A Simple Explanation of Everything

We are prone to four mistakes in trying to make sense of ourselves and the world:

  1. Oversimple explanations.
  2. Answers of mind-bending complexity incapable of being grasped  — except when smoking marijuana.
  3. The following twin assumptions: a) reason explains more than emotion and b) others would reason as we do if they were reasonable.
  4. The belief we can fathom life in all its fullness.

Why #4 you ask? If I try to understand my inner workings, I only know myself on a conscious level. I do not have quick access to my unconscious even if I enter psychoanalysis with an expert. Nor can I see myself from outside.

Brain scientists don’t agree whether I have “free will.” My decisions — all the ones I think I’m in charge of — might be determined by the intersection of biology, history, and the fixed pathways of the brain pudding. The researchers cannot tell me if my actions are pre-baked into the cake of my being. My choices would only seem voluntary.

I search for comprehension, even so, but the morning’s newspapers cause mourning.

I’m distressed by the factual reports I find in these venerable, award-winning periodicals. I’m disturbed by elected and appointed officials — the kind who offer self-serving opinions without evidence and often without truth — who lack either conscience or courage. I’m troubled by the sightless idolators who follow these Pied Pipers toward the cliff. I’m unsettled by the thoughtlessness of some in opposition to them; and those citizens who complain or worry, but do nothing to defend the democratic republic.

What then is the explanation of the Bizzaro World at the tippy-top of the federal government’s executive branch?

In one sentence, here is the best I can do. This 17th-century wisdom fits into the first and last categories above. Over simplistic, for sure. Perhaps tongue-in-cheek or maybe dead serious.

Sometimes an idea waits nearly 400-years for a person who embodies it:

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Pensées

—–

The image at the top is Paul Klee’s 1921 Portrait of a Yellow Man. The 1978 painting that follows is called Loneliness, by George Stefanescu. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Unsung Value of Denial and Distraction: Where Therapists can Go Wrong

Big Eyes

One of my mentors was a psychiatrist of immense intellect and a laser’s capacity to cut to a psychiatric diagnosis. His brilliance as a diagnostician, however, did not extend to gently bringing his well-defended patients down the therapeutic path. He was a surgeon of the mind. Surgeons leave scars.

You might think of psychotherapy’s beginning as a kind of dance, with the patient in motion like Salome, wearing seven veils. The veils and shifting movement are for protection, not seduction. The client suffers “too much” and the covering — any covering — guards against invasion. If you, as doctor, rip the gauzy garments away, you do an injury. Without a shield, the client is exposed, terrified, and likely to flee treatment.

Too much too soon. A good mental health professional doesn’t drain a protective moat until the patient develops the courage to take on the scary world outside the castle (or inside his head). The counselor must avoid retraumatizing the patient, in effect flooding him with emotions he is unprepared for. The irony of hurting when you mean to help could not be more poignant or more terrible.

Young therapists can miss this. So do managed care companies when they want you to push treatment as fast as possible (to cut its cost) or medicate the insured party for the same reason. My mentor was guilty of ignoring the same therapeutic speed bump.

The challenge of focusing on life’s dark side was understood by the mathematician and big thinker, Blaise Pascal, who died just short of age 40 in 1662. He recognized the need to divert oneself from contemplation of the human condition. Students of clinical psychology might benefit from his words. For example:

Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.

Or this:

I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.

In short, the world can overwhelm such small creatures as we are. Those in most need of distraction are often the least inclined to make use of this necessary method in the pursuit of equanimity.

Pascal again:

However sad a man may be, if you can persuade him to take up some diversion he will be happy while it lasts, and however happy a man may be, if he lacks diversion and has no absorbing passion or entertainment to keep boredom away, he will soon be depressed and unhappy. Without diversion there is no joy; with diversion there is no sadness.

I’d say Pascal goes too far, but his point is a worthy one. I can name many people who seem relatively happy (at least for the moment) because they don’t think about the shadow following them down the street. A memorable patient of mine found escape in diversion and denial: she ate enough carbohydrates to push her well into obesity and diabetes. Yet, while eating, she felt good. Indeed, during stressful moments, she believed she deserved a treat as compensation for her upset.

The therapist’s job is to find a balance between allowing people to use their long-standing psychological defenses while gradually helping them recognize the longer term damage they are doing to themselves by not facing problems. With the large lady in question, it was quite a tightrope walk.

I find myself on both sides of the balance beam. Socrates was right when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” So, however, was Pascal, by implying the deleterious effects of too much “examination,” rumination, and painful memory. The truth is hard to swallow, as the kid in the top photo is about to find out.

I guess if I had to create my own mantra, I’d look to alter the inscription on the Temple of Apollo, which read:

“Know Thyself”

My less pithy version would be: “Know thyself, but not all in one bite. Remember: your eyes (for truth) are bigger than your stomach.”

Talking Behind-the-Back: Not as Bad as You Think

Whispering_

Admit it. You talk about your friends behind their backs. You say things about them that you won’t say to them. It is human nature.

And yet, it is not always mean-spirited and not usually intended to do harm. Indeed, sometimes it does a real good.

What do I mean? Here are some of the benefits of talking about your friend when he or she isn’t present:

  1. Blowing off steam. Every relationship produces some amount of frustration and conflict. If one simply allowed this to build inside with no outlet, many of us would eventually explode and do serious damage to someone we care about.
  2. Talking with a third-party about something done to you by a friend can help you to understand the person with whom you are displeased. Just putting your unhappiness into words can be enlightening. If your conversation partner is a good student of human behavior he may be able to share some insight into the other person’s motivation. And, just perhaps, your own mistakes or misinterpretations.
  3. Perhaps your confessor (the person to whom you are complaining) can offer a suggestion about what you can do to improve your relationship. Two heads are sometimes better than one.
  4. If you are speaking of an injury done by someone else, getting out your hurt and anger allows you to grieve so that you don’t nurse your grudge or suffer from sadness in perpetuity. Put another way, talking in this way can be therapeutic.
  5. Life is too grim if you can’t have some laughter at someone else’s expense, particularly if that person isn’t present and won’t suffer from what you say.
  6. Chit-chat behind someone else’s back certainly can be informative and complimentary as well as critical or mocking. Your perspective will be more balanced if you don’t simply concentrate on the negative. Part of relating to friends has to do with providing information about the activities and characteristics of the other people in your life, the good ones and the ones to beware of.

I should add at this point, that your therapist won’t customarily talk about you behind your back, except with a supervisor or colleague in an attempt to better help you, and then being careful not to identify you by name.

And yet, we know that talking behind-the-back of another is not always well-meant and shouldn’t be done too often even under the best conditions. At worst it becomes viperous gossip, intended to make the confidant think badly of the other person, perhaps to discourage him from associating with that guy. Indeed the “informer” might be angling for an advantage over the one he is criticizing, hoping to beat him out of a job promotion or a potential romantic partner. Knocking your competitor sometimes works to do just that, but can also make you look bad yourself. Scenes From a Marriage1

Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Scenes From a Marriage shows another kind of behind-the-back awfulness. The character played by Liv Ullmann, Marianne, calls a friend just after her husband Johan’s announcement that he is moving out. Rather than the support she seeks, however, she discovers that the friend already knew Johan’s plans, as did many others. Rather than solace, Marianne now feels doubly betrayed.

Do you want to know what is being said about you by others? You probably do if the person involved is actually an enemy who masquerades as your friend when he is with you.

I had such an experience in high school. Someone I considered a middling friend vilified me to his desk-mate in our home room, apparently because he was jealous of my grades that semester. (Ironically, he was very smart). His buddy passed me the note that my fake friend had written in complaint of me. The page was torn to pieces, but was delivered with the comment “If you want to find out what someone thinks of you, put this together.” It was a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, but I did it; and learned not to trust either one of them, since I was sure the note-passer was violating the trust of the note-writer by so doing.

That situation represents a special case. More routinely, we talk about the people we like (or at least don’t hate) and even some with whom we are very close, not to betray them but for the reasons I mentioned at the top. I’m sure that my friends talk about me. I’m also sure that I don’t want to know.

Why? First, because I hope that if I do something that is sufficiently hurtful, they will eventually come to me directly with their concern. But there is an even more important reason that I don’t want to know what might be said about me behind my back.

Blaise Pascal, the philosopher and mathematician, put it this way: “I maintain that, if everyone knew what others said about him, there would not be four friends in the world.”