What Does It Mean to be “Psychologically Minded?”

A good observer of the human condition notices some fellow creatures who don’t get it. Several are obtuse. Many can be described as too logical. Others naïve or unworldly. More than a few don’t think through what they do and why, dismissing opinions different from their own. Their certainty of everything betrays their awareness of nothing. Large numbers can’t recognize the obvious ingredients in their complicated emotional stew.

They don’t even hear the stewpot boiling over.

I’d characterize such folks as lacking a certain “psychological mindedness.” This is my own term of art, not a phrase with a definition understood and accepted in the field of mental health. Still, I’ll try to describe what constitutes such a state of mind and why it might be useful to us. If you are psychologically minded, several of these qualities will be characteristic of you:

  • All your decisions are not understood by you. Mystery resides in everyone. We are each some combination of genetic programming, the formative influence of our parents, education, experience, and choice. Emotion and reason both play their part. Should you be so unwise as to claim understanding of all your motives, you are mistaken.
  • Illogic troubles your thought process and you know you aren’t alone. You don’t insist your every idea is structured like an architectural work of art, nor hold others to this standard. Were logic alone in charge, you’d be a robot. We arrive at some of our most vehement opinions intuitively and only then find justifying reasons with blinding speed, a process invisible to the internal eye.
  • You are aware mom and dad were imperfect and don’t dismiss their effect on you, for good or ill, probably both.
  • You don’t believe your achievements are the singular product of your special genius and effort. We are interdependent, all of us: impacted by the color of our skin, the economic and social circumstances of our birth, the presence or absence of societal and political unrest, the power of love and loneliness; and by a helping or dismissive hand, not to mention the accident of our appearance. You are on board with John Donne’s poetic truth, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” As my friend, Life in a Bind, suggests, “you think about yourself in the world from a slightly more distanced stance than others do, and with a longer lens stretching back into the past.”
  • You know grieving takes its own time and is best done with one or more faithful witnesses, not by the toughness required for bullet-biting; or burying sadness in perpetuity. Others are not advised by you to “get over it.”
  • Unfairness, you think to yourself, can be subjective and therefore a matter of perspective.
  • To a degree you know the danger of being hostage to the opinion of others.
  • You don’t “blame the victim” by asserting you’d have been smarter in a difficult situation: made a better choice, demonstrated more resilience, or maintained a higher moral standard. Without experience in the same circumstance, in truth, you cannot predict what you’d have done.

  • You recognize your lack of “all the answers.” You are humble in the face of the things you don’t understand and accept the need to learn more. You grasp at least a bit of the human necessity for continual transformation as you age and face unexpected situations requiring new solutions.
  • You don’t reflexively condemn others when something goes wrong, instead demonstrating occasional willingness to look into the mirror. Nor do you make automatic assignment of blame to yourself, realizing, at least, the cost of doing so, even if you cannot yet stop.
  • Once in a while you ask, “Why did I do that” or “Why did I say that?”
  • To paraphrase Life in a Bind again, psychological mindedness permits insight into mind traps: the alteration of perception when gripped by defenses like projection. What feels real emotionally may not be true.
  • To your dismay, you are cognizant of the human capacity to rationalize almost anything, murder included. Perhaps it has dawned on you that you too rationalize. You regret another painful truth: even wonderful and wonderfully talented people possess a dark side.
  • While some challenges are uncomfortable to face, you believe avoidance of a direct glance or assertive action might be a costly life strategy.
  • You are a part-time observer of yourself, not obsessed with yourself. You are neither totally inward-focused, unable to get out of your own head; or totally outward-focused – mindlessly “in the moment” – never reckoning with who you are. You agree with Socrates (“The unexamined life is not worth living”), but not so far as to spend all your time in examination, avoiding action and risk. If you cannot yet venture forth, your realize you must find a way.
  • You either play or wish to learn how to play.
  • Self-righteousness is something you avoid.
  • You understand that openness is double-edged: the pursuit of intimacy means guaranteed risk in search of potential reward. You opt for openness, at least in theory.
  • From time to time you think about your default tendencies. Perhaps you are inclined to approach or avoid, argue or make peace, court danger or play it safe, etc. On occasion you even think your strengths (and the penchant to overplay them) are your weaknesses.

If you recognize several of these qualities in yourself, you are a good psychotherapy candidate, assuming you muster the courage to gamble something great for something good. Your psychological mindedness is now and again misunderstood by friends who do not view the world with the nuance you do.

Keep going and growing. The world then becomes a bit more explicable and your understanding of yourself enlarged. The planet will take on colors never noticed on the black-and-white globe you used to inhabit. Your perspective may also attract new acquaintances.

Some will think you unnecessarily troubled, others conclude you are wise.

No free lunch.

Choose.

The image of The Human Mind comes from Wikimedia Commons via Flicker. No author is identified. The second Wikimedia photo is a Psychic Apparition. It comes from the collection of Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums, from a series called Psychic Photography From a New Angle.

Therapy’s Ultimate Goal: Embracing Life

Are there endangered emotions in the world, much like endangered species? The ones that disappear? Most of us had sentiments and enthusiasms as small children we now rarely experience. What might they be? Can we get them back?

The greatest events of life, I’d argue, are fleeting. The birth of your first child is one. An early, electric kiss. The clichéd “thrill of victory” as it is felt, not reported. A musical performance of sadness or exultation so powerful you float and reverberate for days. Immediacy, intensity, and loss of self-awareness are found in these moments. Routine breaks. One is swept away.

What do we try to do with such things? Extend them, for sure. Go back to the source and regain them. Produce more children, maybe; more kisses, for certain. Play in additional ball games, too. Perhaps attend the repeat-performance of the concert the next day. But, the repeat almost never captures the wallop, the poignancy of “the first time.”

Does the picture of a speeding bullet seize the essence, help us remember and relive it? The most precious things and people are priceless, in part, because of their short supply and elusiveness. Here and gone. No matter the effort, we can’t catch an emotional deluge in a bucket and keep it in the fridge, just so.

Yet still we try. We want the honeymoon to be endless. We want our child’s spontaneity to continue forever. We think the earth-moving moment should be mounted in a frame or frozen under glass, but its soul is in the movement, not the stillness. The carefully preserved butterfly does not fly.

Some of us, as we age, lose even the ability to be astonished by life, bowled over by happiness or love, sensation or tenderness. Most want a bit of protection, so we add, without thinking, one layer at a time, beginning in youth. Seems safer, more necessary, less risky. The arrows of fate then won’t pierce as far, hurt as much, or so we believe. We want to escape fatal bullets, but unintentionally kill ourselves – the life in us – by trying to avoid them.

The bravest therapy patients attempt to change no one but themselves in their effort to recapture the innocent wonder they had at the point of creation, or grab the life-enkindling thing for the first time. They have the courage to recognize the mirror’s image, to overcome the pain of treatment, to outlast and out-will the unendurable: a kind of therapeutic integrity not to be denied. They grip tragedy and wrestle him to ground. They rip the emotional scabs off their being and bleed until purified and joyous. I still cannot believe how open they are.

As an observer of myself, I can characterize personal life from my 20s to the present as an opening more than a closing. My work required this openness, but so did full immersion in the best private moments as they happened. To my continuing surprise I become more open, not less, even now. Saying what others might not say, but only think; expressing the deepest part of myself to those who care to listen. Looking into your eyes if I am touched by your being. Life hurts more this way, but feels right and perhaps I have no choice: I became and am becoming such a person with little intention. Who knows what version of myself might appear tomorrow?

Death sets the border on everything. The cliché tells us the cemetery is full of irreplaceable people, the last stop on a human world in transit. The trains of life’s are always in motion, much as we want them to wait a minute. The best of them are swift. That’s what makes a train. No picture of a locomotive moves at 60 mph unless you throw it across the room.

So my advice to all of us is this: eyes open, heart open, stay alert, let down your guard as much as your dare; but don’t lose the best of yourself. Make love to life as if she were your first and last, both. She just might be.

Of course, I’m uncatchable, but catch me while you can.

As the advertisements tells us, we are all on sale for a limited time only.

The top image is called Berliner gör’n by Till Krech and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Good Man is Hard to Find: Remembering Bob Calsyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As William Blake wrote in Auguries of Innocence:

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

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

Thirty-three Things a Man Should Know

The internet is full of lists of the skills a man should master. They are usually offered as advice to the young, uncertain male. Such articles were around in my youth and decades before. The Stoics, in particular, attempted to define what “a man” consisted of. Women need the list of manly tasks as much as men do: the better to bypass those men who don’t have “the right stuff” or any desire to learn more than they know.

I am about to ignore the wise admonition, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” and offer you my own list. God help you. Not complete, but more psychological than most. You might have guessed as much. The catalog will focus on urban talents – the things best fit to the city – over rural skills or physical survival abilities, like escaping a bear attack.

Here goes:

  • Learn to tie a Windsor Knot. Most men can’t create a triangular, symmetrical knot in their neck tie. “Not” good.
  • Make eye contact: the kind that shows kind interest. You are paying attention and unafraid. Avoid the scary variety.
  • Be able to tell a clean joke. Practice until you can. Humor is sexy, so I’m told.
  • Know how to lead. If you are waiting for the recognition you deserve – for the crowd to realize a great man is in their midst – you may have time to read an encyclopedia. Raise your hand and take charge.
  • Understand investments. Do not rely on the wisdom of those who want to sell you stocks in return for a commission. Dozens of books exist to guide you. Start with A Random Walk Down Wall Street.
  • Dismiss 80% of what other people say about you, the good and the bad, but recognize the 20% you should take to heart.
  • Learn to shoot a gun. Love or condemn firearm use, as you wish, but do try to enhance your understanding of its discipline and power.
  • Be able to apologize. Don’t be one who regularly blames his failures on others.

  • Practice forgiveness, but not until you’ve dealt fully with the hurt and anger inside.
  • Become adept at giving speeches, toasts, and telling stories. Just you in front of an audience, a form of public nakedness with your clothes on.
  • Don’t merely stand up for yourself, but for something more important than yourself, too. Live your values. Recognize how you fool yourself. Trust me, you do.
  • Give a man’s handshake. Neither squishy nor bone crushing.
  • Childhood is a time to push back your tears. Maturity is a time to permit your eyes to moisten.
  • Learn how to sample and evaluate wine when the waiter presents a bottle to you.
  • Become adept at a sport no later than your entry to school. Best if you choose the most popular team competition in your region. Personal stature is enhanced by this, a standing of benefit for your first 20 years or more. The camaraderie will be cherished for the rest of your life.
  • Drill yourself on keyboarding and cursive writing. You need to communicate. A handwritten letter conveys even more weight, personal consideration, and intimacy than in the time before keyboards.
  • Learn how to do things face-to-face: job interviews, asking someone on a date, returning merchandise. Ending a relationship, too. Don’t hide behind a phone call or, worse still, your email and twitter account.
  • Become proficient in negotiation.
  • Listen to people, not only what they say, but what is not said. Psychological-mindedness must be developed, not assumed. Don’t think, in amazement, “He isn’t logical.”  You are expecting too much of the human race if you do.
  • Practical skills: ironing clothes, cooking, changing a diaper, shuffling cards, buying clothes, etc.
  • Buddies don’t count every nickel when trying for the impossibility of perfect equity over a friendly meal. Make friends and accept their short-comings or tell them the problem.
  • Learn to climb a rope. Once done, you will recognize that what first seems impossible is not.
  • Always keep a serious book in mind.

  • Do not delay your pursuit of women until you “understand” them. Rejection is part of the game and may say more about the rejector than the rejectee. In my clinical practice I encountered many ladies who first deflected a man who would become a mate. Develop resilience in the face of discouragement. Defeat is a facet of every life, except for those who hide behind the barricade.
  • Say I love you. Get to the point of being able to tell people why they matter to you, not just women.
  • Expose yourself to ideas that may not resonate at first. Learn to think critically, read critically, listen critically. If all you know is what you’ve heard – blindly accepted – you know little.
  • Become acquainted with the enormous power of waiting. There are times when people will move toward you because of the magnetic force of your stillness. And silence. Many run from a wild pursuit. Practice patience.
  • Know some expressions in a foreign language. Master in detail at least one area of knowledge beyond your work, sports, and auto racing.
  • Identify your dark side or become its victim. The things you do not acknowledge about yourself will control you.
  • Be able to make small talk.
  • Practice kindness and respect for the worth of every person.

  • Find out about making it and taking it. A man doesn’t always ask permission. The doors of life must be identified and understood. Sometimes they are wide open and friendly. Sometimes they are closed until you knock for attention and advance. Locked portals must be respected or broken down, including those inside of you. Obstacles needn’t deter you from making a claim.

Much of what I’ve written is about a life in the urban West. Were I an Eastern philosopher, the list would be different. But, at least one more Buddhist-influenced suggestion should be added.

  • When you converse with someone about ideas, try to efface your ego: lose your “self.” Listen to the thoughts and speak the thoughts (and their justification) without prejudice or attachment to your position. Permit the logic of your dialogue to be “authorless,” without concern over whose notions will “win.” What I’ve described doesn’t happen much in the places most of us live, but perhaps giving up the necessity of victory is the essential step toward learning something new.

—–

The top painting is A Portrait of an Unknown Man by Antonello da Messina. Next comes Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition VI – 1913. Claggett Wilson’s WWI painting follows: Flower Death – the Bursting of a Heavy Shell – Not as It Looks, but as It Feels and Sounds and Smells. Finally, the Roraima Cliffs by Paulo Fassina. Wikiarts is the source of the first two. The Wilson painting comes from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Wikimedia Commons is the source of the Fassina photograph.

Is Religion Necessary for Morality?

Therapists hear many opinions from their patients. Such beliefs are not always the focus treatment or what the client came to work on. They simply “appear” in the course of conversation. One of those ideas, quite common, has to do with religion. On numerous occasions my clients mentioned, unprompted, that a religious upbringing was essential to raising “moral” children. Without the guidance of a perfect, all-good, all-powerful being, the successful raising of an upright person was hard for them to imagine.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th century German philosopher, disagreed. So did moral theorists like Immanuel Kant.

Schopenhauer thought religion clouds our capacity for rationality. According to him, early religious training creates an intellectual blind spot persisting throughout life. We then become susceptible to accepting ideas “on faith” instead of reason. Our dispassionate, analytic abilities are crippled, in Schopenhauer’s view. Childhood religious indoctrination requires us to “believe” (lest God punish us either now or in the hereafter) rather than search for truth with whatever logical tools and evidence we can muster.

Early acceptance of miracles and supernatural beings were, to Schopenhauer, the beginning of a path to intellectual and behavioral ruin. He feared religious education would hamper our ability to separate truth from falsehood. Bad behavior, excused by our confused thought process, was considered another potential consequence of a religion-created blindness.

Schopenhauer offered ancient Athens, the city-state of Plato and Aristotle, as a counter example: a moral community not produced by religion and one he thought functioned better because of its absence.

Athens was a genuine democracy: all the citizens voted on every important issue (as opposed to representative governments in which individuals are elected to do the actual voting in legislative bodies like the U.S. Congress). Schopenhauer argued that religion did not exist in Athens in the period to which he refers. Yes, there were gods and some people made sacrifices to them; but no organized, regular religious services were observed with a formal priestly hierarchy and a carefully prescribed method of worship. Nor did religious documents exist (like the Bible or Koran) or any “inspired” list of good and bad behavior similar to The Ten Commandments. Yet, Schopenhauer reminds us that laws were respected, justice was important, civility was maintained, and philosophical schools like Plato’s extraordinary Academy flourished. The question of the good life and how best to lead it was discussed among educated citizens.

At this point you might complain about the lack of rights for women in ancient Athens or the slavery prevalent there. Do remember, however, equality of the sexes is a relatively new issue despite over 2000 years of Christianity. Moreover, the Confederacy during the U.S Civil War justified the hideous institution of slavery by reference to its presence in the Bible. Nor is slavery condemned in that book.

Schopenhauer believed compassion, not religion, contributed to moral conduct, and such compassion was in man’s nature (making religion unnecessary). Indeed, the ability to identify with our fellow-man seems in short supply these days, whatever the cause. The more closely we identify with the superiority of our national, racial, or religious group, the more we are at risk of excluding feelings of sympathy for those who don’t share our nationality, skin color, or faith.

Immanuel Kant, an earlier German philosopher, argued for a different (but still secular) foundation for morality: the categorical imperative. Kant recommended we each ask a question when evaluating our behavior: should my personal moral standards be made into a universal law — a requirement and duty for everyone without exception, or, as he called it, a categorical imperative. Additionally, in considering our answer, he would remind us to respect the dignity of our fellow-man simply because he is human. “Using” others is therefore immoral.

For example, if sexual fidelity and honesty are deemed proper, they must be required of everyone in all circumstances. Adultery, by contrast, however much you believe it would be in your self-interest, would be of no moral value; because proper action is not a matter of how much you might profit from it, but rather, a duty to what is good in itself.

Let’s say you are unfaithful, steal, lie, and break promises. Are you prepared to give permission for everyone to act the same way against you and everyone else? If not, he would argue you have exposed the moral failing of your own behavior.

These thinkers make demands on us to consider whether what we do is justifiable by a process of reason: to look in the mirror at who we are, beyond any religious rule we follow.

Clearly, whether religion is essential to implant the seed of a life-long moral rootedness, one can argue it provides many other things, including a sense of comfort, order, and hopefulness in the most fraught moments of life, as well as a supportive and congenial community of fellow-believers.

The question remains, however, whether there is something Schopenhauer and Kant are missing in their quest for moral grounding, beyond these potential benefits of faith. Do you believe religion provides some necessary ethical guidance for our children that these men miss?

I look forward to your thoughts on the subject.

The top image is Man Praying at a Japanese Shinto Shrine. It is the work of Kalandrakas and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Question Mark is sourced from the Monroeville Community Website.

How Vulnerable Can We Be? Emotional Openness in Therapists and Performers

We get to see public people expressing private emotions on TV. Allowing themselves to be vulnerable. Not only on dating shows. Politicians do it on occasion, including George W. Bush, whose voice cracked and eyes moistened more often than any U.S. President I can remember.

Still, most of us try to stay in control. We hesitate to let down our guard for fear someone will reach into our chest and rip out our already wounded heart. In my experience, however, some of the most touching public situations occur when a self-possessed person displays the courage to live so much in the unselfconscious moment that the voice breaks or tears flow a bit. Before I tell you about my own challenge with this, I will relate two other public examples, as well as describing a therapist’s hesitancy to feel too much in session.

Fred Spector, a retired Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist, told this story in 2001 about an event then three decades old:

We were doing the Verdi Requiem and we knew that the mother of Carlo Maria Giulini, the conductor, died (unexpectedly, while he was in Chicago). He walked on stage (to rehearse with us), starts to conduct the Requiem and stops. He was crying and he said ‘They want me to come home (to Italy). What good is that? My mother is dead. It is more important that I have this experience with you and the Verdi Requiem and think about my mother.’ And now he’s got us all crying, the whole orchestra in tears. ‘That’s more important because then I can experience and think about my mother in this marvelous Requiem. … and those were the greatest performances I’ve ever played of the Verdi Requiem, bar none. … We wanted to get that feeling he wanted for his mother.

Giulini was a private, ever-dignified, old world man (born in 1914) for whom this exposure was uncustomary if not unseemly. Indeed, the orchestra and chorus had been instructed by an administrator not to say anything to him about his loss. Such a direction could only have come from Giulini or his wife.

Of course, it’s one thing to be unguarded in an empty hall and another to “lose it” during performance. Indeed, among the greatest sins of public musical or theatrical presentation is to be so moved by the words you can’t do your job: enable the audience to experience emotion while you remain in control. I am aware of one instance alone when the rule was violated, but the artist succeeded anyway.

A 1947 Edinburgh Festival rendition of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) was the occasion. This hour-long song-symphony portrays the transient beauties of existence and concludes in a 30-minute Abschied (Farewell) to a friend and to life, based on ancient Chinese poetry.

The work’s last moments are a whisper of exquisite, heart-rending beauty as the singer reflects on the passing away of human life, while the world itself blooms anew every spring, “forever.” The last word — “forever” or “eternally” (“ewig” in German) — recurs several times, ever more muted against the fading, shimmering, ethereal consolation of the orchestra.

According to Neville Cardus, a critic for the Manchester Guardian, Kathleen Ferrier, the contralto soloist, was “unable to enunciate the closing words.” Moved by the music, she broke down.

Ferrier, a 35-year-old woman soon to become an international celebrity, was then new to this composition and in awe of Bruno Walter, the 70-year-old conductor who had been the composer’s disciple and given the work its world première in 1911. Cardus tells the story of his arrival backstage after the curtain calls:

I took courage and forced my way into the artists’ room, where I introduced myself to this beauteous (unselfconsciously beauteous) creature. As though she had known me all her life she said: ‘I have made a fool of myself, breaking down like that.’

When Walter came into the room she went to him, apologizing. He took her hands, saying: ‘My child, if we had all been artists like you, we should every one of us have broken down.’

For Cardus, it was one of the greatest, most life-changing performances he heard in a long career as a music critic.

Where does a therapist fit in our discussion? He is not a public performer, but must empathize with his patient. Unmoved by the human suffering he witnesses, he is of no value. But what if he is moved to the extreme? Were he to experience the same level of emotion as his client, he himself would become the patient. The room would be occupied by two people equally anguished, both needing support and relief with no one available to give it.

Someone must possess a therapeutic (but not unfeeling) distance from the suffering. The therapist must.

My own challenge with public vulnerability came in toasting my first child’s marriage. Tears interfere with an adoring parent’s speech at many such events. A guest’s attention is then drawn to the speaker’s unraveling, however sympathetic or touching, not his words about the newly married couple. I wanted the assembly to know what I had to say about my daughter and son-in-law, the better to appreciate them. The language, properly spoken, would externalize the internal, convey emotion, and move the audience.

The problem was, in practicing I could not get through the speech. Time after time I tried, time after time I failed, overwhelmed. Were I to tell you the number of rehearsals I attempted, starting months in advance, I suspect you would not believe me.

The day came — the moment came — and I still had not a single run-through without the internal tidal wave overwhelming my words. Once on stage, however, — finally, finally — the elusive control arrived and the toast went well. I was not as emotionally “present” as I could have been, but the cost of unconsciously distancing myself from my sentiments was the price for moving the audience by words and delivery, not becoming overwrought and a bit incoherent.

Why am I reminded of all this? I just completed a course at the University of Chicago’s Graham School in which our instructor, near the class’s end, discovered her voice cracking with emotion. Sometimes this happens in intimate conversation, frequently in counseling, but not so often at the U of C, and not from this confident and expert guide to literature. She said (to someone else) after the session, she “didn’t know where that came from.”

But, you know what? It capped a great class discussion of a moving novel with a flourish. Sometimes one needs to go with the flow, even if the flow is both figurative and literal.

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The painting at the top of the page is called Tightrope Walker by Jean-Louis Forain(1885). The next image is Australian Artistic Gymnast, Lauren Mitchell at the 41st World Artistic Gymnastics Championship in London, UK, October 14, 2009. The photo was taken by Steven Rasmussen, Explorerdk. The following picture is Gymnast Feet on Beam, January 19, 2008, by Raphael Goetter. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Finally comes Tightrope Walker by August Macke (1914), sourced from WikiArt.org/