problem of “miswanting” or any other self-inflicted emotional wound. We stay on the treadmill of misguidedness, heading in a direction that hasn’t worked in the past and probably won’t work in the future. Kate Murphy describes our discomfort with quiet thought in a New York Times article of July 25, 2014. Rather than the painful job of self-reflection, we choose to stay too busy to think, ignore how we are hurting ourselves, and don’t consider a big change of direction.
Look around you. Just about everyone wants more money, a more satisfying intimate relationship, a better residence in a new place, a fancier phone, different clothes, a better job, a nicer office; but soon after an item on the list is achieved dissatisfaction returns.
Robert Wright says this is no accident. Indeed, he points to the work of evolutionary psychologists who believe evolution is the culprit behind our discontent, broadly speaking. He is not trying to make light of the genuine wrongs in the world, but rather to look at why human existence is generally so difficult — even for those who are not suffering from stretches of terrible luck or misfortune.
Wright uses food and sex as examples in the set of lectures he produced for Coursera, the free online source of university level education from some of the best instructors in the world. Wright says evolution (or Mother Nature) has set us up to be unsatisfied much of the time.
Remember the chocolate? Wright states if you are a chocolate lover, at the end of having a bite you are going to want more. Your satisfaction is temporary. Why is this? Evolutionary psychologists like Wright believe our distant ancestors (early men and women) discovered fruit was sweet and tasty. Those who enjoyed and ate it regularly were more likely to survive than those who either couldn’t find any fruit, didn’t care for it, or didn’t seek more. The survivors produced children who had the same genetic makeup and also enjoyed sweet things. In other words, evolution favored those who ate (and eventually learned to grow) fruit.
The twist in the story came when candy was created in India, over two centuries ago. Later on, man would find all sorts of ways to add sugar to his diet and the products sold in groceries. The irony of this survival story is that the same affinity for sweetness, once widely helpful to our distant progenitors’ survival, now contributes to a USA obesity epidemic.
Now think about sex. Ancient humans who had sex one time only and were so overwhelmed and permanently fulfilled by the experience aren’t our ancestors. Had everyone been like them our species would be extinct. Indeed, we can assume the genetic line of those who had little interest in sex vanished. We are the progeny of a group of humans who enjoyed sex, weren’t perpetually fulfilled by it, and kept looking for more sexual opportunities, as most of us do. For the same evolutionary reasons, we are alive because those primitive humans also had feelings of affection toward mates and children, wanted to protect them, and thus increased the chance the kids would live to reproduce themselves.
In our twenty-first century world we continue to pair with others to survive, mutually protect each other, and teach our children how to manage the same life project. You might think you are making money just to get a nicer car or a bigger apartment, but the evolutionary scientists would say you are preoccupied with such things because signs of status and power made our ancestors more appealing as mates. Those who were more desirable, more able to protect their mates, and thought more physically fit had an increased chance of passing forward their genetic “stuff” to another generation.
If you believe men preoccupied with “hot” women are shallow, remember that appearance drew our ancient ancestors to one another. Those who chose lovers who looked healthy — capable of bearing and nursing children in the case of females — were more likely to reproduce and raise kids who grew to do the same thing. Thus, it became automatic for people to consider surface qualities. We come by our shallowness honestly! Mother Nature is the real culprit.
Wright makes the point that the evolutionary process aims at only one thing: getting your genetic material into the world of the future. Evolution is not inclined to make us happy.
Indeed, Mother Nature sometimes fools us into doing things that aren’t going to make us anything but miserable. Consider how desperate we can become thinking the next job, promotion, or mate will generate everlasting bliss. Alas, once achieved, the satisfaction and happiness are only temporary. Another piece of PEZ pops to the top of the PEZ dispenser and we expect the next target will be the key to joy.
Sometimes the characteristics fostered by evolution are terrific. They have, after all, kept our species alive. Curiosity, competitiveness, and intelligence are great (leading to medical progress, higher living standards, and the Internet), but too often our evolutionary residue contributes to weapons of mass destruction and the self-protective jealousies or ethnic/racial hatreds we find all over our troubled world. Again, individual men and women are making some very bad decisions, but Mother Nature (aka evolution) is complicit.
If you put the Buddhist and evolutionary perspectives together, you get something like this. I’ve oversimplified what follows, but I think you will get the idea. The Buddhist view will be in bold print, followed by the evolutionary explanation:
We get too attached to things. Our ancestors needed things (tools, food, shelter, etc.) to survive.
We are afraid of losing things. Same as above.
We grasp for what we don’t already possess. Appearance, status, and power increase our chances in the mating game.
We fret about the future. Early humans who anticipated difficulties had a better chance of ensuring survival.
Just as we work hard to acquire things, we try to get and keep the most desirable mate. We are programmed to look for healthy partners to increase our chances of creating, nurturing and protecting a new generation.
We get attached to people and it pains us when we lose them. Our ancestors formed groups for self-protection and survival. Evolution contributed to our desire for human contact, affection, and reliance upon others.
Most of us never figure out the “PEZ dispenser” nature of life: that the things we want won’t make much permanent difference (unless they are healthy food, protective shelter, and other essentials), whatever temporary good feeling they generate. We’d be better off accepting the mantra-laden Rolling Stones song, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, as the matrix of living. Once realizing this, Wright and the Buddhists say, you can begin to change your personal path in the direction of more acceptance, less grasping, and reduced concern with either gaining what you want or losing what you control. You will be less worried and dissatisfied, more able to take joy from things as they are or at least accept whatever happens. No one suggests this path is easy, but the alternative will make your life worse.
Should you believe that is a negative message, here is some news. Those Buddhist monks who are expert meditators are among the happiest people on the planet — so brain research tells us. Meanwhile, the USA, a land of wealth, is only tied for 14th in overall “thriving,” with just 57% of us describing ourselves in that way.* Nor do you need a religious conversion to Buddhism to improve your sense of well-being from moment to moment. But most of us benefit by becoming less grasping and attached — reaching for a permanent solution to existence when the problem is the reaching itself and the expectation that such a solution is possible.
So what do you do with all the above to make your life better? Here is a start. Make a list of the things you pursued in your life: material objects, status, money, romance, children, and so forth. Then ask yourself how much lasting happiness each one gave you once it was achieved. If you have been “miswanting,” maybe it is time to stop the treadmill, get off, and reconsider the path you are on.
Think about it.
*Click to see the complete 2010 Gallup Global Wellbeing Ratings. One-hundred-fifty-five countries are included.
The top photo is Mick Jagger. The second image is a Hello Kitty PEZ dispenser, taken by Deborah Austin. The Chocolate photo is the work of André Karwath. It is followed by a picture of Buddhist Art taken in Sri lanka. Finally, Gustav Klimt’s Der Kuss (The Kiss). All but the first of these are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 10 so far )
Is the wisdom of age a function of learning something during your decades on the planet? There is, in fact, one other possibility: older people are just older and view the world from a different vantage point.
Let me explain.
Take the hormone-driven life of a sixteen-year-old boy. The sexual urge is like having a wild animal inside you. Erections, as noted in my post about the nude swimming classes of yesteryear, happen at the most inopportune moments and with astonishing frequency. They cannot be willed away any more than nocturnal emissions (a.k.a. wet dreams).
No 60-year-old man is subject to the same preoccupying, indomitable force. Therefore, he and the 16-year-old version of himself perceive the world differently, think about the sexual aspect of life with different degrees of obsession, and are enslaved by lust in proportion to spontaneous changes of the body.
Strenuous thought over those 44 years didn’t accomplish this. Age alone is the reason, a major physical and chemical change. You are not the same man you used to be. We do tend to think of the 60-year-old as wiser in controlling sexual urges, but he didn’t work or study with this aim. A reduced libido gradually developed in the normal course of life.
Now let’s switch things a bit. If the 60-year-old is wiser about mating, shouldn’t we advise our 16-year-old boy to be like his sage future self? I think not.
Our biological imperative is to reproduce. Intercourse is required and only a magician could impregnate someone without it, assuming no artificial insemination. Were a young man’s ravenous view of sex the same as his more distracted aged self, the human race might never have survived.
OK, enough of bedroom activities. Let’s talk about ambition. Jean Améry said that a young person “is not only who he is, but also who he will be.” In other words, one’s self concept is informed by his or her expectations for the future. A youngster might envision herself becoming a physician, for example. Her imagined career defines how she looks at life and how she behaves; by dedicated study, among other behaviors.
For most men and women in their 60s, however, “who he will be” is not promising. The older person can still be serene and productive, but few bets are placed on his achieving higher status in business, sports, scientific discovery, or art. Seniors are disinclined to want more children of their own, even were their bodies to cooperate. If a person has not made his mark, he isn’t expected to as an oldie, at least in the ways described.
Happily, however, by the 60s most of us are less ambitious and are looking forward to retirement. Again, the question is: do those with less drive “learn” something by experience or might their bodies and diminished capabilities simply change their perspective?
I believe we do learn some things from life experience and a portion of a senior citizen’s wisdom is “earned.” Yet, with an energy boost, the intellectual sharpness, and the pulchritude of someone younger, the ambition might return. When science makes 60 into the new 40 or 30 or 16, I’m guessing ambition will also be revived and older people will trade the twilight for another round in the daylight of a more youthful competition to “make something” of oneself.
Now to a practical and personal example. My father became a wiser man as he aged. Dad was born in 1911. I videotaped a four-hour conversation we had about his life when he was in his mid-70s. His youth, like so many others living at the time, was dominated by the Great Depression. Imagine being 21, ambitious, and smart in late 1932, with no path to a lasting career. Where would jobs come from? How could he support a family? Might an appealing woman want him if he were impoverished? It is, unfortunately, still a problem today in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
The imperative to “make a living” explained most of his major choices even post-retirement. For my first 20 years, he worked one full-time job and two part-time jobs, plus a small business repairing cigarette lighters on our dining room table after dinner. My father was careful with money and took few financial risks. The shadow of the Great Depression, that ended with the ramp-up to World War II, was still present over 20 years after he returned from the European portion of that conflict.
The dominant problem of his life was financial security and paying the expenses for my mom and their three little boys. Sidestepping the cost to the entire family of his work-induced absences, Dad paid an emotional toll in the lurking fear of another economic crisis derailing his life and ours. In part, he labored because it defined him as a “man,” but finances were in the back of his mind. I don’t think it was an easy way to live, at least not from my observations growing up.
Gradually something changed. In the last 15 or more years of his long life, he seemed more at ease with himself, less worried and stressed. He continued to work part-time jobs for a while, but a peacefulness had come over him. He finally triumphed over the stalking shadow of 1932 and the rest of the Depression. The doubts receded.
Somehow dad accomplished a psychological distance from the monetary concerns that unsettled him long past the time they were realistic. Because he wasn’t an introspective guy, I attributed the change to the aging process rather than any kind of “aha!” moment triggered by a self-reflection he rarely practiced. He was an older man with an older body for whom things had worked themselves out.
In the same video interview, I asked him what he’d learned in his 75 years on the planet. He paused a moment, and then said something touching: “I’ve learned to appreciate some things.” He named my mom — still the love of his life — my brothers Eddie and Jack and myself; expressing pride his three good boys were independent and successful. What this 75-year-old version of my dad said was wise, but hardly unique.
Older people simply own a special perspective. If they have learned anything important from aging, it is to look at the part of the glass that is half-full, not half-empty. The oldies view their existence from closer to the end than the beginning, looking back through the lens of experience. And they see with different eyes — a changed body and brain, too. The fading of the ambition necessary in youth (if the older person has been lucky enough) has a positive influence on happiness. You would not think a settled, hormonally tamed teenager to be wise if he had this view of his world, but you might say it of a 75-year-old man.
In summary, many, but not all of the aged are wise. No, they didn’t take philosophy classes and spend hours thinking about their past in order to achieve it. I dare say, for most, it just happened to them.
To me, at least, I’m comforted that nature sometimes works to perfection. A flower blooms all by itself. Even as we are robbed of our youthful vigor, an unsigned but precious gift is silently slipped under the door unnoticed. Yet the fragrance is quite beautiful.
The wooden hourglass is the work of S Sepp and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 6 so far )
You have a date with someone you find enormously appealing. You don’t actually recall the details of how you happened to make the contact. You were at a party, talked to the woman a bit, and discovered her phone number in your pocket when you got home. You’d had too much to drink, so nothing in your memory bank suggests what you discussed. But, when you called her a few days later, she did agree to have dinner with you.
Rather than tell you precisely what to do, I will take the opposite stance: don’t do what you read below!
Instead, reflect on the fact that people, perhaps including yourself, have engaged in the acts I am about to describe. These faux pas apply to both sexes. In the game of dating, we are all at risk of being that guy (or girl). Also, note that I’ve exaggerated some of this poor advice for the sake of making it more obvious. But again, don’t do it!
On occasion I will say just a few words about how to approach the dinner date experience so that you actually increase your chances of having a good time. I will highlight these affirmative suggestions by placing them in capital letters and italics so that you can tell them from the disastrous behaviors that make up most of this essay.
YOUR PRE-DATE GAME PLAN:
1. As a first step in destroying your confidence, consider that this woman does not really know who you are. Now, I don’t mean this in the sense that she has very little knowledge of your inner workings and life history. Rather, I’m referring to the chance of mistaken identity. She likely envisions a tall, handsome, witty character with whom she shared martinis, moonlight, and flirtatious banter (or was that the guy named Steve?). Regardless, once you arrive at her door, she is likely to realize two very important things: she is sober and you are not Steve.
2. Continue to ponder the possibility that your muse imbibed too many Cosmopolitans during your initial encounter a few days ago. Now reflect on the fact that your friends have often told you, “Dude, you’re way funnier when you are drinking.” You can now reasonably conclude that your date either does not know who you are or she does, but you looked and sounded a lot better when you both were intoxicated.
3. Having ruminated about the first two items for several hours (to the point of a ruinous case of pre-date jitters), jot down a list of every bad date you’ve ever had. Think back to all the humiliations, all the rejections, and especially the time that you got nauseous at Chili’s. Now extend your attention to your miniscule place in the universe, thereby further reducing your confidence.
4. Remember that one of the potential problems in meeting anyone new is that you can run out of things to say. Knowing this, write down a list of potential conversation topics. Then open your window and scream “Adios blow-up doll! No more inflatable girls for me. I have a date with a real live woman!” Make sure that you are loud enough so your neighbors can hear you.
5. Recalling that your date said on the phone that she loves Thai food, choose a dinner destination based solely on your own palate. Your reasoning? Women don’t eat in front of guys on first dates, right?
6. Remember that appearance is key to a successful first date. At the same time, however, consider that paying too much attention to grooming could be seen as a weakness. The solution to this dilemma? Rely on the words your incarcerated father once told you, that there is nothing to fear when you drench your body for 30 seconds with Axe Body Spray.
- REAL ADVICE: DON’T DEFEAT YOURSELF BEFORE YOU GET STARTED. TRY TO REMEMBER WHY YOU WANT TO GO OUT WITH THIS PERSON AND REALIZE THAT SHE IS ALMOST CERTAINLY LOOKING FORWARD TO GETTING TO KNOW YOU AND HAVING A GOOD TIME. YOU CAN DRIVE YOURSELF CRAZY WITH ANTICIPATION AND PREPARATION. DO TRY TO LOOK YOUR BEST, BUT, IN THE END, YOU ARE WHO YOU ARE. IF YOUR DATE IS COMPATIBLE WITH YOU, SHE IS NOT EXPECTING THAT SHE IS ABOUT TO GO OUT WITH THE FIRST FLAWLESS PERSON IN HISTORY.
THE DATE ITSELF:
7. If you are prone to hugging “hello,” go ahead. But remember — you want to make an impression. Therefore you must squeeze your date’s bottom a minimum of three times in quick succession during the embrace. Why three? Because you don’t want her (or him) to think that the first two squeezes were an accident. This will definitely get noticed. If you are a man, it will tell your companion that you are a rude, overconfident caveman. If you are a woman, it will inform your new acquaintance that you are in heat.
- REAL ADVICE: WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T DO ANY BOTTOM SQUEEZING OF THIS NEW PERSON, UNLESS YOU WANT HER TO CALL THE POLICE OR KICK YOU IN THE GROIN!
8. Upon arriving at the restaurant, realize that you left your list of conversation topics at home and that you have no recollection of what it included. If you are a drug abuser, this is the perfect time to go to the restaurant men’s room and snort a quick line of coke.
9. When you return from the W/C, begin to focus on your facial expression and body language. Your internal monologue should sound something like:
a. “Am I moving my hands too much?”
b. “Did I just scowl?”
c. “Is my eyelid twitching?”
d. “Did I leave some coke on my face?”
- REAL ADVICE: IF YOU CONCENTRATE ENOUGH ON WHAT YOU ARE SAYING AND DOING, HOW YOU LOOK, AND EVERY CONCEIVABLE INADVERTENT LAPSE FROM SOME IMAGINARY STANDARD OF BEHAVIORAL PERFECTION, YOU WILL BE UNABLE TO ACCOMPLISH WHAT YOU SHOULD BE DOING: ENJOYING THE COMPANY OF A POTENTIALLY INTERESTING AND LOVELY PERSON WHO WANTS TO GET TO KNOW YOU.
10. Back to what you shouldn’t do: be very conscious of the possibility that you may become uncontrollably aroused by the feminine charms of your companion, to the point of levitating the rather low table at which you are seated, thus drawing the attention of everyone in the restaurant. Should this happen, do one of the following:
a. Make no eye contact at all with your companion.
b. Keep your eyes laser-focused on the woman until she asks you if you have a staring problem.
c. Look at and speak to her cleavage, not her.
11. Sprinkle the conversation with the “F” word. You know, “F this” and “F that;” “F him” and “F her.” Use the words “whore” and “bitch” enough to give your companion a good sense of your opinion of women. Belch whenever possible. Sneeze on to the femme fatale’s food. Take things off her plate without asking.
12. Your dating disaster will only be complete if you offer Ms. Right some illegal drugs. Carry a full array of products in your brief case. She will consider the offer enormously thoughtful of you.
13. From the beginning to the end of the night tell your heart-throb that she is beautiful, gorgeous, stunning, etc. Ignore her when she implores you to stop. Keep doing it until she begins to scream the “F” word you taught her in step #11.
- REAL ADVICE: DO GIVE A SMALL NUMBER OF COMPLIMENTS, BUT BE SENSITIVE TO WHETHER YOUR DATE IS COMFORTABLE WITH THIS. WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T GO OVERBOARD. WITH EVERY ADDITIONAL COMPLIMENT, YOU RISK MAKING YOURSELF SEEM EITHER INSINCERE OR TOO ENAMORED OF YOUR COMPANION TOO SOON IN THE RELATIONSHIP. ALLOW THERE TO BE SOME MYSTERY AS TO YOUR FEELINGS, NOT SLAVE-LIKE DEVOTION FROM THE START OF THINGS.
14. Talk politics or religion from an early point in your dinner. Take impossibly extreme positions, always being careful to communicate that anyone who doesn’t agree with you is an idiot. Pick a fight if you can.
15. Do not let your new friend speak. Interrupt her whenever possible. Dominate the discussion. Talk only about yourself. Ask her no questions about herself and show no interest when she does manage to say something. Discuss past girlfriends and how lucky they were to have you in their lives. Praise yourself and your wisdom ad nauseam.
Alternatively, put yourself down at every opportunity. Look to this woman for reassurance. Lapse into a fetal position. Display as much self-doubt as you can. Tell her in great detail about your lifetime of therapy. Make it clear that unless she is falling in love with you, your life will be forever meaningless.
- REAL ADVICE: NEW RELATIONSHIPS GENERALLY WORK BEST WITH A GRADUAL APPROACH TO SHARING INSECURITIES AND VERY PERSONAL INFORMATION. A FIRST DATE IS NOT THE SAME THING AS WRITING A MEMOIR OR ENTERING THE CATHOLIC CHURCH’S CONFESSIONAL BOOTH AND ASKING FORGIVENESS FOR ALL YOUR SINS. DO TAKE YOUR TIME IN GETTING TO KNOW THIS NEW PERSON.
16. See how many other hot women you can flirt with in the course of the evening. If your date fails to notice, be sure to point out the babes and mention the physical attributes that appeal to you.
17. Keep your cell phone on the dinner table and check it frequently. Text while you talk. Use the phrase “Did you say something?” as often as possible.
18. When the bill comes, say that you forgot to put enough money in your wallet, but “I will totally make it up to you during the porn flick I picked for later in the evening at my apartment.”
19. At the end of the night, despite numerous signs that your female friend can’t wait to be away from you (including her mentioning that she is going to move to Paraguay tomorrow), make every effort to be a stud. Specifically, try for a good night kiss that would make a plumber proud; or, if you prefer, a surgeon who wants to get deep enough inside her mouth to perform a tonsillectomy.
POST DATE WRAP-UP:
Congratulations! You have not only guaranteed your own loneliness, but managed to give your date a case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Once she recovers she will tell others about you. With any luck, most of the female population of your community will be on the alert, having seen your photo on Facebook. It is only a matter of time before small children will point at you in the street, laughing so uncontrollably that they begin to burp up their lunch.
- REAL ADVICE: OK, THE DISASTER DESCRIBED IN THIS POST IS A GROSS EXAGGERATION. BUT, KNOWING WHAT NOT TO DO CAN HELP YOU AVOID CREATING A REGRETTABLE EVENING FOR YOURSELF AND YOUR FUTURE LADY FRIEND.
- MORE REAL ADVICE: ON THE OFF-CHANCE THAT YOUR CONFIDENCE HAS NOT BEEN FULLY DESTROYED BY DATING EXPERIENCES ANYTHING LIKE THIS, THERE ARE SEVERAL STEPS YOU CAN TAKE: SEARCH YOUR PERSONALITY AND BEHAVIOR FOR POSSIBLE SIGNS OF OVERCONFIDENCE, INSINCERITY, OR INSECURITY. VOW TO CHANGE. ASK FRIENDS (AND EVEN WOMEN YOU’VE DATED) WHAT TURNED THEM OFF. FIND A GOOD THERAPIST. ALL THIS TAKES INCREDIBLE COURAGE AND EFFORT, BUT CAN BE VERY INFORMATIVE. AS I HOPE YOU’VE LEARNED, RUINING A DATE CAN TAKE JUST AS MUCH ENERGY.
- ONE LAST BIT OF REAL ADVICE: DON’T MAKE A DINNER DATE A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH. IF YOU DO, YOU WILL DIE A LOT!
This essay comes from Chapter 24 of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Ruining Your Life.
The top image is a Joker by David Bellot. It is followed by a Goofy Smirk by Bruce from San Francisco. The final painting is entitled The Desperate Man by Gustav Courbet, dating from 1843. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
When someone asks you a question and says, “Please be honest with me,” I have a word of advice: be careful.
Two examples will illustrate the point. One comes from Greek mythology; the other from my own experience in, of all places, kindergarten. Hard lessons were earned and learned in each one. Sometimes telling the truth is a big problem. Sometimes no answer is right.
The Greek myth in question has to do with Teiresias. According to one version of the story, this young man was walking along, minding his own business, when he came upon two snakes having sex. He hit the pair with his walking stick, but displeased the Goddess Hera in the process. Hera punished the young man by turning him into a young woman. Not only did “she” then live as a woman for seven years, but bore children.
Apparently, when she again found snakes mating, she delivered another blow to them, thus releasing her from Hera’s spell and transforming her back into a man. Some sources suggest that Teiresias killed the female reptile in the first instance, thus explaining Hera’s anger, and the male in the second, thereby evening the scales.
Fast forward to a conversation between Hera and her husband Zeus, the chief God. The pair couldn’t agree on the question of which gender enjoys sex more. Zeus claimed it was women, while Hera was certain that males had more sexual pleasure. How to resolve the question? What better way than turn to the only person who had ever been both a man and a woman, our friend Teiresias.
His answer went as follows:
If the pleasures of sex were divided in ten,there’d be nine parts for women and one part for men.
Oops. Teiresias apparently forgot that he was dealing with Hera once again, the same person who had changed his sex. She now punished him a second time by blinding him permanently. Zeus could do nothing to change this, but did try to compensate Teiresias by giving him the gift of prophecy. Thus, ironically, Teiresias became a blind seer, a man who could “see” into the future despite his inability to see through his eyes.
Skip now even further ahead to a little boy named Gerry Stein.
I was a dashing little person. Resplendent in the Indian (Native American) head-dress my parents gave me or the cowboy holster and six guns that I wore around my waist. Of course, the contradictions among those elements of attire didn’t bother me. Perhaps they were an early indication of my tendency to see both sides of an argument.
I was a six-year-old. I didn’t wear my western outfit to school, but I was still pretty cute: a curly-haired, fresh-faced, sweet little boy, with large hazel eyes. And I had three girlfriends! Count ‘em: three! Way more than any of the other little boys in my kindergarten class. Was it at Avondale School or Jamieson? I don’t remember that.
Little did I know that I was about to meet my Waterloo. Little did I know that the great disasters of life are largely unforeseen; and that fortune can turn in an instant. Teiresias, whose name I wouldn’t encounter for many years, could well have warned me.
The teacher gave us an assignment to draw something. I don’t recall just what it was. But I was good at anything having to do with art and quickly finished off my mini-Picasso masterpiece. That gave me a little time. And so I walked over to the place where two of my girlfriends were hard at work on their own artistic products.
What exactly did it mean that I had three girlfriends? I was six, for God’s sake. I never saw them outside of our kindergarten class. I doubt that I ever held hands with even one of them. Still, there was a sense of security, a point of pride in “having” three pretty little females each of whom also thought that I was her boyfriend, and each of whom was just as clueless as I was about what that might mean.
I can still see myself standing in front of the first two charmers, who were, by the way, best friends. And I can still hear the question that one of them asked me, much like the question posed to Teiresias by Zeus and Hera: “Gerry, whose picture do you like the best?”
Remember, I was six. Maybe even five. No life experience. A piece of unripe fruit, yet to be churned by the cruelties of the human food processor that is daily life. For sure, I was pure and naive. And terribly, terribly honest.
So I answered. I chose one. I don’t remember which one. I only remember the aftermath.
The unchosen female immediately burst into tears. “You made me cry. You aren’t my boyfriend anymore!”
I was stunned. It might even have been her question that prompted the answer she was blaming me for. I considered using the Nuremberg Defense (“I was just following orders).” But before I could say anything, the next hammer dropped.
Her companion, girlfriend #2, looked at me and said: “You made my friend cry. You aren’t my boyfriend any more.”
My stock was falling like the Dow Jones Industrial Average on “Black Friday.” I was down two-thirds on my net girlfriend-worth. I was sweating. I didn’t know what to do. I must have mumbled something about being sorry. But the hard-hearted pair facing me, like Hera x 2, had rendered their unchangeable verdict. The Gerry Stein Fan Club was quickly disbanding.
In my desperation I did what most anyone would do. I ran over to my one remaining girlfriend, the better to secure my position with her. God knows, if she asked me what I thought of her drawing, I was prepared to tell her that not even Rembrandt could have done half as well.
Unfortunately, in my haste I wasn’t especially careful about where my feet were going. And the hard wood floor had recently been polished, making traction tricky and braking balky. I over-ran my target and accidentally stepped on my remaining girlfriend’s foot. This damsel, now in distress, quickly began to cry. And you already know the rest: “You made me cry. You’re not my boyfriend any more.”
Dazed, stunned, disillusioned, and confused, I probably would have walked into traffic if we hadn’t been in a secure environment. Everyone else continued to busy themselves in drawing and conversation. I alone was crushed, alienated from humanity, feeling for the first time in my life the cruel indifference of a world that goes on about its business, ignoring the human road-kill still to be observed in its peripheral vision.
Little did I know that my moment of lifetime peak popularity with the opposite gender had passed, but at least I retained my vision, unlike Teiresias.
As I see it (sorry for the pun, Teiresias,) both Teiresias and I acquired some wisdom under difficult circumstances. His tendency to displease those in charge, Hera in particular, led Zeus to give the newly blinded man the gift of prophecy. With that, one could be sure that he would handle potentially disastrous situations involving snakes and vengeful Gods quite differently in the future. And indeed, he became esteemed for giving good advice and important warnings to other mythic Greeks.
My kindergarten disaster — my childhood tsunami-like encounter with three girlfriends — was also instructive. No, I didn’t become a seer, a visionary, or a prophetic advisor to princes and kings. But I did become a little wiser about the ways of the world; about dealing with women; and about the punishment that sometimes comes by just answering a question scrupulously. I learned the truth in Clarence Darrow’s observation that “There is no such thing as justice, in or out of court.”
Wisdom almost always comes at a high price. Just take it from me and Teiresias.
Thanks to Keith Cleveland, Instructor in the University of Chicago’s Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, for relating the portion of the Teiresias myth that I have discussed. All photos are of the author. The first comes from September, 1965, taken by Steve Henikoff. The second is dated August 15, 1948. The third is undated.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
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