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.

Courage For the New Year

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Many of you, I suspect, have had a tough time over the holidays. Perhaps lonely, perhaps worried about what the future will bring. Many all over the world are yet unemployed or underemployed. Things have been difficult.

I offer you, therefore, an audio excerpt linked below, from a late 1941 speech given by Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during most of World War II.

I hope that it will provide some solice and some reason to believe that a better future is possible.

Things were particularly dark for England in 1940. All of continental Europe had been conquered by the Nazis and night after night, the great cities of that island nation were bombed by the Luftwaffe, Hitler’s air force. The British Empire stood alone against the Third Reich and expected a land invasion. The United States had not yet entered the War and there was no certainty that it would.

Virtually no one thought England would survive.

But Churchill did and the Nazis were defeated.

In October of 1941, still prior to the USA’s entry into the war, Churchill was asked to speak to the students of Harrow School, an independent boarding school that was his alma mater.

What he had to say applies quite well to those, even today, who might fear that worse is to come in their lives, as well as those who despair over their current condition.

Listen to the first three minutes and ten seconds and take heart.

The entire excerpt is just over four minutes long.

Once you click on the blue link just below this paragraph, look at the upper  right corner of the page. Then scroll down and click on the Speech #33 (incorrectly identified as having been given in November 1941):

BBC Winston Churchill Speech to Harrow School

The image above is Winston Churchill on Downing Street Giving His Famous ‘V’ (For Victory) Sign, June 5, 1943. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How Life is Like Climbing a Rope

File:US Navy 030822-N-3228G-011 A chief petty officer selectee climbs a 50-foot rope on the confidence.jpg

Early life is full of obstacles. Everything is new and the learning that you do in public, in front of your peers, allows for the possibility of humiliation.

Only later in life do you discover that while the challenges of adulthood are actually even more difficult, those same problems seem easier to negotiate because of the toughening derived from all the hits and misses of your formative years. The hard experience early on has made you stronger, at least if you did a reasonable job of learning things along the way.

Which reminds me of one of my high school challenges: learning how to climb a rope. In fact, life is a little bit like doing that.

References to moving up in the world abound. Everyone seems to want to get to the top.

In a high school gym of reasonable size, the rope hangs from a long distance away. My guess would be perhaps 25 feet up or more. The rope puts you in the position you have been in for much of your childhood: starting out at the bottom and spending a lot of your youth looking up — at your parents, your older siblings, your teachers, and all the things that seem impossibly out of reach because you are small.

And there you are, as the gym teacher tells you that you — yes, you — are supposed to climb the thing to the top. Today a rope, tomorrow the corporate ladder.

It is a solitary task. Just you and the rope. A little bit like you and the job of hitting a baseball, getting good SAT scores, making a career, winning a spouse. Your are on your own.

If you look at the top of the rope and think about how far away it is, how impossible is the task of getting there, you will have defeated yourself. Much like imagining how you might one day own a business or make a speech in front of hundreds of people or raise a family. Too far away and too troubling to think of until you get there, when it won’t seem so daunting after all. Of course, you don’t know that yet. Partly, because you haven’t yet climbed the rope.

If you wish, you can avoid the rope, try to pretend it’s not there, tell yourself that you don’t have to address that now. And, indeed, it will wait. The rope is very patient. Like all the problems of life, they continue to exist until we realize that we cannot escape them, that only by facing and mastering them do we really move beyond them, up and away.

No one told me or anyone in my gym class how to climb the rope. Indeed, I think that was intended to be part of the challenge. Like the rest of life, you have to be clever, think things through, watch others, and learn from experience before you can make much progress at mastering the coarse fiber that hangs there silent, implacable, and indifferent. It will not be the last time that you will confront the callousness of the world, and sometimes its disdain.

If you are anything like me, you won’t make it very far the first time you lay your hands on your threaded nemesis. You’ll worry too much, be self-conscious about those who are watching you, get stuck, slide back, and maybe suffer from rope burns as if your opponent is more than a “thing” and wants to inflict as much pain as possible. Life will do this to you too, just as you defeat yourself by over-thinking things, lacking a plan, wondering what others think of you to no good end, and “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

But then you notice something — some things that suggest you are beginning to learn. First, you realize that you can’t stop when climbing a rope or give in to your fear; there is no time for rest or you will slide back. And you must give the rope climb, and life, everything you have. Not just your arms, not just your arms and legs, but your will: the tenacity and drive that won’t allow you to accept defeat.

Just as in all of the future that waits for you, you cannot give up, but must improve or regress. The law of gravity applies to the rest of life, too.

But, once you master the rope, you will gain in confidence and know a little bit more about the world and about yourself. A knowledge that can be applied in very different and difficult situations.

Perhaps you will realize other things, as well.

First, that there will always be other “ropes.” Life has no end of them, no end of the challenges and demands with which it will present you.

And you might even recognize something else that neither the gym teacher nor the rope told you.

Getting to the top wasn’t the most important thing.

No, more important were the strain, the challenge, the pull and the crawl, the sweat, the exhilaration, and the feel of the rope in your hands and against your legs. That is, the lived-in experience of the moment.

And, just as well, the realization comes that the rope was your friend all along.

Like life itself, it had lessons to give you.

The 2003 photo above of a 50-foot rope climb was taken by Photographer’s Mate First Class William R. Goodwin and is courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Old But Useful Thoughts: a Stoic Guide to Life

The Stoic philosophers have gotten a bad rap. I know, this problem isn’t exactly as pressing as the unemployment rate, the deficit, and our military involvement in the Middle East.

I therefore beg your indulgence and hope you will read further. It just might influence how you think about life. The BP oil contamination can wait — and you can’t do anything about it anyway —  so don’t let it get the best of you, a point the Stoics would surely make.

The “bad rap” is largely the result of how we understand the word “stoic.” We define that word to refer to someone who is indifferent to emotion, deadened to pain, hardened and impassive; someone who has “killed” his feelings. But this is not what Zeno, a third century B.C. Greek philosopher had in mind when he founded his school of philosophy.

Rather, the Stoics saw that emotion could become extreme and destructive. They therefore looked to find some balance between head and heart, with the passions held in check.

More importantly, however, Stoics turned their attention to the importance of a person’s own behavior and inner life, seeking to help the individual find equanimity and satisfaction in life (in part) by not overvaluing the inessential, external things and events that crowd in on him. According to their line of reasoning, it is important to distinguish what is virtuous and important that is controllable from what is trivial and outside of one’s control. Then, by giving a paramount position to clarity of thought and self-reflection, one may achieve freedom from the excesses of anger, self-pity, jealousy, suffering, and anguish, as well as an overall sense that life hasn’t “played fair” with us.

Professor Luke Timothy Johnson has said the following about the contrast between the world view of a man like Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic “philosopher/king” of second century Rome, and our own way of thinking about “the good life:”

Marcus Aurelius was obsessed by the transitory character of all existent things. We (by contrast) take our institutions for granted. We think that life is long. We assume that we should be healthy. Marcus Aurelius spurned pleasure and sought duty. We are driven by the notions of feeling good, and the pursuit of happiness is often identified with the pursuit of pleasure. Marcus Aurelius identified freedom as a call to virtue and duty, whereas in present day America, we often think of freedom as the most radical form of individualism and doing what we like.

The Stoics would say that most of us are not free. Rather, we are slaves to making money, accumulating objects, and creating or defending a reputation. For them, “living well” didn’t mean living in the lap of luxury, but living simply, concerned with improving oneself and one’s conduct toward other men.

For these philosophers and like-minded people of today, the ups and downs of life, the illnesses, the job frustrations and relationships disappointments, and the calumnies of the jealous, not to mention death itself, are all seen as simply “in the nature of things.” Acceptance of what is “natural” and what is a normal part of the human condition is key to a Stoic’s way of taking the world as it is, not as one might wish it to be. If a Stoic is approached by someone who has suffered a reversal of fortune and is asking “Why me?” he would likely answer, “Why not you.” (Or anyone else, for that matter).

Stoics such as Seneca and Epictetus believed that by leading a virtuous life one could achieve happiness, regardless of what external misfortunes (including death) happened. This is surely farther than most of us would go, but that way of thinking does tend to normalize and minimize certain events that we consider to be “tragic.”

Those of us who live in Western Civilization run the risk of thinking that our happiness depends on how well our kids do in school (and whether they attend the “right” school), our next promotion or job title, the approval of our “betters,” making a certain amount of money or achieving an advanced social rank, and a gorgeous house in a fine neighborhood. The Stoics would say we are much too concerned with external things (rather than focusing on trying to lead a virtuous life). And, interestingly enough, contemporary psychological research tends to support the Stoics: those with tons of money are only somewhat more satisfied with life than those with just enough for the basic necessities.  Put another way, it is the striving for things outside of ourselves, the struggle to defeat or avoid the inevitable disappointments of life, that robs one of peace of mind.

In effect, the Stoics are saying that we pay too much attention to external things of little “real” value, and that in so doing we create our unhappiness, having chosen beliefs which lead us into the pain we seek to avoid.

Take an example. A parent wants his child to obtain a graduate school level education from a “good” school. The child, however, may not be of an academic bent, and doesn’t seem destined to achieve this goal, although he is otherwise a decent young man. And so the parent frets, feeling disappointment and frustration. Meanwhile, another parent, who has a similar child, doesn’t place so much value on this particular direction and doesn’t see it as an essential path for his child to follow. The first man is unhappy, the second is happy. The unhappiness is the creation of the first man’s opinion about things, it does not reside in the thing itself.  The parent is troubled because of his attachment to an idea, something that is external to him and is inessential for his contentment or the well-being of his son, however much he might think otherwise.

Now, you might think that the Stoic is unambitious and that he doesn’t try hard enough (or encourage his kids to try). Regarding the latter, I suspect that a real Stoic would value knowledge and learning and encourage the same in his child, but not make it a cause for desperation and the wringing of his hands. So, while not completely “hands off” the practical things of life, he achieves some distance from pain by thinking things through.

The Stoics desire to live in harmony with the way the world is, rather than to struggle against it. And, here again, they strive to improve themselves — their moral and intellectual state — rather than the state of their bank account or their rank in the pecking order of social and business life. In the words of Epictetus “…as the (working) material of the carpenter is wood, and that of (a sculptor is) bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person’s own life.” Thus, the philosopher attempts to attain a state of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom; and always turns back to such thoughts in a constant effort to improve himself and practice what he preaches.

Interestingly, Stoics were also way ahead of everyone else in matters of social justice. For them, slaves were seen as the equal of other men, and women were thought to have just as much capacity for rationality as men, views that were unheard of in the ancient world.

And, as you might have noticed, the Stoics were not so far off from the mindset of Zen philosophy. In particular, both recommend living “in the moment,” being aware of the transitory nature of most things that make us unhappy, and the fruitlessness of spending too much time looking back (usually with regret or nostalgia) or looking forward (often in anxiety or the uncertain hope of a better future) while the unrepeatable present moment passes by.

Here are a few quotations from three of the great Stoic philosophers. Best to read them individually and think about each one, rather than to blow through them quickly. Who knows, one or another might change your life.

“But what says Socrates? ‘One man finds pleasure in improving his land, another his horses. My pleasure lies in seeing that I myself grow better day by day.'” (Epictetus, CLIII)

“If you are told that…one speaks ill of you, make no defense against what was said, but answer, ‘He surely (didn’t know) my other faults, (or) else he would have mentioned (those as well)!” (Epictetus, CLXIX)

“What wouldst thou be found doing when overtaken by Death? If I might choose, I would be found doing some deed of true humanity, of wide import, beneficent and noble. But if I (am) not be found engaged in (anything) so lofty, let me hope at least for this…that I may be found raising up in myself that (quality) which has fallen; learning to deal more wisely with the things of sense; working out my own tranquility…” (Epictetus, CLXXXIX)

“(I learned) from Alexander the Platonic, not frequently to say to anyone that I have no leisure; nor continually to excuse (my) neglect of duties…by alleging urgent occupations.” (Marcus Aurelius, I.12)

“Every moment think steadily…to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts. And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and all self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee. Thou seest how few… things are (required), …which if a man (has in hand), he is able to live a life which flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods; for the gods on their part will require nothing more from him who observes these things.” (Marcus Aurelius, II.5)

“Do the things external which fall upon thee distract thee? Give (yourself) time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around (by external events).” Marcus Aurelius, II.7.

“Or is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. (It is) the abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of those applauding hands.” (Marcus Aurelius, IV.3)

“Do not waste the remainder of thy life in thoughts about others…For thou losest the opportunity of doing something else when thou hast such thoughts as these: ‘What is such a person doing, and why, and what is he saying, and what is he thinking of, and what is he contriving,’ and whatever else of the kind makes us wander away from our own ruling power.” (Marcus Aurelius, IV.4)

“…By all means bear this in mind, that within a very short time both thou and he will be dead and soon not even your names will be left behind.” (Marcus Aurelius, IV.6)

—“In the morning when thous risest unwillingly, let this thought be present — I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world.” Marcus Aurelius, V.1)

“Let it make no difference to thee whether thou art cold or warm, if thou art doing thy duty; and whether thou art drowsy or satisfied with sleep; and whether ill-spoken of or praised; and whether dying or doing something else. For it is one of the acts of this life; it is sufficient then in this act…to do well (with) what we have in hand.” (Marcus Aurelius, VI,1)

“The best way of avenging thyself is not to become like (the wrong-doer).” Marcus Aurelius, VI,6)

“…Keep thyself simple, good, pure, serious, free from affectation, a friend of justice, a worshiper of the gods, kind, affectionate, strenuous in all proper acts. Strive to continue to be such as philosophy wished to make thee. Reverence the gods and help men. Short is life. There is only one fruit of…this life — a pious disposition and social acts. Do everything as a disciple of Antoninus. Remember his constancy in every act which was conformable to reason, and his evenness in all things, and his piety, and the serenity of his countenance, and his sweetness, and his disregard of empty fame, and his efforts to understand things…and how he bore with those who blamed him unjustly without blaming them in return…” (Marcus Aurelius, VI, 30)

“Let not future things disturb thee, for (you will) come to them, if it shall be necessary, having…the same reason which now thou usest for present things.” Marcus Aurelius, VII,8)

“Is any man afraid of change? Why? What can take place without change?…Can anything that is useful be accomplished without change?…” (Marcus Aurelius, VII,18)

“The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.” (Marcus Aurelius, VII, 61)

“No longer talk at all about the kind of man who a good man ought to be, but be such.” (Marcus Aurelius, VIII, 16)

“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others…” (Marcus Aurelius, XII,4)

“How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life!” (XII,13)

“If it is not right, do not do it. If it is not true, do not say it.” (Marcus Aurelius, XII,17)

“(Good men) should not be afraid to face hardships and difficulties, or complain of fate; whatever happens, good men should take it in good part, and turn it to a good end. It is not what you endure that matters, but how you endure it. (Seneca, On Providence)

“Among the many splendid sayings of our friend Demetrius there is this one…’Nothing,’ he said, seems to me more unhappy than the man who has no experience of adversity.’ For he has not been allowed to put himself to the test.” (Seneca, On Providence).

“You are wrong if you think anyone has been exempted from ill; the man who has known happiness for many a year will receive his share someday; whoever seems to have been set free from this has only been granted a delay.” (Seneca, On Providence).

“What is the duty of a good man? To offer himself to fate…The soul that is earthbound and sluggish will follow the safe course; virtue takes to the heights.” (Seneca, On Providence).

“Inside (of yourself the universe has) given you every good; your good fortune is in not needing good fortune (to be happy).” (Seneca, On Providence).

“Revenge is an admission of pain; a mind that is bowed by injury is not a great mind. The man who has done the injury is either stronger than you or weaker; if he is weaker, spare him, if stronger, spare yourself.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“All of us are inconsiderate and imprudent, all unreliable, dissatisfied, ambitious…all of us are corrupt. Therefore, whatever fault he censures in another man, every man will find residing in his own heart….So let us show greater kindness to one another.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“No man will ever be happy if tortured by the greater happiness of another.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“The greatest outcry surrounds money: this is what brings exhaustion to the courts, sets fathers against children, concocts poisons, hands out swords to assassins and the legions alike; this is what wears the stain of our blood; this that makes the nights of wives and husbands noisy with quarrelling, and the crowd surge against the benches where the magistrates arbitrate; because of money, again, kings grow savage and engage in plunder, overthrowing states built by the long toil of centuries so they can rummage for gold and silver among the ashes of cities.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“…in the future have regard not only for the truth of what you say but for the question (of) whether the man you are addressing can accept the truth.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“…so long as each one of us prefers to trust someone else’s judgment rather than relying on his own, we never exercise judgment in our lives but constantly resort to trust, and a mistake that has been passed down from one hand to another takes us over and spins our ruin.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“Human concerns are not so happily arranged that the majority favors the better things: evidence of the worst choice is the crowd.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“For as far as pleasure is concerned, though it pours itself all around us and flows in through every channel, charming our minds with its blandishments, and applying one means after another to captivate us wholly or partly, who on earth, who has any trace of humanity left in him, would wish to have his senses tickled day and night and, abandoning the mind, to devote himself to the body?” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“For if a man has put himself beyond the reach of all desires, what can he lack? What need does he have of anything external, if he has concentrated all that he possesses in himself?” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“In my case, if wealth slips away, it will deprive me only of itself, but you (who value wealth too highly), will be stuck dumb, you will think you have been deserted by your own self if it leaves you; in my eyes wealth has a certain place, in yours it is center-stage; to sum up, my wealth belongs to me, you belong to yours.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“I say that wealth is not a good as it is, since something that is found among wicked men cannot be called a good; for if it was it would make men good; as it is, since something that is found among wicked men cannot be called a good, I deny it this name. But that it is desirable, that (it) is useful and confers great benefits in life, I do admit.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life.)

“It is truly said…by Curius Dentatus, that he would rather be a dead man than a live one dead; it is the worst of evils to depart from the world of the living before you die.” (Seneca, On the Tranquility of the Mind).

“Nothing, however, delights the mind as much as a loving and loyal friendship.” (Seneca, On the Tranquility of the Mind).

“Small is the part of life that we really live. All that remains of our existence is not actually life but merely time.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life).

“…the greatest waste of life exists in postponement: that is what takes away each day as it comes, that is what snatches away the present while promising something to follow. The greatest obstacle to living is expectation, which depends on tomorrow and wastes today. What lies in the hands of Fortune you deal with, what lies in your own hands you let slip. Where are you looking? Where are you bending your aim? All that is still to come lies in doubt: live here and now!” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life)

“But those who forget the past, ignore the present, and fear for the future have a life that is very brief and filled with anxiety…Their very pleasures are fearful and troubled by alarms of different kinds; at the very moment of rejoicing, the anxious thought occurs to them: ‘How long will this last?'” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life)

“No man is crushed by misfortune unless he has first been deceived by prosperity. Those who love her gifts as if they are theirs to enjoy forever, who wish to be highly regarded because of them, lie prostrate in mourning whenever these false and fickle delights abandon their vacuous and childish minds that know nothing of any lasting pleasure: but the man who has not become puffed up by happy fortune does not collapse when there is a reversal.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life)

“When you have lost one who is most dear, it is stupid indulgence to grieve endlessly, but inhuman hardness not to grieve at all.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life).

The above image is of Marcus Aurelius.

Dr. Jerry Katz: A Lesson From the Greatest Generation

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Sometimes the memory of a few minutes lingers for the rest of your life. And teaches you a profound truth about life.

Jerome (Jerry) Katz was a psychiatrist in the Chicago area some years back. Jerry died in his 70s after a very long career practicing in Chicago’s northern suburbs and in the city itself.

He was a big man with a gentle soul, despite his days as a high school football player. Someone who, at least professionally, always seemed to be at ease — an inviting smile on his face, a soothing voice, and a twinkle in his eyes — as if he knew something that the rest of us hadn’t figured out quite yet.

I didn’t know Jerry very well. It was the kind of relationship that is cordial, saying hello, passing a few words here and there, telling a joke as Jerry often did, but never much of anything more. From time to time Jerry would consult me for my diagnostic opinion about a hospitalized patient. Beyond that, I suspect we never had a conversation that lasted more than five minutes.

Except for one day.

We were sitting alone in the doctors’ cafeteria at Forest Hospital, at the time, a private psychiatric facility in Des Plaines, IL. It must have been more than 20 years ago. Uncharacteristically, no one else was around and we were undisturbed for the entire period of our lunch.

The conversation turned to Jerry’s youthful service in World War II, “the good war.” I don’t remember whether Jerry said that he was underage when he enlisted. But, like many young men of the time, he felt service was his duty and he made his way through basic training to the killing fields of France after D-Day, the Allied Invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944.

Jerry could not have been more than 17 or 18 when his view of life changed because of a single German soldier.

Katz and his unit were “dug in” that day. They’d taken a position with relatively little cover, perhaps behind some rocks, dead trees, and some hastily created earth works. It did not sound like the conventional trench of World War I, but something more ad hoc.

A German force attacked: in effect, an infantry charge. And Jerry, a strapping young man of perhaps 6’2″ did what he had been trained to do. He held his ground and fired into the oncoming assault.

Soldiers fell at a distance, but a few continued their onrush. One in particular — a towering giant of a young German — bigger even than Katz, built like a mobile fortress, and seemingly indestructible.

Jerry and his comrades kept firing, and no amount of speeding metal seemed to deter the attacker. He just kept racing toward them.

Jerry remembered the surreal nature of the event. He and his comrades had fired enough bullets to kill 20 men. But somehow they must have missed this soldier. He was now almost on top of their position and on top of Jerry.

Finally, the man lunged at Jerry with his bayonet — and collapsed, close enough for Jerry to touch the enemy and the blade intended for his flesh. Had the giant German only one more second of life, the future psychiatrist would have lost his own.

In a very real sense, Katz was touched by this combatant, because he thought this soldier would be his executioner. The man who wanted to end Jerry’s life, had instead transformed it.

“Since that day,” Jerry told me, “everything in my life — every day of my life — has been a ‘lagniappe.'”

It was a word I had not heard before. “What does that mean?” I asked.

“It’s a French expression,” he said. “It means ‘something extra.’ Like when you go into a bakery and they give you a 13th roll because you bought a dozen. A kind of gift.”

The conversation ended not long after Jerome Katz told me that story.

Like most of us, Jerry had his ups and downs in life. Heart disease was one of his challenges; a loving wife and family one of his boons.

But, when I think of Dr. Jerome Katz, I’ll always think of that story. I’ll recall how every day of his post-war life was “something extra.”

And I’ll remember how the ever-present twinkle in his eyes got there.

The image above is The British Army in the U.K. 1939-1945, which comes from the Imperial War Museum and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This is a staged bayonet-charge as part of a training exercise that took place on the Isle of Wight, August 10, 1940.

On Sacrifice

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Would you like to know who you are? Then it is essential to know what is of real value to you. One way of finding that out is by asking the question, “What would I be willing to give up for something that I claim is important to me? What would I be willing to sacrifice for love, or great wealth, or power, or honor, or for my child’s well-being?”

What we are willing to sacrifice defines us, both as individuals and as a society. But first, let’s look at what the word sacrifice means:

The on-line Merriam-Webster’s dictionary gives the following definition of the noun sacrifice:

1 : an act of offering to a deity something precious; especially : the killing of a victim on an altar
2 : something offered in sacrifice
3 a : destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else b : something given up or lost <the sacrifices made by parents>
4 : loss <goods sold at a sacrifice>

Thus sacrifice involves loss and giving something up.

In primitive societies, it often included murder.

Human sacrifice was intended most often to appease a God, win the God’s favor, or avoid the God’s wrath. Igor Stravinsky wrote a famous ballet about this, The Rite of Spring.

More recent depictions of this sort of behavior have included Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 novel, The Visit. In this story a wealthy woman (Claire Zachanassian) returns for a visit to her home town, a place that has fallen on hard times. She departed in disgrace many years before when she was impregnated by her young lover. This person denied the charge of paternity and bribed two people to support his case by claiming that they had been intimate with her. Shamed by the townsfolk, Claire eventually turned to prostitution.

Her return home is noteworthy for a “proposition” she has for the town where her former lover continues to live as a respected businessman. She will bequeath an enormous sum to the hamlet if it will do one simple thing: put to death the man who caused her disgrace. In effect, the book asks the question of what this woman is willing to sacrifice for revenge (her money, her morality) and what the town’s people are willing to give up for money. The movie of the same name starred Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn.

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More recently, a very different sort of sacrifice is depicted in a 1967 episode of the original Star Trek TV series, The City on the Edge of Forever. While in an irrational state, the ship’s physician enters a time portal on an alien planet, one that takes him back to 20th century USA in the midst of the Great Depression.

At the instant that this happens, the Enterprise starship disappears from its orbit of the world on which the time portal exists. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, already on the planet in pursuit of Dr. McCoy, recognize that he must have altered history in such a way as to result in a universe in which their space vehicle never existed.  Kirk and Spock therefore enter the time portal themselves at a moment in history slightly before they believe that McCoy reached 20th century earth, in order to prevent whatever action he took that changed subsequent events.

While back in time, Kirk and Spock meet a social worker named Edith Keeler, who runs a soup kitchen for the down-and-out victims of the Depression. Soon, Mr. Spock uses his technological prowess to discover that Dr. McCoy will eventually have something to do with Edith Keeler herself.

In one possible historical thread, Spock finds a newspaper obituary for her. In another, however, he discovers that she will lead a pacifist movement that delays the USA’s entry into World War II, resulting in Hitler’s victory and the very alteration of events that prevented creation of the star fleet of which the Enterprise starship is a part. Thus, in order to create the more benign future known to the three officers, Edith Keeler must die.

There is only one complication. Captain Kirk and Edith Keeler (played by Joan Collins) have fallen in love.

The climatic moment comes when Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk see each other across the street for the first time on 20th century earth. As they rush to reunite, Edith Keeler (on a date with Kirk), attempts to cross the street to join them, heedless of the fact that a fast-moving truck is headed toward her. The doctor attempts to rescue Kirk’s love, but is restrained by Kirk from doing so. Edith Keeler is killed.

The heartbreak is heightened by the incredulous McCoy’s indictment of his captain and friend: “I could have saved her…do you know what you just did?.” Unable to speak, Kirk turns away while Mr. Spock says quietly, “He knows, Doctor. He knows.” Thus, Kirk has sacrificed Edith Keeler’s life and his own happiness, to prevent her from actions that would have led to world enslavement by the Third Reich.

I have always been troubled that two of the most important biblical stories involve human sacrifice. The tale of Abraham and Isaac finds the former, the founder of the Jewish faith and monotheism, asked to sacrifice his son Isaac in order to prove his devotion to God. As he prepares to do this, an angel appears and stays his hand. A lamb is slaughtered instead. Rembrandt depicted this beautifully in the painting reproduced above.

Remember now, that I’m a psychologist. I cannot look at this painting without wondering what the child Isaac might be thinking and feeling in the aftermath of this moment. How will his relationship with his father be changed? Might there have been other possible ways of testing Abraham without permanently scarring his son?

The foundation story of Christianity poses a virtually identical dilemma, with the sacrifice of Jesus to pay for the sins of humanity. I fear that we are so used to abstracted representations of these events, that we have become inoculated against the trauma depicted by them and the human, societal, and theological implications of such horrors, reportedly authorized by God.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/45/Michelangelo_Caravaggio_022.jpg/500px-Michelangelo_Caravaggio_022.jpg

Of course, most of our sacrifices are much less dramatic. Do we give up eating what we might want in order to be fit and live a longer and healthier life? Do we brush off the attractive member of the opposite sex who “comes on” to us, in order to maintain our marital fidelity, avoid injuring our spouse and children, and keep whole our integrity? Do we sacrifice time having fun or attempting to climb the career ladder in order to go to our child’s boring orchestral recital and enduring hours of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” played by tiny violinists, all of whom are out of tune?

I’m sure you can imagine many more such choices and sacrifices of your own.

We make decisions, all of us, about the question of national sacrifices too. Jobs vs. clean air, tax cuts vs. social services, giving to charity vs. keeping the money for ourselves, liberty vs. the promise of security, and most poignant of all, the decision of when war is necessary despite the sacrifice of the unlived lives of our young adult children.

Just as an exercise, you might want to make a list of all those things you spend time on that are inessential, all the things that you could live without if it came to something really important.

Or, still another exercise: if you could only take 10 things or 10 people with you to a desert island, who or what would they be and who or what would you leave behind? And what cause would be great enough for you to agree to go to a desert island in the first place?

Who are we as a nation? Who are you as a person?

We might know more about our country and ourselves if we first ask what we are willing (and unwilling) to sacrifice.

The top image is the Sacrifice of Isaac by Rembrandt. The second picture, taken by Michael Gäbler, is of Adi Holzer’s hand colored etching Abrahams Opfer from 1997. Finally, Caravaggio’s version of the same scene Die Opferung Isaaks from 1594-96, sourced via the Yorck Project. All of the above come from Wikimedia Commons.