Why We Lose Objectivity about the People We Love

Once drawn to others – in politics, love, or friendship – our ability to evaluate them realistically disappears. I’m guessing you recognize it more clearly in acquaintances than in yourself. One contributing factor is called the “halo effect.” We are susceptible to a tiny number of attractive traits positively transforming our overall opinion of a person.

You and I are not as logical as we think, especially when emotion bumps logic off the road, a regular part of its job. One might still note flaws in the other – and set them aside or rationalize them. This can produce strange contradictions. Here is a personal story as a telling example.

If I were to put the life of Leo Fabian in a few words, I’d be forced to call him a failed, irresponsible, alcoholic man. He caused lots of pain in his life, especially to his children and wife.

The contradiction? I knew all this and I loved him. He was my maternal grandfather.

Grandpa was born in Romania in 1892 and came to this country in 1912. Long before the movie, Titanic, he claimed that he traveled from Eastern Europe to England, and then proceeded to miss that very vessel. The next one, of course, didn’t hit an iceberg and his best days began soon after he read the Statue of Liberty’s welcome. My grandfather started a successful business as a house painter and owned an automobile before most others. A wife and four children later, his care-free days fell off the rails in the worldwide, decade long economic train wreck that began in 1929. Though he lived almost 35 more years, the best part of his life vanished in time.

My mother remembered the terror of bill collectors pounding their door and high school days when she had only enough money to buy a candy bar for lunch. At some point Leo couldn’t take the unhappy apartment anymore, the nagging mate and fighting offspring. He left for Winnipeg, Canada. Grandpa had relatives there, beating a solo path out of town. Solo, I repeat.

My intrepid grandmother Esther packed everyone up and tracked him down. The Fabian children lived and went to school up north for a while, a band of dispossessed refugees: not wanted by their dad, not missed by their country, creating regret only in the empty-handed bill collectors. After a time in the Canadian school system they would return worse for the wear of dislocation. No offense to Canada.

Their father’s incapacity and addiction marked them all. To cite particular scars, Uncle Sam – hardly two digits of age – had the grizzly responsibility of pulling his dad out of bars when drink had the best of him; and taking care of my grandmother when Leo was incapable of providing either food or shelter.

Up close I witnessed ugliness, too, but of a different kind. I worked after school for my uncle’s downtown Chicago business. I beheld 6’4″ Uncle Sam – my favorite relative, almost like a father to me – interact with his dad. Grandpa was by now his son’s full-time employee.

I recognized something askew as soon as I got an underage work permit and started the job: Uncle Sam called his father by his first name in public; never dad, always Leo. I couldn’t imagine myself doing this with my father or any relative other than a cousin. Was Sam trying to hide himself from the embarrassment of being this man’s offspring? But the knowledge was public, I soon discovered. Worse was to come.

Nothing in the office predicted catastrophe. The day was sunny, everyone working, chatting, listening to the White Sox game radio broadcast. But grandpa came to work hung-over a bit, enough to be inadequate to the tasks assigned. When he screwed up, Sam Fabian told off Leo Fabian. In front of all the others he employed, perhaps seven of us. All the rest kept their heads down and went about their work. The radio broadcaster, Bob Elson, paid no attention.

I alone watched it all, heard it all. Watched Sam enlarge and lengthen and tower over 6′ tall Grandpa. Watched my uncle holler and Leo shrink. Watched one man flogged by ropes of words alone, lashed-together letters all but peeling his skin. I never again looked at either one the same way. Though the repeat performances were few, even a few were too many. Sam had cause, but not license to tap his lifetime storage tank of anger to humiliate his dad.

My love for my grandfather predated this crap. He would be funny, charming, full of life and bigger than life; cutting a lean, wicked-smiling, still-handsome figure. Leo Fabian could charm the socks off anyone if you didn’t know all the rest. He spoke at least a little of multiple languages and must have been the life of every party. Grandpa was proud of me, kind to me, affectionate with me, and never said a bad word to anyone.

I remember a full-day spent with him in 1956, the nine-year-old version of myself, from the elevated train ride downtown to the movie Trapeze; starring Burt Lancaster, Gina Lollobrigida, and Tony Curtis. Complete with my grandfather’s warning that he might fall asleep on the way back (he did) and his reminder to wake him so we could get off at the Kedzie Avenue stop on the Ravenswood line.

My final memory came a few years later. He was now in his early 70s dying of stomach cancer. I visited his hospital bed with mom. He perked up as soon as I entered. He couldn’t hug me hard enough and, like him, I knew the moment was a goodbye.

Most of us automatically rationalize our beliefs and inconsistencies. Take politics and religion. Research says we come to conclusions too fast to arrive at such opinions through careful analysis. Instinct and emotion drive the decision and we then generate a rationale soon after. Even so, we believe the reasons came first.

Humans desperately want to view people as completely integrated, whole and predictable: all virtuous or all bad. I’ve met a few who came close to the former category, to the good. I’m blessed in that way.

Still, blind certainty like “My dad can beat up your dad” and “My mom is smarter than your mom” is black and white and commonplace. We usually see what we want to. Oskar Schindler, the famous savior of Jews during the Holocaust, was also a philandering husband who abandoned his wife; admirable and iniquitous both. Many are more like he, perhaps with less drama, less extremity at either end, living on a smaller scale.

Life is simpler, I think, if we do not absorb the complexity of human nature and instead draw the peopled world in broad strokes lacking troublesome detail. We need trust and comradeship, love and security, more than we need truth.

We form our opinion of ourselves with no greater insight. The Stoics say no one knows himself until he is tested, yet many think they would be heroic in the absence of the test. Even a failed moral trial can be given a pass by a subdued conscience. We are almost all conscience-tamers some of the time, without the whip and chair used by lion tamers at the circus. Unlike the beasts, the conscience tends to submit so quietly we don’t hear a thing. Fortunately, most of us don’t do it often.

I’ve never tried to rationalize my love for Grandpa. Yet I saw plenty of daily evidence of the wreckage my grandparents wrought on mom; and on Uncle Sam when I worked for him.

So, there you have it. My granddad was an irresponsible, alcoholic man who abandoned his family and (with an assist from an economic calamity) did enormous harm to his children. That’s on the one side, my love for him on the other.

They are both true.

Go figure.

The top photo is called Taking Care of the Heart by Enver Rahmanov

 

Getting a Grip in a Difficult Time: Reasons for Optimism

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As I listen to the news and read the newspaper, it seems we are in the worst moment in history or something pretty close. Think of the following list:

  • Ebola
  • Ebola panic (a rather different thing than the disease itself)
  • Antibiotics losing their effectiveness
  • More armed conflicts and genocides than you can count on two hands
  • Political stalemate
  • Few if any great men or women to lead us
  • Climate change threatening planetary survival
  • Science-denial leading people to prevent the inoculation of their children against disease
  • Intolerance of opposing views even if they are well-reasoned
  • A fracturing of the sense of community (as, for example, was present during World War II or immediately after 9/11)
  • Political and corporate corruption
  • Unemployment
  • Homelessness
  • Racial/religious discrimination
  • Growing economic inequality
  • Inequality of opportunity
  • Educational failure
  • Enraged voices on all sides
  • Killer air-bags
  • The common cold. I threw a sneeze in just to lighten the mood!

Before you take a suicidal walk straight into and under the sea, inhale and step back. Here are a few ways to deal with all the bad stuff. I’ll describe five, the last two of which might actually be helpful:

  1. The Ostrich Impersonation.
    Take a tip from the myth about an ungainly, flightless bird. Stick your head under the covers or close your eyes. Perhaps the world’s troubles will disappear. Don’t read or watch anything having to do with problems. Stay focused only on personal issues or (even better) distract yourself from everything important, including your life’s direction. Don’t vote, but do drink, drug, jump on every sexual opportunity, surf the net, tweet every five minutes, buy a new sweater and post loads of selfies so we can rate your new look. YOLO! (You only live once)!
  2. “Rage, Rage, Against the Dying of the Light!”
    Attempt to be first in something. Lead the world in rage! That’s the spirit! Hone your expertise in criticism. Pick fights, complain, point fingers, and shake fists. Argue about politics and religion. Give family members a hard time, too. Despite having no experience or education in science and politics, shout “Follow me!” as you lead the crowd over the cliff. Should anyone survive, accept no responsibility.
  3. Pray, and If All Prayer Fails, Pray Harder!
    Ignore the real world. Spend the largest part of every day in prayer, if possible in a place of worship. Believe the gods will help you if only you pray hard enough. Take the attitude of the man who ignored flood warnings even when the police came to evacuate him. “No thank you, I’ll be fine,” he said. “The lord will protect me.” A few hours later, after the ground floor of his home was under water, a rescue boat made the same offer. Again, he repeated his confidence in the almighty from the window of his upstairs bedroom. The tide rose and the hours clicked by. He was now on the roof and a hovering helicopter dropped a rope ladder, his final chance to escape. “No thank you, I’ll be fine,” he replied once more. “The lord will protect me.” He drowned, of course, but was quite incredulous and a bit irritated. Upon arriving at heaven’s gate, this devotee of the creator delivered a Job-like complaint to St. Peter: “I was a devout man. I prayed every day. I never harmed anyone. I counted on God, but I died! Explain this!” he demanded. St. Peter looked down at the little fellow and said unto him, “Who do you think sent those people, you fool!”
  4. Look Back at History.
    Think about your own life, all the calamitous moments you thought unsurvivable. You’re breathing, aren’t you? You survived! Maybe you even learned something. Perhaps the world works the same way. Pick a year, say, 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember listening to President Kennedy’s TV speech on the evening of October 22nd, announcing a military blockade of Cuba to prevent Soviet missiles from being delivered. I wondered if I would be alive the next morning as those warships faced off. Mankind has endured two World Wars, the Great Depression between them, the Influenza Pandemic of 1918/19, the Bubonic Plague, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and more. Anyone who longs for the “good old days” has a challenge. Your grandparents lived when blacks were lynched and summers brought fear of polio. Bright women were largely limited to work at home, secretarial jobs, and teaching. Despite everything, including ourselves, the giant daisy chain of Homo sapien life that began with the first man and woman remains unbroken. Shakespeare knew the trouble we’ve seen: “‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.” Making the world better has never been easy. Still, humanity lives, laughs, and every so often creates a technological miracle.
  5. Take Action.
    As in #4, reflect upon your own life, but think anew, think what you alone can do. It might be grand or something small. Take heart in 2014 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner, Malala Yousafzai. Her 2013 speech to the United Nations came after she recovered from a bullet wound to her head by the Taliban. She had done the unconscionable: the teen wanted an education for herself and all young women. This is a portion of  her UN oration, given when she was just 16:

    I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me. I would not shoot him. This is the compassion that I have learnt from Muhammad-the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This is the legacy of change that I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learnt from Gandhi Jee, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learnt from my mother and father. This is what my soul is telling me, be peaceful and love everyone.

    If we have reason for optimism about this crazy world, it is in the realization the human species endures, but we live as surely in the shadow of death as did our short-lived ancient ancestors. All of us owe ourselves and each other the responsibility to make life better. We alone can ensure all life, not only human life, goes on. You and I are not Malala Yousafzai, but surely, to “be peaceful and love” is in your power and mine.

The top image lists an incorrect birth year for Malala Yousafzai. She was born in 1997.

Turning Points

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A few weeks ago I was with two friends, one of whom very abruptly became angry with the other over something that seemed to me quite small. A difference of opinion, as it turned out, about a political matter. Very angry and very small, at least in the sense that the issue wasn’t important to their well-being or anything that was in their control. It was triggered by an everyday observation about the behavior of one particular politician. You’ve probably heard or made similar comments yourself.

To me, however, it was stunning. Why? Because, in that moment, I saw something that I sometimes do: make a fuss with my wife over a subject of no real consequence, even though it tends not to be about politics. And, I’ll tell you what, what I saw wasn’t pretty. I’m sure it is every bit as unfortunate when I do it as when it happens between these two friends. For me it was a turning point. I have been much different since that day. More than once I’ve replayed in my head what I saw happening in front of me. I’m hoping that the change in me lasts and am writing this to keep myself on target.

I imagine that when most of us think of the idea of a personal turning point, we conjure up a more operatic circumstance. Something about death or winning (or losing) the presidency or falling in love, to name just a few possibilities. But, sometimes a turning point can be as unremarkable as the very personal one I just described. The kind of event that is inwardly dramatic, but not outwardly dramatic. The kind that has to do with an “aha” moment, the self-knowledge it brings, and a change in behavior because of it.

Put differently, turning points involve both what you experience and how you reflect on that experience. Moreover, that self-reflection must lead to a permanent change in conduct. Yet the trigger needn’t be theatrical. The event I just mentioned was compelling only because of the meaning I gave it. To anyone else watching, it would have been soon forgotten.

Here is a rather different kind of turning point, quite a contrast to the one I just portrayed. It is outwardly dramatic as well as inwardly dramatic. It changed how a teenager led the remaining 55 years of his life. Just reading this brief account might change yours: Turning Point.

The image above is a Korean Traffic “U-turn” Sign by P.Ctnt, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to Make Yourself and Those You Love Miserable

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It is easy to find on-line guidance to a better life. But the recommendations contained on those self-help web sites (and in books that aim at the same audience) have become almost too commonplace to make any impact.

The remedy? Something that is just the opposite: a list of suggestions on how to make yourself and others miserable. Of course, I’m not wishing that you follow these directions. Rather, I’m hoping that some of you who might yawn at still another list of “things to do” to improve your life, will be struck by the things you already do that make it much worse.

Here goes:

  • Regularly compare your material and financial circumstances to others, especially to those who are doing better than you are.
  • Make a list of all the people who have wronged you over the years and try to remember exactly how awful they made you feel. Think about those who owe you an apology. Forgive no one. Let no slight be too small to dwell on it.
  • Carry on a vendetta. Stay up late at night planning and plotting how you might get back at people. Stay angry. Let all your hatred out in blistering, profane, and cowardly “flames” behind the mask of the Internet.
  • Give your children gifts rather than your time. Set no limits on them. Then wait until they are teenagers and wonder why they are depressed or rebellious.
  • Curse the darkness, the winter, the cold, the rain, the frailty of the human condition, and all the other things that you can’t change.
  • Get impatient with the people who are walking in front of you at a snail’s pace, the couples whose bodies and shopping carts block the entire grocery aisle, and the slow progress of the check-out line at the store.

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  • Make no contribution to the betterment of humanity. Assume an attitude of entitlement. Figure out how to avoid work. Idle away your time. Ask “what your country can do for you,” not “what you can do for your country” in opposition to JFK’s 1960 inaugural address admonition.
  • Forever rationalize your dishonorable or questionable behavior or deny it altogether, even to yourself.
  • Persuade yourself that you need to wait until you feel better before you do the difficult thing that you have been postponing. Keep waiting, even if the time never comes when you believe that you can take action.
  • Do not let conversation with your spouse or children get in the way of watching TV. Keep the TV on most of the time, most importantly at family dinners. If possible have a television in every room.
  • Ignore the beauty of a spring or summer day, the newly fallen snow, and the cheerful laugh of small child. Stay in-doors as much as possible, year round.

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  • Allow yourself to be upset by overpaid, under-performing athletes who doom the home team to continued failure. Yes, Cubs fans, this means you!
  • Treat emotions of sadness, tenderness, and hurt as your enemy. Push them away and thereby alienate yourself from yourself. Curtail grieving and try to deaden your feelings to the point of numbness.
  • Work up as much hatred as possible toward opposition political parties. Listen to every talking head who wants to whip you into a frenzy.
  • Expect justice and fairness in all things.
  • Drink too much, drug too much, and spend every extra minute on the web or playing computer games instead of having direct human contact with someone who is in the same room with you. Further distract yourself from your problems by watching TV and listening to music. Escape reality.

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  • Keep using failed solutions to your problems even though they haven’t worked in years, if ever.
  • Behave in mid-life the way you did as a young person; or, if you are a young person, behave the way you did as a child. Do not reflect on or learn from experience which might teach you something new.
  • Use others instrumentally. That is, value them only in terms of what they can do for you. Lie, cheat, betray, and steal from them if that serves your interests. Then wonder why people mistrust you.
  • Spend as much time as possible worrying about the future and regretting the past, rather than living in the irreplaceable moment.
  • Aim low. Avoid the disappointment that comes with high expectations. When the going gets tough, quit.
  • Train yourself to be a miser. Practice selfishness. Hold on to your money as if you expect to live forever and will need every last cent. Make Scrooge from A Christmas Carol your hero.

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  • Judge others less fortunate than you are by using the phrases “he should have known better,” “he didn’t try hard enough,” and the like. Assume that all people deserve whatever misfortune befalls them. Disdain compassion, but remain puzzled when others call you heartless.
  • Indulge in every available excess: unprotected sex, food, spending, smoking, caffeine, etc. Don’t exercise. Ignore medical advice and, even better, avoid going to your doctor. Treat your body badly and then wonder why it betrays you.
  • Be sarcastic, passive-aggressive, and indirect whenever you are injured rather than looking someone in the eye and expressing your displeasure in a straight-forward fashion.
  • Avoid facing things. Give in to your fears, anxieties, and phobias.

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  • Don’t let anyone know you well. Believe that your vulnerabilities will always be used against you. Keep social interactions on the surface. Eschew intimacy and maintain your distance, thinking that this is the best way to avoid personal injury. Trust no one!
  • Assume that the normal social rules regarding fidelity to friends and lovers don’t apply to you. Hold on to a double-standard that favors you.
  • Insist on having your way. Don’t compromise. Don’t consider others’ needs or wants. Assume a position of moral superiority, self-righteousness, and arrogance in things religious, political, and personal.
  • Do everything others ask of you. Rarely say “no.”
  • Try to control people and events as much as you can. Don’t go with the flow. Micromanage. Hover over others. Repeat complaints to them incessantly. Remind subordinates, friends, spouses, and children of small errors, even if they are ancient history.
  • Make no significant effort to better your life. Depend on others to take care of you and make all significant decisions for you. Be a burden.
  • Raise all your children exactly the same way even though it is obvious that they are not all the same.
  • Imitate vampires (who have no reflection in the mirror and therefore keep their mirrors shrouded) by never really looking hard at your own reflection in the looking-glass. That is, never take a frank inventory of your strengths and weaknesses or the mistakes you’ve made. Be like the evil queen in Snow White, whose only desire was that the mirror would tell her that she was “the fairest of them all.”
  • Whenever you talk with someone, wonder what they really mean, pondering the possibility that they find you boring, stupid or physically unattractive.
  • Feed yourself on gossip more than food. Delight in talking about others behind their backs.
  • Value beauty, appearance, reputation, and material success over integrity, knowledge, kindness, hard work, and love.
  • Try to change others, but do not try to change yourself. Take no responsibility for your life circumstances, instead blaming those who have stymied you.
  • Stay just as you are regardless of changing life conditions. For example, if wearing warm clothes worked for you when you lived in Alaska, continue to wear them when you move to Arizona in July.

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  • Don’t forgive yourself. Maintain the most perfectionistic and demanding moral and performance standard even if you are not a brain surgeon. Stay up at night castigating yourself over every imperfection, no matter how small.
  • Make a list of all the things that are wrong with your life, all the opportunities lost, every heartbreak, and the physical features and bodily changes that you don’t like. Stew in your own juices. Salt your wounds. Pick at your scabs.
  • Take everything personally.
  • Permit friends, family, and co-workers to walk all over you. Do not stand up to them for fear of causing offense and disapproval.
  • Discount your blessings. Concentrate on the dark side of life.
  • Never even consider going into psychotherapy. Assume that this is something only for those who are weak and that anyone who needs to grapple with emotional issues in counseling demonstrates a failure of will power and logic.

With thanks for the inspiration for this essay to Dan Greenberg and Marcia Jacobs, co-authors of a very funny, but ironic book entitled How to Make Yourself Miserable.

The top image is Grief by Edgar Bertram Mackenna. The video frame that follows is from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural speech. The next image is Sommerblumenstrauss by A. Gundelach. The following photo by Andygoodell is A Jack Rose Cocktail. The fifth picture is of two children in Bangladesh by Nafis Kamal, while the sixth is called Chicklet-Currency courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. After the image from Disney’s Snow White, is a 1911 photo of Enrico Caruso, the great Italian tenor. All but the Snow White frame are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Violence and Intimacy

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Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, but one can do the most violence to another when one is close to that person. Physically close. Pinching, punching, pushing, plucking, picking, pulverizing — actions that can only be done at close quarters, the victim is pilloried and punished. Perhaps then, it is no wonder that human kind can be uncomfortable with and afraid of intimacy.

When physical vulnerability is compounded with the psychological, we tend to be even more careful. Those who are close to us know just where to strike, where the soft and breakable parts are; and they are just in reach.

I watched a History Channel feature the other night on The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The point was made that while the Thompson submachine gun was a useful weapon for killing at a distance, many of the most important gangland assassinations were done with a pistol, while holding or grabbing the victim, or pulling him close to make certain that he couldn’t reach for his own weapon. Intimacy again — the closeness that made injury possible, more certain, more lethal.

Remember Delilah of the famous bible story that featured Samson? Again, intimacy, this time of a sexual nature, allowed her to rob Samson of his strength by having his enemies cut his long hair while he slept.

When you were a kid, do you remember an aunt or uncle or grandparent who would hold you close and then pinch (and shake) your cheek between thumb and forefinger? It was alleged to be an act of affection, but whenever it was done to me, I couldn’t quite understand how something that hurt that much was supposed to show love.

I’m sure you know the origin of the handshake — an ancient custom designed to display the fact that you do not have a weapon in your hand with which to do injury at close range.

And, in the “you always hurt the one you love” department, we should not forget that “crimes of passion” account for many of the violent deaths in this country. That is, we are harming those we know, not strangers, in fits of intense emotion and impulsivity.

How does this relate to therapy? In part, because the therapeutic relationship is a somewhat one-sided intimacy. The patient makes himself vulnerable to the doctor, displays his wounds and expresses his emotions, trusting that his secrets and feelings will be safeguarded, treated with kindness and respect, and definitely not used against him. Therapists need to keep this in mind, lest they re-traumatize the person, injuring him in a way that is similar to the very torment that he came to therapy to heal.

Although a counselor’s power can hardly be considered “great,” it is considerable when it comes to his patients. Psychologists would do well to remember the quote from the movie Spider-man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The moral of the story? Allowing one self to become close and vulnerable to another person opens the door to the best and worst that life can offer. It is therefore of great import to choose a friend, a lover, or a therapist with care.

As the Knight Templar told Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when the explorer had to pick out the Holy Grail from an assortment of old cups, “choose wisely.”

The above image is William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1850 painting Dante and Virgil in Hell sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Old But Useful Thoughts: a Stoic Guide to Life

The Stoic philosophers have gotten a bad rap. I know, this problem isn’t exactly as pressing as the unemployment rate, the deficit, and our military involvement in the Middle East.

I therefore beg your indulgence and hope you will read further. It just might influence how you think about life. The BP oil contamination can wait — and you can’t do anything about it anyway —  so don’t let it get the best of you, a point the Stoics would surely make.

The “bad rap” is largely the result of how we understand the word “stoic.” We define that word to refer to someone who is indifferent to emotion, deadened to pain, hardened and impassive; someone who has “killed” his feelings. But this is not what Zeno, a third century B.C. Greek philosopher had in mind when he founded his school of philosophy.

Rather, the Stoics saw that emotion could become extreme and destructive. They therefore looked to find some balance between head and heart, with the passions held in check.

More importantly, however, Stoics turned their attention to the importance of a person’s own behavior and inner life, seeking to help the individual find equanimity and satisfaction in life (in part) by not overvaluing the inessential, external things and events that crowd in on him. According to their line of reasoning, it is important to distinguish what is virtuous and important that is controllable from what is trivial and outside of one’s control. Then, by giving a paramount position to clarity of thought and self-reflection, one may achieve freedom from the excesses of anger, self-pity, jealousy, suffering, and anguish, as well as an overall sense that life hasn’t “played fair” with us.

Professor Luke Timothy Johnson has said the following about the contrast between the world view of a man like Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic “philosopher/king” of second century Rome, and our own way of thinking about “the good life:”

Marcus Aurelius was obsessed by the transitory character of all existent things. We (by contrast) take our institutions for granted. We think that life is long. We assume that we should be healthy. Marcus Aurelius spurned pleasure and sought duty. We are driven by the notions of feeling good, and the pursuit of happiness is often identified with the pursuit of pleasure. Marcus Aurelius identified freedom as a call to virtue and duty, whereas in present day America, we often think of freedom as the most radical form of individualism and doing what we like.

The Stoics would say that most of us are not free. Rather, we are slaves to making money, accumulating objects, and creating or defending a reputation. For them, “living well” didn’t mean living in the lap of luxury, but living simply, concerned with improving oneself and one’s conduct toward other men.

For these philosophers and like-minded people of today, the ups and downs of life, the illnesses, the job frustrations and relationships disappointments, and the calumnies of the jealous, not to mention death itself, are all seen as simply “in the nature of things.” Acceptance of what is “natural” and what is a normal part of the human condition is key to a Stoic’s way of taking the world as it is, not as one might wish it to be. If a Stoic is approached by someone who has suffered a reversal of fortune and is asking “Why me?” he would likely answer, “Why not you.” (Or anyone else, for that matter).

Stoics such as Seneca and Epictetus believed that by leading a virtuous life one could achieve happiness, regardless of what external misfortunes (including death) happened. This is surely farther than most of us would go, but that way of thinking does tend to normalize and minimize certain events that we consider to be “tragic.”

Those of us who live in Western Civilization run the risk of thinking that our happiness depends on how well our kids do in school (and whether they attend the “right” school), our next promotion or job title, the approval of our “betters,” making a certain amount of money or achieving an advanced social rank, and a gorgeous house in a fine neighborhood. The Stoics would say we are much too concerned with external things (rather than focusing on trying to lead a virtuous life). And, interestingly enough, contemporary psychological research tends to support the Stoics: those with tons of money are only somewhat more satisfied with life than those with just enough for the basic necessities.  Put another way, it is the striving for things outside of ourselves, the struggle to defeat or avoid the inevitable disappointments of life, that robs one of peace of mind.

In effect, the Stoics are saying that we pay too much attention to external things of little “real” value, and that in so doing we create our unhappiness, having chosen beliefs which lead us into the pain we seek to avoid.

Take an example. A parent wants his child to obtain a graduate school level education from a “good” school. The child, however, may not be of an academic bent, and doesn’t seem destined to achieve this goal, although he is otherwise a decent young man. And so the parent frets, feeling disappointment and frustration. Meanwhile, another parent, who has a similar child, doesn’t place so much value on this particular direction and doesn’t see it as an essential path for his child to follow. The first man is unhappy, the second is happy. The unhappiness is the creation of the first man’s opinion about things, it does not reside in the thing itself.  The parent is troubled because of his attachment to an idea, something that is external to him and is inessential for his contentment or the well-being of his son, however much he might think otherwise.

Now, you might think that the Stoic is unambitious and that he doesn’t try hard enough (or encourage his kids to try). Regarding the latter, I suspect that a real Stoic would value knowledge and learning and encourage the same in his child, but not make it a cause for desperation and the wringing of his hands. So, while not completely “hands off” the practical things of life, he achieves some distance from pain by thinking things through.

The Stoics desire to live in harmony with the way the world is, rather than to struggle against it. And, here again, they strive to improve themselves — their moral and intellectual state — rather than the state of their bank account or their rank in the pecking order of social and business life. In the words of Epictetus “…as the (working) material of the carpenter is wood, and that of (a sculptor is) bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person’s own life.” Thus, the philosopher attempts to attain a state of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom; and always turns back to such thoughts in a constant effort to improve himself and practice what he preaches.

Interestingly, Stoics were also way ahead of everyone else in matters of social justice. For them, slaves were seen as the equal of other men, and women were thought to have just as much capacity for rationality as men, views that were unheard of in the ancient world.

And, as you might have noticed, the Stoics were not so far off from the mindset of Zen philosophy. In particular, both recommend living “in the moment,” being aware of the transitory nature of most things that make us unhappy, and the fruitlessness of spending too much time looking back (usually with regret or nostalgia) or looking forward (often in anxiety or the uncertain hope of a better future) while the unrepeatable present moment passes by.

Here are a few quotations from three of the great Stoic philosophers. Best to read them individually and think about each one, rather than to blow through them quickly. Who knows, one or another might change your life.

“But what says Socrates? ‘One man finds pleasure in improving his land, another his horses. My pleasure lies in seeing that I myself grow better day by day.'” (Epictetus, CLIII)

“If you are told that…one speaks ill of you, make no defense against what was said, but answer, ‘He surely (didn’t know) my other faults, (or) else he would have mentioned (those as well)!” (Epictetus, CLXIX)

“What wouldst thou be found doing when overtaken by Death? If I might choose, I would be found doing some deed of true humanity, of wide import, beneficent and noble. But if I (am) not be found engaged in (anything) so lofty, let me hope at least for this…that I may be found raising up in myself that (quality) which has fallen; learning to deal more wisely with the things of sense; working out my own tranquility…” (Epictetus, CLXXXIX)

“(I learned) from Alexander the Platonic, not frequently to say to anyone that I have no leisure; nor continually to excuse (my) neglect of duties…by alleging urgent occupations.” (Marcus Aurelius, I.12)

“Every moment think steadily…to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts. And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and all self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee. Thou seest how few… things are (required), …which if a man (has in hand), he is able to live a life which flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods; for the gods on their part will require nothing more from him who observes these things.” (Marcus Aurelius, II.5)

“Do the things external which fall upon thee distract thee? Give (yourself) time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around (by external events).” Marcus Aurelius, II.7.

“Or is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. (It is) the abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of those applauding hands.” (Marcus Aurelius, IV.3)

“Do not waste the remainder of thy life in thoughts about others…For thou losest the opportunity of doing something else when thou hast such thoughts as these: ‘What is such a person doing, and why, and what is he saying, and what is he thinking of, and what is he contriving,’ and whatever else of the kind makes us wander away from our own ruling power.” (Marcus Aurelius, IV.4)

“…By all means bear this in mind, that within a very short time both thou and he will be dead and soon not even your names will be left behind.” (Marcus Aurelius, IV.6)

—“In the morning when thous risest unwillingly, let this thought be present — I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world.” Marcus Aurelius, V.1)

“Let it make no difference to thee whether thou art cold or warm, if thou art doing thy duty; and whether thou art drowsy or satisfied with sleep; and whether ill-spoken of or praised; and whether dying or doing something else. For it is one of the acts of this life; it is sufficient then in this act…to do well (with) what we have in hand.” (Marcus Aurelius, VI,1)

“The best way of avenging thyself is not to become like (the wrong-doer).” Marcus Aurelius, VI,6)

“…Keep thyself simple, good, pure, serious, free from affectation, a friend of justice, a worshiper of the gods, kind, affectionate, strenuous in all proper acts. Strive to continue to be such as philosophy wished to make thee. Reverence the gods and help men. Short is life. There is only one fruit of…this life — a pious disposition and social acts. Do everything as a disciple of Antoninus. Remember his constancy in every act which was conformable to reason, and his evenness in all things, and his piety, and the serenity of his countenance, and his sweetness, and his disregard of empty fame, and his efforts to understand things…and how he bore with those who blamed him unjustly without blaming them in return…” (Marcus Aurelius, VI, 30)

“Let not future things disturb thee, for (you will) come to them, if it shall be necessary, having…the same reason which now thou usest for present things.” Marcus Aurelius, VII,8)

“Is any man afraid of change? Why? What can take place without change?…Can anything that is useful be accomplished without change?…” (Marcus Aurelius, VII,18)

“The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.” (Marcus Aurelius, VII, 61)

“No longer talk at all about the kind of man who a good man ought to be, but be such.” (Marcus Aurelius, VIII, 16)

“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others…” (Marcus Aurelius, XII,4)

“How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life!” (XII,13)

“If it is not right, do not do it. If it is not true, do not say it.” (Marcus Aurelius, XII,17)

“(Good men) should not be afraid to face hardships and difficulties, or complain of fate; whatever happens, good men should take it in good part, and turn it to a good end. It is not what you endure that matters, but how you endure it. (Seneca, On Providence)

“Among the many splendid sayings of our friend Demetrius there is this one…’Nothing,’ he said, seems to me more unhappy than the man who has no experience of adversity.’ For he has not been allowed to put himself to the test.” (Seneca, On Providence).

“You are wrong if you think anyone has been exempted from ill; the man who has known happiness for many a year will receive his share someday; whoever seems to have been set free from this has only been granted a delay.” (Seneca, On Providence).

“What is the duty of a good man? To offer himself to fate…The soul that is earthbound and sluggish will follow the safe course; virtue takes to the heights.” (Seneca, On Providence).

“Inside (of yourself the universe has) given you every good; your good fortune is in not needing good fortune (to be happy).” (Seneca, On Providence).

“Revenge is an admission of pain; a mind that is bowed by injury is not a great mind. The man who has done the injury is either stronger than you or weaker; if he is weaker, spare him, if stronger, spare yourself.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“All of us are inconsiderate and imprudent, all unreliable, dissatisfied, ambitious…all of us are corrupt. Therefore, whatever fault he censures in another man, every man will find residing in his own heart….So let us show greater kindness to one another.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“No man will ever be happy if tortured by the greater happiness of another.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“The greatest outcry surrounds money: this is what brings exhaustion to the courts, sets fathers against children, concocts poisons, hands out swords to assassins and the legions alike; this is what wears the stain of our blood; this that makes the nights of wives and husbands noisy with quarrelling, and the crowd surge against the benches where the magistrates arbitrate; because of money, again, kings grow savage and engage in plunder, overthrowing states built by the long toil of centuries so they can rummage for gold and silver among the ashes of cities.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“…in the future have regard not only for the truth of what you say but for the question (of) whether the man you are addressing can accept the truth.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“…so long as each one of us prefers to trust someone else’s judgment rather than relying on his own, we never exercise judgment in our lives but constantly resort to trust, and a mistake that has been passed down from one hand to another takes us over and spins our ruin.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“Human concerns are not so happily arranged that the majority favors the better things: evidence of the worst choice is the crowd.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“For as far as pleasure is concerned, though it pours itself all around us and flows in through every channel, charming our minds with its blandishments, and applying one means after another to captivate us wholly or partly, who on earth, who has any trace of humanity left in him, would wish to have his senses tickled day and night and, abandoning the mind, to devote himself to the body?” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“For if a man has put himself beyond the reach of all desires, what can he lack? What need does he have of anything external, if he has concentrated all that he possesses in himself?” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“In my case, if wealth slips away, it will deprive me only of itself, but you (who value wealth too highly), will be stuck dumb, you will think you have been deserted by your own self if it leaves you; in my eyes wealth has a certain place, in yours it is center-stage; to sum up, my wealth belongs to me, you belong to yours.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“I say that wealth is not a good as it is, since something that is found among wicked men cannot be called a good; for if it was it would make men good; as it is, since something that is found among wicked men cannot be called a good, I deny it this name. But that it is desirable, that (it) is useful and confers great benefits in life, I do admit.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life.)

“It is truly said…by Curius Dentatus, that he would rather be a dead man than a live one dead; it is the worst of evils to depart from the world of the living before you die.” (Seneca, On the Tranquility of the Mind).

“Nothing, however, delights the mind as much as a loving and loyal friendship.” (Seneca, On the Tranquility of the Mind).

“Small is the part of life that we really live. All that remains of our existence is not actually life but merely time.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life).

“…the greatest waste of life exists in postponement: that is what takes away each day as it comes, that is what snatches away the present while promising something to follow. The greatest obstacle to living is expectation, which depends on tomorrow and wastes today. What lies in the hands of Fortune you deal with, what lies in your own hands you let slip. Where are you looking? Where are you bending your aim? All that is still to come lies in doubt: live here and now!” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life)

“But those who forget the past, ignore the present, and fear for the future have a life that is very brief and filled with anxiety…Their very pleasures are fearful and troubled by alarms of different kinds; at the very moment of rejoicing, the anxious thought occurs to them: ‘How long will this last?'” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life)

“No man is crushed by misfortune unless he has first been deceived by prosperity. Those who love her gifts as if they are theirs to enjoy forever, who wish to be highly regarded because of them, lie prostrate in mourning whenever these false and fickle delights abandon their vacuous and childish minds that know nothing of any lasting pleasure: but the man who has not become puffed up by happy fortune does not collapse when there is a reversal.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life)

“When you have lost one who is most dear, it is stupid indulgence to grieve endlessly, but inhuman hardness not to grieve at all.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life).

The above image is of Marcus Aurelius.

Guilt about Betraying Parents: “They Did the Best They Could”

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f9/Parents_with_child_Statue_Hrobakova_street_Bratislava.JPG/500px-Parents_with_child_Statue_Hrobakova_street_Bratislava.JPG

Young children are not the only ones who believe that their own mom and dad are the best in the world.

You know the sort of thing I mean: “My dad is stronger than your dad” and the like.

Adults do this too. Or, at least, try very hard not to think the worst of them.

Any therapist with experience has heard many heartbreaking stories about children who have been abused, deceived, lied to, cruelly and unfairly criticized, used, mistreated, and neglected. He has heard from the adult children what their parents did do and didn’t do — about folks who perpetrated the abuse directly and others who looked away or simply told the son or daughter to “try not to upset dad” rather than protecting him or her from dad.

The now-adult children will make up lots of excuses about such things: “They did the best they could” or “They didn’t know any better” or “Lots of parents were that way when I was growing up” or “How can you expect anything better when my folks had even worse childhoods themselves” or “They were having so many of their own problems at the time” or “Other people had it worse than I did” or “They’re old people now and I wouldn’t want to hurt them (by bringing this up)” or “It happened a long time ago; what is the point of talking about it now.”

Or simply, “It feels wrong to talk negatively about them.”

Most of the patients about whom I am speaking come to therapy with some sense of personal inadequacy, low self-esteem, and unhappiness, if not depression. Some have these feelings despite a considerable set of personal achievements. They may be captains of industry, millionaires, doctors, lawyers, college professors, and professional athletes. Many of them have a good and loving spouse and adoring children. But, no matter what has been accomplished or how good their current life is in an objective sense, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

Others try to fill themselves up with acquisitions: a new car, a new house, a new spouse, a new watch or appliance or piece of clothing; and, for a brief period — an hour, a day, a month — this might even boost their mood. But then, things return to the steady-state of emptiness as the shopping-therapy fails.

For these people, the ones who seem to “have everything” but remain unhappy, the Marilyn Monroes of the world, the solution usually requires that long-standing internalized negative self-attributions (critical thoughts or beliefs about oneself) be reviewed and challenged. Sometimes cognitive behavior therapy is able to achieve this.

But there are other instances when the negative verdict of a difficult childhood is so indelibly stamped on the soul of the patient, that he must look back at the original painful source of his injury, grieve his losses, and reevaluate who his guardians were and what they did, or didn’t do.

In cases such as this, the set of excuses I mentioned earlier becomes a problem. Words like “They did the best they could” stand between the patient and his ability to look frankly at his early life without feeling that he is betraying his parents in so doing.

Here is what I frequently say to those of my patients in this predicament:

First, you will do no harm to them in talking to a therapist. There is no rule that says they must be told what you are relaying to a counselor. Indeed, if your parents are dead (as is sometimes the case), then they cannot be told and are safe from any injury that you believe you might do to them.

You need not concentrate only on what they did that might have hurt you. It is equally important to look at what they did that might have helped, and at the complications in their own lives that made good parenting a challenge.

But, even if they showed you some consideration and kindness from time to time, if it really wasn’t so bad, why are you careful to raise your child differently than you were brought up?

Realize that good child rearing is not simply the sum total of all the positives and negatives of your parents’ approach to you, such that the former will always balance out the latter. Imagine that your parent gave you a million dollars and put it in your right hand; and then said, “Now in return, you must allow me to disable your left hand.” Would this be an example of good parenting? Would the provision of a million dollars compensate you for the lost use of your left hand? Not to just anyone, but due to the behavior of your parent?

Yes, it is likely true that some others had it worse than you did. But does that mean you are free of injury? Imagine that you are walking down the street. You pass a man in a wheel chair. He is moving the vehicle by use of his two arms and you think to yourself, “Poor man.” But, a few blocks down, you now encounter another wheel chair-bound individual. Unlike the former person, this man’s arms are incapacitated.

If you are to measure the physical state of these two men against one another, you are likely to evaluate the second man as worse off than the first. But, just because the first person is better off, one must admit that he still is unable to walk.

As I said, there is almost always someone worse. But that doesn’t mean that your injury counts for little or nothing.

Finally, the look back is intended not to keep you focused there, but to liberate you so that you can live more fully in the present; it isn’t to be angry with your parents or to harm them (although anger might be involved in the grieving process). Rather it is to free you from the weight of a childhood that you still carry, the sense of your own falling-short that you can’t otherwise shake, to leave you lighter and less burdened by the long reach of your youth.

Wouldn’t loving parents want this — for their child to be happy and free from any hurt they might have caused? What would you want for your child?

You see, the heart has no clock built into it. Even though you may think very little about the time elapsed, the heart still keeps a living record of the damage, as fresh as the day it was inflicted. You’ve tried ignoring it; you may have tried other types of therapy. Perhaps it is time.

You needn’t feel guilty. You needn’t feel disloyal. Your heart waits patiently for its cure. The therapy is not intended to place blame or to harm your parents, but to heal you.

Looking back may be able to help with that.

The image above is Parent with Child Statue, Hrobákova street, Petržalka, Bratislava by Kelovy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.