Feeling Too Much or Too Little: The Emotional Tightrope in Life and Performance

Korean_mask-Hahoe_mask-02

The charming 16-year-old could not watch the news. She was depressed, but not the victim of misfortune. Her parents had not mistreated her, life had not singled her out for unfairness. Rather, she was exquisitely sensitive to the pain of the human condition, to its terror — to the thousand little and big hurts, even those suffered by strangers. The news, with its roll-call of daily disaster, was unbearable.

All of this seemed in her nature, not her nurture.

For those of us not so fragile, there is a choice: how much of life do we let in (with its possibility of pleasure and risk of pain) and how much do we screen out to protect ourselves. Therapy patients, performers, and fictional characters display a range of answers. They are the subject of this essay.

The teen I mentioned was moved by art more than most, particularly those works that captured passing beauty and inevitable loss. The music of Mahler and late Schubert were on her list, along with the authors Virginia Woolf, Audrey Niffenegger, John Irving, and Julian Barnes.

Should this sound too sad, then I will tell you something else: the young woman was truly alive, not so numbed and deadened as the adamant stones that some of our fellow humans become. She perceived drama in commonplace events, while for most of the rest of us, those happenings pass unremarkably.

If we are lucky, our lives might be described as “balanced.” Our psychic doors are open enough to experience at least a partial glimpse of the dazzle and wonder of life, even if pain still finds entry points we hope to have limited to a degree. Indeed, in the music of Mahler and Schubert, my patient found both pleasure and pain.

Are most of us too defended against life and its inevitable disappointment and injury? By comparison to this troubled girl, do we risk a muted and gray existence? Does self-protection come at the cost of becoming unsympathetic to the misfortune around us and insensitive to the overwhelming sensuality of life, as well?

Princeton University psychologist Susan Fiske and her colleagues have evaluated something akin to these questions. Research participants reacted to a variety of photos. She and Lasana Harris predicted their experimental subjects would respond by dehumanizing extreme outgroups like the homeless. Pictures of those individuals produced a type of brain activation typical of disgust — the same kind of cerebral response characteristic of viewing objects, not people. Perhaps, unlike the sixteen-year-old mentioned before, some of us protect our emotions by responding to fellow humans as things. The evidence of history indicates disgust with such “Untermenschen” can lead to casual mistreatment and much worse.

A performance given by the storied English singer Kathleen Ferrier (seen in the newsreel above) and the conductor Bruno Walter illustrates part of our human dilemma: the tension between feeling too much or too little.

A 1947 Edinburgh Festival rendition of Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) was the occasion. This hour-long song-symphony portrays the transient beauties of life and concludes in a 30 minute Abschied (Farewell), to a friend and to life itself, based on ancient Chinese poetry.

The work’s last moments are a whisper of exquisite, heart-rending beauty as the singer reflects on the fact that while human life passes away, the world itself will bloom anew in spring forever. The last word — “forever” or “eternally” (“ewig” in German) — recurs several times, more and more muted against the fading consolation of the orchestra.

According to Neville Cardus, a critic for the Manchester Guardian, Ferrier was “unable to enunciate (at least some of) the closing words.” Moved by the music, she broke down.

Ferrier would soon became a celebrated singer in a life shortened by cancer, but she was then new to this music and in awe of Bruno Walter, the 70-year-old conductor who had been the composer’s disciple and given the work its world première in 1911. Cardus tells the story of his arrival backstage after the curtain calls:

I took courage and forced my way into the artists’ room, where I introduced myself to this beauteous (unself-consciously beauteous) creature. As though she had known me all her life she said: ‘I have made a fool of myself, breaking down like that.’

When Walter came into the room she went to him, apologizing. He took her hands, saying: ‘My child, if we had all been artists like you, we should every one of us have broken down.’

For Cardus, it was one of the greatest, most life-changing performances he heard in a long career as a music critic.

Ferrier achieved this without every last word — the rare occasion when an artist triumphs over an important rule: to have emotional expression and emotional control, thus enabling the audience to experience the feelings without restraint.

It is ironic that to recreate emotions one must, to some degree, constrain them; never forgetting she is a singing actress playing a part and not her offstage self or a member of the audience. Ferrier’s failure to observe the rule caused her embarrassment, no matter the generosity of Bruno Walter’s consoling words.

Those of us who are not artists confront our own version of the same dilemma Ferrier faced: emotional control threatening to mute life’s music and dull its pleasures versus emotions undermining the ability to live, and leaving one unprotected from “The Heart-ache and the thousand Natural shocks that Flesh is heir to,” as Hamlet said.

In the theater, the dilemma is depicted in Peter Schaffer’s play Equus, where the audience exits the performance wondering whether the destructive, super-heated intensity of a teenager’s uncontrolled feelings are, perhaps, less a problem than the bound-up, dryly analytic, over-controlled existence of the psychiatrist who treats him.

The Original Poster for the German Film,

The Original Poster for the German Film, “The Lives of Others”

The 2006 Academy Award winning film, The Lives of Others, offers still another example. Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi (East German Secret Police) officer, begins the movie as a friendless man, deadened to everything except his duty. His superior gives him the task of monitoring a playwright. Closely observing the rich intellectual, social, and romantic life of this artist both enlightens the officer and opens up his emotions.

While Wiesler acquires this vulnerability at great cost, he also becomes capable of enlivened human contact and empathy.

What, then, are we left with in this consideration of human emotion?

Dyscontrol, routine. Intensity, flatness. Sentiment versus stoicism.

Over sensitive, insensitive. Excitability versus indifference. Empathy versus disgust.

Dazzled, dulled. Passionate, sterile. Open, closed. Vulnerable, safe.

Or walking the knife’s edge in between.

Your choice.

The first image includes Korean Hahoe Masks. The author is Julie and the photo was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Reality TV: From “Queen for a Day” to “Dating Naked”

How much of others’ misery can you stand? How much of their success? How much of their sexuality?

Television has an answer for us, but more about that a little later. First, let’s look at our private responses to the fluctuating fortunes of ourselves and others.

Dan Greenburg and Marcia Jacobs in How to Make Yourself Miserable, recommend your life should stay within the “Acceptable Failure Range.” Exceeding the limits in either direction — repeated success or endless unhappiness — will alienate some people, so the authors tell us, tongue in cheek?

I’m comfortable with this idea. Few wish to fall into the shadow of a friend who glories in his achievements. You know the type — towering SAT scores, career victories, and trendy restaurant visits are not just reported but repeated.

If the old saying, “Misery loves company” is true, one should limit being too full of yourself and your good fortune around friends.

Others in a fraught personal moment hesitate to describe their raw misfortune for fear of stressing out their social network. They anticipate compassion fatigue and expect to be shunned — the “Debbie Downer” of their group. USA society encourages an upbeat, “can do” attitude and expects us to “move on.”

We have an ambivalent relationship to fortune’s two-faced coin. First we separate the people we know well from everyone else. A different set of rules applies to each of these groups.

A celebrity’s high-flown lifestyle might intrigue us rather than generate jealousy, but headlined heartache is addictive so long as harm doesn’t happen to someone for whom we care.

A calamity in Uzbekistan is one thing. Distance is built-in. The disaster is both out there, thousands of miles away; and “in there” — inside the TV set. Moreover, when the media inundate us with tragedy stacked liked chipped dishes one upon another, the individual damage of each one makes little impression.

The lives of others — their “reality” — no longer seems quite real once we have become habituated to it. Our unconscious defenses protect us from recognizing that, we too, are subject to the sword of a savage Fate, both random and indifferent. In effect, the broadcast disaster is like a stage play, entertaining but soon forgotten.

That is, unless your brother-in-law calls with a message so painful even the smartphone is stupefied.

The 1950s first revealed our fascination with the sad lives of strangers, unrecognized until a national network TV program called “Queen for a Day” became a hit. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, public sorrow was thought unseemly except at funerals. QFAD turned forbidden self-disclosure into entertainment. A forerunner of the ubiquitous reality TV of today, the show featured “real people” (women who were not celebrities) telling the emcee the unfortunate circumstances of their lives and sometimes breaking down while doing so.

This was preceded by an unconscionably upbeat welcome from the host, Jack Bailey, a pencil-mustached man with glistening black hair and the attitude of Harold Hill in The Music Man: a fast talker far too cheerful and insincere for the occasion, whose pores oozed Hill’s flim-flam slipperiness. Four “contestants” sat behind him, all looking as if they awaited crucifixion, chests heaving, scarcely in emotional control. Each was about to bare her tragedy to a theater/restaurant audience of ladies having lunch with a side-order of Schadenfreude, the German word that describes our amused, but guilty reaction to watching someone else slip on a banana peel.

Queen_for_a_Day

This was pre-civil rights television. White women desperate enough to endure this humiliation were asked what they would like if crowned; usually medical equipment or household appliances.

Once all the tragedies had been recited Jack Bailey requested applause for the opponents in the order in which he’d interviewed them. A meter registered the audience’s measure of their pain’s sufficiency. Sort of like a latter-day Roman Colosseum, the spectators determined who among the lady “gladiators” got a “thumbs up.” The program was some form of “See if you can top this,” with each contestant hoping to surpass her competitors in terms of desperation and heartbreak, diseased children and poverty.

Once coronated, the “Queen” was robed and seated on a makeshift throne to the tune of “Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March #1, better known as high school graduation processional music. Her majesty then received not just the requested item, but a carload of other things, often including a vacation.

I can only imagine how the losers felt, having once again been consigned to the anonymous trash heap of human misery. Perhaps they wondered, “Wasn’t my life bad enough?” Defeat added to their already long list of disappointments, despite a few consolation prizes.

The TV writer Mark Evanier called this program “one of the most ghastly shows ever produced,” further finding it “tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting and utterly degrading to the human spirit.” A confession here: I viewed it as a kid.

Of course, the misfortune itself was not demeaning. But, the fact that these women had to plead for and parade their need in front of a national audience and strangers nearby — all in the hope of some material reward (however, necessary) — was lamentable. The discomfort of the contestants was not disguised. To add to the irony, they were surrounded by beautiful models in skimpy outfits, all wearing their own crowns. Every one of them looked ready for the Miss Universe bathing suit competition. Compared to these youthful and comely human stage props, the rest resembled victims of a recent mugging. The objectification of all the featured females, from the leggy sexuality of Bailey’s nameless assistants to the throw-away dismissal of the three losers, was appalling.

Many of today’s reality TV “stars” require no such financial incentives to lay bare (sometimes literally) whatever is most personal in this more shameless moment in history. TV channel VH1 debuted a new series called “Dating Naked” on July 17th. Three couples quickly go on nude dates in this cut-rate version of the Bachelor/Bachelorette enterprise. Surely this is the final defeat of mystery in romance. To their credit, the producers blurred the naughty parts and included contestants who look like real people, not models.

Think about it. We are scandalized if someone finds a way to watch women in the shower room without their knowledge. We find it outrageous, and welcome the legal prosecution of the “Peeping Toms” who do this. Yet, when the TV reality participants agree to national emotional or physical nakedness, many of us salivate in anticipation. Yes, there is a difference between the “Toms” and the rest of us, but not in terms of our curiosity and prurient interest in behavior once thought of as private. Are we better off today than before “Queen for a Day” led the way to “Dating Naked?”

In fairness, “Queen for a Day” wasn’t the real starting point. One could go back to the gory glory of the Roman Colosseum, whose inaugural games in the first century A.D. are said to have involved the slaughter of 9000 animals in hunts staged before tens of thousands. We know about the gladiatorial contests of the time, while boxing matches and bull fights continue in the present day.

People can and should learn from the lives of others — what to do and what not to do. What seems a shame — but oh, so human — is our penchant for paying attention to things from which we can learn little. A more charitable stance, however, is to recognize we need the distraction. “Gapers’ blocks” produced by “rubbernecking” happen despite knowing we are contributing to a traffic jam. By comparison to “Dating Naked,” actions worth emulating are usually quiet, private, and boring. The class clown gets us to laugh, while the valedictorian goes home and reads.

Having said all that, should you dare, you can witness various episodes of the show that picked up and transformed the voyeurism of the Colosseum and adapted it for television. The YouTube link at the top of the essay includes a complete 1956 QFAD show. When it is over, you might think a second about today’s reality entertainment and the Roman audience 2000 years ago. For me, there is one conclusion: Darwin was wrong!

The publicity photo of Jack Bailey and his “Queen For A Day” assistants was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by We hope.

Man’s Humanity to Man

This will be short, but important to those sensitive to the human condition. It is about our basic humanity and responsibility to respect our fellow-man.

I came upon the brief video below while reading a blog written by a thirty-something New York City area English teacher who is struggling with infertility. Her blog, The Empress and the Fool, is very much worth your attention, especially her recent post, Resolve to Know the Capacity of the Human Heart.

It is the video, however, that is my focus today. I’ve written before about the problem of the street people we see every day in any big city like Chicago. How do we look at these nameless people? What do we do when they importune us for money? How much respect or conversation or eye contact do we have with them? What do we think about them? You can read or reread that post here: On Giving to Street People.

What follows in the video is the answer to all those questions from the perspective of one homeless man who tries to survive in the area of Chicago’s downtown Metra station, the railroad that brings suburbanites like me into the city at the Union Station stop west of the Loop. I will say no more about it, because the dignified man who is interviewed says it all. If you’ve enjoyed anything I’ve written before today, I have a favor to ask of you:

Watch and listen to Ronald Davis:

 

 

“I’m Still So in Love:” Why We Must Give Up the Ghost

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e2/Unioncemetery02.jpg

Some patients haunt your memory.

I recall treating a teenager who had lost her father suddenly.  It had actually been many years since he died, but she remained cut-off from the world and her family.

Friends were kept at a distance, her mother was pushed away, and her stepfather was never permitted to come close to her, try us he might.

Never ever.

Her mother and mom’s second husband worried about her self-isolation, so they brought her in to see me.

As the treatment progressed, I discovered that this young woman thought about her father a lot.

Every day.

She would review the memories that she still retained of his kindness and warmth.

Of course, I’d never met him, but I got the sense that she had idealized him — fashioned her memory so as to make him a vision of perfection that no flesh and blood mortal can hope to achieve.

And the recollected reproduction of her father, almost like a ghost, remained the most intimate connection of her life.

Not just historically, but even while I was treating her.

In fact, sometimes she would talk to him; one way, naturally, since she was not psychotic. And that provided her with a kind of closeness that was the best she could do to recreate the comfort that her dad had provided when this young woman was little.

As the protagonist states in Robert Anderson’s play I Never Sang For My Father, sometimes “death ends a life, but not a relationship.”

The people — the real people who reached out to my patient — found her unresponsive. They could not compare — could not compete — with the vanished flawlessness of her dad; an excellence that, after all, probably never existed in the first place, however dedicated and fine a man he might have been.

Moreover, her “relationship” with her father was safe: the dead cannot die on you; or reject you; or move away. They are utterly reliable and totally benign, unlike the rest of us.

As most of us do, my patient had been trying to protect herself from the injuries that life delivers from without, but left unguarded those equally tender places that are open to the wounds that come from within.

When a child loses a parent early on, she often loses the surviving parent, as well.

No, not to death, but to grief. Having lost a spouse, the surviving despondent parent (more often than not) is unavailable to aid the children. She is too bereft herself to be able to be the life-giving, supportive, attentive, omnipresent presence that children sometimes need a parent to be.

Worst of all, it is precisely at this time of loss that the child needs the surviving parent most desperately. And, it is at precisely this time that the remaining parent is least available and least capable of giving what he or she might wish to give, if only he or she could.

The result is a double-loss: one dead parent and another who is, for a time at least, a dead man walking, the half-alive state that we all know from the shock and privation and emptiness of a broken heart; a heart that one cannot imagine will ever heal.

It is no one’s fault, certainly not that of the grieving adult. Rather, this is just one of those dreadful ironies of the human condition: in the moment of loss and for some time after, the now-single parent has no capacity to do what must be done.

But the child needs that impossible thing, all the same.

Once I came to understand that my patient was still in a relationship with her father, her therapeutic needs became clear.

She needed to grieve the loss of her father to a satisfactory conclusion — a grieving that had been prevented by her fear of bringing up her own loss with her mother as much as her mother’s inability to console her child.

She needed to realize that she had put her life on hold by clinging to a ghost who, of course, could only provide so much warmth.

She needed to open herself to a stepfather who longed to engage her, even if he could not be the plaster saint her father had become; and the peers who were ready to provide their own rewards, even if they could not replace her dad.

The therapy worked out well.

My patient did not so much lose her relationship to her deceased father as let him go to a different place in her memory and in her heart.

It helped for her to answer the question, “What would your father want for you if only he could tell you?” Because the only answer he would have given (and she knew this) was that the beloved father of her dreams would want the best for her; and for her to reattach to life and to the people who could give her something that he could not.

After all, he was dead.

And so, she said goodbye to him. At last, she let him die.

So that, finally, she could live.

The photo above is of ectoplasmic mist at Union Cemetary, CT on 10/29/2004 by 2112guy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Father’s Day (via Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago)

This is a revised and expanded version of a post I wrote two years ago about my father.

Father's Day Father’s Day can be complicated. Like any day of honor, some tributes are deserved more than others, or not at all. Some obligations are carried out with joy, while others are a matter of dutiful routine. And sometimes there is pain, where once there was (or should have been) pleasure. But, for myself, Father’s Day is pretty simple. While I miss my dad (who died 11 years ago), the sense of loss is no longer great. He was 88 when he stroked-out in … Read More

via Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago

Parenting: When Love is Not Enough

madame roulin with her baby marcelle by vincent van gogh

Well meaning parents don’t always do well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are responsible for a human life.

No job in the world is as important.

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

Misery Meets Reality TV: Queen For A Day

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/John_Collier_Queen_Guinevre%27s_Maying.jpg

How much of others’ misery can you stand? How much of their success?

Television has an answer for us, but more about that a little later.

According to Dan Greenburg and Marcia Jacobs in How to Make Yourself Miserable, it is essential that your life should stay within the “Acceptable Failure Range,” lest you lose your friends. Exceeding that range in either direction — too much success or too much unhappiness — will alienate some people. Or so the authors say, tongue in cheek, in this funny old book.

Although I don’t know of research evidence to support this notion, I suspect there is something to it. It is easy enough to fall into the shadow of a friend who glories in his attainments and reminds you regularly of all his achievements.

If the old saying, “Misery loves company” is true, one must be careful about being too full of yourself and your good fortune around friends.

Similarly, many people fear that others will tire of their tales of unhappiness and woe. They anticipate causing their acquaintances to experience compassion fatigue and shun them. This expectation leads some of the afflicted to avoid discussion of deeply personal injuries, or to speak about them only infrequently. Indeed, our society encourages an upbeat, “can do” attitude and expects us to “move on” perhaps more quickly than we can easily manage.

Faced with unhappiness or life crisis, it is interesting to observe how a person handles it. Some find relief in talking about it and appreciate patient and supportive listeners. Others do not want to speak or think about it, turning to distraction or to a very small group of confidants. Taking your cue from the person in distress is best.

If you can handle difficult and painful conversations, you are a very good friend indeed. And, if there is a practical and specific kind of assistance that you can offer (running errands, preparing meals, driving to a doctor’s office), you will provide more help than if you simply say “let me know if there is anything I can do.”

As a society, we seem to have an ambivalent relationship to disaster. When it happens to someone else, it can be fascinating. No wonder that TV stations use a motto to describe how to determine the first story on the news: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

When the calamity is in Uzbekistan, it is one thing. It is then easy to keep our distance: it is both out there, thousands of miles away; and “in there” — inside the TV set. Moreover, when the media inundate us daily with so many tragedies, each individual one loses its impact.

So-called “reality” no longer seems quite real.

Unless it happens to your brother-in-law and it becomes quite something else.

In the 1950s and ’60s, there was an old TV program called “Queen For a Day.” A forerunner of the ubiquitous reality TV of today, it featured “real people” (only women) telling the MC the profoundly unfortunate circumstances of their lives and usually breaking down while doing so. Ultimately, each contestant was asked what she would like if she won; this usually took the form of medical equipment or household appliances.

An applause meter registered the studio audience’s approval so as to choose the winner. Sort of like a latter-day Roman Colosseum, the virtually all-female spectators determined who among the lady “gladiators” got a “thumbs up.”  The program was some form of “see if you can top this,” with each contestant effectively hoping to surpass her competitors in terms of desperation and heartbreak, often describing diseased children and extraordinarily bad luck.

Once the “Queen” was crowned and perched on a makeshift throne (to the tune of “Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March #1, which you know as the processional music to which you graduated high school), she received not only the requested item, but a carload of other things, perhaps including a vacation.

One can only imagine what the losers felt like, having once again been consigned to the anonymous trash heap of human misery. Perhaps they thought, “Wasn’t my life bad enough?” Almost certainly, failing to win added to their already long list of disappointments, despite a few consolation prizes.

The TV writer Mark Evanier called this program “one of the most ghastly shows ever produced,” further finding it “tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting and utterly degrading to the human spirit.”

Of course, there was nothing demeaning about the misfortune itself. But, the fact that these women had to parade it in front of a national audience — a group of strangers — all in the hope of some material reward (however, necessary), was lamentable. Indeed, the discomfort of the contestants was not disguised.

Many of today’s reality TV “stars” require no such financial incentives to lay bare (sometimes literally) whatever is most personal in this more shameless moment in the history of civilization.

Having said all that, should you dare, you can watch various episodes on youtube.

The image above is John Collier’s Queen Guinevre’s Maying (1900) sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Moms on Mother’s Day

Nurturing, caring, loving, concerned, patient, compassionate, expressive, reliable, watchful, tender, giving, interested, independent, graceful, affectionate, accepting, enthusiastic, encouraging, strong, wise, and kind

or

preoccupied, worried, stressed, indifferent, cold, selfish, shrill, overwhelmed, judgmental, angry, impulsive, erratic, hard, numb, inconsistent, weak, troubled, vain, dependent, clumsy, clueless, and cruel.

As a parent and as a child, here’s hoping you came out and come out on the right side of this.

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Rest on the Flight Into Egypt (detail) by Caravaggio

Lost and Forgotten Loves

Do you remember, perhaps wistfully, someone who has long been out of your life? The person might be a first love or a romantic interest who came along at a vulnerable moment. That individual provided something timely and touching, perhaps a feeling that you thought you would never have. Usually it was the possibility of love — the possibility of being loved and feeling loveable — something that hadn’t been experienced recently if at all; something that seemed hopelessly out of reach. And so, this person who opened the door to embracing that feeling — to a sense of being worthwhile and valuable — acquired a special value herself. She brought the “music” into your life and might continue to hold a special place in your heart.

Perhaps you felt that the lost love was too good for you — at least so you thought. The interest she had in you seemed a bit astonishing to you. And you were enormously grateful for her interest and the pleasure that she seemed to take in your company. If you were lucky, the relationship lasted long enough to change you for the better. And even though it ended with your heart breaking, you still carry inside of you a sense of gratitude and an enduring soft-spot for this person who you’ve likely not seen for many years.

There are ironies here, at least two I can think of. First, that your gratitude just might be a bit misplaced. You probably thought too little of yourself and too much of the object of your affection. Perhaps you placed her on a pedestal. You might have dismissed what you brought to the relationship: your good nature, your wit, your humor or kindness, or  your own physical attractiveness. And so, whatever affection or interest you experienced that felt to be more than you deserved, might in fact have been just what you were entitled to: you were better than you thought.

Another irony is that, as much as you might still think of this individual from time to time, it is entirely possible that she almost never thinks of you. You did not change her life, even if she changed yours. Your role was more peripheral, less important. To her, you are another relationship in a history of such contacts, not the one that made an enormous difference in her life, as she did in yours. It seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? Yet that is the way life works.

But I think that the ultimate irony in these unequal pairings is that there is probably someone out there whose life you did alter, to whom you meant everything, and who you now hardly ever think about. In other words, the roles described at the start of this essay are reversed. And you may not even know (or remember) just how profound your impact was on that lover of the moment. For him or for her, that time together with you was much more special, decisive, and profound than it was for you.

It helps to see both sides of this. Both the over-valuing of another and the impact we make on people without really trying — just by showing up in their lives at the right moment and being ourselves. The most dramatic impact outside of a romantic relationship (and indeed one that has more influence) is surely that between a parent and a child, but bosses and friends can sometimes approach the importance of a romantic partner.

Therapists and teachers need to be mindful of this too, in their relationships with patients and students, respectively. Whether you help or you hurt another can be of enormous importance. And, if you’ve done your job especially well or especially poorly, you will probably be recalled long after the relationship has ended.

My high school friends and I take part in something called the Zeolite Scholarship Fund, about which a search of this blog’s archives will reveal more. One of the things we have done in addition to giving scholarships at our alma mater is to honor our old Mather High School teachers. We let them know how much they meant to us, at least those who made an important difference in our lives and are still living. Even decades later and long since they might have recalled any of our names, we remember them and their influence.

I suppose that the most appropriate metaphor for the way in which we unknowingly impact others negatively (and this can apply to teachers who were particularly poor or nasty) is one of walking down the street, being unaware and unconcerned (as we all are) of the very little creatures (bugs) that we might be treading upon. I know that this is an exaggerated comparison to the way that we are affected by others. But the point is that we are all pretty fragile, easily hurt by those who care less about us than we do about them.

Just something to be mindful of in any relationship, whichever end of it you are on. Like throwing a stone into a pool of water, the ripples can go on for a very long time.

Be nice.

gustav-klimt-the-kiss-c-1907-detail

A cropped version of the painting at the top of this page: The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

Jerry, Raya, and the Shadow

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Do you ever find yourself thinking of an old childhood friend? Someone you haven’t seen in an age?

My friend Jerry lived across the alley from me in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood.

If you grew up in the suburbs, you probably don’t know much about alleys. I met some of my best friends there, playing lots of softball in the narrow confines of cement bordered by an endless row of garages on each side. I learned to climb roofs to retrieve softballs that landed there and (like my friends) occasionally beat a hasty retreat when a line-drive shattered a garage door window.

Jerry wasn’t much of a softball player. He had dark brown hair combed straight back, handsome features, and a smile of devastating charm. His eyes could be impish and alive as he stood there in the shadow of one of the garages on a summer evening taking a drag on his cigarette, especially when he talked about something slightly naughty for a 12-year-old, like sex.

Or they could be sad and mournful, as if he knew something that none of the rest of us knew about.

His parents were Holocaust survivors.

He lived with them on the first floor of a two-flat building. He had a sister, I seem to recall. His aunt and her husband owned the upstairs flat. Jerry’s mom, a sweet woman who had likely once been very pretty, was always kind to me; but worn out, faded in appearance, weary, looking older than my mom, although they were probably about the same age.

Jerry’s father was short, with a bristly, full head of salt-and-pepper, almost angry hair. He was never mean, but there was a grim severity about him, a desperate seriousness. I never once saw him smile.

Jerry told me that his dad disapproved of him. Jerry’s relatively poor school work was the reason. I could never understand why Jerry didn’t do better at his studies. He could be witty and clever — he was certainly bright enough. But, he didn’t have much interest or heart for it, seemed not to try very hard, even was held back by a half-year, winding up in my eighth grade class despite the fact that he should already have been in high school.

I remember one conversation. Something about money. Jerry told me that his parents were pretty careful with their money and didn’t want him to spend it unwisely. But, he said, there was one exception. “They say that for food I can have as much money as I want — so I can buy it anytime I want.” Peculiar, I thought. Nice of them, I guessed. But, it stuck there in my mind, not fitting somehow, an inconsistency that I couldn’t fully understand.

My friendship with Jerry dropped away in high school. He continued to struggle in school and we both gravitated toward other people. I don’t think he graduated, but I heard that he eventually got his GED (high school equivalency degree).

When I was in college or graduate school I ran into him on the bus. We had one of those semi-awkward reunions, catching up on our lives, not having much more than that to say. Jerry was then a hair dresser. And, I suspect, a good one, since he always had an artistic flair.

I met Raya in college. She was tall and very pretty, with wavy, long brown hair. Her form was willowy, and she moved with the grace of a dancer, as if trying, in her fluid motion, not to disturb the air. Raya spoke with an accented English, having come to this country with her parents from Israel only a few years before.

It was hard not to find Raya attractive, but she was very quiet and conversations were always a struggle. I find that curious in looking back, because you’d think that I would have asked her tons of questions about her life in Israel and how it was different than Chicago.

Maybe I did.

Nonetheless, Raya and I went on two or three dates. I remember the first one, driving to her home to pick her up and meeting her father there. He reminded me of Jerry’s dad: a very strong and dark presence, grave, serious, not to be trifled with.

At the time, I probably wrote that off to the protective relationship between a father and a daughter. As I said at my youngest’s wedding, the job of being a father to a beautiful daughter is not an easy one. You spend a lot of time thinking unkind thoughts about little boys, wondering what plots they might be hatching to ensnare your female child!

In any case, Raya and I went to a movie that evening, the highly rated The Pawn Broker starring Rod Steiger. I didn’t know anything about it, just that it was the movie on everyone’s lips. I don’t think Raya knew much about it either.

It turned out to concern a man, played by Steiger, who lost his family in the Holocaust, later becoming a pawn broker in Spanish Harlem; and especially about his relationship with a young Hispanic man who works for him, and a social worker who attempts to draw him back into the world from the dark, shadowy place into which he retreated after his wartime experience.

It was not long into the film before I noticed that Raya was quietly weeping. I asked her if she was OK, but she tried to minimize her upset. And when the movie was over, she told me that her parents were concentration camp survivors.

Now, you’d think I would have been more careful about this, about what exactly the movie was about and who exactly was this pretty girl underneath her surface beauty and grace.

But, to my discredit, I hadn’t been.

Apparently, Raya didn’t hold this against me particularly, because we went out one or two other times. But, as I said, it was difficult to generate conversation and we parted in a not-unfriendly way. Perhaps there were things too deep for words, things that one simply couldn’t talk about on a “date” with someone you hardly knew.

It might be of interest to you to know that the word “Holocaust” was not immediately applied to the genocidal murder of six million Jews by the Nazis during World War II. In fact, if you watch the old 1959 Alfred Hitchcock movie North by Northwest, you will see in the scene just following Cary Grant’s narrow escape in a corn field, a prominent newspaper headline using the word “holocaust” to describe the explosion of an oil truck when it collided with a low flying airplane.

These days, that word is rarely applied to anything except the European Jewish experience of the 1930s and 1940s.

Today, April 12, 2010, is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Back in the time that I was in high school, the 1960s, virtually no reference was made to these events. One simply did not talk about them in any great depth and it was not the subject of special study or attention in class. In fact, this failure to mention it was particularly true of the homes of most of the survivors. But, the children of these unfortunate people, mostly about my age, came to know enough about what happened to their parents to give them special consideration, and to try to protect them and compensate them for what they lost in the European tragedy.

It was a heavy burden for the generation just behind the survivors, one written about for the first time by Helen Epstein in the classic book, Children of the Holocaust. For everyone else among Jewish children of the time, the shadow of the event was there, even without a name. Simply the idea that but for the accident of time and  place — had you been born just a few years earlier in Europe — you would have almost certainly been a human target in a deadly game, along with everyone else you loved.

Long after my relationships with Jerry and Raya ended, I was reading a book by a French Holocaust survivor in which he described his return to Paris. It was within a few months of his homecoming. The man was on the subway, close to two teenage girls who were talking together. He heard one say how hungry she was; “I’m starving,” she said.

The survivor knew the words, understood the meaning, and thought to himself, “I have no idea what she is talking about.” Put another way, this man knew “starvation” to mean the severe malnourishment that he experienced in a concentration camp, not the colloquial, everyday meaning that the girl was giving it, an expression he might have used himself in the time before the war.

When I read that passage, I flashed back to my conversation with Jerry, the one when he told me a bit about his parents’ exception to their usual cautiousness with money: “They say that for food I can have as much money as I want — so I can buy it anytime I want.”

And then, I understood just a little bit, what they must have meant.

I wonder where they are now, Jerry and Raya.

I wonder who they are now.

It would be nice to know.

The image above is Russian Stamp No. 583 created by Russian Post, Beylin V., painter. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.