Finding Trust Without Guarantees

In village days a scoundrel couldn’t conceal his character for a month. But today every time I take my car to the garage or have a prescription filled, I have to trust people I don’t know about things I don’t understand.

Those comments were made over 60 years ago by Huston Smith, a transcendent philosopher of morality and religion. His statement remains valid today. Where does this leave the wisest and most secure of us, not to mention those for whom trust is a luxury of someone else’s unimaginable life?

Smith found reason to believe in many of his fellow-men. He sought those who wrote about virtue and, more crucial, those who lived it.

He knew iniquity exists, as did those he spoke with, but is not the whole of existence.

All of us suffer betrayal. An ex-patient I’ll call by the initials KF told me a tale of uncommon cruelty.

KF was a college student out West during the Vietnam War, before the volunteer army. He commuted to school from home. The husky, black-haired young man was free from military service so long as he remained in good academic standing and carried a full course load.

His father, who abused this fellow when he was small, now charged him rent for shelter and food. Though my client managed the tuition, the old man offered no consideration on living expenses.

Knowing he was at risk of eviction, KF dropped out of school. The military came for him.

During combat in Southeast Asia, KF escaped physical injury, but letters home went unanswered. Once home, he discovered his father had thrown away or sold everything he owned.

Nonetheless, he surmounted the challenge of finding love and making a family better than the one from which he came.

Not all of us are as afflicted as my former patient, but we share his hope of intimacy. James Baldwin recognized the desire and the risky necessity of letting down our guard to get it:

Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

Yet so many of us do go without – without companionship, absent a confidant, and lacking at mate. Some believe the world wouldn’t care if we disappeared from its face.

Anonymity seems the better choice if your pattern is to encounter bullies and the unfaithful. Thieves, narcissists, alcoholics, and abusers possess their own imperfect radar attuned to human vulnerabilities.

Some people hesitate to trust because they have no confidence in their capacity to distinguish the dangerous from the safe. This leaves them writing-off all of humanity or attempting to obtain information from every possible source, as if diligent detective work guaranteed discovery of unquestionable virtue.

Neither approach works. The former souls inhabit a cloud of ignorance and take a stance of perpetual defense. The latter never find “the truth” because they seek endless data, never realizing there will always be a sliver of doubt.

Both types of individuals remain isolated or disguised, little better than existing in a bunker far from anything but momentary ease. Both are exhausted by near-constant scanning for the self-interested and evil. They suffer preoccupation with misgivings over incidental events others forget.

Because they skate past those who might give them respect and kindness, the negative experiences of their life do not find a counterweight on the other side of the scale to persuade them intimacy is worth the risk.

Everything they believe confirms the danger of mankind. They also discount their own value to those few they acknowledge could merit knowing.

There are no perfect people, no purity even among those who give their lives for others or their country. We all hold to our self-interestedness in no small part of our behavior. Such quality enables us to survive.

In his 1788 essay Federalist No. 51, James Madison wrote:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

He and the men whose thoughts inform the U.S. Constitution knew they were not to be found either in government or out.

Nonetheless, our necessary concern for our well-being still permits the possibility of understanding and decency. Humans pull through because of the ability to join together, trust each other, and benefit from the comfort, love, and security they provide and receive from others.

Disappointment in relationships is inevitable. Those you fear may well also be disappointed by your words or conduct. Avoidance or rejection of available friends or lovers can inflict the equivalent injury on them you wish to avoid for yourself.

These challenging times present the opportunity to discover the best and worst of our brethren and the identical characteristics in ourselves.

No guarantees come with a new relationship. Remember this, however. The person who represents to you the potential for connection also looks for the same fulfillment himself.

Perhaps he even searches for it because of the qualities he recognizes in you.

—–

The three photographs are the work of Laura Hedien, with her permission: https://twitter.com/lhedien?lang=en. The first is of Mountain Reflections Near Salt Lake City in January 2020. Next comes A Lightening Storm With Stars Above in Western New Mexico. Finally, Factory Butte, Utah, 2019.

For the Curious and the Brave

Are you an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist? Are you curious? Are you brave?

Think of your life as a challenging but unique voyage. Just as we find ourselves in the churn of a pandemic, so others we call heroes endured and survived their own dangers.

Take the ever-resourceful Odysseus (Ulysses) in Homer’s Odyssey.

The 10-year Trojan War is over. Ulysses and the men of his isle-domain proceed home to Ithaca. The warrior soon angers the sea god Poseidon. The fleet is taken off course, all but his own ship destroyed.

The journey home will match the length of the siege of Troy.

Can our protagonist “bend history” as it is happening?

Observe his encounter with a set of lovely-voiced, lute-playing enchantresses. Odysseus has been warned of them by the sorceress Circe.

First you will raise the island of the Sirens; those creatures who spellbind any man alive, whoever comes their way. Whoever draws too close, off guard, and catches the Sirens‘ voices in the air – no sailing home for him, no happy children beaming up at their father’s face. The high, thrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him, lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones. ...

The greathearted leader discerned more than caution in Circe’s advice. He recognized a chance to listen to songs so lovely they would make him oblivious to the danger of mindless drowning.

In effect, he wondered whether he might find a way to have his cake and eat it!

Ulysses directed his crew to plug their ears with beeswax, as his advisor suggested. All but his own.

He ordered the men to lash him to the ship’s mast and ignore whatever ravings and directions he shouted until they were past the singers’ reach.

The crisis revealed an opportunity for Odysseus. Our own challenges are less fantastic, but perhaps not less mindless. The times require the best of ourselves for ourselves and the fraternity of our fellow humans.

We can weep the fate of flash-frozen, aborted plans. Many are deserving of tears. But, our wits have not been lost. If we can keep them, and benefit from luck, sound judgment, and those who take risks on our behalf, calmer waters may yet appear.

Ulysses had no guarantee of achieving his goal of reaching his loved ones, but a god bent on frustrating him. He survived to attain Ithaca, embrace his wife Penelope, reunite with his aged father, and clutch his grown son Telemachus for the first time. Moreover, he regained his kingdom.

Though the resourceful one was no longer a young man, Alfred Lord Tennyson imagined him speaking of leaving home once more with vessel and company of sailors:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Ulysses’s desire to leave home once again is the English poet’s invention. It is not present Homer’s original tale. Indeed, the Ithacan had wept for Penelope more than once during their separation.

Why might the poet’s version of Odysseus wish to depart for further adventures?

Did he regret giving up the offer of immortality, love, and comfort proposed by the beautiful Calypso? Might his nature simply have been restless? Did this “master of exploits” hunger for attaching more glory to his name and legend?

Perhaps the camaraderie of his Greek companions in wartime made him most alive. Or he felt empty except when the Sirens shared their melody.

Decide for yourself. But whatever you believe, your immediate task remains this:

Find the music in your confined life.

Even now.

The first image is Ulysses and the Sirens by Léon Belly. Next comes The Sirens (1872) by Gustave Moreau followed by Odysseus and the Sirens by Otto Greiner. The same title describes the Attic Red-figured Stamnos, ca. 480-470 BC (a type of Greek pottery used to store liquids). All were sourced from Wikiart.org/

Sensuality Is More Than Sexuality

James Baldwin, the towering black writer, can widen your comprehension of things you thought you understood. Take the word sensual.

The essayist and activist wrote this in The Fire Next Time:

To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.

Baldwin feared for those who are unable to “renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives.”

At times he found such renewal in his black community of the ’50s and ’60s, a quality “of zest and joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster. … a freedom that was close to love.”

He observed this characteristic at “church suppers and outings … where rage and sorrow sat in the darkness and did not stir, and we ate and drank and talked and laughed and danced and forgot all about the (white) man. We had the liquor, the chicken, the music, and each other, and had no need to pretend to be what we were not.”

Baldwin is talking about being in touch with all emotions and all five senses. A thing natural and unstudied.

He noticed this in unself-consciousness, in losing oneself to the sound and feel and texture of things. We see it in a gifted athlete’s abandon and grace as he speeds toward a distant, perhaps catchable ball and the same young man’s sense of muscular weariness after expending all his energy at the game’s end.

You needn’t search far for these experiences. One can reach down and claw up a clump of earth on a rainy day. The fragrance is the aroma of life and the potential for regeneration.

The sensual is at hand in rejoicing over birdsong and the concentrated, savoring, unrushed consumption of a tasty meal. It is there without charge in a subtle perfume evoking the skin of someone you love and the heartache when you are distant from her.

The songs that quicken us access the hidden truth we know of ourselves and in ourselves. When we say we are “moved” by an event, we should remember this: movement speaks to the urgency of the body to do what it was made for.

Sensuality inhabits the morning light of the bluest skies and the coyness of a shy smile. You recognize the sensual in the goosebumps of a homecoming where everyone waits for you – when you and they know of their incompleteness without you.

Perhaps you’ve found sensuality in poetry recited in hoped-for words from the right voice or a father’s protective arm around your shoulder. The mutual grip of his handshake would do as well. Your senses are engaged in each of these.

We give away too much of this in a cloud of unawareness. Routine and habit kill our aliveness to the world. Now is a moment to attend to our forgotten contact with nature outside of us and our nature inside of us.

Traps we call custom and convention interfere with showing our emotional response to the sensory corporeal world. We make sure no one sees our openness and sensitivity to the planet’s pulse, lest we become ashamed.

Concern about the opinion of others is necessary for civility, but causes us to hide anything the group might question. Religion’s focus on the sin of the erotic, for all that institution’s civilizing effects, inhibited mankind by comparison with our freer mammalian cousins.

One can find the possibility of the sensual in walking instead of riding in cars, in the buoyant life of the ocean’s salt rather than the antiseptic backyard or public pool. The computer screen offers digits and electric communication, but not the enlivening smell and slipperiness of sweat.

Weather makes no difference to our senses. Each season and atmospheric change presents its own physical gifts. Sensuality is not buttoned up or closed down, but the drumming heart of our essence, no matter the forecast.

Even in a time of limitation and disease, you can discover the reason you want to live in photos, melodies, and trees. No wonder children love fingerpainting. They don’t care how their art turns out so much as how the paint feels in their hands. They remain more at one with their bodies, joys, and sorrows than many of us.

Reawaken yourself.

All you need is in you.

All of the photographs are the work of the extraordinary Laura Hedien, reproduced with her generous permission: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/ The first was taken at Wasatch Mountains, Utah. The second image depicts the Bobby Sock Area of Yellowstone National Park. The final picture shows The Milky Way and a Southwest, USA Arch. The single painting comes from Wikimedia Commons. It is Jan Davidsz de Heem’s Still Life with Ham, Lobster, and Fruit, c. 1653.

Managing Your Anxiety in an Anxious Time

Even in a normal world, we encounter unwanted thoughts: fear of injury to our children, self-doubt, financial concerns, and more. These are not routine times, so they come in a flood. Yet distress needn’t become your new full-time occupation.

It is possible to get more comfortable with the uncomfortable despite daily reminders of illness and economic upheaval.

Vexing contemplations are like an undesired guest at a party. The gate crasher won’t leave as soon as we want, but perhaps we can have pleasure despite him. In a sense, now our job is to come to a truce with intrusive, unwelcome ideas.

The invading reflections can be viewed from the outside, not as part of your being or a mark against you.

Though this historical moment is extreme, no life escapes misfortune. Whether the days are down or up, our healthiest option requires the willingness to experience disquiet when it appears. Uncertainty and surprise come with every life.

On the train of your journey, you will pass through many challenges. Understand them as temporary, as nearly all are. The locomotive will move on and you with it.

Routines have been disrupted and the immediate future made unpredictable. In addition to obtaining the necessities of existence, time can be used to ask yourself about your values: what is important to you and what you can do, even now, to advance their achievement?

We must learn new skills, the environment still needs tending, our political life demands alteration, and fellow men need our help to survive. Assertive action and direction will lessen the anguish that waits for the empty space in any mind not occupied with purpose and creation.

There is an opportunity to build a tolerance to fear and worry. Not easy, but attainable.

Self-blame is not required. ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) recommends you catch a thought in mid-flight. Then take a moment to step back and note any accompanying brooding or tribulation as separate from yourself.

Wrestling with the feelings, trying to push them away, is a less winnable fight than if you permit them to remain and, with time’s passage, dissipate. Accept their presence and live with them in place of suffering in a struggle. The exhaustion of a skirmish only fuels your unhappiness.

End the battle with that which is in your head. Instead, watch the anxieties as if you were a spectator at a baseball game not involving your favorite team. A measure of separation from them and their anguish is thereby enabled. Social distancing is not the sole type of remoteness we need today.

No benefit arises from judging them as good or bad. Other things merit attention, some of which will allow you to achieve readiness for useful action, an ability less manageable when focused on the chattering voice of dread, helplessness, and catastrophization.

Anxiety comes in two parts. First to arrive is the fear of an event that may be near or far, likely or not. The second is the evaluation we make of those anticipations and the way our fight with their torment amplifies them, along with any self-condemnation for having them. An overvaluation of this unbidden visitor swells a component of misery: anxiety about our anxiety.

Within us exists the talent to distance ourselves from the alarm, recognizing the shrillness of the sound rather than enabling its power to ratchet up pain. At the least, the consternation can be incorporated as a part of life, not consuming all else of importance.

I do not mean to dismiss the extremity of the conditions faced by some of you and much of humanity. Rather, I hope to enable you to manage the challenging moment.

The three short videos illustrate and add to what I’ve written. The darkest, late-night places of the soul need not be an inescapable residence.

Who Was That Masked Man? Psychological Self-protection in an Age of Masking

Stepping out of my home early Tuesday morning, I stepped into a strange world. Nature wore a mask of fog. Not me, mask free. Well, unless you believe I am a man of false faces.

We outfit ourselves with disguises. One mask fits atop another. Some use different camouflage depending on the set of friends nearby.

For the dress conscious, clothing plays its part in the costume, hiding that which we don’t want revealed. Rather like an actor’s stage makeup or Halloween for the kiddies.

The coverups take many forms. First, there are the ideas we don’t share. Next come the beliefs we don’t believe, but repeat to get-along.

Feelings and weaknesses are on display without trickery, the ones of which we are aware and those too crushing to accept.

Sometimes the concealing tarp drapes over our opinions, while secrecy extends to our plans. For example, the-intention to rob a bank.

Our face covers save us from relationship troubles, too. Remember four-months-ago when you recognized someone at a distance, a character you wished to avoid? Now you can cross to the other side of the street without hesitation or worry.

Time and circumstance have transformed the meaning of our action, changed it from a dis to distancing.

Alcohol has long been a tool like a self-protective armor plate. “Take a drink, you needn’t think,” says the bottle. “Dispense with your memories and feelings. I am your magic potion. I’ll erase your internal maelstrom – for a little while.”

Denial pursues this end, too, shrouding all our mirrors so we can’t recognize who we are, what we do. Others admit themselves to themselves but rationalize the necessity of being so.

Remember Salome? The girlish teen was Herod’s step-daughter, the child of his wife in the age of Jesus. The regent wanted the erotic young woman to dance. She did so with seven veils at the start and none at the finish.

The temptress then accepted payment for her star-turn: the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter, the better to kiss a decapitated man. The watchful Herod found the latter so disturbing he had her killed.

Removing veils can be a risky business.

Back to the present, our century encourages coverups via computer technology.

Are you uncomfortable on the phone? Want to dump someone? Turn away and send a text.

Are you bursting with unexpressed electoral anger or racism? A fake name and an itchy Twitter finger will fire the ballot bullet.

How about flirting or infidelity? The online world offers a digital dodge and a new name to hide behind.

A therapist is challenged by those patients who have never been unmasked. The sun never reaches their pale faces.

Take one mask off and you’d find another, masks on masks, layers piled up. The wearers have never seen themselves. The person underneath is a mystery.

And yet there is hope. Here is an example, a fellow I’d treated for some time.

Q: What price do you pay for the psychological protective equipment you employ?

The gentle soul lowered his head. His shoulders trembled as he wept.

A: Everything I want in life, friendship and love. I act like I’m a spy, in the shadows, on duty 24/7.

The door to recovery thus opened.

Like Tuesday’s lifting fog, a new day in my client’s life took a peek at possibility. The more we depend on masks, the less we own the joy of recognition and acceptance by another.

He discovered his disguises hid the best of him.

My advice? The next time you remove a cloth mask from your face, ask yourself this: Am I still wearing a mask?

Until then, donate what you can to a food bank.

The top image is Paul Hartland Carnival. Composition with Two Masks, 1934, by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. Next comes Mask, 1919, by Marcel Janco. Finally, Lady Taking Off a Mask, 1906, by Konstantin Somov.

Best Man: Remembering Joe Pribyl

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

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

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

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

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

He placed himself with and for every one of us.

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

He volunteered. He served. He raised his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reel of my imagination unspooled as a trial would.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked up. One side plunged.

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

What Do Therapists Dream About?

I found myself in my office. A couple of men walked past, removing the metal file cabinets full of patient records.

Names, birthdates, and notes. All the descriptions and observations, what they said, the way they said it. Outsized lives crammed into tiny words, into pages crammed into files, into hardened enclosures requiring a key for the locks.

People of emotion and disappointment and heartbreak. Joy and progress, too. Jobs, romance, decisions errant and expert. Fathers and grandparents and lovers, hellos and goodbyes.

Precious, each one.

The laborers put the compacted, enclosed cases of cases on handcarts. My efficient and conscientious office manager stared.

“What’s happening, Lynette?” No words. The men worked on.

I was close to retirement. I knew I wouldn’t be in the clinic for long, nor seeing patients and taking notes. Not looking into their eyes and hearing their laughter. Not buying more tissues to catch their tears.

I stopped the men. I told them to retrieve the paper mountains and put them in place.

They did.

Interpretations anyone? Many possibilities. Here’s one.

These records were not the lives of my clients, but the material evidence of the caravan of humanity passing my way. If lives were lines on a graph, my time with them would be like the point of intersection between their lifeline and mine.

When our contact was productive, the trajectory of their path changed.

They’d touched me and, for some, vice versa. The sheaves were the remnants of my vocation to help, enlighten, and open them to a new life: rewrite the words to their story.

No one else had the same relationship with them when I did. Now, no one else could read their tale without their permission.

Why did I have this dream as the pandemic closed in?

Did the workmen represent a virus-like invasion? Was my defensive stance a symbol for the protection of my family, friends, and all the ones I loved?

Did I fear the virus sweeping them away, as the blue-collar workers intended with pushcarts and trucks?

An old teaching cliche applies to dream divination: there are no right or wrong answers. Someone else, perhaps, will compile a book of COVID-19 sleep-befogged meanings.

Dream interpretation is like listening to a recitation of religious scripture. No two people hear the same message, as if the words, their order, and the language change while floating in the air.

The viral moment persuades me that if we lived a life of infinite length, we would also live every possible life, dream all dreams, meet every person, and write all the books that shall ever be written and read.

The full moon woke me, seemingly summoned to dispel the nightmare and enchant the night. Better to conjure sweet silent dreams than my professional dystopia. No witches and warlocks and werewolves. No cabinets spirited away by strangers.

Let me craft what is possible on our now slumbering globe: dreams of action and improvement, agency and creation.

Join me.

Daniel Burnham said, “Make no small plans.”

—–

The top image is described as Logistics of Watsons Distilled Water, 12 Bottles in Yau Ma Tei Nathan Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong. It is the work of Leideomangeos.

The second image is the Lorry of a Paper Shredding Company, 2006. It was taken on March 24, 2006 in Central London by Edward.

Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What the Coronavirus Taught Me About Love

When I practiced therapy, I reminded myself to bring intensity to my work. Every day, every hour.

Each patient was a kind of wayfarer. His journey had reached a sticking point. He was faltering with sadness, loss, or anxiety, guilt or helplessness.

A bit like a pilgrim, the searcher hoped to find a balm for the soul.

Life brings routine. We create routines to make it easier, more efficient, to avert the wasteful reinvention of our daily tasks.

But routine deadens, too. A therapist must make the work fresh.

The healer must be present, concentrate, note the body language, and not offer words far from the point, missing the point. I tried to give each meeting “life.I didn’t always succeed. No one can, but the next time my patient visited offered another chance to join him in searching out an oasis: a green, peaceful, and certain place, where refreshment might bring renewal.

The aging of my parents brought home the recognition it always does. One never knows when the last time will be. The twilight handshake, the final moment of laughter, the embrace of someone we love.

I made sure to part from my folks with an “I love you.Now my children and grandchildren do this with their parents and grandparents.

These parting words are never enough by themselves. The pandemic tells me so. Its voice calls out, “There is more to do.

Why do I hear this now? Because I can’t do more, I am separated from so many, as you are. What, then, does “more” mean when the opportunity comes?

The voice did not say.

Here’s my answer.

The heartbreak of a goodbye must be balanced by delight in a hello. We must treat each new contact as a gift, greet the friend or lover, the father or a brother as though it were the first time: the moment we discovered something unique in him. Graceful, beautiful, kind — it does not matter. Strong, faithful, wise — whatever are the qualities embedded within him.

We need to try to sum up the other’s every sacrifice for us, all the touching words they said to us, their thoughts and prayers for us and approach him anew. With gratitude.

In another dreadful historical moment, Abraham Lincoln said, “we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so must we think anew, and act anew.

The virus teaches us the day is short, no matter how long the sunshine lasts. The message is the same, regardless of the time or place. Since we do not have eternity, the moment and the people must be grasped, held close.

If we safeguard ourselves and others, and if we are lucky, a reunion yet will come.

When you see loved ones again, remember: speed to them as if it were the first time and the last time, every time.

—–

The photos above come courtesy of Laura Hedien, a gifted and generous photographer. They are The Look and Splashes. Much more of her work can be found at: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/

 

 

A Therapy for Today: Telepsychology in the Coronavirus Age

When the world is stressed, people think of therapy. But what do you do if a therapist’s waiting room makes it impossible to maintain social distance or the office has closed?

Anxiety is understandable. The nation and the world are in self-isolation. We are lonely, apprehensive about our health, and worried about the well-being of our families. Don’t be ashamed of being scared amid this new but temporary situation.

The idea of psychotherapy intimidates many people even when coughs and sneezes aren’t more dangerous than usual. The only safe therapeutic option is now online. Not only is this a change for the vast majority of current patients, but daunting to contemplate for many coming to counseling for the first time.

Welcome to membership in the largest club ever, the unusual human condition of the day. To the good, the therapist wants you to tell him of any hesitations or worries about this unfamiliar, remote method of care. He will try to calm you and work within your limits. 

Even before you seek counseling, the following often helps:

Ask yourself what other challenges you’ve had in your life. Make a list. Remember the qualities inside of you that enabled you to endure and triumph. They are still present.

Here is information to consider if you are seeking live video treatment:

  • While telepsychology or teletherapy can include phone calls, this introduction is limited to simultaneous videoconferencing in real-time.
  • Imagine yourself sitting in front of your computer in a well-lit space. The therapist sees you above the waist, and you can see only as much of him. He hears you and vice versa.
  • Although there is a bit of a time-delay in the discussion, this is an as-it-happens experience, just as in a doctor’s office. Thus, appropriate dress is required. No pajamas! 
  • Some therapists are adept at providing counseling this way. Others are new to it due to our Coronavirus emergency moment. Ask the counselor about his experience with this medium when you reach out for an appointment.
  • The provider will talk about several more things before booking your first session. Among those topics are the following:
    1. You will need a computer that includes a webcam and audio for both talking and listening. He may ask for a few more details of your setup. A phone nearby is essential; headphones are helpful. This person will try to use words you understand if you aren’t computer savvy.
    2. He needs to be acquainted with your reason for calling him. A clinical psychologist considers whether he possesses the skills to treat you for the condition you describe.
    3. Questions related to your physical and emotional history should be anticipated, as well.

Further steps follow once an appointment is made:

    1. The therapist will send you a Telehealth Informed Consent Form and go over it with you. This will include potential benefits and risks of treatment.
    2. Payment arrangements will be made. Be assured that Medicare has agreed to pay for telehealth sessions during this emergency.
    3. If you are not covered by Medicare, check with your own insurance company to determine reimbursement for such services and what portion of the fee is your responsibility.
    4. The counselor will ask you to sign a release/permission allowing him to speak with an individual designated by you in an emergency.

The professional who treats you needs the competence to provide teletherapy. Technical expertise is necessary to address an unexpected failure of the audio or video connection. Ask about this.

FaceTime and Skype are not secure platforms for the delivery of videotherapy, meaning your protected health information in a session might be compromised and your confidentiality breached. Nonetheless, during the Coronavirus emergency, HHS (the US Department of Health and Human Services) is permitting the use of insecure platforms to meet the demand for psychological assistance.

The doctor will discuss potential privacy concerns within your residence. Will anyone try to hear what you are talking about? Might another person enter the room? Will a pet or child show up?

White noise machines may reduce the chance someone else will overhear you. You will be encouraged to minimize distractions to the extent possible.

Your telephone is used as a backup in case of temporary loss of video or audio, not as the primary source of communication.

Visual cues such as your facial expressions, tears in your eyes, or tremulousness in your movements are indications of your emotional state. He must know that you are not engaging in harmful activities within his sight, etc. None of these indicators are knowable if he speaks with you on the phone.

Research suggests that teletherapy patients are about as satisfied as those who participate in traditional office visits. Most dissatisfactions come from technical problems in the course of the sessions.

Consider this an introduction to the treatment closest to an in-person office visit. You can expect other matters to be brought up, too.

Do not take what you have read here as a complete overview of the field. As the virus peril continues, federal and state laws may well change rules to adapt to changing circumstances. These might impact the delivery of psychological assistance.

Know that help is available to respond to the heightened stress of our situation. Talented psychologists, psychiatric social workers, psychiatrists, and other license counselors will continue to render the comfort they provide every day.

All these health professionals work with you, not on you. If you embrace the idea of partnership, both of you will work to create a bridge to a better time for everyone.

—–

The photos above come courtesy of Laura Hedien, a gifted and generous photographer. They are Crossing Chicago River at Michigan Avenue on March 21, 2020, and Crazy Luminescence. Much more of her work can be found at: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/

Coping with “Skin Hunger” in the Coronavirus Age: Entry from an Unwritten Journal

I’ve never written in a journal, despite offering the idea to many patients. Today I write because writing permits expression in the absence of nearness. At this moment, we mustn’t be close to others no matter what we want.

Yet we are the same creatures evolved to be social, to touch and more than touch: to shake hands, hug, embrace, caress, kiss, fondle, and lose ourselves in love and friendship.

We suffer from a pandemic side-effect called Skin Hunger by some, a too familiar, but unspoken condition among us, soon to be known by almost everyone. We have become experimental subjects in an unplanned scientific inquiry.

Still, today offered some small compensation. Here is a morning snapshot without mourning.

I wanted fresh orange juice. I’m lucky in many ways, including a meer 10-minute drive to a store that almost gives it away and a car to get there.

To minimize risk, I arrived early. Really early for those of you who aren’t seniors: at the high-risk age of our world’s coronavirus stage.

I entered at nine-minutes before dawn, a trip on night’s black edge: 6:20 AM.

Few people beat me in. The magic of automatic doors saved me from contact. Then a young woman employee walked by.

“Excuse me. Where are hamburger buns?

If we have them, they’re in aisle four.

I guess “if we have them” has turned into a reflexive response. Shortages because of the terror. I went to get the juice, whose location I knew, then to aisle four. Tons of buns.

One of the automated checkouts was in use, three empty. I completed the errand while maintaining social distance. Mission accomplished! We take our triumphs where we can find them within the constraints of our present moment.

Breakfast. I had a drink of water, then prepared my typical fiber-filled repast: shredded wheat manufactured without sugar, salt, and taste. With bananas today, though I often add blueberries if the price is reasonable.

Then coffee to feel alive. Most seniors require gallons, plus medications. I don’t take many of the latter, but the standard is relative. Friends report back problems and hernias from lifting all the pharmaceuticals they use!

Now for the major event of the day. Ta-da! Walking outside. Almost three miles.

People are friendlier but maintain distance. Almost everyone now waves or says hello, even from across the street.

An outlier on a bike, a woman, widened the footage between us from 15 to 25 feet.

Some folks walked dogs. Physical contact with a loving mammal. Think about it.

I passed modest homes and a few places an old friend compared to the Palace of Versailles. He was exaggerating, of course.

I got to thinking about how COVID-19 might alter our values. We take much for granted: life, health, work, restaurants, etc.

Perhaps, for a while, the condition of our being will be differently admired, differently evaluated, differently appreciated.

The status of simple things is getting a boost, decency among them.

The birds were out and a concert in progress. A legendary symphony conductor, Carlo Maria Giulini, told me he thought this the most beautiful music of all. No disagreement from me. Even the woodpecker with his built-in jackhammer joined the sing-along.

Some folks I know are stunned at the avalanche of bad news. The ones in feathered flight don’t care. Birds chirp, chatter, and sing in their first show of the day. We hear mostly males at that time, hoping to win a female heart and trying to mark their territory.

The scale of their satisfaction is smaller than ours.

Perhaps they offer something worth learning.