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

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

What else might block this dark passage to recovery?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courage takes more than a physical form, you know.

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

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

———————-

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

The Narcissists in Your Life: A Guide to Identifying Them

There are narcissists among us. We love them, go to dinner with them, and tolerate them. They are our bosses, subordinates, and neighbors. I’ll give you three examples and then guidance on how to recognize people so taken with themselves they have little affection left for you.

First, though, the top-line description of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as found in the DSM-5:*

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning in early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts … .

Or, as I like to picture it, someone who stands so close to the mirror (the better to admire himself) he can see nothing else of importance in the world.

  • TWENTY-YEAR-OLD GWEN DESIRED not only an easy life, but a delightful one, requiring little effort and guaranteeing an avoidance of unpleasantness. She wanted the center of attention, being unconcerned with the wants and needs of others, including her family. This young lady envisioned a world created especially for her, like a custom-designed outfit, where her stunning beauty and innate wit won every eye and red carpets forever laid at her feet. Work, accomplishment, and service sounded distasteful.

Gwen overestimated her gifts as an untrained singer and suffered a narcissistic injury when an accomplished musician deemed her talent modest. She enjoyed the thrill and diversion of risk and reward, never considering that one person’s gain is often another’s loss. The beauty didn’t dismiss the misfortune of her fellow-men so much as fail to notice it. The world of Gwendolyn consisted of a circular room full of mirrors, each one reflecting her image alone. If your approach made her environment less pleasant or more complicated, she dismissed you by smiling you away. Dazed and alone, you wondered what just happened. No surprise that the young woman had never been in love, except with her dazzling self.

  • CALL OUR SECOND EXAMPLE, MC. Here was a man who, to use a Barry Switzer quote, “was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.” He had the right parents and a fat wallet because of them. MC owned an impressive physical bearing and cold command. The esteemed gentleman reluctantly offered the social niceties, but calmly scouted the passing human parade for those advantageous to him. Without such potential, your presence wasn’t required or tolerated. The job of a fellow-creature was that of a chess pawn on the board of his existence, to be moved about as needed; just an instrument or an object, nothing more. The man had no friends.

Actually, MC was rather a bore. He didn’t read, didn’t study, simply arranged the world to his liking. MC enjoyed yachting, for example, because it permitted total control, escape from the world of obligation, and avoidance of bothersome humanity.

If you studied this man’s handsome face, you noticed eyes of unusual length and narrowness. Later you might recognize the reptilian quality.

Unlike members of his class, MC didn’t subscribe to the idea of “noblesse oblige.” He believed in no requirement to serve others, only to be served. Once in his vicinity, you either bent your knee instinctively or he bent you to his will. He’d charm you just long enough to grip your shoulder and push down.

  • MY FINAL EXAMPLE WAS A WOMAN of high middle-age. She rebelled against her father’s wish for her to become a conventional wife and mother in a dutiful, subservient role. Instead, this lady broke free and imposed her own vision on others. I’ll call her Countess. Talented and ambitious, C took the world of musical theater by force and rose to continent-wide acclaim. When she became pregnant she decided she could not love the child: he would be an obstacle to her career. Countess gave him up.

This proud woman knew many men and was loved by even more, but chose those who submitted to her domination, allowing her to set the path of their lives without complaint. Though the Countess recognized the imposing self-love at her core, no motive to be otherwise existed for her. In sculpting her life to exactly the shape desired, this magnificent presence consisted of the hard, dark marble of her own chiseled perfection. Had you seen her in a museum you might look atop her pedestal, but not touch. She owned a dictionary lacking the word apology.

How do these people match up with the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder? In addition to the sentence quoted above, you must meet five of the nine following diagnostic characteristics:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. Believes that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e. unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
  6. Is interpersonally exploitive (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

In general, narcissists seek therapy only when they have suffered an affront to their overblown sense of self-esteem. Responsibility-taking is not their forte. Treatment gives them a place to vent and provides bolstering support. Once reinflated to their out-sized vision of themselves, they most often itch to end counseling. The therapist merely is expected to find sufficient wind to inflate the balloon back to normal.

I don’t advise taking on a narcissistic business partner or mate in the hope of remaking him into a person who is reciprocal: to create something close to a 50/50 relationship. On the other hand, the woman in the first example was one who did begin to recognize her self-involvement after a major trauma. She and the others are, in fact, not real people, but characters in George Eliot’s towering novel Daniel Deronda.

Eliot was a master psychologist long before the profession and its diagnostic categories existed. Read her (yes, her) for knowing sympathy with and optimism about the human condition, as well as beauty of language. The antique notion of a woman’s inability to write well caused her to take the pen name by which we know her.

Her real name was Mary Ann Evans.

*The acronym DSM-V refers to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.

The first image, I Love Me, is the work of Misky.

The second visual is named, Cliché of Narcissistic People, by Nephiliskos. Its German text is translated as:

The mirror speaks to the youth: ‘I love you!’ The youth speaks to the mirror: ‘I love myself too!’

Finally, It’s’ All About Me: Me, Me, Me,  is the work of Gürkan Sengün.

All three are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Voice of a Therapist: An Interview with Dr. Gerald Stein

When you get old enough, survival becomes a kind of distinction. I was therefore not surprised when my interview by Masters in Counseling was called, Career Longevity in Psychotherapy with Dr. Gerald Stein. For those who would like to know how I sound, here is a chance to find out what this 70-plus-personage knows about that and several other topics; from — pardon me — the horse’s mouth.

If you listen, you will hear my kind interviewer Megan Hawksworth, herself a therapist, tell you why she claims I’m worth attention. My response to her request for “words of wisdom” was, “I have lots of words, but I’m not sure how many of them are wise.” Later however — my brain stirring — I asked myself, “How have I come to know whatever it is I know (or think I know) beyond what I learned in school?”

Well, maybe the most important way was being open to new ideas. A conversation shouldn’t always be about defending yourself or trying to win, but listening and evaluating what the other says. Not to apologize, not to defer, but to enter regions beyond one’s imagination and experience; to be enlarged by such gifted souls as still walk the earth. I can say I prefer the company of people who possess ideas I’ve not considered to those who think as I do or live as I do.

Getting “banged-up” also contributed to my enlightenment. Not just physical dings, and dents, and divots; surgeries and sedation and stitches.

I’ve strived and failed. I’ve tried and triumphed. Once I won a battle and lost some friends who opposed me. I’ve been cheated of lots of money. I gave away plenty, too. I helped a philanthropy I started with friends raise funds. My heart has been broken by a few lovely women and I’ve broken a few hearts.

What might be worse? Breaking your love’s heart and your own simultaneously. It happens.

Are those words of wisdom? If you think so, here are 10 more:

  • Over time I learned to give sentiments a prominent place beside clarity of thought: laughter and tears, both, but love above all.
  • Disappointment and loss are the forge of character, but only if you pass beneath and beyond the blacksmith’s hammer without losing your faith in the promise of life.
  • There are things I cannot possibly convey to you unless you’ve lived some version of the same event. Only music might come close to communicating them.
  • Much as I am a hard guy sometimes, kindness is essential and in shorter supply than macho competition; and therefore, more precious.
  • I know I will never know everything, though I try.
  • Life moves too fast to keep up with all that is important. How do we know what is important? Pay attention, at least, to the words of William Bruce Cameron:

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

  • While the probable is most likely to occur, many improbable things will happen in any life. Be grateful for the ones that give you joy. And perhaps, if you realize your luck could have been otherwise, disperse your good fortune to others by paying it forward.
  • Whatever wisdom I own today applies more to the present version of myself than the 30 or 50-year-old models. I did not know then all I am relating to you now.
  • Smile at the checkout clerks and call them by name.
  • No one can “have it all.” If anyone ever accomplished this miracle, we never met. Life is rich without “everything.”

Enough. If you listen to the interview you will hear the voice my patients heard; hear me tell a joke, a story, and have a good time. I am indebted to Megan and Scott Hawksworth for giving me the chance. I think you’ll be able to tell that, too.

Do remember, you won’t be listening to an immortal personage. I subscribe to Woody Allen’s words on the subject: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”

Here again is the link: Career Longevity in Psychotherapy with Dr. Gerald Stein.

The photo just above is the author during his days as a cowboy. Unfortunately, it does not include the horse’s mouth mentioned in the first paragraph.

The Ups and Downs of Living in the Past

The conventional wisdom about “living in the past” tells us the place is a toxic sinkhole to be visited sparingly, if ever.

I’d say this is often true, but not always. In my last post I described the value of “living in the present moment.”

Not today. Let’s look back. Start with the upside of spending time in

THE PAST

THE THERAPEUTIC USE OF THE PAST:

Psychodynamic psychotherapy allows us to observe repetitive patterns of our historical behavior, the better to recognize areas we need to change. History is grist for the treatment mill. The close examination of our life course permits the discovery of unresolved relationships and misfortunes. Historian George Santayana advised us all to keep hold of our bygone experience:

When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

My friend Henry Fogel put the same message a different way: “I like to make new mistakes.” In other words, don’t replicate the old ones.

When we recall prior examples of resilience under the duress of a painful present, we can also boost our confidence. Knowing we came through earlier challenges reminds us of what enabled our survival and recovery. Those capacities are likely still within us.

POSITIVE REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST: 

The past can be a sweet reminder of loving relatives and friends, triumphant moments, hurdles surmounted, and what has been good about life. In those who are middle-aged and beyond, remembering the youthful beauty of your sweetheart can spark continuing attachment, even though you and your love no longer resemble springtime flowers. In the elderly or the infirm, positive memories sustain one in the present, especially when a limit exists now on what might be experienced and accomplished. Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXX ends this way:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

THE NEED FOR A COHERENT STORY: 

Most people value their own story to make sense of the life they are currently living. It binds them to those with whom they have marched together through time. It tells them what they valued and what remains of importance. No wonder amnesia sufferers are so distressed. Their self-definition has been lost along with their story.

One cannot doubt, however, that the past can resemble the sinkhole mentioned earlier, if used to foreclose present opportunities. What is the downside of living too much in the long ago?

VICTIMHOOD IN SERVICE OF THE EGO:

A focus on the past allows some people to claim a status they would be unable to achieve in the present. I treated a woman of about 40, disfavored by nature and fate. Testing revealed her intellectual limits. She was neither physically attractive nor graceful. Worse still, her early life had been one of abuse, neglect, and rejection. Life’s unfairness to her historical-self was what she focused on, to the point of telling new acquaintances of her bad luck soon after meeting them. They fled, thus further confirming her sense of unique disadvantage.

One day I questioned her about the extremity of her beliefs. After once again acknowledging how fortune’s wheel had been unkind, I asked if she thought perhaps there were also others who met similar tragedy. “No.” What about in the history of the world? “No.” Not even Jesus or victims of genocide or torture? “No.”

In coming to grips with this, I wondered what advantage she found in the belief she was the most unfortunate person ever. I concluded this attitude allowed her to claim a distinction she could not otherwise attain. In effect, she prided herself on her disadvantage. Such a manner of living caused her to continue pleading her case with every new acquaintance, always failing to obtain the friendship and validation she wanted. In her own way, she gave it to herself in the ever-present litany of woe she called up daily. Her ego was thus bolstered.

AVOIDANCE:

Yesterday may appear safer than today or tomorrow. Whatever happened at a distance tends to be less acute. The past will not change and holds no surprises. Even if it is a dark place, no new demons arise. You know the territory. Indeed, one becomes quasi-friends with those demons. Stay put, some people think. They rationalize their stasis as a wise avoidance of fresh pain and heartbreak, humiliation and failure.

Psychotherapy helps a willing client recognize the cost of such an escape into yesterday, thus encouraging a return to human contact in spite of the risk we always face in our effort to live full lives and attain happiness.

POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS:

This condition is not a voluntary choice. One who has witnessed a murder or shocking death, or been threatened with the same, can be triggered by reminders of the event into a visceral return to tragedy, sometimes unable to tell past from present. They then re-experience the awfulness and are re-traumatized.

The worst example known to me of such repeated reliving – due to brain damage and not PTSD – was an elderly women about whom I heard the following. Her memory was so compromised that each morning she awoke believing her long-deceased husband was alive, and proceeded to search for him in desperation. The nursing home staff then had to inform her of his death. Thereby she was newly stricken every day. To the good, actual PTSD can be treated, as this woman’s condition could not.

TREATMENT STUCK IN THE PAST: 

Significant focus on the past is a necessary part of many psychotherapies. Still-tender wounds and long-nursed grudges must be grieved. How much your history remains a central topic is up to you and your therapist. At some point life has to be lived, because we cannot repurchase our yesterdays. Cognitive behavioral therapies try not to delay such a reentry into life. Remember, there is always more self-examination possible, in or out of therapy. Even Socrates – the man who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” also lived his life.

As Kierkegaard wrote, “Life is understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” No one ever understands everything about himself, past or present, including this writer.

Understanding is but one part of human existence. The driver’s seat in the vehicle of life faces forward, just behind the windshield and steering wheel. Rearview mirrors are less prominent. The rules of the road tell us to consult the latter only on occasion.

The second image is Brassai’s 1936 photo, Les Escaliers de Montmartre. The following photo was captured by  Alfred Stieglitz in 1894. It is called Venetian Canal and was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

In Which Part of Life Do You Live: Past, Present, or Future?

How much is well-being or its absence – depression and anxiety – dependent on what you pay attention to? I mean the present moment, the past, or your future? Does one best way to focus your attention exist?

Let’s look at each of these three possible orientations to time. Today I’ll start where your body is, even if your mind isn’t:

THE PRESENT

Philosophers remind us that the present is all we really have. The past is gone and the future might not come.

At least three paths allow us to live within the fleeting instant:

1. MINDFULNESS BASED ON MEDITATION PRACTICE:

Much effort is needed to develop and maintain this kind of “in the moment” way of being; daily meditation practice for the rest of your days. In doing so you can train the mind to stay in the present and refocus whenever attention begins to move toward a distraction, worry, preoccupation, memory, or anything else but your being within one second at a time. No before or after. No holding on to feelings. You observe the world rather than dwell on it. Thus, for example, pain is less fraught because you do not obsess about it. A benign sense of detachment comes to master meditators. They notice everything, but don’t pile meaning and intense emotion on everything, thus freighting the bad into something worse. Research suggests these are the most contented people on earth.

2. EMOTIONAL OPENNESS TO THE PRESENT AND WHATEVER LIFE OFFERS IN THE NOW:

Unlike the meditation experts, those in this group lead intense lives. Their openness allows for much joy, as it does for sorrow. At their best they are unguarded and brave. I am not speaking here of people with ADHD, who risk being caught in a whirlwind of thoughtless and impulsive action, untroubled by the past or future. Rather, I refer to those who are free with themselves, not self-consciously governed by what others might say or see. They are quite natural, unaffected, and spontaneous. Their self (and self-consciousness) is lost.

Such lives are not full of rigid angles and rectangular shapes. They don’t always conform themselves to boundaries drawn on hard surfaces, as one must in formal sporting events, with perimeters decisively marked as fair or foul, in or out. Think ocean or sky, not ground, when you behold them: creatures who swim or fly. Theirs is a life of discovery and bright eyes. They wish to play, not keep score; celebrate while the sun still shines.

These gifted people (whether by nature or choice) don’t achieve the dispassionate serenity of meditation gurus, but they are more “alive.”

As William Blake wrote in Auguries of Innocence,  the talented few are able

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.

3. ACHIEVING “FLOW:”

This is a cousin of #2, but applies best to work, competitive play, and hobbies. Here the path is not so much social or relational, but the singular focus on a task. In the case of elite athletes, for example, their concentration is extraordinary: They have been known to so “tune out” the sound of the crowd, that overwhelming cheers (when they finally do break through) can startle them, bringing them back to the amphitheater from the smaller arena of man against man. They had lost awareness of a stadium full of 60,000 observers. The psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi tells us, “this is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by … great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill … during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored. The ego falls away. Time flies … and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

The mastery and experience within you is matched to the challenge at hand. You won’t get this often watching TV (only seven to eight percent of the time). Neither will relaxation transport you into “flow.” You must do something. Csíkszentmihályi would have us believe ecstacy is possible in the “flow.”

Some suggest, however, we be careful of too much “in the now” living as defined by the first two paths. Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher and social/political historian, thought the detachment achieved in a Buddhist type meditation (Category #1) could be a cheat of life experience, a kind of defense mechanism against injury; valuable, but missing the full essence of life.

Those taken by the moment (Category #2) also risk some of the avoidable misfortunes that those who spend more time looking ahead might dodge. Members of this group would push back, however, claiming the reward of emotional and behavioral vulnerability is worth the risk. Take opportunity on, they might say: this life is the performance and not the rehearsal.

Nor should we forget, people suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are characterized as living in painful extremity too often. They can miss or discount the notion that nearly everything they are feeling at this instant is temporary, therefore potentially succumbing to passing emotional catastrophe. For them “the now” seems endlessly excruciating.

Want some homework? Ask yourself which “time zone” you usually occupy and which makes you happiest.

Stay tuned. One of my upcoming posts will deal with living in the past, which also has its ups and downs. An essay on future orientation will follow, along with some thoughts about the three types of time-focus and how to manage them.

The second image is Macaca fuscata in Jigokudani Monkey Park – Nagano, Japan, by Daisuke Tashiro. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How Far Should #MeToo Go?

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

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

There are historical precedents, as related below.

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

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

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

Are Villains Due Respect When They Die?

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

The Psychological Lessons of Literature

When is a story more than a story? I’m not suggesting a common page-turner, a thriller sweeping you away. Instead, I refer to a fine short story or novel, and its ability to reveal something more about human inner-workings than even a mass market psychology text or a self-help manual.

Take Herman Melville’s 1853 short story, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. Not a title to make you think the writer knew much about the unsettling emotional complications of two psyches within a law office. He did though.

A scrivener is a copiest, a scribe, such as lawyers employed in the days before off-set printing and Xerox machines took their jobs away. Legal documents had to be duplicated by hand: back-breaking, carpel tunneling, mind-numbing work. Long hours bent over an unsuitable desk made it worse. Your profession was known by the permanent ink stains on your hands and clothing.

The unnamed attorney who narrates the story tells of a quiet, strange employee. He gives us his first impression of the man: “I can see the figure now — pallidly neat, pitiably respectful, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby!

Mr. B. was a good worker, too — for a while. Before long, the boss makes a routine request to which the scrivener’s only reply is “I would prefer not to.”

More and more such responses challenge both the lawyer and Bartleby’s three co-workers. The stand taken is never explained. Eventually the employer even discovers the fellow living in the firm’s offices after hours: not to do anything amiss, but to pass his solitary time. And he “prefers not to” do otherwise.

Our narrator tries many means to impress Bartleby with the necessity of compliance. The lawyer, however, is a Christian man in the best sense, and feels a human connection to the odd creature, thus stopping him from calling the police for his removal from the building.

What have we here? Is this a tale about mental illness, social isolation, or a passive-aggressive soul’s ability to control a situation by saying no? Is it an indictment of the oppressive conditions of long days spent in work that requires attention to detail achieved through concentration on a mindless, repetitive task? Is Melville making an indirect social comment on entitlement, such as Mr. B’s presumption in turning a job into a work-free, free-ride to salary and a residence? Does he mean us to recognize the title character’s employer as a charitable man or one with too weak a will, thus becoming hostage to an employee who does nothing?

Could the novel be trying to point out the absence of a satisfying place for many of the residents of a capitalist-dominated world that is too concerned, as Wordsworth told us, with “getting and spending?” One more possibility: might the author wish us to consider why two men very differently situated in the pecking order of professional life would continue to behave as they have rather than change, no matter the consequences?

The reader is put into the role of psychologist, trying to understand Mr. B. and the attorney. Both are extremes and we learn from extremes perhaps more than those examples of life in the middle of things. The underling is stubborn without limit, the individual “on top” displays limitless charity.

Does Bartleby offer us an everyday example of a person so mistreated in the past that he can no longer differentiate a man offering a helping hand from one whose hand is prepared to strike him? If so, those of us who engage in creating our own slow motion, step-by-step tragedy should take note.

The reader is left wondering whether Bartleby might even be heroic, displaying passive resistance to an increasingly demanding, corrosive, and alienating work life that is unfitting to him and us. Is he a precursor of the kind of people Martin Luther King, Jr. described when he said, “A riot is the language of the unheard?”

I could as easily call Mr. B. a depressed and self-destructive man, acting in such a way as can only end in his misfortune.

Melville’s 36 paperback-pages can be read many ways to be sure. It is laugh-old-loud funny, on occasion, as well. And if you find yourself siding with Bartleby or his employer, you might ask yourself why one and not the other?

Regardless, try not to judge these two men harshly. Like the remaining three wage slaves in this law office and a few we meet along the way, they are just trying to make the best of the hand dealt them by nature, their upbringing, and the world of other men and women.

As the old saying goes, “but for the grace of God there go (you or) I.”