Coming to Terms with What Cannot be Changed

We cry for justice, but what is deserved is not always given. Sometimes the unfairness is due to lying, cheating, or political opportunism. Many imperfect situations, however, are not based on intent to harm. These are human stories where no political or legal action is possible. No crime has been committed. In such cases we can only accept the terms life allows, make the best of things, and find whatever “good” is present.

Here is an essay I wrote in the early days of this blog, now revised. The story tells of a situation in which life offers raw, rude, unchosen materials and asks us, in effect, to build something worthwhile out of the resources at hand:

Dr. Gerald Stein

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A beautiful, but not always wise friend once told me a story of infinite wisdom. She married a widower with children when she was in her mid-30s. The kids had fond memories of their departed mother, so the house was filled with art objects, furniture and photographic reminders of the deceased.

Additionally, the widower maintained relationships with many people who knew his late wife. The maternal grandparents, of course, wanted to spend time with their daughter’s children. The husband’s parents did as well, and lived close by. Everyone held the departed in high esteem and affection. She had been an extraordinary person, now achieving a kind of virtual sainthood due to her early death.

When my friend (who I hadn’t seen in years) told me all this, I asked what it was like to reside among the living reminders of her predecessor; in the midst of the physical mementos of…

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Too Many Balls in the Air: The Frustrated and Frustrating Life of ADHD

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He was dynamic, outgoing, and enormously entertaining.

He was creative, full of ideas, and energetic.

And he was one of the most frustrating people you would ever care to be around.

About whom do I speak? A bright, charming man with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

ADHD is more complicated than you might think. Although there is much written about it, I want to cover a few of the things that can be missed about the condition. But first, let me explain the name and define it.

There are three types of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder):

  • 1. ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Type. This used to be called ADD, but technically speaking, sufficient inattentiveness is considered a category of ADHD, even though little hyperactivity may be present. These are the folks who seem to be listening, but are lost in space; easily taken away by a tune, a sound, or an idea; the people who miss the details and forget the assignments.
  • 2. ADHD, Predominantly Hyperactive-impulsive Type. This is what most people think of when they hear or read the four letter acronym ADHD. People with this diagnosis are characteristically talkative, active, intrusive; a bundle of unmanaged, impulsive activity.
  • 3. ADHD, Combined Type (meaning it includes the symptoms typical of the first two categories); too many balls in the air, for sure.

What about the man I mentioned at the top; a person who had the “combined type” of ADHD?

He had lots of energy and ideas, so people found him engaging. But it wasn’t a very productive sort of energy. He would begin things, but not complete them. He was disorganized — losing keys and papers, and forgetting appointments. He promised to do things, but couldn’t be relied upon to do them as quickly or as well as expected, if at all.

This man (let’s call him A.T.) went nowhere fast; very fast. A.T. looked liked the “Energizer Bunny,” but mostly traveled in circles.

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He tended to over commit himself, taking on more tasks than he could handle effectively, chronically underestimating what he could accomplish in the time available. A.T. was routinely late for appointments, and made decisions quickly, without fully considering the longer term consequences of his actions. Bored easily, distracted more easily, and prone to procrastination, he knew that he wasn’t what others hoped for and expected. Although he was full of promise, his reputation was that of someone who was a thoughtless, irresponsible underachiever — an individual who needed minding.

Employers were disappointed, co-workers were frustrated by A.T., and his spouse was driven just a little crazy, feeling that she couldn’t depend on her partner. She’d married someone who was exciting, only to find that the excitement he produced was more of the “Oh, no!” kind that made her sweat when she discovered he was late to pay a bill or pick up the kids. Not surprisingly, she started to see him as just another one of the kids, as their partnership turned into more of a “disapproving mother/resentful child” relationship than either of them wanted.

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Before I tell you about A.T.’s treatment, let me say a few things that might not automatically come to mind about the condition and its consequences:

1. Hyperactive/impulsive ADHD individuals can sometimes look like they are world beaters, but mostly beat themselves; indeed, they are often chronic underachievers. If you are planning on forming a working group or partnership with such a person, don’t be fooled by a positive first impression of excitement and energy. You will almost certainly be disappointed down the road.

2. ADHD, even today, is sometimes not detected in schools. There are several reasons:

  • The inattentive form of this condition may well produce school failure, but not misbehavior. Inattentive children are often quiet and relatively well-behaved, unlike their hyperactive-impulsive counterparts.
  • School personnel may incorrectly attribute ADHD-like behavior to laziness or oppositionality. Moreover, school systems, even when they do formal evaluations, are frequently reluctant to identify problems that require additional resources and personnel, which they are hard-pressed to provide given their limited funds.
  • An ADHD child who is bright can compensate (to some extent) for his attentional problems by relying on his excellent intellectual abilities, at least for a while. Eventually, however, many of these children (as they age and school begins to demand more of them) find out that advanced intelligence is no longer sufficient to permit success.
  • There is no single standard measure that reliably identifies ADHD. Evaluators commonly use some combination of paper and pencil tests, clinical judgment, and attentional measurements. Intelligence (IQ) and neuropsychological tests can easily miss some of the most clinically obvious cases of this condition.

3. The fact that ADHD children are able to become “hyperfocused” on things like computer games or other tasks that they find especially interesting, does not invalidate the diagnosis of ADHD. Indeed, this sort of selective attention is seen fairly often.

Some researchers believe that those games provide rewarding stimulation in the form of frequently changing images, sounds, and challenges; as well as the success of achieving points or increasing levels of success, thus “capturing” the attention and imagination of the ADHD youngster. By comparison, the real world school room seems boring. Recommendation? Limit your child’s screen time, even in front of regular TV shows.

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4. Although many people are hesitant to take medication, ADHD is a diagnostic category that is especially responsive to psychotropic medication. Hundreds of studies support the effectiveness of such treatment for about 85% of children with this condition according to Russell Barkley’s authoritative 2006 book Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. In a 2007 paper by Elliot and Kelly — “ADHD medications: an overview” published in the journal Attention — the authors state that “No medicine available to psychiatrists produces a more rapid and dramatic effect more safely than the proper dose of a stimulant to a patient with ADHD.”

5. If medication does work, it will likely be needed on a continuing basis, not as a temporary fix. The irony is that stimulant medication, which will cause internal agitation in those who are not suffering from ADHD, actually permits the person with the condition to focus more and become less prone to the hyperactivity/impulsivity that had been a problem.

6. ADHD is correlated with a greater risk of developing a Conduct Disorder, typically characterized by antisocial misbehavior and defiance of authority. Not surprisingly, such individuals often abuse alcohol or drugs (not only as an act of rebellion, but also as a self-medication designed to calm their hyperactive state). Adolescents and adults who have ADHD are thought to make up at least 25% of the population of prisons according to Barkley.

In all these examples, the impulsive, ill-considered behavior that is typical of ADHD takes a fearful toll. Such individuals are easily bored, requiring intense and novel reinforcement (rewards) to motivate them, and are prone to “sensation-seeking” — looking for extreme excitement that their condition seems to make them crave. Indeed, one patient of mine reported driving at speeds approaching 100 MPH on city streets simply for the feeling it produced in him. Nor did he think he was at much risk (or putting others at much risk) in doing so, thus demonstrating the poor judgment characteristic of those with the hyperactive-impulsive form of ADHD, as well as their tendency to disregard rules and authority figures.

7. While many general medical practitioners (GPs) can prescribe medication for ADHD quite well, some are hesitant to do so, sometimes due to lack of training or inexperience with this particular diagnosis. Cautious GPs will prescribe psychotropic medication, but are prone to giving doses that are too small. It is generally best to see a psychiatrist in such cases; that is, someone who specializes in the prescription of medication for psychiatric disorders.

8. The frustration that ADHD produces in school children can make them give up (and eventually drop out), believing that nothing they can do will make any difference in their performance. Some of them will become avoidant of academic or other work tasks because they believe that they will fail, thus producing a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many will get angry at the teachers, bosses, and parents who so often are reminding them of their inadequacies. Thus, ADHD fuels other behaviors that make a good life difficult.

What happened to our friend A.T?

You’d think it was simply a matter of telling him of the benefits of medication, wouldn’t you?

Not so fast.

He was one of those folks who was uncomfortable with the “idea” of having to be reliant on medicine. He told me that he didn’t “believe” in medication, as if it was a matter of religious faith.

A.T. was also quite narcissistic; in denial concerning his own responsibility for the things that went wrong in his life. Similarly, he had no trouble blaming others including bosses and wives. Not to mention that he drank too much and didn’t acknowledge that it was a problem. Indeed, he had only come into treatment at his spouse’s insistence.

One of the challenges of psychotherapy is the fact that few people fit “pure” diagnostic types. Instead, one must be aware of all the complicating factors that can make effective therapy difficult. This man’s narcissism, denial, and alcohol abuse certainly created just such complications.

Had A.T. been more motivated and self-aware, less prone to denying the misery he was creating around him, a cognitive-behavioral (CBT) approach to his ADHD could well have helped, even if he chose not to take medication.

CBT programs include formal guidance in planning and organizational skills, assistance in problem solving and decision-making, help in reducing the number of distractions in the environment, practice in new thinking skills, training in ways to reduce procrastination, and advice to help you cope with failure. Homework is required between sessions.

The program described by Steven Safren and his associates in the work book Mastering Your Adult ADHD, developed by psychologists at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, was able to produce significant improvement in about 50% of those patients who continued to have clear problems even after being treated with medication.

So, if you have ADHD, medication and CBT provide reasons for optimism that things can get better.

Just don’t drop the ball!

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The top image is the Carbon Cycle created by the U.S. Government Department of the Interior. The one that follows is the Tux Crystal Linus Award by Nevit Dilmen. The next photo was created by Thomas Pusch and is called Scolded By Mama. The fourth picture is of Two Men Playing a Computer Game by Love Krittaya. Finally, a picture of a Geode  by Whitsoft Development. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Whatever Became of Miss Pancake?


Most of us are prone to judging people by what they look like or how they sound — how they pose and shape themselves for the camera of our perception and insight.

Many clever people can put on a good “show” and lead us to believe that the surface of things really does suggest something stable, decent, and worthwhile below the sight lines.

But, as Miss Pancake’s story suggests, sometimes what you think you see isn’t what you get.

The foundation underneath the surface makeup may not be nearly so pretty.

Indeed, outer beauty can suggest a fantasy, something that is very much “made up.”

Miss P was born in 1927, the youngest of her parents’ four children, both immigrants from Eastern Europe.  Along with many other Eastern European Jews, they saw America as a land free of the most obvious forms of anti-Semitism and a place of great economic opportunity. Her father, as the story goes, traveled to the USA in 1912 from Rumania, after a brief stop in England.

Only one problem: he missed his boat to the USA. Its name? The Titanic, or at least, that is what he told everyone.

He went by the name Leo. A tall, dashing, easy-going man with a wicked smile, able to speak at least a little of several languages. His wife Esther was quite a contrast: homely, stocky, with a prematurely lined face; an argumentative woman who never mastered English and never met a person she could trust.

Leo, a Chicago house painter who was hospitalized and nearly died during the 1918 influenza epidemic, made a good living in the 1920s when money was easy to come by and as easily spent. But he was also unreliable, alcoholic; an embarrassment to his kids when he was loaded. Still, a funny, voluble, charming sort of inebriate, never mean-spirited. And always warm and affectionate with children.

The Great Depression was the ruin of Miss Pancake’s family. Nothing unusual there, since 25% of the country was unemployed. Failed banks, bread lines, “hey buddy, can you spare a dime?” Our heroine might have remembered the terror of bill collectors coming to their door and everyone inside pretending not to be home. At some point Leo couldn’t take the unhappy household anymore and left for Winnipeg, Canada, where he had some relatives, conveniently forgetting to take his wife and children along.

But Esther was tenacious and knew that Leo was her only meal-ticket, even if the meals he could buy were now pretty meager. She followed him to Canada, where Miss P’s older siblings remembered the fear that their classmates had of someone from Chicago, the city of Al Capone and his friends. Eventually, they returned to the USA with Leo coming along for the ride.

Esther was the powerhouse of the family. She could brow-beat her husband Leo, who never made a decent financial recovery from the loss of his painting business and whose alcoholism was always an easy target. And his late night carousing left the four children as fair game for Esther’s mix of claustrophobic love, suspicion, and withering criticism as she played one child against the other, leaving them all unhappy.

In spite of it all, little Miss P grew to be a beauty. Tall and leggy, buxom, with full lips and a toothy smile, she was quite a dish. You can see the beauty queen above as she looked in her hey-day.

But as the last one left at home when all the other children had moved out and gotten married, Esther held on to her like grim death. No one was ever “good enough” for her, at least according to her mom.

Miss P was witty, bright, and could play men to show her a good time. She worked as a legal secretary in a big deal La Salle Street law office for a wealthy and prominent Chicago lawyer at a time when such a job had a measure of prestige, before women had much access to the practice of law or medicine beyond being helpful to a male who did.

Miss P. could be generous, even if that devotion always had strings attached. She played the role of confidant to many of those she targeted, eagerly attentive until she figured out how she could use the information they were revealing to her — a tactic she had doubtless learned from her suspicious and manipulative mother.

So long as her beauty and charm lasted, Miss P enjoyed the company of well-to-do men who would shower her with gifts. But, as the bloom came off the rose, her life became stranger and stranger. For a number of years she continued working as a legal secretary. Finally, she decided that there were other ways to make a living than working for an employer who expected you to show up every day and collected your Social Security and withholding taxes.

At some point she was also hospitalized at a state psychiatric hospital with a diagnosis of Paranoid Schizophrenia. She was a reluctant patient, to be sure; not patient enough to wait for a medical discharge, she escaped through an open window.

By now Miss P had alienated all but two of her relatives, both nephews.

She would sometimes promise them that when she was gone they would inherit her estate, but it was hard to imagine that she had much of one. Nonetheless, they extended themselves to her out of their sense of obligation and good will more than any anticipation of a posthumous payoff; when she got cancer on her nose and sometimes needed help in getting to the doctor, they were there for her.

It is hard to characterize what Miss P then did for a living, but scamming people comes to mind. It seems that this took several forms. Variation One involved buying articles from one store, presumably on sale, and then either reselling them for more than the purchase price or returning them to another store in an attempt to retrieve the retail, non-sale price. Eventually some stores wanted no part of her business, having gotten wise to her scheming.

Variation Two required her to buy used merchandise or find things that others had discarded. I’m not sure to what extent this depended upon her ability to “dumpster dive,” but I’d be surprise if she didn’t claim some goods this way. Then she would run advertisements in places like The Reader, a free weekly newspaper that permitted ads she didn’t have to pay for.

On one such occasion Miss P sold some used stereo equipment that didn’t work to someone who, understandably, thought it did. When he called to complain and wanted a refund, she retorted, “Who do you think you’re dealing with? This isn’t Marshall Field’s!”

Variation Three had to do with her residence. Although she often rented apartments, sometimes she lived in the lobbies of posh hotels, washing up in the ladies room and sleeping in the lobby chairs, while her goods remained in storage. Again, eventually some of the establishments got wise to her.

Perhaps the most lucrative variation, however, might have been various nuisance law suits she filed against alleged “wrong-doers,” including the multiple land-lords she had over the years, perhaps against physicians who treated her, as well. These sometimes resulted in significant settlements.

In 2001 she soon expected to be between apartments and asked one of her nephews to pick up several suit cases, presumably all her worldly goods that weren’t deposited in a storage facility, and to hold them until she was settled in another rental unit. He dutifully did so, bringing the suitcases to his suburban home.

Several weeks later, however, when she asked that the goods be returned, Nephew #1 relied on Nephew #2 to deliver them. Miss P claimed that two suitcases were missing. A manipulation? A delusion? Who could tell? Phone contact with Nephew #1 didn’t jog her memory about the number of pieces of luggage she left with him, nor cause him to confess to the charge of theft that she was leveling against him.

Given how far gone she was, by now she probably believed her own preposterous story.

It wasn’t too many days before a police car appeared in front of Nephew #1’s home. Miss P was in the back seat. The officer rang the bell, only to find her nephew’s wife alone at home. He questioned her about the allegations and was satisfied that nothing untoward had happened, confiding to her that Miss P was, in fact, a pretty strange bird.

The officer wanted to leave, but the alleged criminal’s spouse insisted that he first search the premises, to satisfy himself and Miss P that nothing of her’s was in their home. But the beauty of paranoia is that evidence or its absence counts for nothing. Our heroine simply believed that whatever had been stolen from her had been sold before she and the police arrived.

Still, you’d think that with the police’s failure to find anything, Miss P would have been at a dead-end.

No one got off so easily once Miss P had targeted him.

Later in the year, claiming indigence, the Circuit Court of Cook County waved the filing fee that normally would have been required of Miss P to file suit against her relative. With Nephew #2 in attendance for the bench trial along with Nephew #1’s wife, Miss Pancake claimed $1200 in damages for the personal property that she alleged to have been “wrongfully detained,” namely, “two marble tables, one statue, nine pieces of luggage, one carry-on bag; and clothing.”

She lost.

Twelve days later her motion for a new trial was denied.

The judge in her suit was her next target. Our beauty queen completed a form entitled “Request For Investigation of a Judge or Associate Judge” that she submitted to the State of Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board. In it, she alleged that Judge Good (certainly not a good day for him):

…has a disability. He cannot read or has eye problems. He should use glasses. Also, he (sic) is known by Daley (Center) employees that he never reads evidence. He just judges people by appearance only.

Incoherently specifying various abuses she suffered at the hands of the judge, including being discriminated against as a senior citizen, she complained that the judge had stated in open court that

…he liked the defendant because he was rich. Then, he also (said,) “Boy, lots (of) money.”

Two years later, no longer able to sue Nephew #1, Miss Pancake sued his wife over the same property, with the same result, although this time Miss P’s kinsman hired an attorney in the hope of ending the repeated confrontations with his aunt once and for all. This time Judge Plenty, obviously sensitive to the plaintiff’s peculiar and disjointed communications, requested that she be assessed as to her capacity for self-care by the Cook County Guardian’s office.

Nothing came of that assessment, other than, I suspect, a good deal of nervousness on her part at the possibility that she might lose her independence.

A month later, our inexhaustible protagonist consulted a private attorney of her own in an effort to continue the pursuit of her personal property, but that man wrote her to say she had no case, and that (having failed to persuade Judges Good and Plenty) she had exhausted all legal remedies with any reasonable likelihood of producing the compensation that she was seeking.

And that is the way Miss Pancake’s relationships with her family ended.

No contact with anyone ever again.

Time passed.

Nephew #1 would read of her death in the obituary column of the Chicago Tribune. A little investigation revealed that she had become a ward of the state and died of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Who would have thought that the story of the beautiful and clever Miss Pancake would end this way?

The moral: don’t judge a book by its cover, candy by its box, or a pancake by its package.

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The photo just above is of Good & Plenty candy, taken by Glane23, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Have You Had Your Daily Dose of Anger?

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There is a test built into this essay, but not the kind you think.

There will be questions at the end, but they will make sense only if you read everything.

And even then, the questions are not the kind that allow for right or wrong answers.

Intrigued?

Read on.

In today’s bull’s-eye are teachers, unions, government workers, National Public Radio, and Washington politicians.

Yesterday it was bankers, stock brokers, deal-makers, hedge fund managers, and Wall Streeters in general.

It’s also been Obama for a while.

Anger doesn’t seem to be in short supply. And all these folks recently have been or continue to be convenient targets.

The argument pretty much goes like this: if only so-and-so (referring to an individual or group) were different, better, dead, living in another country, out of power, punished, making less money, or otherwise emasculated, then all the rest of us would be much better off.

They, the same so-and-sos, are the ones who are dragging us down, making the country worse, and so forth.

Of course, sometimes it’s true. But isn’t it interesting that even when the so-and-sos are disempowered, there are still just as many angry people around, looking for and finding another target?

Have you heard very many people deride BP (British Petroleum) lately? You know, the authors of that big Gulf of Mexico oil spill? No, the angry voices have moved on to other resentments.

Life is full of frustrations, a lack of control, and lots of unfairness. The highways are too full, the money we are paid too little, the bosses too demanding, the work too hard, the hours too long, the spouse uncooperative, and the kids are out of control.

Change alone can be frightening — enough to make a person angry — and, gosh knows, the country is certainly changing in ethnic and racial make-up, while the distance between rich and poor increases.

It did seem that people were quieter about their discontents a while back; certainly in the ’50s, not so much in the 1960s when the civil rights movement met the Vietnam War, and protests were all around.

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I’m told the ’30s were pretty tame in the USA, despite the fact that people were out of work in large numbers (25% unemployed), many more than today. An equivalent level of hardship in 2011 might well generate a revolution.

What accounts for the change from mid-twentieth century America to today? Perhaps the after-glow of a shared national effort (World War II) and the prosperity that followed it made for less sense of grievance. But that wouldn’t explain the modest level of ear-splitting rancor of the Great Depression years.

Others would point to a subsequent loss of faith in government due to corruption or incompetence that made it an easier target, going back as far as the Johnson administration’s escalation of US involvement in the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration, or the nonexistent WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) we were told with certainty required the hurried invasion of Iraq.

Social critics would identify permissive child rearing which allowed children not only to be seen, but also heard and listened to, instead of “seen and not heard;” or the Freudian penchant for finding the roots of adult problems in one’s parents’ child-rearing practices (thus, shifting the blame from oneself to others who become the target of resentment).

Or perhaps it was the creation of a social safety-net that led people to believe that they were “entitled” to things they had not earned and encouraged them to “demand” more dollars out of other people’s pockets — which found those people not taking kindly to the idea and in some cases quite opposed to safety-nets in general; nor should we forget a legal profession ready to exact payment for real and perceived wrongs.

And some might point to public anger as the last vestige of the “Don’t Tread on Me” motto found on the Gadsden flag of Revolutionary War days, the thing that helped enable the colonists to fight the British. Surely, it was then a more than necessary evil.

But for whatever reason, among us are angry people who find lots of fault with others, less often than with themselves.

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Few of the those most insistent that things be done their way seem to have read their history books; nor have they thought through the consequences of their actions down the road.

The notion that “IF IT FEELS RIGHT, IT IS RIGHT,” seems persuasive, until you realize that just the opposite position might feel just as right to someone else. And every self-righteous person always thinks as the WWII Germans did: “Gott mit uns” (God is with us).

The red-faced, clench-fisted, self-appointed defenders of all that is good and proper (as they see it) refuse to compromise on anything. Blustering assertion has replaced reasoned and well-researched argument.

Little time is taken to locate and read — yes read, not watch or listen to — a reliable and thorough daily news source.  Instead, many of us hear and watch the “info-tainment” of the 10 O’Clock news, or partisan “news” reports and sound bites presenting arguments that are one-sided and sometimes factually inaccurate, becoming the pawns of someone else’s vision of the way the world should be.

If the fountain that you drink at makes your blood boil, should you come back for more?

Rallying cries to “preserve the constitution,” poor analogies to the Holocaust or the Soviet Union, and threats of imminent “dictatorship”  or “tyranny” have all been used to justify steaming outrage and urgent action. The word “government” is treated as if it were spelled with four letters, just as word actually made of four letters, “B-u-s-h,” was used in a similar derisive, “dirty word” way before his page was turned by a new election.

“Liberal” policy threatens encroaching socialism to certain groups on the right, while the “conservative” agenda augers the creation of a permanent “underclass” and the domination of business interests over the little guy on the left.

We make improper use of the names we call the objects of our anger. For example, but for a few extremists, there is no “far left” or “far right” in this country. “Far left” is communism, “far right” is fascism. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see any major politician who resembles Lenin or Hitler, or who is advocating their policies.

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Instead of thoughtfulness, there is a lot of venting. Anger, of course, is self-justifying, and fairness is in the eye of the beholder. Which is why the angry zealots do not usually seek psychotherapy voluntarily. Those few who wish to are advised to take a look at Ronald Potter-Efron’s Stop the Anger Now as a starting place.

Meanwhile, internal inconsistencies in one’s world view are ignored by those who are most incensed. Social conservatives who wish to legislatively forbid Gay marriage or abortion are attempting to regulate some very private events, but generally wish less government control over health care and fewer national rules for business and finance. Meanwhile, those who are socially liberal want their private lives kept private, but look to more constraint and control over health care and business practices.

In effect, the social conservatives want the government into the bedroom and out of your wallet, while the liberals want it out of the bedroom, but into your wallet.

Since 1940, significant groups within the good old USA have voiced strenuously opposition to:

Japanese Americans (who were interned in concentration camps if they lived on the west coast during World War II, even though most were US citizens), people who might have dabbled with Communism during the Great Depression (many intellectuals did), and “pre-mature antifascists” (who were suspected of being Communists after World War II, despite their prescience and courage in taking action against the Spanish and German fascists during the Spanish Civil War).

Others with a bull’s eye on their backs have included Blacks, civil rights activists, hippies, the “military-industrial complex” during the Vietnam War, anti-war protesters in the same period, doctors who perform abortions, Mexicans, Muslims, illegal immigrants, Gays (especially after the Iron Curtain fell and a new object of enmity was required to replace the USSR); and, of course, Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Nixon, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama.

Not to mention Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Chaney.

I’m sure I’m leaving some important people out.

Clearly, some folks earn our intense dislike.

But many of those listed above simply seemed to be easy targets or had ideas or origins that were “different.”

My point is that there is a lot of misplaced anger out there — a bit like kicking the dog when you walk in the door because your boss gave you a hard-time at work.

Even where anger is justified, it can go off the rails. As John Dower notes in his brilliant book War Without Mercy, the Pacific portion of World War II was a race war. Both sides dehumanized and demonized the enemy in caricatures and words. One can only imagine what U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry felt when they looked at posters such as this, a buck toothed, saber toothed, drooling, myopic, dog-eared, satanic travesty of their image:

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Even in less fraught times, in-groups commonly defend against out-groups, while out-groups are trying to get in. The pie that represents the “American Dream” seems to be getting smaller, and everyone wants a pretty big piece. I suspect that some of the rage we see today is in response to the precarious, dangerous, and competitive nature of life itself: the daily indignities, the feelings of helpless, and the sheer dazzling and frightening speed with which things change faster than we can keep up.

And perhaps some other part is just our biological and genetic inheritance — the “fight or flight” capacity for anger that our ancestors had to have in order to take on the real threats to their existence and protect those they loved.

As an old 1960 Twilight Zone episode illustrated brilliantly, we are prone to believing that The Monsters are Due on Maple Street even if there are no monsters. If you haven’t ever seen it or haven’t watched it in a while, it shows how chaos and unpredictable change added together can trigger the search for scapegoats, even among the innocent in an average suburban community.

If instead you consult Brigitte Gabriel, author of They Must Be Stopped, you will be told that “America has been infiltrated on all levels by radicals who wish to harm America. They have infiltrated us at the C.I.A, at the F.B.I., at the Pentagon, at the State Department.”

And who are “they?” Muslims living in the U.S.A.

Really? Or is Ms. Gabriel simply Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in a dress? McCarthy was the man (eventually censured by the Senate) who told us of the non-existent infiltration of the government by Communists back in 1950:

The State Department is infested with communists. I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.

Joseph McCarthy.jpg

McCarthy never came up with hard evidence for his claim and sometimes changed the number of alleged traitors in government. Nor has Gabriel offered such evidence for her accusations.

When will Ms. Gabriel mention that the independent research group Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, affiliated with the University of North Carolina, Duke University, and RTI International reports something rather different? It indicates that Muslims provided tips that helped thwart 48 of the 120 U.S. terror attacks planned by their co-religionists since 9/11/2001 .

Long story short: beware of angry people. Their anger just might be turned in your direction. Today, perhaps, they are your friend. But tomorrow?

Beware of those rabble-rousers who stir up the discontented. Enough of them can be found on cable TV, talk radio, and on the Internet. They aren’t your friends either.

Be careful of those who only occasionally see more than one side to any story; and the only side they tend to see is their own.

Be on guard against the people for whom angry expression and impulsive action are the solutions and not the problems.

If you are attracted to someone who appears to be your big, strong, and powerful protector, remember that your only real protection is in yourself and the rule of law; and that one day you may find that the fearsomeness of your companion has become a threat to you.

Beware, too, of angry people with a drink in their hands (McCarthy was one such), unmindful of the disinhibiting potential of alcohol to set their rage loose.

In 1919, just after World War I, William Butler Yeats wrote in The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…

Are we are in one of those moments again?

I guess that depends on how the quieter voices respond.

The future is up to every one of us.

Make the future.

End of today’s sermon.

Now for the test questions.

Have you found yourself muttering under your breath as you read the above?

Have you cursed to yourself about the opinions I’ve expressed?

While I don’t claim impartiality, in more than one case I have pointed at difficulties on both sides of American politics. Have you been able to see the other side’s point of view even a little?

Do you believe that anyone who leans in a different political direction is unworthy of your respect or your ear?

Do you have good friends who look at politics from other than your perspective?

Can you have a well-reasoned, honest, and civil conversation with someone who does not hold your position about any of the issues described above? And, if you do, do you permit the possibility of altering your stance a bit?

Do you search for the facts that are available from non-partisan news sources and do they ever persuade you to change your mind about something?

Is there anyone on the other side of the aisle who you admire? Even a small amount? Is there a single writer from the opposition party who’s regular column you read?

Have your past judgments about others, as well as your personal and business decision making, been so good that you are utterly certain of the validity of all of your political opinions today? Put differently, has your life been such a shining example of wisdom and inerrant behavior that it is impossible that you are wrong?

No one on earth has ever been all-knowing in the arena of world affairs and even those solutions that work tend to have a short shelf-life. Angry self-righteousness, however, can last rather longer.

If you are unwilling to change course (in politics or anything else), consider new information, or compromise in a rapidly transforming world, you will have taken the fixed position of a stopped-clock — right only twice a day.

But, no matter your political persuasion, you will be angry all day.

The top image is A (gentle)man giving the middle finger angrily by Mgregoro. The second image is that of a Vietnam War Protest in Washington D.C. by Frank Wolfe, October 21, 1967, followed by the Gadsden Flag by Lexicon, Vikrum. The next photo pictures Protesters at the Taxpayer March on Washington by dbking, which occurred on September 12, 2009, after which is a U.S.A. propaganda poster from World War II:  Tokio_Kid_Say.png. The final image is a 1954 photo of Senator Joseph McCarthy taken by United Press. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

On the Elusiveness of Vindication (and How Special It is When It Happens)

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/86/Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_013.jpg/256px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_013.jpg

I suspect there is hardly anyone among us who has not hoped that the person who broke our heart would come back to us, see the light, apologize, and say:

You know what? I was wrong. I didn’t give you a chance. I should have. You deserved better treatment than you received from me. It was unfair of me to blame you as I did, not to see how good you are.  I hope that you will forgive me and we can start over.

Vindication can take a number of forms. It might involve being reinstated to a position you lost unfairly, being exonerated of a crime you were alleged to have (or convicted of having) committed, receiving a belated medal for acts of courage performed in combat, or having a parent apologize for abusive or neglectful mistreatment.

There is only one problem.

When the injury is great, these things almost never happen. Or, if they do, they come much too late. Think about the occasional news story that documents the exoneration of someone who had been wrongly imprisoned after years behind bars, now finally permitted to return to civilian life. Or the long-denied medal for heroic service to one’s country in an almost forgotten war, awarded to a man now aged or perhaps deceased, and therefore only a posthumous recipient of the honor.

Perhaps even rarer is the parent who apologizes for child abuse. First, such people rarely acknowledge the extent of what they have done. And, to the degree that there is any recognition or admission of  mistreatment of their child, it is nearly always minimized on the one hand, and justified on the other; justified, usually by the child’s alleged misbehavior or provocation.

By the time the parents in question are senior citizens, the fog of time and self-deception has clouded and distorted their memory. Moreover, were they to admit (even to themselves) what they had done, they would almost certainly be shattered and humbled by that self-awareness; and left with the fact that there would be no way to make up for the lost time and the pain they inflicted – not enough of a future available to redeem the sorry state of the past and remove the stain on their conscience.

Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that they do not admit their errors even when confronted – in effect cannot do so psychologically without jeopardizing their ability to live with any measure of equanimity.

My wife likes to say that her favorite punishment for such people would be one minute of self-awareness. Unfortunately, they are the least likely among us to achieve this kind of insight.

A useful book to read on the subject is Frauen by Alison Owings. Owings interviewed numerous German women who had lived through the period of the Third Reich. She observed the extent to which self-deception, rationalization, and denial were present as they looked back upon what they claimed they knew or witnessed (or didn’t know), and what they did or didn’t do in response to the mistreatment and murder of their Jewish neighbors by the Nazis.

Beyond the individual level, even nations have a problem admitting that wrong has been done in their name. Turkey continues to deny the Armenian genocide of the twentieth century’s second decade, while Austria and France have historically skirted their participation in the Holocaust, preferring to be considered co-victims with other sufferers of Germany’s misdeeds.

And, it was not until 1988, that the United States formally apologized for the 1942 forced internment of Pacific Coast residents of the USA, solely because they were of Japanese decent, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of those people, 62% were US citizens.

While none of what I’ve described thus far permits a very optimistic take on human nature, I do want to relate one very beautiful story I heard from a former patient on this subject. It stands out because it demonstrates that obtaining personal vindication does happen every so often, and can produce any enormously healing experience for both parties involved. I’ve changed the circumstances of the story to disguise the identity of my patient, but I think you will get the idea.

The young woman in question was a high school volley ball player, a member of the school’s team. She was a junior and had played, usually as a starter, for most of the season. Her coach was a young woman as well, that is to say, a relatively new teacher, just shortly out of training.

Toward the end of the season, the student’s mother was to receive a special award from her workplace. Mom and dad both wanted their daughter to be at the dinner honoring the mom, and the young athlete wanted to be there as well. Unfortunately, the award ceremony conflicted with an important game for her team. She explained in advance to her coach that she would not be able to play in that game, but the coach was furious. Thereafter the coach repaid her absence by keeping her on the bench for most of the remainder of the season and treating her with disdain.

Although she liked volleyball, my future patient chose not to try-out for the team as a senior, expecting either to fail to make the roster chosen by the same coach; or, if permitted to be on the team, anticipating the same sort of mistreatment from her for another year. And so, the athlete’s high school athletic career ended prematurely.

This turn of events did not, however, destroy her love for the game. She continued to play in various park district leagues for many years. But the memory of being humiliated by the coach did not go away, nor of the lost senior year of competition that she might otherwise have enjoyed, playing a game she loved.

Perhaps 10 years after the incidents I’ve described, this woman was now my patient. And one day she told me that just the day before she had found herself in another volley ball contest against a new team. And, wouldn’t you know it, she saw that one of the opposing players was her old coach, now in her early to mid-thirties.

My patient recognized the coach, but hoped the recognition was not mutual. As the game progressed they soon enough were face-to-face across the net from each other. The coach said “hello,” calling her by name, and my patient replied in kind. Perhaps, she thought, that would be the end of their interaction.

At the end of the game, however, the coach came over to my patient. She asked if she could speak with her privately. They moved away from the other volleyball players to a place where they would not be overheard.

What the young woman’s ex-coach said went something like this:

I’ve thought about you for many years. I realize that what I did to you was very unfair. I took your decision not to play that game too personally. Of course, there was nothing wrong with your attending a dinner recognizing your mother. Who wouldn’t have? I was very young, but I should have known better than to treat you as badly as I did. I have felt guilty for years that I caused you pain and that I made it almost impossible for you to even think of trying-out for the senior team. I have been hoping to run into you all this time, so that I could say this. I’m so sorry.

As my patient related this story to me she was in tears, enormously touched by what the coach had said. The coach had given her closure for a painful part of her history and had done it with grace, courage, and integrity; taking full responsibility for injuring my patient. In so doing, I suspect the coach found relief too, because her former charge was an enormously likeable, decent, and forgiving person.

Everyone here was a winner.

As I said, the tale stands out for me because this kind of ending occurs so rarely. I suspect many of us have been the victims of similar hurts.

But, perhaps more importantly, some of us have probably inflicted comparable injuries on others.

Sometimes its worth reflecting on that — on one’s own failures and mistreatment of others.

You just might discover that like the coach, there is still an opportunity to put things right.

Of course, that is up to you.

The image above is Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Christmas Story: Telling the Truth and Breaking the Heart

Winter Landscape voted Most Beautiful Stamp of the Year 2006 in  Finland

Was she seven years old? I don’t remember my eldest daughter’s exact age when she asked the question:

“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend in school) said he isn’t.”

I had learned long before this, the value and importance of being honest.

I looked at Jorie, but perhaps could not see just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.

What I could see, however, was that she trusted me. And, in the few moments before I answered, I quickly determined that I could not break that trust.

“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”

I can still see her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.

It was not the last time that I caused pain to someone I love, but I think it was the first time I’d done this to any child of mine.

Welcome to the real world, honey; the place where things aren’t always as they seem or as we would like them to be. A place where hard reality trumps fantasy; a place where someone who “loves you to pieces” tells you something that breaks your heart into pieces.

That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead; something to save this little person from the pain of a message that could have been postponed.

Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was there a possible Socratic dialogue — an artfully crafted sequence of questions that would have led her to the same truth and not hurt so much?

Could I have tried to change the subject, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?

Or, should I have simply lied? “Of course there is a Santa, Sweetie.” And then left her open to the potential ridicule of friends, as well as some doubts about whether her dad was trustworthy.

Janet Landman, in her book Regret: the Persistence of the Possible, likens regret to the dilemma of coming to a fork in the road and making a choice. You walk down the chosen road for a while, before you realize that it isn’t quite as good as you had hoped. Eventually you conclude, “I probably should have taken the other path.”

It really doesn’t matter which road you choose. Nothing in life is perfect. But in your imagination, the alternative remains idealized. Only in your mind, in the world of abstraction and fantasy, does perfection reside — the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect result, the perfect performance of whatever kind.

And, for me, the perfect answer to a simple question.

Sometimes in life there is no ideal solution, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. And, of course, we never know what it would have been like to choose the other road at that precise moment. Because, as Heraclitus said, “you cannot step into the same river twice.” Meaning that with the passage of time, the river has changed, and so have you.

No, you cannot un-ring the bell. No do-overs when it comes to the knowledge of whether Santa is real.

We must live with the inevitable heart breaks, whenever they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain what would have happened had we lived it differently.

Ultimately, one can only accept the terms life allows. The contract we (metaphorically) sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at the moment of our birth allows for no escape clause from hard knocks. Not, at least, while life goes on.

I still wish I could have protected Jorie from the terrible knowledge that I delivered so innocently that day, not just the knowledge about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think about it, it isn’t the knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, it is from the pain of life itself.

But, such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also have the compensations of beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.

Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.

The good news?

Our love abides.

Parenting: When Love is Not Enough

madame roulin with her baby marcelle by vincent van gogh

Well meaning parents don’t always do well.

Or, to put it more bluntly, you can mess up your children without really trying.

Take the following example: two caring, well-educated, good people. They were in love with each other and loving toward their children.

One child was handsome, outgoing, and had a sunny disposition. Other children and adults were drawn to him. He awoke every morning with a smile on his face and brought cheer to those around him. Although not a great student, this boy was certainly bright enough; he made his way more than adequately in the world of friendship, study, and eventually, work.

His brother, however, did not have it so easy. To start, his body was ungainly. Even as a kid, he lumbered and lurched in locomotion. His cumbersome, block-like (not overweight) form caused him to stand out. Because of  a lack of refined adroitness in matters of balance and dexterity, he was always the last boy picked in the choosing of teams on the playground and in the gym class.

To the good, he was astonishingly bright and intellectually curious, but this only fueled the separateness he felt, to which his graceless body also contributed. Outgoing though he was, peers tended to shun and ridicule him. Social skills did not come instinctively and this young boy’s efforts at outreach neglected the usual questions that facilitate social contact: queries like “How are you?” or “What did you do over the weekend?”

Monologues rather than conversations were the result, further emphasizing this kid’s peculiarity and securing his status as an outsider.

His parents were at a loss. Certainly, they treated their dear son with kindness and affection, and applauded his prodigious intellect and curiosity about the world. But, when they saw his unhappiness and discovered that peers marginalized and ridiculed him, each of the parents tried to put a good face on things. While they defended him when they actually witnessed the cruelty he received, the boy’s hurt was not discussed very much at home. The parents minimized or ignored his pain, believing it best to encourage him to believe that things would soon get better and telling him not to let the ill-treatment of the other children bother him.

Soon enough, this child tended to his wounds by himself, confiding little in his parents, as if he instinctively realized that they would not or could not offer him any response that would feel good. Those times late at night, often just before bed, when a child is most vulnerable and open to spill his pain, passed without the flow of consolation. Thus, like many children (especially boys) who find themselves feeling empty and alone, deadening his emotions was preferable to exposing his heart to further injury.

To be fair, mom and dad figured that their boy would come to them if he needed or wanted to talk, and read his attempts to kill his emotions as a lack of need for the solace that can be achieved by having a shoulder to cry on. Indeed, they thought that he would be angered by any attempt to invade his privacy and bring up uncomfortable topics.

Nor did the elders provide guidance in how to be more reciprocal with people or give him direction in how to create conversations rather than monologues. They never pointed out that it was important to show interest in what others were doing or saying, despite the fact that both of them routinely displayed this with their children and in their own social lives. Instead, the parents reasoned that their son was already feeling hurt and rejected; and they feared that they might injure him further by telling him that his conversational style could be improved.

By the time of his adulthood, our subject had become what one might expect based on his early life. Surpassingly bright, he went to an elite college and had a coterie of those who admired his intellect and creativity, but no real friends. The pain of rejection had long since been pushed down deep inside, to the point that he might not have recognized the need or value of “closeness.” He was as out of touch with the emotional side of his own life as he was with the feelings of his conversational partners. Our young man seemed to have little need to find out about what was going on “inside.” Nor did he understand that his failure to ask questions to peers could be seen as arrogance, indifference, or peculiarity.

Still, our youthful gentleman led an interesting life because he sought out intellectual stimulation and threw himself into numerous activities within the world of the sciences and the arts. But, it remained a solitary existence, even if it was no longer clear to what extent he felt marginalized, so cut-off did he seem from the matters that connect head and heart.

His parents still tried to put a good face on their son’s way of living, as much as they knew about it, since they continued to be hesitant to ask him sensitive questions. But deep down they wondered whether he could possibly have any close friends (not to mention lovers) given his way of talking to people. Even now they felt that it was too late to bring up things that might cause him pain or trigger his anger at them for prying into his life.

Instead, the parents would occasionally comment to friends about their unusual son, make good-natured jokes about him, and simultaneously take enormous pride in his considerable intellectual and vocational success in the very stimulating, if strangely disconnected life he had fashioned for himself.

In defense of the elders, it should first be said that they could have done much worse. Their son didn’t do drugs, steal cars, embezzle money, or trip old people crossing the street. They parented him instinctively, as most of us do with our children. They certainly did not want to hurt him but, in their tiptoeing around his emotional pain, they failed to recognize opportunities to provide needed consolation and guidance concerning the social skill he lacked.

One can imagine that things could have been different. Had the parents been comforting and validating of his early humiliations rather than choosing to minimize them, perhaps he would have felt less isolated and not cordoned off his feelings even from himself. Had mom and dad gently guided him in how to converse, he might have had more social success and seemed less odd because of his penchant to prattle on about himself. If the parents encouraged their child to salve his own and others’ unhappiness by first providing that soothing themselves, maybe intimate relationships would have flourished.

It is impossible to know for sure. Child-rearing isn’t like a laboratory experiment, with an experimental and a control group. The “what if” questions are never answered with certainty. Sometimes nature has its way, no matter a guardian’s best and most understanding efforts at nurture.

Raising children isn’t easy. If you are lucky, you have a child like these parents’ first born, who responded well to the instinctive default parenting style of mom and dad.

But, for those of you who have more than one child, it quickly should become clear that they do not come out of the womb as identical sprouts, each needing just the same amount of sun, temperature, water, and nutrition. No horticulturist would treat a tropical plant in the same way that we would care for one that can only flourish in a more temperate climate.

And yet, even today, parents too often believe that “one size parenting” fits all children, and that it is the child’s job to adapt to the parents’ approach to upbringing rather than the other way around.

Put another way, you can be a good parent to one child and a less-than-good parent for another, simply by taking the identical approach to each of them.

The rule is simple: be the parent your child needs you to be.

Search yourself. Ask what your offspring requires. What will work best for this particular little human being?

Then, if you discover that the required approach to child-rearing doesn’t come easily to you, learn and stretch yourself.

You are responsible for a human life.

No job in the world is as important.

The above image is Vincent van Gogh’s Mother Roulin With Her Baby.