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

 

Understanding Our Anger

Though I will never understand everything about the anger displayed in groups – the rage now surrounding us – I have some knowledge of how it developed. Early man discovered he needed allies against nature, beasts, and other humans. He sought the talents of partners in finding or building shelter, getting food, and providing comfort for fear and loneliness. Those who made their way alone were not likely to survive and, by definition, didn’t create offspring.

Allegiance to the small collective – call it loyalty – both was required by the group and increased your chances of outlasting isolated fellow-men. The band was more likely to thrive and your genes stood a better chance of reaching the next generation and beyond.

We became tribal creatures. Believing rumors of potential conspiracies by groups of competitors for scare resources was safer than thinking strangers meant well. Those who were different – other – were often enough enemies for us; we therefore become wary of all others. Not least, those who looked different and came from elsewhere: the people with odd customs, strange habits, who uttered unintelligible sounds. Rage enabled the fight to survive, to overcome our fear and take on threats. Thus supported and encouraged, everything became possible. Buoyed up by the group, small man became larger than himself.

Such qualities did not disappear from our nature. We now see them displayed even in so-called first world, “civilized” society. We vilify our political enemies. We are capable, as fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance images of our brain) show, of reacting to our fellow humans as we do to furniture. Untermenschen: less than human.

Yes, it is desperately important to vote, take the political action you can, voice your opinions, and make even small financial contributions to defend our democratic republic. Yes, some “others” are carried away. They yell and deceive and might want you out of the country. But not all do. Most, indeed, are rather like the rest of us: struggling with the life project, hoping our children will live in a better world, wishing for peace and security. If we lump them – all of them in the same trash bin, assume they are all irrational or crazy, are we then superior to them – really? If we succumb to our version of the same self-righteous anger, are we then superior to them – really? Do not assume all of our allies are pure. Our “team” is never the sole repository of virtue.

You will learn little from those who echo you. We might learn something from people who don’t, at least on occasion.

We would do well to search for solutions, some amount of compromise with those “others” who are open to it, and vigorously defend against the far smaller group of opportunists and the fully self-interested who only want what they want. Better policies than those now in place must address widely experienced concerns, not just those of your tribe. The country needs a better light bulb, otherwise replacing the present installation will leave us still in the dark.

Our genes won’t change any time soon.

Work for a better world, but do not become the thing you hate.

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The first image is a Cartoon Representation of the Molecular Structure of Protein Registered with 1pi1 Code. It was created by Jawahar Swaminathan and MSD staff at the European Bioinformation Institute. The fMRI image below it is the work of Washington Irving. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When Words Fail

512px-johann_heinrich_fu%cc%88ssli_008

There are times, whether in therapy or in life, when words are inadequate. Listening to a story of heartbreak, sometimes my heart broke a little, too. If my patient watched me carefully (no failure on his part if he didn’t), he saw the tears in my eyes. Words would have intruded on what was happening between us. In a sense, the air, the touching contact of our eyes — the silence — did that which could be done.

This moment in US history cries — and cries out — for a response, but too many words have already been written and spoken. I am reminded of the composer John Cage, a wry and brilliant man. His most famous piece is entitled 4’33.” The composition consists entirely of silence. Quiet is appropriate for mourning, is it not?

Whether in words or in silence, compassion only goes so far. Expressed opinion only goes so far. But the emotional shards need removal, thus grieving comes first for most of us.

The work of therapy begins with the processing of pain. Sadness often robs us of motivation. Fear can paralyze. There are more catastrophes predicted than realized. Unrestrained anger turns you into the thing you hate. Rage is a motivator, but not easily prolonged or healthily maintained. No psychologist would urge you to try.

What then? Prior to counseling’s end you must change yourself if your goal is to change the world, whether one’s small personal globe or the bigger one.

Marcus Aurelius wrote,

The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s … it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.

Like the wrestler we take a breath, search our ingenuity, and get up when we have been thrown to the mat.

A return to the fight is essential whether in therapy or life. Action — exerting control of what you can control — defeats the sense of helplessness.

In therapy and in life we are called to heroism. Courage is required to take on uncomfortable truths, beginning with those about ourselves. Difficult actions must follow. No heroism is needed to pour gasoline on your heart and light a match. Reason is your friend; emotion, not always.

Take responsibility and act responsibly.

Nor does one profit by the simple wish for a result, a passive hope for a change, or a patient wait for others to lift you. Freedom from your demons, in therapy and in life, must be won.

Our demons teach us who we are and what we are made of. Are they perhaps, in this way, our friends? Do we owe a peculiar debt to our challenges? You cannot think otherwise when you watch your 14-month-old child learn to master his universe, but you can when you have been decked. Regardless, whatever we want we must make it so.

Therapy is not an endeavor of a few weeks or months if the goal desired is substantial. Whether in therapy or in life you will succeed only if you persevere. Expect setbacks. Whether in therapy or in life, many make a fast start out of the gate, but fade before the stretch run. The finish line is not achieved and the problems then persist. Lasting dedication of your entire spirit triumphs over both temporary grievances and passing enthusiasms. No distractions are permitted for the true of heart.

Cato said:

When Cicero spoke, people marveled. When Caesar spoke, people marched. … Good judgment without action is worthless.

Whether in therapy or in life the voice is yours, the choice is yours, and the action must be yours.

The painting above is The Silence by Johann Heinrich Füssli. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Therapist Tells You a Secret. Do You Really Want to Know Everything?

mirror-on-the-wall

In the search for information and closeness to your therapist you can’t predict what you might discover. I will use the subject of race to illustrate. Two subjects, then: racial bias and yours truly, a retired psychologist who was not always admirable as a stand-in for your counselor. The question of self-knowledge, too, is on my agenda, absent in most of our prejudices, replaced by the ability to rationalize our thoughts and actions.

Ugh, I hear you say: what can one offer about race that hasn’t been uttered to the point of numbness. I’ve groaned myself. More often I’ve grumbled about unfairness to minorities, blamed the big bigots, or written a check to a noble cause. My buddies from Mather High School even established a college scholarship program for disadvantaged teens of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions.

Sounds admirable, right? Read on if you dare. You might find something out you don’t like, something to knock me off any pedestal given me by your generosity, a coin flip, or my own effort to climb on top.

We come by vulnerability to racial bias as part of our evolutionary inheritance. Humans who didn’t notice differences became someone else’s lunch. The tribe next door was quickly identified as “other.” Otherness made both sides wary. Those who were too welcoming too fast suffered a bad end. They are not our ancestors. Yes, cooperation was essential to survival, but care had to be taken about anything signaling danger.

We also want to think of ourselves as “better than” someone, more in control, deserving a more advantaged life than they. The “other” comes in handy here, too, for the sake of drawing contrasts. Read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death to investigate this light subject.

Still more of us seek simple advantage by becoming a top dog over the Untermenschen, which has typically included benefits like money, power, status, and mating opportunities.

The trickle-down theory of prejudice applies as well. The one who is mistreated — the one who is hated — becomes the hater. And not necessarily aiming his animus at those who inflicted the injury. But sometimes racial resentment derives simply from emulating the deeds and words of the ones you love or the culture in which you live. Then, in bad times, the fire is fueled, whatever its first cause.

Such tendencies do not make anyone evil. But they do require that we catch ourselves leaning.

At least in my generation — the leading edge of the post-war baby boom — most of the white folk were not untouched by racist messages and, more significantly, many absorbed some of the bias. I was one such.

Maybe the most shameful day of my life happened early in graduate school. My roommate and I had a one-year lease on an apartment in residential Evanston, IL. He soon was swept away in romance and wished to move in with his girlfriend. Jim, a quiet, mysterious, handsome fellow — his new fiancé was a beauty too (and they both had terrific abs, having met in a fitness center) — was also a man of honor: he agreed to pay half the rent until I could find someone to take his space. He and I understood, “the sooner the better.” Neither of us was wealthy.

I advertised, of course. The first person to call sounded perfect on the phone, another student at Northwestern. He came with a companion to see my digs. We agreed on the timing for his move-in. Within a couple of days I backed out of the arrangement. Why?

s-l1600

Though he was born in the USA, his skin suggested an Indian subcontinent origin. Do understand, what I’d learned about race never referred to people who lived in Pakistan or India, other than they might be starving. Such references were common among parents of the time. They wanted their children to “clean the plate,” encouraging us to benefit from the bounty that the unfortunates on the world’s far side lacked.

I had no additional opinions about people from the spot on the map from which this NU student’s ancestors launched themselves. Moreover, he wasn’t starving — he could have been the guy next to Jim in the weight-lifting room. This young man, just a bit more green than myself, was clearly intelligent, displayed good manners, and dressed in the fashion of college students of the day. Well, obviously, he was not green in every sense, the clear point of my prejudice.

By now I had another roommate in line who would replace my replacement for Jim. Larry, the newer guy, was whiter than white. Blond. No better or worse, probably not as smart, different only in individual peculiarities I did not yet know, except — a big exception — for the fairness of his skin tone. I make zero excuses. My act was reprehensible, prejudiced. I looked in the mirror (eventually) and learned from it, too late for the man I discriminated against.

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as racist. The group in denial includes those who behave in a way consistent with bigotry, tell jokes dependent upon stereotypes, and vote for candidates who intend to disadvantage minorities while wrapping themselves in their country’s flag. The last of these adopt a faux patriotism that Samuel Johnson called “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” We are, almost all of us, pretty well-rationalized. Our sleep is undisturbed, our friends shake our hands, and we receive applause for acts of public generosity. But there are secrets, too, and now you know one about me.

I offer you no grand take-away here. I cannot tell you the meaning of life or even whether one is waiting to be found. But I believe part of my guidance for myself is to do better, learn more, be more understanding — enlarge my humanity and add some little good to the world. Hard to do any of that unless you begin the endless and ancient task of knowing yourself.

The friendly social scientists at Harvard have made it easier. They offer a free psychological instrument designed to help you understand your implicit, unconscious preferences or beliefs: to be more precise, a tendency to prefer “white” over “black.” It’s called the  Implicit Association Test (IAT). Consider the measure akin to the mirror of the evil queen in Snow White.

There are actually a great many tasks you can undertake on the site, but the one I’m talking about is the one labeled Race IAT in blue.

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The Harvard creators take the time to quote Fyodor Dostoyevsky:

“Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone but only his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.”

These lines from Dostoyevsky capture two concepts that the IAT helps us examine. First, we might not always be willing to share our private attitudes with others. Second, we may not be aware of some of our own attitudes. Your results on the IAT may include both components of control and awareness.

Now, you are likely to ask whether there is a connection between preferring “white” over “black” (or the reverse) and acts of discrimination/racism. The answer is in the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section of the site. In general, they inform us, “not necessarily.”

Of course, I don’t know how you, dear reader, will score. Are you, to quote Dostoyevsky once more, a hostage to “those things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself?”

Do you have the courage to find out?

Again, here is where you can: Implicit Association Test.

Now, say, after me: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall … ”

For sure, this psychologist is not the fairest of them all. In any sense.

Following the Disney images of the evil queen and her mirror (from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) comes Vasily Perov’s 1872 portrait of Dostoyevsky, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The “Real” Frankenstein: How Abusers are Created

Frankenstein

This post is not about the movie you saw starring Boris Karloff or Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle. Somehow Hollywood made conventional monster movies from something very different and infinitely more touching.

Mary Shelley’s 19th century novel is the story of a man-created creature who is abandoned by his “parent” and is so badly treated by others that he becomes something that he himself hates: a murderer. It is also a tale nearly 200 years old that has a great many contemporary implications, but two in particular that came to my mind: will man and his science be our saviour or our destroyer? Will we manufacture our own death through scientific advances or control the secrets that have thus far led to both medical miracles and misery?

And I’ll add two more which are not a great leap from Shelly’s story: shall we keep destroying or polluting nature by chopping and digging and drilling and fouling the air, simultaneously making it less beautiful by the very act of trying to perfect our lives? Finally, will the increasing abandonment of the impoverished, eventually cause them to rise up in revolution (like Frankenstein’s monster) and create their own wanton destruction? If you wish, you can attach almost any of Shelley’s ideas to war, plastic surgery, the efforts to extend human life, global warming, the growing underclass, etc. All of these are wrapped in a ball of intolerance, ambition, and man’s ability to justify his worst behavior, all themes that are central to this work of art.

The creature is not even given the dignity of a name. His master — the man named Viktor Frankenstein who made him — cannot bear the sight of his own “child” (an eight-feet-tall male) of massive strength, great intellect, and astonishing agility, so the “monster” enters the world by himself, without yet understanding it or knowing how to speak.

He learns the terrible lessons that experience with mankind will teach him: that those who are different or ugly are ridiculed or physically attacked. That he alone in all the world has no playmate, soul mate, parent, or companion. And, without my giving away precisely how it happens, he does learn to read the loftiest books and speak eloquently, not the grunts of the character Karloff created for film in the 1930s (pictured below). Science has gone awry and the scientist Frankenstein has abandoned his creation, hoping he will just go away and be forgotten.

Frankenstein Karloff

But the monster is touched by the beauty of nature, the song of the birds, and the warmth of the people who inhabit a country home he comes to live nearby; especially moved by the human relationships he has not achieved himself. Further efforts to find a social place in the world fail utterly. The unfairness overwhelms him. The artificial man finally begins to resemble in personality what he looks like in physique and physiognomy. He does some terrible things out of frustration, unfairness, anger and imitating the mistreatment he regularly receives even when he tries to do good, like saving a young girl from drowning.

The man-monster tracks down his creator and attempts to make a bargain: create me a mate, someone as outcast as I am, so that at least the two of us can have a life with each other. If you don’t, I will track you wherever you go and make your life some version of the misery that is mine. Viktor Frankenstein has grave doubts about the wisdom of this arrangement and fears that two such creatures will do more destruction than the one he has already created. For the rest of the story, you will have to do the reading of this brief but compelling book (I read a free download from Amazon).

When does man’s ambition and arrogance take him too far? Human cloning? Weapons of mass and indiscriminate destruction? Intolerance of those who are different, not just in looks but in habits, religion, and values? Why isn’t the beauty of nature enough? Why must we have more and do more and control more of the things that people used to give over to gods and goddesses?

In the end there are two monsters. The nameless one created by the hands and machinery of Viktor Frankenstein whose real malevolence was unleashed by the unkind world that had no place for him. The other, Viktor Frankenstein himself, who becomes appalled by the “thing” and so obsessed with what his creation had done to him and those he loved that he too seeks vengeance. And, in the end, we are sympathetic to both and touched by both. We have witnessed how abuse can produce abusers even among the most sensitive, high-minded, and intelligent among us. The abused are at risk of becoming the thing that they hate.

The monster knows that the evil he performed has not just been to others, but to the best in himself.

No sympathy (shall) I ever find. When I first sought it, it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed, that I wished to (participate in). But now the virtue has become to me a shadow and that happiness and affection are turned into bitter and loathing despair. (Where) should I seek for sympathy? I am content to suffer alone while my (life) shall endure; when I die I am well satisfied that abhorrence and opprobrium should load my memory. Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, or enjoyment. Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding. I was nourished with high thoughts of honor and devotion. But now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal. No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine. When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation (in hell); I am alone.

For those who prefer movies, the National Theatre Live performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in the lead roles can still be seen here and there in encore presentations. They are based on a two-hour adaptation of Shelley’s work by Nick Dear. I saw the one with Cumberbatch as the monster. I’m told the other one, where the main players switched roles, is equally good. Here is the site for these films, if you wish to act while they are still being shown: “http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/16546-frankenstein/”

Yes or No? “What Goes Around Comes Around”

Justice and Law

Many of us comfort ourselves with the notion that life evens out in the long run. The evil go to hell, the good go to heaven. Or, if you are not religiously inclined, “What goes around comes around.” Meaning that eventually justice is done, something bad will happen to those who have done something bad, even if it looks like they are better off in the short run.

Then there are those who believe, usually in conformity to a “religion of prosperity,” that if you are injured by another you probably deserved it, since God would not authorize something that wasn’t in your best interest. Or, perhaps that the Almighty is giving you some sort of test or opportunity to learn and grow that will ultimately be of benefit to you.

Finally, there is a rather large group who don’t believe in any ultimate fairness in this life or the next — a darker view, for sure. They say that bad things do happen, sometimes randomly, and sometimes due to people who are malicious, unscrupulous, self-interested, and so forth. For those with that view, evil deeds will usually go unpunished and there isn’t much you can do about it. They ask the first two groups to defend the view that the world is ultimately just when they read the morning newspaper’s screaming headlines about chemical warfare, ethnic cleansing, and the like. They quote the great attorney Clarence Darrow’s comment that, “There is no justice — in or out of court.”

My own view is different from these. I am not counting on heaven to put things right, although I’d be very happy to be surprised on this point. Nor do I believe in the kind of God who would authorize injury to us on earth. If he exists, and if he is all-good and all-powerful, he can cleverly produce the results he wants without mayhem and heartbreak to we fragile souls.

On the other hand, I do agree with those who believe that many people escape external punishments: prison time, loss of money, that sort of thing. But, in my experience as a therapist and observer of life, I have seen very few people who behave badly on a regular basis and are happier for it. Let me elaborate.

Some of the most destructive people I’ve known are quite unhappy. Their self-interested actions discourage others from being close to them, so they have recurring relationship issues. Those who gossip too much (we all do it some) cause others to mistrust them. Then there are the promise-breakers, who also cause friendships to end. All these imperfect humans are usually clueless to what they do that injures others — perhaps even surprised that they obtain the reputation of being dangerous. If they are powerful or wealthy or beautiful, some people will stick around them hoping for a payoff. But that is not love or the kind of companionship that most of us want.

Would you really want to be the Mafia boss who must live in fear of arrest, imprisonment, or murder by someone close to him; who must have a body-guard or two around his palatial estate? Would you trade places with a person without a conscience because he has figured out how to lie, cheat, and steal his way to prominence? Do you imagine him capable of any real intimacy? Is money or property that important to you that you’d emulate his life if you could? Or perhaps you’d love the life of a gossip who works hard to believe that everyone loves her, but knows, deep down, that her relationships are shallow? Yet she is blind to the destructiveness that causes others to shy away from anything that is more than casual.

I don’t think you’d choose any of those ways of living. Nor do I imagine that it sounds appealing to become someone so self-interested that you trade the joys of friendship and sometimes even the good feeling that comes from self-sacrifice for the temporary personal satisfaction of selfishness.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned guilt. There is a lot less guilt out there than most people think. Most of us are pretty well able to rationalize the injuries we cause to others. It often goes like this: “He did X to me, so that means I can do Y to him.” Well, no, actually, unless you want to lose your own honor and decency, which usually comes in the process of trying to right the scales of justice or get revenge.

Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum

Here is an extreme example of losing your soul in an effort to extract revenge for a horrible betrayal. The speaker is Martha Nussbaum, Professor at the University of Chicago, in conversation with Bill Moyers:*

I wake up at night thinking about Euripides’ (play) Hecuba, a story that says so much about what it is to be a human being in the middle of a world of unreliable things and people. Hecuba is a great queen who has lost her husband, most of her children, and her political power in the Trojan War. She’s been made a slave, but she remains absolutely morally firm, and she even says she believes that good character is stable in adversity and can’t be shaken.

But then her one deepest hope is pulled away from her. She had left her youngest child with her best friend (Polymestor), who was supposed to watch over him and his money and then bring him back when the war was over. When Hecuba gets to the shore of Thrace, she sees a naked body washed up on the beach… She looks at it more closely, and then sees it’s the body of her child, and that the friend has murdered the child for his money and just flung the body heedlessly into the waves. All of a sudden the roots of her moral life are undone. She looks around and says, “Everything that I see is untrustworthy.” If this deepest and best friendship proves untrustworthy, then it seems to her that nothing can be trusted, and she has to turn to a life of solitary revenge. We see her end the play by putting out the eyes of her former best friend (and murdering his two young sons), and it is predicted that she will turn into a dog. The story of metamorphosis from the human to something less than human has really taken place before our very eyes…

One part of the message here, clearly, is what can happen to you if you become like the thing you hate, as Hecuba does when she murders Polymestor’s innocent children and puts out his eyes.

I’m guessing, though, that an outcome without punishment for the murder of Hecuba’s son might not be satisfying for some of you. Surely something should happen to Polymestor. And, just as surely, we need to have some sympathy for Hecuba, even if killing the kids does go over the line. She did, after all, first go to the local authorities to seek justice and was spurned. Perhaps you imagine the sweetness and closure that would come from revenge. Or perhaps it is simply that it is not right that Polymestor get away with this.

Two possible remedies. The first one comes from my wife, who wishes that the bad guys could have just one minute of self-awareness. She thinks that to see themselves as they really are for just 60 seconds would be a fit punishment in most instances. As I see it, though, the insight that would come in that short time might be worth the pain it cost and actually increase their chances of leading a more satisfying life. Still, my wife has no superpowers that I know of (I may get in trouble for saying that) and so her ability to create the justice she’d like isn’t going to happen.

Ah, but I have a remedy, too! It’s pretty simple. The punishment for most of the folks who specialize in the garden variety hurts of everyday life — the lying, the cheating, the broken promises, and the betrayals that don’t have a criminal penalty — doesn’t require either a super hero or any equipment. It is simply to let these malefactors continue to live the messed up and unsatisfying lives they seem intent on living.

*The interview excerpt of Martha Nussbaum comes from Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas, published in 1989 by Doubleday, pages 447 and 448.

The top image by ElmA is called Justice and Law. The photo of Martha Nussbaum is the work of Robin Holland. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Are You Too Defensive?

Offensive_Defense_by_Flex_Flex

Has anyone ever said that “You’re too defensive!” I’m here to tell you that it wasn’t a compliment. Worse still, it probably is causing you problems.

What might it mean to be this “too defensive” thing?

1. Your goal is to allow no one in. Safety is valued above everything else, even more than love. Perhaps not as you imagine it, but as you live it. Your behavior trumps your desire for close relationships. You may not even realize it is so.

2. Almost no one is permitted to know you very well. To achieve this you’ve developed a certain way of being: too distant, unfriendly, stern; or superficially cheerful and bright.

3. Or perhaps you are always backing away, inclined to refuse invitations, forever changing the subject when things begin to feel “too personal.” You take a “wait and see attitude” until the bus leaves the station and you are all alone. “No” is your default position toward intimacy.

4. Your first instinct is to look for signs of danger. You assume the worst and distrust others until they prove their worth, which few do; in part, because you don’t give them much of a chance.

5. When someone questions you or expresses a different opinion than your own, your tendency is to attack that person’s position. The idea of listening, learning, compromising, and creating a dialogue gives way to a full frontal assault.

6. You might be prone to interrogate people, look down on them, judge severely, and in so doing, make yourself into an island. You are marooned on your own tiny piece of land, safe but isolated.

7. Perhaps you hit the other before you get hit and get hurt. Guess what? You’ve become the very thing you hate, the person who is dangerous to be around, the one who rejects first and asks questions later. Congratulations! You have succeeded in saving yourself from injury by others, while inflicting the injury of isolation on yourself. Your fortress is a cave. It permits no light to enter, no laughter, no life.

8. In your tendency to defensively retreat or pre-emptively attack, you are likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of rejection by others. If you back away from their overtures of friendship they may think of you as stuck-up or uninterested in them. On the other hand, if you are snide or snippy in your attempt to push them away, they might conclude that you are surly and difficult — not the kind of person whose society is desirable.

9. Whether you know it or not, you’ve made the relationship tests too hard, the passage to your hiding place too narrow, the mountain too high to climb, the fortress impregnable.

10. You are unsurpassed at making excuses and rationalizing your behavior. No one else is good enough, they don’t meet your standards, their interests are too different, they’d never understand you. No. The truth is, you don’t understand yourself. Step back and take a look in the mirror:

Conrad_Gessner_-_Porcupine_33

11. Worst of all, you have made a fundamental mistake in understanding the world. Your defenses block your vision. It is as if you were born in the winter and do not recognize that the weather has changed.

12. The bottom line? New learning is required. You must risk the lowering of your guard, a re-entry into the game of life. However bad it was yesterday, however much others have rejected us, we must all recognize that today is a new day and we must be open to all its possibilities, not only the ones that might pierce the heart.

The top image is called Offense_Defense by Flex-Flex. The Porcupine comes from the first volume of Historiae Animalium by Conrad Gessner, Zurich, 1551. It was uploaded by en:User:Belgrade18 for En_Wikipedia and, in turn, uploaded for Wikimedia Commons by Roland zh.