What You Can Do When Trauma Reminders Intrude

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Victims are easy to identify — or so we think. We see them on TV each day. We are inundated with injury. Too many terrified people, mistreated people, and survivors of war zones and privation carrying their children and belongings. The images arrive from displaced persons camps, airports, and highways.

Look in the shadows, however, and you will find even more. Those are the second-hand souls, the past sufferers, the ones reinjured at a distance.

The men and women to whom I refer are recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some of them are rebroken by watching or reading about the latest victims and the menacing public statements of elected officials. They shudder at the unpredictability in the air. According to the conservative columnist David Brooks, we are witnessing  “a rising tide of enmity” in the USA. Indeed, swastikas have appeared in the public library men’s room of my own suburban Chicago community.

Yesterday’s unfortunates are reminded of their imperfect healing by the incivility and xenophobia around them. Their bodies respond by saying “fight or flee.” A sense of being flooded, overwhelmed — even to the point of collapse — sometimes is not escaped for minutes or days.

Retraumatization of this kind can leave the individual disoriented and dissociated. He may undergo flashbacks of his past: a psychic reexperiencing of the event. At the extreme, there is the loss of awareness of where you are, in what circumstances you are, what age you are. You time-travel to a place you escaped, reinstalled into a mental chamber of prior misfortune. Perspiration, nausea, tearfulness, and intense fear are only a few of the possible sensations and emotions.

You are alone, even if others are nearby. The triggered individual is often unable to describe his internal world. He is awash in a fetid river of word-preventing feelings. The proper vocalizations do not come.

What is one to do?

Here is an example of a young man who dealt with a mild version of the problem, but still enough to put him in treatment. He was in his early teens. A bike accident — he was struck by a car — left him with a painful recovery. Even after the physical injuries healed, the newspaper account of the collision — one which blamed him — still felt like an attack. Moreover, the intersection where he had been hurt remained dangerous. He felt both unfairly targeted and helpless to do anything either to vindicate himself or prevent harm to others. He continued to avoid the location, but traffic reports of pedestrian injuries (regardless of where they occurred) darkened his mood and made for painful and repeated revisiting of his experience.

One aspect of his treatment was a turning point. We talked about what he might do to get a sense of control and counter the wrong and wronging newspaper account. This thoughtful adolescent wrote a letter to the reporter who covered the event. Two things followed: 1. His comments were published in the newspaper. 2. The reporter researched the statistics pertaining to accidents at the place of injury and wrote another article detailing the danger. The city council then investigated the matter and made the intersection safer.

Where does that leave you?

You can, of course, hold your hands over your eyes and plug your ears. The avoidance of TV and radio is a close equivalent, as is holding to an agoraphobia-like self-protective self-confinement. Though understandable, these strategies must eventually be set aside lest you continue to remain terror-prone.

Another patient of mine, long after her father died and mother denied (in my presence) that any sexual abuse happened, chose to return to her childhood home. This was the site where years of sexual abuse by dad occurred with mom’s knowledge. She traveled 500 miles to get there. As it happened, the house was being redecorated and the new owner permitted her to look around. My client left the spot with a sense of palpable triumph. She had faced-down the ghost of her demon in the place of his iniquity.

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If you are pained by news accounts in the aftermath of the President’s Executive Order of January 27, other actions commend themselves to your attention. The American Psychological Association offered a concerned Response to this Directive on February 1, 2017. It reads, in part:

‘Refugees, particularly those displaced from war zones, experience stress, trauma and other serious mental health problems,’ said APA President Antonio E. Puente, PhD. ‘Denying them entry to the United States, particularly those who have already been vetted, is inhumane and likely to worsen their suffering. This conclusion is based on extensive research and clinical experience … .’

Such policies can lead to a perception of reduced freedom, safety and social connection for those directly affected, as well as for society at large (my italics) … .

Research has documented serious mental health consequences for immigrant children and/or their parents who have been forced to leave the United States, which may magnify earlier trauma experienced in or upon fleeing their country of origin. Sudden and unexpected family separation is associated with negative outcomes on child well-being that can last well into adulthood.

If you have been retraumatized by the human consequences of your country’s immigration policy, your decision concerning any response may be more personal than most. Others, perhaps less impacted in this way, have marched, attended town hall meetings, written public letters to news organizations; and visited, called, or emailed their elected representatives.

In the end, those without trauma histories would be wise to refrain from judging whatever action you choose or do not choose. The world presents many chances to reinvent ourselves and repair the injuries it inflicted.

Remember, however, that you and your therapist aim to help you distinguish the present from the past, both intellectually and emotionally: to realize you can act today in an effective way not possible before. And to keep the past from recurring in any form by your self-affirming assertive actions.

The top photo is a Syrian Refugee and Her Newborn in Ramtha, Jordan taken by Russell Watkins for the UK Department of International Development. The second image is a World War I propaganda poster called Every Girl Pulling for Victory by Edward Penfield, created in 1917. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Five Biggest Regrets and Why They Might Not Apply to You

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My mother used to say, “Regret is a painkiller for fools.” Her early life was tragic and her words were — I think — a way to justify her decision never to look back. But mom’s aphorism does raise a question: how much attention must one pay to those who tell us about their poor life choices as they reflect on their past? Are we smart to use their experience — what they wish they did or didn’t do — to change our plans?

Not necessarily.

Here is an example of the kind of “wisdom” I’m talking about. A palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware, wrote, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.* Her list comes from her work with those near death:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Let’s look at these and see if we agree.

I’ll combine regrets 1, 3, and 5. The courage to take risks is the link among them. Indeed, the word courage appears in two of the three regrets I’m talking about.

Ware heard patients lament giving-in to others, doing what was expected, and failing to push back when pushed around. In order to be true to yourself you must take charge of your life and disappoint or anger some others. True, “the courage to express (our) feelings” is dangerous, since most of us find disapproval unpleasant, and vulnerability an invitation to attack. The reward, however, can be great. As to letting yourself “be happier,” Ware observed that many of her patients — only too late — recognized the need to break out of safe routines and travel outside of their zone of comfort. This, they believed, was the road not taken: the path to happiness.

Oscar Wilde’s witticism encapsulates much of the last paragraph: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

I applaud Ware’s odd-numbered reminders to lead a courageous, assertive life. I’m less sure, however, about regret #2: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

Here is what she wrote:

This (regret) came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

One important consideration eludes nurse Ware: regrets can also pertain to a less work-driven life: “Gee, I should have accomplished more. I ought to have been a better provider for my family. I might have made a name for myself.”

Marlon Brando said something similar in the 1954 movie On the Waterfront, playing a washed-up boxer:

I could’a had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody — instead of a bum — which is what I am.

Rational or not, men, in particular, live with the genetic drive to make their way in the world. Many do regret having worked too much, too hard, too long — regret the loss of time with spouse and children. A different life, however, might have caused them not only end-of-life regrets, but disappointment in themselves for most of the preceding years.

Ware’s last item describes the elderly who told her, “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

Philosophers as far back as Aristotle would say Ware hit the target here, and are supported by psychological research on what brings life satisfaction. Nonetheless, maintaining friends is a time-consuming task: making phone calls, writing email, traveling to those chums who don’t live nearby, remembering work buddies when you leave the job, and sending birthday cards. Your vocation, as well as the spouse, children, and laundry contend for the hours available on the clock. We are never permitted more than the usual 24.

A couple of additional considerations: Bronnie Ware’s dying patients were living in a different body with a different agenda than their younger selves. The seniors looked back and judged from a once-in-a-lifetime perspective — literally. When they weighed their life experience on the equivalent of a bathroom scale, did they get an accurate result?

Here is what Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote on how we think about past experiences when we reflect on our memories of those experiences: “Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion … The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living … ”

Kahneman gives an illustration of this phenomenon:

(A man) told (me) of listening raptly to a long symphony on a disc that was (damaged) near the end, producing a shocking sound, and he reported that the bad ending ‘ruined the whole experience.’ But the experience was not actually ruined, only the memory of it. The experiencing self had had an experience that was almost entirely good, and the bad end could not undo it, because it had already happened. My questioner had assigned the entire episode a failing grade because it had ended badly, but that grade effectively ignored 40 minutes of musical bliss. Does the actual experience count for nothing?

Which self should count? The self who lived the experience or the one who recalls the events through the imperfect, sometimes warped lens of time?

You can answer Kahneman’s question for yourself. To me, the notion of 25-year-olds being subjected to the “wisdom” of 75-year-olds cannot always result in proper guidance for the young. The same caution applies if the 25-year-old and the 75-year-old are different versions of one person. Your 75-year-old judgment cannot do justice to your 25-year-old’s life choices any more than your 25-year-old self can anticipate the manner in which he will judge his life at 75. If you are in life’s first half, then you must live by what counts as wisdom for the body you inhabit, the instincts you have, the great ideas you’ve read about, and the thoughtfulness only someone in your life-situation can possess.

Among the most perceptive observations about the human experience comes from the Stoic philosopher Seneca in his treatise, On the Shortness of Life:

Small is the part of life that we really live. All that remains of our existence is not actually life but merely time.

If Seneca is right then the best advice is easy: live.

*Thanks to my wise buddy John Kain for calling Bronnie Ware’s work to my attention. The top photo is called Mood Disorder, by Specialtoyoutoyou. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Therapist’s Office as a Refuge

Therapy sessions have changed. Or perhaps I should say, they are the same as always, but the world isn’t. The consulting room remains a quiet place for quiet conversation. Everywhere else is noisier and more crowded, with fewer spaces of refuge and much distraction. Almost nowhere are you (and you alone) the sole concern of someone who is not your small child.

You are worse for this, but something can be done. More on taking action later.

First, let’s look back before the advent of cell phones. I’m speaking of the days prior to elevator music (unless you brought a violinist with you), TV, and radio. In other words, less than one hundred years ago.

If you don’t live a rural life or reside away from flight paths and railroads, you probably don’t know what has been lost.

Where else, other than in therapy, do you obtain the undistracted concentration of another? Not over dinner if the TV is on or music is playing. Not if your phone is on. Not if you or your partner are reading or looking out the window.

I recall a single-cell cartoon showing a middle-aged couple over coffee. He is reading the newspaper and his partner is talking.

“I’m sorry dear, I wasn’t paying attention. Can you repeat everything you’ve said since we married?”

The draw of the personal phone is powerful. According to a 2013 survey, “At least 9 percent (of those surveyed) admitted to grabbing the phone while having sexual relations. Among those 18 to 34 years-old, the number climbs to 20 percent.”

This finding gives new meaning to the word “threesome” and the phrase ménage à trois.

Some patients might benefit from a public address announcement requesting them to turn off electronic devices. Would they want their surgeon to take calls while operating on their brain? For much of my career I made sure I couldn’t be summoned instantaneously. Patients understood I checked messages a few times a day. The ER was available if they needed urgent care. Nobody died.

Many of us complain of lacking intimacy, but the little bugger in our pocket mocks those complaints. Should you wish someone’s full attention, start by giving it.

Why must the TV be on during dinner, creating a hurdle to conversation? How many TVs do you own? The husband of a friend installed a television in every room of their home, including the bathrooms. He was neither a patient nor a patient man, by the way. I recall a famous therapist who carried two cell phones. I once saw him holding conversations on both simultaneously.

I’d guess, for some of you at least, the unconscious draw of counseling is not only your therapist’s help, but that the time is yours, yours alone, without disturbance: a refuge.

I realize a few of you need noise — the hum of things — to distract you: the radio or TV chatter makes you feel secure and reduces your loneliness.

However, if you don’t fear the stillness, and want greater relationship intensity and intimacy, here is some guidance: an antidote for the monstrous, electronically hectored life you live.

First, acknowledge that your life is partly of your making.

Then, take control. Make the days what you wish them to be, don’t simply endure them.

You need not tolerate people who invite their phone to dinner with you. You can say, “I thought this was for the two of us alone,” nodding in the direction of the inanimate third-party on the table. Smile sweetly when you do.

Sell or junk all but one or two TVs. Exclude electronics from dinner at home.

The family will not cheer this: “Mom! Dad! This is the 21st century! Everyone else does this. Why are you punishing me?”

Turn off the music. Sound proof your room. Get ear plugs. Go to quiet restaurants. Spend time in the country. Alert companions that you are no longer a slave to your phone, the Twitter account, and the latest update on their visit to the w/c.

If you struggle to do these things, perhaps you need to talk with a therapist about self-assertion.

Whose life is it? Who’s the boss, applesauce?

Have a nice day!

No. Make a nice day.

Rant over.

Signs of Insecurity: Behavior That Reveals a Lack of Confidence

Here is a post many people have found useful. This version has been updated since its publication in 2010:

Dr. Gerald Stein - Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago

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Insecure people often reveal their self-doubt without being aware of it. Indeed, a wise observer can “read” another individual. For example, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have told me they can tell whether a new conductor is competent and talented within 10 minutes of the beginning of their first rehearsal with him.

What follows is a short list of behaviors that suggest insecurity:

  • 1. Are you able to give a compliment? Even more important, can you graciously accept one? The latter behavior tends to be difficult for someone who is unsure of himself. He might blush or become flustered. Alternatively, he is prone to dismiss the validity of the praise, instead telling you why it isn’t true. What should one do if complimented? Smile and say “Thank you.” Nothing more.
  • 2. An inability to maintain eye contact is hard for many individuals who lack confidence. They will turn away…

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Last Words: Be Sure to Choose Wisely

The elderly Lady Nancy Astor, the first female member of the British House of Commons, awoke during her last illness to find that her family was assembled around her bed. Clever to the end, she said, “Am I dying or is this my birthday?”

Most of us associate the idea of last words with the solemn and quotable pronouncements of great men and women, not the sassy commentary of the once beautiful English politician pictured above. Here is something more typical: John Adams, our second President, alternately rival and friend of Thomas Jefferson, found some relief and gratitude in uttering “Thomas Jefferson still survives” as he (Adams) lay dying.

What he did not know in the pre-electronic year of 1826, was that Jefferson had predeceased him by a few hours. Nor did either of them appear to reflect on the irony that these founding fathers both expired on July 4th, precisely 50 years after the Declaration of Independence that they both signed and Jefferson wrote.

On a less ironic note, those of us in Chicago might have heard of Giuseppe Zangara, an anarchist, who took aim at President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt as he and the Mayor of Chicago shook hands in Miami’s Bayfront Park on February 15, 1933. The bullet hit Mayor Anton Cermak, who reportedly said to FDR, “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” Cermak died soon after and is memorialized to this day by a Chicago street that bears his name.

There are other kinds of last words, of course. And though most of us probably won’t plan out what to say in advance, I think you will agree that you could do worse than follow the example of Ernesto Giulini, an Italian timber salesman born in the 19th century. He gathered his family around his death-bed, including musician-son Carlo Maria, to remind them that the word “love” — “amore” — should guide their thought and conduct throughout their lives. And one can only imagine how many times the words “love” and “I love you,” have been on the lips of both the dying and their survivors at the very end of earthly things. The religiously faithful have been heard to add, “See you on the other side.”

A rather more wry approach to imminent mortality is attributed to Voltaire. Asked by a priest to renounce Satan, he reportedly uttered: “Now, now my good man — this is not the time for making enemies.”

As Voltaire’s comments suggest, timing is everything and it is best to consider carefully what you want to be remembered for — and by whom. Last words from or to our parents tend to linger in the memory of those who survive, sometimes because of what was said, sometimes because of what wasn’t. Too many people — including some of my ex-patients — lament never having heard the words “I love you” from a parent at the time of his death or any time before.

We are often cautioned to part from loved ones on a high note, not a dissonant one, lest someone be left with the recollection and pain of a final disagreement, or the regret of causing an injury in what proves to be the last possible moment. Nearly all of us would avoid cruelty if we only knew when that would be. Usually we don’t. The dead may not care, but those surviving surely do.

Two unfortunate examples from my clinical practice come to mind in this regard. One woman, whose mother had died many years before, had difficulty in shaking her mom’s last minute assertion, “You’re an ass, Jenny (not her real name).” It is not the only such example I can recall hearing from one or another of my patients. But the all-time cake-taker, the grand prize winner in an imaginary “Hall of Shame” of ill-timed and venomously expressed invective, are the words of a rebellious teenager to his severely taxed father.

A long history of mutual destructiveness typified their relationship. It seems that the pater familias was inept and self-interested in raising his son, and the son repaid his parent’s cruelty and clumsiness with as much drug use and petty crime as he could muster. Nor did it help that the family was under financial pressure and that the two adults of the home were a badly matched, fractious pair.

The father had only recently sustained a heart attack when the school reported to him and his wife that the son had once again been suspended. The “mother-of-all” shouting matches ensued between the middle-aged man and his first-born disappointment. And then, the last words: “You’re going to kill me.” And the reply, “I don’t care.”

Not 24 hours later the words were realized. Deserved or not, the father was dead of a second cardiac arrest. And despite the fact that one could easily make a convincing argument that his death would have happened very soon even without the argument as a trigger, it is easy to imagine a lasting sense of guilt in the son.

That said, I’m not opposed to standing up to people who have injured you, including parents, well before they check out of this mortal coil. Choosing to say, “I know what you did (even if you deny it or justify it) and I won’t let you do it any more” is sometimes perfectly appropriate. That act of self-assertion can be therapeutic, even though it is usually not essential.

You can also recover from childhood mistreatment without confronting the offender. Witness those individuals who do so when their abusive parents are already dead and therefore unavailable for real-life discussion. What is essential, however, is to make certain that any continuing mistreatment stops. This usually means that you, the by-now adult child, have to stop it: walk away, say “no,” or hang up the phone — whatever is required.

If, instead, you aim to change the offender, be prepared to be disappointed. Most won’t change or even admit that they did anything wrong. But if you wish to overcome your fear and master the situation, that mastery, at least, is possible. Nor should you usually hesitate for fear of “killing” your parent, as in the example I’ve given, especially if health issues aren’t present. That is the only story of its kind I’ve ever been told.

Better, though — so much better — to live among friends and relatives who live as Giulini’s family lived, with love at the center of their being. That way, even if there is no time for a formal goodbye, nothing will have been left unsaid: respect and affection will be well-known long before the end because of the way each treated the other. I’m told that the old Italian expression for this is “volersi bene” or “voler bene:” an untranslatable sentiment indicating that you cannot be happy without the happiness of the other. Yes, much better this way.

Perhaps it is no mistake that in English and German the words for life and love are so close. Change the word “live” by one letter and you have “love.” In German, change the word “leben” (to live) by adding one letter and you have “lieben” (to love). Not just last words or Ernesto Giulini’s last words, but words to live (and love) by.

Lady Astor (1909) by John Singer Sargent, is sourced from Wikipedia Commons. The photo of Carlo Maria Giulini comes from the front cover of the superb biography by Thomas Saler, published by University of Illinois Press. The present essay is a revised version of an earlier blog post from 2009: “Last Words: Be Careful What You Say.”

A “West Side Story” Story (A.K.A. “The Angry Lady Incident”)

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Being the parent of talented children is a tough job.

Especially when they are performing on stage or on the field of play.

You want them to succeed, you hold your breath as they do their stuff, and are delighted and relieved when the show (or the game) is over. You want to find a balance between identifying completely with their performance and being totally indifferent.

You don’t want to pressure them too much or feel like the fate of the free world hangs in the balance, entirely dependent on a flawless effort.

And you try to remember (and remind them to remember) the quotation of a Hall of Fame basketball coach who said, “If every game is a matter of life and death, you’re going to have a problem: you’re going to die a lot.”

Then there is the question of how much encouragement or discouragement you visit upon your child if he actually wants to make a career in the arts or sports given the long odds of actually being able to make a living.

Two stories about that, the first a joke:

Question: What is the difference between a musician and a Domino’s pizza?

Answer: A Domino’s pizza can feed a family of four!

The other story has to do with Leonard Bernstein, who was the composer of West Side Story, not to mention a famous symphony conductor, pianist, and educator.

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Sam Bernstein, Lenny’s father, came to the USA from Russia, where musicians were held in low esteem. The musicians Bernstein’s father had encountered in his old country were mostly “klezmers,” itinerant Jews who played at weddings and other celebratory occasions, but had a hard time gaining respect and keeping bread on the table. Thus, when Sam’s oldest son displayed an interest in this “profession,” the elder Bernstein did his best to discourage the young man’s pursuit.

Eventually, his son Leonard became world-famous. And, the story is told that a newspaper reporter asked Sam why it was that he hadn’t encouraged his son in the field of music.

The senior Bernstein answered, “How was I supposed to know he would become Leonard Bernstein!”

Then there is the problem of the audience, of which you are a part; and what people say and do while your child is doing his stuff. We all have heard or witnessed parents and fans who go a bit crazy in opposition to each other over the performance of their eight-year-olds. It is worth remembering what happened on occasion when Jackie Robinson became the first black man in the 20th century to integrate organized baseball.

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Before his 1947 debut in the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson played one season for the Montreal Royals of the International League. The rudeness and racism recalled by his wife Rachel at the time of the team’s April, 1946 appearance in Baltimore is recounted by Jules Tygiel in Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy:

When Jackie appeared on the field, the man sitting behind her shouted, “Here comes that nigger son of a bitch. Let’s give it to him now.” The Baltimore fans unleashed an unending torrent of abuse. All around her people engaged “in the worst kind of name-calling and attacks on Jackie that I had to sit through.” For one of the few times Rachel feared for Jackie’s physical safety. That night as she cried in her hotel room, Rachel thought that perhaps Jackie should withdraw from the integration venture.

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Fortunately, as the proud parent of daughters who have performed, I never had to deal with anything like that. Just the usual twittering, texting, whispering, program rustling, and bracelet jangling, that is the commonly experienced thoughtlessness in auditoriums world-wide.

But on one noteworthy occasion attended by me with my wife, I went beyond an occasional stern look to take on a woman who should have known better than to converse with her neighbor when my youngest child was in a high school production of West Side Story.

The lady was a senior citizen two seats to my right, nicely dressed, who was talking pretty loudly to a friend seated to her right. Because she was turned in her neighbor’s direction most of the time, it was difficult to catch her eye in the hope that “a look” might communicate my wish for her to quiet down. About 20 minutes in to the performance I’d had about enough.

I leaned as far to my right as I could (across the body of my friend Rich who was our guest) and, in one of the few moments when she was looking forward, she noticed me as I said, “Please be quiet!”

It was not said with ferocity, but I’m sure she knew I meant business. And, indeed, she was quieter for the rest of the first half of the performance.

Rich and I had to walk past this woman in the aisle as we began to make our way to the lobby at intermission. To my considerable surprise, as I passed this lady, she actually pushed me into the railing barrier to my left. I turned right to face her.

“Why were you so angry?” she said.

“I wanted to listen to the performance.”

“But I was only talking during the orchestra part, not the singing!” she indignantly continued.

“But I wanted to hear the orchestra. You know, you are not in your living room and this is not TV!”

With that, the encounter ended.

No guns were drawn, no knives displayed, no one put on brass knuckles, and no chains or tire irons were brandished — there was no “rumble” — no example of life imitating art, as in the gang fight that is a central part of the musical we were watching.

And my antagonist and her companion did not return after intermission.

Given that more and more states permit concealed weapons, I suppose I was taking a risk. I can’t recommend that you take on rude audience members, who might retaliate even more forcefully than did the lady in question.

But, it is hard to “tune out” people who create a volume of sound sufficient to compete with the main attraction.

It was another one of those situations in which different people react differently, sometimes dependent on mood, the capacity to tolerate frustration, an evaluation of the importance of the matter, and one’s ability to be assertive or foolhardy — however you happen to label such action.

In the end, I guess I should simply be glad that it wasn’t Baltimore in the 1940s and my adversary didn’t have her own set of family members handy, and a length of rope to hang from the nearest tree.

Rachel Robinson would understand.

The top image is from a 2003 performance of West Side Story given in Brno, Czech Republic by Městské divadlo. It is the work of Jef Kratochvil. The second photo is of Leonard Bernstein in 1945, taken by Fred Palumbo, then a photographer for the World Telegram. The third picture is a 1950 lobby card for The Jackie Robinson Story. The final image is of Rachel Robinson Accepting the Congressional Gold Medal for her husband, deceased baseball star Jackie Robinson on March 2, 2005. From left to right: Nancy Pelosi, President George W. Bush, Mrs. Robinson, and Dennis Hastert. The picture was taken by White House photographer Eric Draper. All photos are 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.