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.

Signs of Insecurity: Behavior That Reveals a Lack of Confidence

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

Dr. Gerald Stein

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

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

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

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Thomas John Henek: Memorial Day Thoughts on the Complexity of a Life

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Though a courageous man, you won’t find Tom Henek’s name in a history book. He represents the “the greatest generation” who fought in World War II (so named by Tom Brokaw), along with some of the deficiencies of mankind — especially those men who lived in mid-twentieth century America. Regarding history books, he would be in any autobiographical one I might write because I married one of his children.

I never met Thomas Henek. He died two years before I fell in love with his daughter, Aleta, who is still my wife. Yet, as I have come to hear stories about him, I think he is worth describing because of the complexity he represents to those of us who might prefer black or white, good or bad, without the grays of human experience. So, if you’d like to know what being a “man’s man” meant back in the day, I invite you to observe one such individual of personal integrity but clear deficits. If you recognize both of these qualities, I hope it will lead you to witness the convolutions in all those around you, including one of the people you know best and perhaps least: yourself.

Born in Chicago in 1910, Tom Henek’s parents emigrated here from Poland. The City of Chicago once claimed the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw. Tom’s father was a well-to-do business man who purchased two empty lots, upon one of which he built his home. Mr. Henek owned two cars when most people didn’t even have one. Prosperity, however, can be a fleeting thing, as the family discovered after their father’s fatal pneumonia in the 1920s, well before the Great Depression.

Tom was the third of seven children, six boys and a girl. Their father’s death pushed the three oldest, all male, to quit school and go to work. Thirteen or so at the time, Tom completed only seven-and-a-half years of formal education. He worked for the same company most of his life, becoming a lithographer with a specialty in embossing fine leather book covers, a demanding job requiring attention to detail.

The family’s original name was Heineck or Hynek, German or German-sounding despite the family’s Polish identity. Tom’s parents changed their surname when anti-German sentiment swept the USA during World War I. Yet the father was not one to hide from predicaments. The parish priest and one of his married parishioners were having an affair and some in his flock, like Mr. Henek, knew it.

Tom’s dad confronted this fake holy man, who warned him to mind his own business. Mr. Henek didn’t. He removed all his children from Catholic schools and placed them in the public school system because the same priest taught them weekly lessons in morality. Tom’s father couldn’t reconcile the idea of this immoral man lecturing his kids about Godly conduct.

His next step further alienated him from the church institution. Tom’s dad went up the chain of religious command, at each stage told he should keep his mouth shut “or else.” Undeterred, he continued his attempt to remove the priest until the church excommunicated this “trouble maker,” not the guilty party. When Tom’s father died the church refused burial in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery.

Henek’s mom had not been a supporter of what she claimed to be her husband’s attack on her faith. The emotional tone of family life changed dramatically after the dad’s demise. The mother continued to believe in the absolute virtue of the church.

Her third born son, Tom, did not. Young T.H. learned his father’s lesson of trying to be just and, though he believed in God, viewed any place of worship organized by men to be a flawed entity. He eventually stopped attending services, putting himself at odds with his mom. “I believe religion and faith in God are good, it’s just too bad people don’t live by the rules. God knows whether you are a good person or not,” he told his older daughter years later.

This youth became a defender of the underdog. He did not hold to his mom’s belief that all things Polish or Catholic were, by definition, the best. Born in America, he said he was American first. He judged no one by the color of his skin, his national origin, his faith or lack thereof. When he saw a fight, especially one person bullying another, Tom would try to break it up. This short (5’6″), stocky (170 pounds,) powerfully built, black-haired man didn’t leave such things to someone else. He took responsibility.

Ironically, the parish priest who had been his father’s nemesis gave a deathbed confession to the priest administering last rites. The latter, a genuinely holy man, reported the injustice done to Tom’s progenitor. The church reburied the elder Henek’s body in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery.

Tom’s working life was not all sweetness and light. The factory’s environment was dangerous and the unhappy men of the factory attempted to unionize.

Although Tom didn’t lead the movement, he joined in, believing the cause just. The bosses alerted the Chicago Police and paid some off in order to get them to break up the picketing that occurred. For his participation, Tom, more than once, earned a billy club to the head and a night or two in jail. Nonetheless, the union prevailed and working conditions improved.

The USA entered World War II in December of 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan. Many young Americans volunteered to serve, Mr. Henek among them, entering the US Army on March 27, 1942. Thirty-one-years-old, he would not have been drafted at that point in the conflict. Indeed, excluded from the infantry, he took the job of “heavy truck driver” transporting supplies and ammunition needed at the front. He married the love of his life, a red-haired beauty named Helen Grigalunas, before being sent to Europe.

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Tom Henek and his best friend in the service took turns driving their truck. One day, with Tom at the wheel, a sniper fired a bullet through the head of the buddy sitting just beside him. Tom kept going. He had drawn the lucky card of survival, the same card whose opposite face pictured horror, loss, and perhaps survivor guilt. His children say he never talked about the War, but his wife told them he had nightmares, as do many who endure battle. Though discharged from the Army on November 25, 1945, those memories lived inside of him for the rest of his days.

My wife’s father smoked cigarettes from an early age, as a large part of his generation did, and enjoyed an occasional drink with his buddies. His other major vice was gambling. Like most gamblers, losing trumped winning, but the young family subsisted and bought a tiny house in Franklin Park, IL where his wife lived for many years after her husband died. Siblings helped to pay off his debts. Yet when confronted about betting and smoking by his spouse he said that since they didn’t hurt anyone else he believed it permissible to enjoy them. Clearly, the face he put on his gambling ignored the family’s modest living circumstances and the imposition on his siblings. Addiction? Entitlement? Denial? Perhaps.

Back then, of course, second-hand smoke effects hadn’t been investigated, but on January 11, 1964 the government issued the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health based on more than 7000 research articles accumulated over the years. Moreover, as early as 1957, Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney authorized the official position of the U.S. Public Health Service recognizing a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer. Thus, Mr. Henek effectively dismissed the danger to himself and the potential for emotional and financial suffering to his family.

Blind spots. We all have them. Some are big, others tiny, but one usually needs an outside perspective to see them clearly, as Tom Henek did not. Look in the mirror and perhaps you will view someone else with a few.

My wife and her sister Tomi remember Henek’s response to the predicament of a neighbor and schoolmate. Let’s call her Polly. This young woman “got in trouble,” a euphemism for out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The lover was the girl’s former teacher, who waited until the 18-year-old graduated to have the affair. Her father (one of Tom’s drinking buddies), told her to get out of the house and never return.

Tom Henek became incensed by his friend’s behavior. He walked over to his buddy’s abode and “chewed him out,” another old expression like “giving him hell.” T.H. told him not to throw Polly out of the home, but rather to embrace and help her in the moment of her greatest need. Tom pointed out the imperfections of his friend and lectured him on judging this teenager in light of his own defects. And, he said, “If you don’t allow her to live with you, I’ll bring her into my place and support her.” The lecture worked and the father of the pregnant girl permitted her to continue to stay with her own family.

That was the kind of person Mr. Henek was. A man who got off a long, late night train ride to downtown Chicago in a winter blizzard with my wife-yet-to-be when she was 13 or 14. Aleta’s mom and slightly younger sister Tomi were there too, returning from a family visit to Helen’s relatives in LaSalle, IL. Cabs were scarce and it took him about an hour before he found one. Just then a young woman with an infant in her arms turned up, a slightly older daughter following behind in the snow drifts, while the mom dragged her luggage with a hand only partially free. She too needed a taxi. Tom offered the ride to the young mother for fear the cold would harm her newborn. No other cab could be expected any time soon. Again, nothing to put on a monument, but something that counts for a lot, at least to my wife and her sister. By the way, my sister-in-law, Tomacine, was named after her dad.

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The father-in-law I never met was the rare person who changed his political thinking based on evidence. A veteran of “the good war,” as Studs Terkel called WWII, Tom instinctively sided with the US intervention in Vietnam. But as the body count mounted growing numbers of protesters doubted the “domino theory” predicting the loss of  S.E. Asia to Communism — the rationale for U.S. military involvement in a small country over 7000 miles from San Francisco. The Gulf of Tonkin incident that justified our military escalation proved as questionable as “Weapons of Mass Destruction” would later be in Iraq. Tom Henek began to change his mind. My wife remembers political conversations in which T.H. no longer defended the aggression. He was a person who knew, too well, the real cost of wartime. Over 58,000 American men and many more Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, died in a conflict that continued long after Mr. Henek’s death.

Like many males in Tom’s day and even today, doctors are scary people. A man who faced enemy fire did not want to face a friendly M.D. Perhaps he believed “real men” didn’t go to physicians. Tom would not have been alone in such thinking. In the mid-1960s Mr. Henek started to cough frequently and all three women in the home spotted blood stains on his underwear when they did laundry. He ignored his family’s pleas to get checked out. Increased alcohol use did not kill the growing pain. Finally, a man who never missed work was so depleted that he collapsed at home and called in sick. Testing led to the diagnosis of metastatic lung cancer: treatment might delay, but not prevent his death.

It was Christmas time, 1967, and Tom told the doctors who recommended immediate radiation of his desire to spend his last Christmas with his family and be hospitalized thereafter. I will spare you most of the details. He rallied for a time in the approximately six months remaining to him and spent several weeks at home. During the last three weeks, however, while not unconscious, Thomas was bleary-eyed and unable to speak or move. Whether he knew the date or understood what was said to him is unknown. Death came on June 15, 1968 at age 57, the day after his wife’s birthday. His widow Helen cried herself to sleep every night for over a year.

My wife describes her dad as “the kind of man whom everyone wished to have as a friend, the salt of the earth.” Thomas Henek’s funeral drew hundreds, rather remarkable for a man who attended church only if he had been invited to a wedding there, especially in those days when weekly attendance was expected. Nor have I mentioned his sense of humor. For all his flaws, he raised two daughters who became fine and accomplished women and never but once laid a hand on either of them in anger, so horrified was he at the single (non-injurious) spank he gave to his first born’s diapered bottom.

There you have the life of Thomas John Henek: soldier, father, hero, husband, gambler, craftsman, smoker, defender of the underdog, and friend. A man much-loved. Complicated, isn’t it? We are imperfect and human, which is certainly redundant. Care to judge Tom Henek? I’m just grateful to know his story and regret I never had the chance to thank this man for his part in bringing my wife (and, therefore, also my children) into the world.

The top image is the confirmation photo of Thomas John Henek. The next picture is his wife, Helen. The final photo shows Downtown West, Minneapolis, MN, USA, 12/12/2010. The author is Nic McPhee. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

In Honor of Jay Perman: Speech to the Mather High School Class of 2011 on Behalf of the Zeolite Scholarship Fund

Jay A. Perman

It isn’t very often in life that you meet someone who does good and who is good. But today, you will get a chance to meet such a man and it will be in his name that we will make scholarship awards to a few of you.

He is a leader who does not glory in his leadership. He is a healer who works for the good of his patients and for the common good as the head of a great university. And he is a friend who has not forgotten his old friends.

The man is Dr. Jay Perman and all of us up here and in the first two rows are proud to say that we were his classmates.

Here at Mather.

Forty-seven years ago.

Not exactly yesterday.

All of us represent the Zeolite Scholarship Fund and graduated from Mather in June of 1964 or January of 1965.

Like you, most of us didn’t have very much money.

Like you, most of us had parents or grandparents who came here from another country.

And like you, most of us were more than a little unsure of what was possible for us in the future.

Jay’s parents came to Chicago from 5000 miles away in Eastern Europe and struggled to make ends meet. When Jay was in his first year in high school his father died. Thereafter, Jay’s mom supported the family by working as a seamstress, paid by the number of hats she completed in a day.

Jay is probably the only Mather graduate in history to become the President of a major university, in Jay’s case, the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

That school is about 700 miles east of Mather. But the interesting thing is, that in order to go from being a student at Mather to becoming the President of the University of Maryland, you have to travel an even greater distance.

It is not like the distance of an airplane flight from here to there.

It is not like the distance that Jay’s parents traveled from the Ukraine to Chicago.

Rather, it is the distance in here (your head), between where you are now and what you can imagine might be possible in your future.

And it is the distance in here (your heart), when you set your heart’s aim on what seems like an impossibly far away goal and give everything you have to achieve it.

It is easy, too easy for you sitting in this auditorium, to think that nothing very special will be possible for you.

It is easy, too easy, to think about the difficult economic conditions that prevail in the world today, and wonder if you will even be able to make a living.

In other words, it is easy to give up — too soon.

Let me tell you a story about that.

Two shoe salesmen were sent to Africa about 100 years ago by two different British shoe companies. Back then, Africa was a very primitive place and these men were sent to the most primitive parts of it.

The salesman from the first company wrote back to his home office in despair: “SITUATION HOPELESS. PEOPLE DON’T WEAR SHOES HERE!”

The second salesman also contacted his office, but his message was rather different: “GLORIOUS OPPORTUNITY. THE PEOPLE HERE DON’T HAVE SHOES YET!”

The point is, sometimes things depend on how you look at them.

If, like Jay Perman, you have talent, courage, and the imagination to see what might be possible for you, then, just maybe, you can become a pediatrician, as Jay is, and eventually a university president.

Sometimes thinking it is possible, makes it possible.

All of us here are waiting, putting some of our money in the form of scholarship awards for a few of you, betting on the possibility that you will do something both great — and good.

And if you do, your classmates will be as proud of you as we are… of Jay Perman.

The photo of Dr. Jay Perman above is sourced from the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

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

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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.