One Holiday, Two Americas: Memorial Day Thoughts

Some of our fathers and brothers, even our sisters and aunts, served in wartime. Some serve now. Perhaps you too.

Today is the day we honor the fallen in all the many conflicts of this, our country.

Can two Americas fit into a holiday designed for one?

Thus do the two Americas array themselves: those for whom service is a calling and those for whom it is an economic necessity; those powerful and those without prospects; those respected and those afraid; those with fat wallets and those with empty purses; the few who are part of our volunteer army and the majority who choose not to be.

When my father did his duty in World War II, walking the Champs-Élysées on the first Bastille Day after the liberation of Paris, there was such a thing as military conscription: able bodied young men were required to participate. In post-war Germany, as part of the occupying Allied forces, he related the following in an October 19, 1945 letter to my mother:

We have two colored boys in our convoy who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper … the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent made the rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.

So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.

Some of us thought we were beyond the racial animus of a time 70 years past. Not just the discrimination, but the idea of discrimination. Still, no matter our domestic troubles, we must honor the fallen. My father, who served but did not die in service, would be troubled at our regression; yet he would honor the fallen, as we all should, amid the burgers and bratwurst and beer we inhale today. In this, at least, we can still be one country, even if the ritual unites us only for a few hours.

I wrote some of this seven years ago. Other parts are new:

If you are unhappy about the polarization of our society, think about the differences institutionalized by the volunteer army’s creation. However much good was achieved by the elimination of conscription, surely the absence of shared sacrifice contributes to the ease with which we oppose our fellow-citizens.

No longer does the USA pull together in the way possible during World War II, “the Good War.” In part, “the Good War” was good because enough people believed in the values for which the USA fought, knowing their children, husbands, and brothers would defend those same values with their lives; and it was good because those at home (regardless of class) shared in the rationing of goods, the terror of having loved ones in harm’s way, the heartache of their absence, and a preoccupation with the daily progress of the conflict.

The soldiers shared something more, and more widely than the smaller fighting force of today. Men of different religions, regional accents, political opinions, and ethnicities depended on each other for their survival and discovered the “other” could be depended on, laughed at the same jokes, and partook of the common fear and dedication all brought to the war effort. Even though military segregation deprived brave blacks and Japanese Americans of the opportunity for such camaraderie except with men of the same color, the nation benefited from the portion permitted. The soldiers benefited by the love and mutual reliance of those in the same foxhole. Our fathers and grandfathers were woven together in a way we are not today.

These thoughts occurred to me as I listened (on CD) to the book Final Salute by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jim Sheeler. The volume is about the officers who inform families they have lost a loved one; and of the families who suffer the unspeakable pain of the death of a son, a husband, a wife, a brother, or a sister; a dad or a mom.

Several survivors become your acquaintances in this narrative, as well as the warriors — the Marines — who died serving our country. And you will get to know Major Steve Beck, a Marine who delivers a message nearly as shattering as the projectile that killed their loved one.

Major Beck and the Marines live by the creed of leaving no comrade behind. Consistent with this value, Major Beck leaves no family behind, providing comfort and support long after the knock on the door that changes everything, creating a “before and after” without end.

I wish I had the words to convey what is in this book. I don’t. I only will say it is plainly written, eloquent in its simplicity, aching in its beauty, profound in its impact. It does not make melodrama of what is already poignant enough. Rest assured you will contemplate war, any war, differently after reading Final Salute; unless, of course, you are a member of the “other America,” the one fighting the wars and sending its loved ones into conflict. If you belong to the bereft group within this group, then there is nothing here you do not already know at a level too deep for words.

To those who have lost just such a one as the young men portrayed in Final Salute, I can only give my condolences to you and your kin.

We — those of us in the non-fighting America, those of us for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are abstractions — perhaps remain too comfortable, detached from something of desperate importance: the duty done far from home in our stead by the children of other people. And removed and distant from how the “best and brightest” of their families risk and sometimes give up everything they hold dear.

For such families, the human cost never fully goes away, for there is no inoculation against the plague of war, nor any cure.

They are out there, these inhabitants of “the other America.”

We walk past them unaware …

Once a year we give their departed a day of remembrance, if that’s what you call taking an extra day off from work, singing the National Anthem, looking at the maimed soldiers standing at attention, and then forgetting why we sang before our bottoms touch the seats. The words “play ball,” don’t quite capture a sentiment of honor or atonement, do they?

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All the images above are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. 1. “Vice Admiral Scott Swift, Director of Navy Staff holds Savannah Wriglesworth of Bowie, Maryland during a group photo with families of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) before taking a tour at the Pentagon May 23, 2014. The children of fallen U.S. service members toured the Pentagon seeing different exhibitions from the Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force including Klinger the horse. Klinger has served at more than 5,000 military funerals and has a book published about him called “Klinger: A Story of Honor and Hope” and is often a warm and comforting face for the children to see when making their final good-byes.” (Department of Defense photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo). 2. and 3. The work of Allstrak. 4. “Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt looks on during the singing of the National Anthem before his squad’s Memorial Day Major League Baseball matchup against the San Diego Padres at Chase Field in Phoenix, May 26, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Brandon Kidd, right, was on hand to represent the United States Marine Corps during pre-game dedications.” (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tyler J. Bolken).

A Different Form of Bravery

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as brave. We are not the kinds of heroes found in movies, wartime, or a burning building rescue. Yet one must become the hero of his own story. The reason is simple: there is no one else to do the job. If you are a supporting actor in the movie of your life, audition for a better part.

The clock never stops and opportunities, inevitably, diminish with age. Time still offers chances to change, to try, to dare, but we are captured by long-standing routines. One might say we have traveled the same rut for too long, the furrow deepening with each step. To get out we must climb a wall of earth with strength thought lost.

By 65, the age of my friend Keith Miller, some are already retired. But Keith had at least one more hurdle, one waiting for him over 40 years. Such youthful aspirations are patient, sitting quietly in the back of life’s class, hoping for attention, never raising a hand.

Long ago Keith attended a conservatory and took classes in conducting. He even conducted a chamber group a bit back then, more recently a stint leading a community band, no strings. Keith can’t be called a professional musician, though he has taught piano. The insurance company at which he works as a top-tier technical support analyst is not a wellspring of conductors.

Nevertheless, he had the nerve to apply to the International Masterclasses Berlin, where he would reside for six days in March; and, if he survived, lead the Berlin Sinfonietta in one movement of a romantic masterpiece. Keith was one of 11 students from Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina and the USA;  some working conductors with their own ensembles. Almost all were at least 30 years younger than my friend.

But, this is Keith’s story and he needs to tell it:

Packing my luggage for Berlin, I carried expectations, too. Not only from years of listening, but by studying the scores in the months before the masterclass: three symphonies by Brahms, Schubert and Schumann.

This was, after all, my inauguration into the world of orchestral conducting. Sleep medication was the only way to calm my bedtime energy. Most of the anticipation came from the unknown, all that is not in the musical score:

How might the maestro react to my lack of experience? How would I fit, being the oldest student? What of the orchestra’s cooperation and opinion? Would I make good music?

The first rehearsal generated the natural nervousness, heart-palpitations too, but also an internal reminder, “I can do this.” Maestro Shambadal’s steely eyes focused on me. The maestro, Principal Conductor of the Berlin Symphony, was born in Israel and studied with many “greats” including Giulini, Markevitch and Celibidache.

After a few deep breaths I began Schumann’s 4th Symphony. Quickly came a loud clap. The orchestra stopped. Maestro yelled from the back of the room, “It begins on the 3rd beat!” I made the correction and got through ¾ of the first movement before my time was up. A few other stoppages occurred for matters of technique and interpretation. I reminded myself I’d come for just such instruction.

I realized I needed to improve. My desire for the maestro’s approval quickened. The ensemble’s response to my leadership lacked enthusiasm and I knew it.

Three more rehearsals followed and group evaluations, as well, before the concert at which we would all perform. We reviewed videos of the 11 conductors, mine included.

Ugh! My posture was terrible. I looked like a bent old man. Maestro alluded to the same thing. I worked on straightening up, without which I couldn’t communicate command and authority. Here, perhaps, was the explanation for my initial failure to elicit what I wanted from the musicians.

I was selected to conduct the second movement of Schubert’s 8th Symphony at the concert. I marked the top of every page of my score with three words:

POSTURE. TEMPO. RELAX.

Keith worked with an experienced orchestra, many of the musicians retired members of the Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Radio Symphony and regional orchestras, along with younger instrumentalists.

Hundreds of years of accumulated experience face a newbie. Some such ensembles take pride in being able to size up a conductor in minutes, and tear him down in less time. Or ignore him and give “their” version of the piece. Still, each player has a job to do: taking the conductor’s vision as achieved in rehearsal, and making the black notes on white paper sing. Keith learned the conductor’s job, too:

His score holds all the notes, every instrumental line on the same page: dizzying to see, much less read while everything is happening in front of him. There is no opportunity to search the lines, the musicians’ faces, and be the director, too. Without an instrument, armed only with certainty, the knowledge of everyone’s role, and his ability to persuade and inspire, he must make something old into something new.

Concert time at last.

Striding up to the podium I was confident and enthusiastic. I brought along a week’s education.

I led with warmth, lyricism, and the dark drama there in the score. The players were spot on: tempo, dynamics and music-making.

What was experience like? The most exhilarating of my life.

I turned and bowed to the audience. Smiles all around. When I asked the orchestra to stand, I saw many smiles among them, as well. I shook the first violinist’s hand and received one word enthusiastically delivered: “Bravo!” The first cellist gave me a hearty thumbs-up.

My mind was captured by one idea.

“I want to do this again and again!”

The previous conductor and I gave each other a big hug. Later, an audience member said the maestro was watching me with full attention and nodding (not nodding off!), as if to say “very good!” After the concert, he congratulated everyone.

Returning to my hotel after a celebratory dinner, I sat at the edge of the bed and cried. All of the emotion and memories, the anticipation and fulfillment, overtook me. Once composed, I began to pack for the trip home.

Courage takes many forms. Sometimes it is simply making the music that is in you, waiting to be made. Taking a risk, not asking permission.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes said:

Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them.

Here is a man who made his music:


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

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

Not necessarily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what she wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kahneman gives an illustration of this phenomenon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passive or Active? Choosing Your Life

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Simple words are not so simple. Rather, we forget their meaning. We forget how much they should provoke a reevaluation of our lives. Consider the words “take” and “make.” I’ll try to “make” something of their importance in describing the lives we choose.

Here is a common sentence: “I must make a decision.” It sounds more passive than it is. I have heard the same phrase from non-native English-speakers, slightly altered: “I must take a decision.” As in grab or capture. Even in “making” a decision, at least in its most active form, we “build” or “construct.”

Take stock. Take over. Take responsibility. Make a choice. Make something of yourself.

Do you see where I’m taking you? What kind of life do you want? One you take or one left over because you did not capture a place in line?

We all know not choosing is a choice. If you don’t make a decision someone else will; or, perhaps the opportunity to intervene on your own behalf will pass. Many times an active decision is right even when wrong. You grab hold of the wheel of your life and try to steer. Value resides in ownership of yourself: self possession.

Many of the newer therapeutic models are not as contemplative, reflective, and retrospective as Freudian therapy, but add conceptual, emotional, and behavioral change — action — in the present. True, Freud warned about making personal decisions early in the treatment process, when still burdened by unresolved issues. There is recklessness in acting without thought, but finally one must roll the dice of life or stay on the sidelines, part of the audience. Indeed, one persuasive therapy model goes by the name of ACT (the word, not the initials): Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT leads you to a point of decision about what is important to you, commitment to those revealed values, and an eventual behavioral enactment of your commitment.

You have doubtless noticed women whose companions are men of action, whether thespians, builders, or “makers and shakers.” Indeed, a man pursuing a woman is described as “being on the make.” Some of those “gentlemen” are less than uniformly admirable, but their grasp of initiative is. Many other males (and females) lead lives of “quiet desperation.”

Please don’t misunderstand me. You needn’t be a leader to take charge of your life. Each of us has problems. Our inner life can be like a room filled with shelves of challenges we avoid. One must clear the shelves. We either sweep them clean or avert our eyes and lock the room wherein they reside. We then avoid any part of life reminding us of the courage we lack. Our failure might even be rationalized as good judgment — as an avoidance of danger.

How many people can’t eat out alone, try to make a new friend, or phone a stranger (choosing email instead)? How many of us can’t speak in a group or attend a class out of fear? How many adults can’t say no, ask for things, or look someone in the eye while uttering a necessary truth? If you are 16 and you don’t tackle such challenges, OK. At 56, if you still can’t, what then?

A graduating high school senior tells a younger, awe-struck young man why she couldn’t be with him:

“Charlie, I told you not to think of me that way nine months ago because of what I’m saying now. Not because of Craig (her then boyfriend). Not because I didn’t think you were great. It’s just that I didn’t want to be somebody’s crush. If somebody likes me, I want them to like the real me, not what they think I am. And I don’t want them to carry it around inside. I want them to show me, so I can feel it, too. I want them to be able to do whatever they want around me. And if they do something I don’t like, I’ll tell them.”*

Life in a fetal position is not a life in full. Trying always to please others is a life given away to people who won’t value you because you set your price tag too low. Such an existence is the opposite of “being a man,” a phrase that applies to any mature, confident adult, regardless of gender. Some of us persuade ourselves that the things we don’t do (because we don’t try) aren’t important. A kind of self-delusion. Others live in regret, consumed by “what might have been,” shadowed by the effort they did not “make.”

Regret is the only six-letter word equivalent of a four-letter swear. Unless you do an irreparable injury to another, perpetual regret is like a judge you have assigned the job of looking down on you, pointing an accusing finger eternally.

We all must stretch ourselves to our limit, especially in the first half of life, and learn to hold our head high always. Ironically, in the act of lengthening the spine by standing upright we feel better, and tend to overcome whatever sense of shame lives inside. Few of us, after all, wish to appear spineless.

Passivity isn’t the opposite of activity as much as it is the adversary of “living.”

Make the best of your life. You will die whether you do or not, so you might as well die trying.

*Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Pocket Books, 1999: 201.

The painting of The Archangel Michael Tramples Satan by Guido Reni is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Man Who Didn’t Give in: Sir Nicholas Winton

 

“I work on the motto that if something isn’t impossible, there must be a way of doing it.” So said Sir Nicholas Winton when asked how he saved the lives of 669 children. Sir Nicholas died yesterday at the age of 106. Before you give up on whatever challenge faces you, get to know his story. The video documentary (above) includes a 2014 interview of Winton. I wrote this essay in 2009: To Save One Life is to Save the World/

Shopping for Confidence

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I found myself in a sketchy part of town, although the people were handsomely dressed. No idea how I arrived. The unsavory, but well-groomed types walking the streets triggered my instinct for self-protection. I stepped into a store of a strange kind. Indeed, all the other businesses were full of commodities and people, but felt empty. This one was empty, yet the atmosphere was different.

“Ah, you found us!” said the middle-aged manager, looking pleased. “You seem troubled, but you needn’t be.”

“I was only trying to escape the — uh — neighborhood, if you get what I mean,” I responded hesitantly.

“Oh, they never come in here. We don’t sell what they want. They all want stuff. Everybody wants stuff. Fools.”

“What do you offer?” I replied. I’d not even looked at the sign in the window before I entered, and there was nothing inside to give away the nature of the store’s wares. No shelves, no showcases; plain powder blue walls, unadorned; furniture consisting of a chair, a table, and a sofa. Oh, yes, there was a large book on the table: The Discourses, by Epictetus.

“I sell confidence and I can tell you need some, young man.” Indeed, I was a naïve 20-year old. How did I become twenty again?

The manager had enough self-assurance for a small army. He stood as straight as a military officer at attention, with a bit of gray in his wavy hair, and the square jaw of a GQ model.

“Confidence? How can you tell I need such a thing?”

“You’re here, aren’t you? The doors don’t open unless you require our help. We had special sensors installed. Cost us a fortune.”

I decided not to ask about the technicalities. He was right of course. I did need fistfuls of bravado. I was doubtful about my future, had no clear idea what being a psychologist might entail, and was uncertain with the ladies. My mother was always reminding me I lacked the good-natured qualities of my younger brothers and my buddies. I offered no rejoinder to her comments about Ed and Jack, but when she brought up my friends I’d reply, “Yeah, easy for them: they don’t live with you.”

“OK,” said the manager. “What kind of confidence would you like?”

“You offer different kinds?”

“Yes. For example, you might enjoy some slightly used self-assurance, only utilized by a little old widow at church on Sundays. We can let you have it for a song. Can you sing?”

“No.”

“Well, then. We market a babe magnet variety which we call BMBM makes you appear taller and better looking. This is our best seller. Or perhaps you’d like political confidence. You know, the kind statesmen use to send young men into ill-conceived wars. Actually, we’re not supposed to sell the product any more because it got a bad name during the first George W. Bush administration. For you, though, I’ll make an exception.”

“How about some general confidence. Something all-purpose, to help me say no, stand up for myself, worry less, make phone calls, give speeches, not care about what people think of me. What do you say?

“Oh, that’s very expensive. Too pricey for you, for sure.”

“How much?”

“Well, first off, you must understand what we are selling. We offer only the appearance of things. So, you’ll still be troubled by uncertainty and anxiety, but nobody will recognize what you are feeling. We call the package fake it to make it confidence.

“What would the real thing cost?”

“Years of your time. You’d have to fail a lot. A lot. Over and over, until you succeed. Courage, too, which we can’t give you. The law doesn’t permit us to sell strength of character. Taking on new things would be required of you. Truth telling is necessary — not trying to fool people. Repressing fake smiles is one of the hardest tasks, along with looking into the eyes of those you talk to. So is recognizing that others are much more preoccupied with their own lives than they are with yours. Maybe the most awful thing of all is realizing you don’t matter in the big picture. People don’t want to think someday they’ll die, leaving ‘not a rack behind,’ as Bill Shakespeare used to remind me. Like I said, though, we don’t sell what you’re looking for.”

“I understand. But are you suggesting if I did all the things you enumerated, took risks, got shot down, perhaps found a cognitive-behavior therapist, fell and picked myself up, looked hard into the mirror, and recognized the shortness of life — if I did all those things, I’d eventually find real confidence — perfect confidence?”

Now, for the first time, the manager frowned. Indeed, he no longer resembled the man I thought he was, a stud-meister of complete self-possession. After another moment’s silence, he spoke.

“Oh, no. Gee. Perfect confidence, what a novel idea. I never considered the possibility. But, no, even after all the labor I mentioned, you can’t attain such a lofty state.”

“Why?”

“Simple. Nothing in life is perfect.”

The top photo is a shopping bag made from recycled materials by Trashy Bags, in Accra, Ghana and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. And, a tip of the hat to Rosaliene Bacchus, a much devoted protector of the environment: https://rosalienebacchus.wordpress.com/

 

 

Taking Yourself too Seriously and the Value of Going “Out of Your Mind”

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Right this second you are doing something worthwhile: you are not thinking about yourself.

There are usually better things to do than self-inspection. If the inward look were producing self-knowledge or healing, I’d encourage you. Too often, however, the rusty mind is just sawing wood for a building that will never be built. This is a ruinous misuse of sawdust.

We need time off from looking into the psychic house of mirrors we are trapped in: the head.

No one is the center of the world despite having been engineered to believe otherwise. Therein resides much unhappiness. Once one grasps this human design flaw, correction doesn’t require a factory recall. With a little tinkering, achieving a share of happiness becomes easier.

First, let’s define the dilemma, then address the remedies. Except for the golden few who view life as comic, we all suffer from it. As Thoreau wrote in Walden:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

We are in solitary confinement, able to see only through our eyes, and hear the internal voice alone, save an occasional hallucination.8-)

Our life is all we have, and the one perspective we are born with. No hiding place is offered, nor a different vantage point. Every event is personal in its impact, however indifferent were the fates delivering it.

Without resilience, courage, and a capacity to deflect life’s arrows or ignore the pain, the internal questioning begins. Replaying the dead past endlessly does not generate happiness. The world’s hard knocks require a rebound: a return to the game. Weeks or months of self-preoccupation only exacerbate the wound.

I am not talking about real soul-searching or the best psychotherapy, either of which can untie the ropes binding us. Nor the torment of tragedy. Rather, endless rumination that is like running around a track until the path you’ve worn becomes a deepening trench leading in a circle.

How much do we matter, really? Are we worth the self-preoccupation? Might we not do better to spend time more productively, more joyously, more helpful to ourselves or others?

Our lives come and go. The world rotates without assistance. Will rejection by a potential mate be recorded in any history book? Will winning a promotion or losing a job influence the war in Syria?

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George Elliot wrote in Middlemarch:

It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy it: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self — never to be fully possessed by the glory (of the world) we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

Approximately 360,000 births occur daily and almost 152,000 deaths. It is a wonder newborns aren’t packed and delivered by the gross on a United Parcel Service truck. We are each too common. Few of us will be remembered, even as a footnote, in 100 years’ time.

The only one who gets marked in a memorable fashion is usually the person who holds the pen and writes on his internal self, a screen to which no one else has access. He marks himself and he mars himself.

Most of us can do better. No, this doesn’t mean we must accomplish wonderful things or produce famous children.

One should recognize that most events are “below the level of tragedy except (in) the passionate egoism of the sufferer,” (again, George Elliot’s words). We are no different from our fellow-man, who might cheer our escape from a too severe view of life, and benefit by a helping hand.

Do not be ashamed if you find yourself stuck on your own internal reflection. Nature made you so. How then to take yourself less seriously?

  • Sitting alone and inactive breeds claustrophobic thoughts the way a cesspool breeds mosquitos. Get out of the house.
  • Consider reading Lucretius, an Epicurean philosopher. Epicureans have gotten a bad rap, thought to be self-indulgent louts. They did prefer pleasure over pain, but applauded honor, as well. The Stoics, including Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, are also worth attention. Their words, read as a regular discipline and reminder, may reduce feeling sorry for oneself.
  • Mindfulness meditation, if practiced daily, can put you in the moment and cut the strings to thoughts pulling you inside.
  • The Bible and other old religious texts reflect on the state of being human, even for the unfaithful. Of particular note are the “wisdom books” of the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament): Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.
  • Consider public speaking (Toastmasters) and training in improvisation. The latter develops the ability to listen and react, not stay inside your head and generate what you should say in advance.
  • Generosity with time and money in ways small and large is a method for improving your mood, the well-being of the other, and increase your focus outside yourself.
  • Socialize and laugh.
  • Make a daily list of things you are grateful for.
  • More thinking about yourself will not solve the problem of over thinking about yourself!!! This might seem obvious, but many people stuck in endless ruminations reflexively turn to more internal cud-chewing as a solution to their dilemma.
  • Examine ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) instead. This form of treatment, unlike most types of cognitive behavioral healing, engages you less “in your head,” and more through non-linguistic means including acceptance, meditation, and action.

In the end, we come back to where we started: man is not the center of the universe, he only thinks so. To realize you’re not that important is both a curse and a blessing. The humility thereby produced will allow you to experiment on yourself rather than churn inside or cower in the shadows.

Unless you are capable of making history and enduring the cost of that worthy attempt, the possibility of less self-imposed unhappiness is available. Do your part, do your best — don’t do yourself in. A quiet mind can be enhanced by finding a humble place in the world.

Then, the next time someone says you are “out of your mind,” you will smile and say thank you.

The rabbit photo is called A Bunny Too Serious, by Laura Rantala. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.