Moral Choices

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It is easy to judge others, but are not without blind spots in judging ourselves. In the domain of moral choices, this becomes particularly problematic. How many times have you heard or thought to yourself, “If I were he, I would have done that differently.” Or perhaps, “If I were he, I wouldn’t have done what he did.” But how many times have you said to yourself, “If I’m honest, if I were in the same situation, I really don’t know what I would have done.”

I’ve listed below a few such moral dilemmas, some drawn from real life accounts. I hope you will put yourself in each one and ask yourself three questions:

1. What is the right thing to do?

2. Would I do the right thing?

3. Am I absolutely sure what the right thing is?

A. If you have seen the 1957 movie Abandon Ship, you know the moral quandary in which Alec Holmes (Tyrone Power) finds himself. Holmes is second in command of a luxury ocean liner which strikes a mine. He takes charge of a life boat when the captain (Lloyd Nolan) dies from injuries sustained in the explosion. The small vessel is seriously overcrowded (including numerous people who are hanging on from ocean-side), has limited supplies of food and medicine, and is in shark-infested waters with only small amounts of  shark repellent in hand. Those hoping to survive include the young and old of both genders, some of whom have been grievously injured as the ship went down.

Soon they become aware that no SOS was sent, because the explosion destroyed the radio. Concluding that no rescue ship will be looking for them, Holmes determines the infirm and weakest must be ordered off the so that the remaining individuals can have a chance at survival by rowing the very great distance to the nearest land mass, with enough food to sustain them until they reach it. What would you do if you were in charge?

B. This comes from the oral history of a Holocaust survivor as described in Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory by Lawrence Langer. Imagine that you are one among many Jews swept up in the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust). You have been separated from your parents. You aren’t certain whether they are alive or dead. In fact, the Nazis have taken a large group of Jews, including your mother, to a place in the forest. They have required these people, at gun point, to dig a long, deep trench. While doing this, the soldiers are joking, smoking, and drinking. Once the trench has been dug to an adequate depth, a handful of the soldiers shoot their machine guns at the diggers along the line of the trench. Some are killed instantly, some dive into the trench to escape the gun fire, and others are wounded to various degrees of severity.

Meanwhile, you are far from this action. Perhaps you heard the gun fire in the distance. But once it is finished, the Nazis assemble a group of Jews to fill in the trench, to cover over their dirty work, quite literally. You are in this group, assigned to this grisly task. The soldiers have their guns on you and your co-workers, reminding you to work quickly or else. Much moaning and screams of pain are heard from this place. And one more thing: From the trench in front of you, a familiar voice is also heard, quite distinctly. It is your mother’s voice. She is telling you that she is not wounded and pleads for your help. What should you do? What would you do?

C. You are Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek expedition to Troy, provoked to war by the abduction of Helen of Troy, the wife of your brother Menelaeus. Before you and your 1000 ships can reach Troy, however, your fleet is stuck in place, stopped by the intercession of a god named Artemis. Time passes. Your supplies of food and water are dissipating. In addition to your family responsibility to defend the honor of your younger brother and help him retrieve his wife, you are aware that Zeus, the most powerful and important of the gods, has demanded that you sail to Troy. A seer is consulted to determine what might be done to appease the god Artemis and enable the fleet to be launched. You are told that you must sacrifice your virgin daughter, who is not far away. What should you do? What would you do?

D. The economy is tough. You have been out of work for some time. You don’t want to lose your home or apartment, and you are afraid that if you can’t find work soon, that might eventually happen. But, you’ve been networking, and it finally pays off. You are offered a job selling AK-47s, assault weapons that fire 600 rounds per minute, whose principal use is to kill people. While you would only be expected to sell these arms to “legitimate” buyers, you are also aware that the AK-47 is one of the world’s most frequently smuggled weapons and the rifles you sell are likely to get into the hands of criminals and drug lords. Should you take the job? What would you do?

E. An elderly aunt dies, one you have not seen in many years. She has named you the sole beneficiary of her estate, a total of $600,000. You are doing well financially, so the money is not a necessity for you, but you can certainly imagine an enormous number of uses for it (including charitable giving), not to mention the fact that it would allow you some peace of mind, knowing that you will be even more financially secure. You also have two siblings and two cousins, none of whom were more or less close to your aunt than you were. You are under no legal obligation to share the money with them, but you wonder whether you should. What would you do?

F. You are politically “pro-life.” You have campaigned for candidates who believe, as you do, in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception. You believe that abortion is murder, without qualification. Financially stable, you have donated money to prevent abortion. A young woman approaches you, someone you know, and who knows and respects the aforementioned beliefs. She is pregnant out-of-wedlock. She would like you to adopt her child. She knows that your two children, who you had when you were quite young, are grown, and believes you would be just the right parents for the new life she carries inside of her, in part because of your moral stance against abortion. She is terrified to give up her child to someone she doesn’t know and who might not provide the kind of home that she believes you and your spouse can provide. But the two of you had decided some time ago that you only wanted two children and, in fact, you have been looking forward to any empty nest and to the freedom it would permit you while you are still in your 40s. What should you do? What would you do?

G. The Holocaust again. This time you are a German gentile. You have a spouse and children. You are not wealthy, but you are getting by. You are not sympathetic to Hitler, but well aware of how the Gestapo works, and that anything seen by them as disloyal to Hitler and the Reich would likely cause you to be interrogated, perhaps sent to a concentration camp, or worse. Your family depends on you for their livelihood. A Jew comes to your door after dark. You know him, but only very casually. He asks you to hide him. You have heard rumors about what is happening to the Jews once they are sent away and, in fact, have been told by a witness that they are being murdered. What should you do? What would you do?

I am not here to give you answers to these questions, assuming that I would be able to come up with just one acceptable moral choice; or that I am some sort of moral authority, which I am not. It can be argued that some of these situations do not allow for a “right” action; not all situations in life offer absolute clarity. Life can be complicated, as these examples demonstrate.

To be sure, none of us are as good as we could be, but that does not mean what is good is always apparent. Indeed, in Aeschylus’s telling of Agamemnon’s story, the title character utters the words “(Which) of these things (choices) goes without disaster?” in describing the the conflict between his public responsibilities as leader of his troops, head of his (and his brother’s family), and the demands of the gods Zeus and Artemis versus his private responsibility as the father of young Iphigenia. The heart break is readily apparent in this man’s dilemma of whether to honor all the aforementioned interests except the one closest to his heart in “such sacrifice of (the) innocent blood…(of) the beauty of my house.”

On a daily basis, we can only do our best to lead moral, principled lives. Not just to talk about it, or formally worship a deity on a holy day, or even to donate some money, but to weave those beliefs into the fabric of daily, commonplace interactions, and try not to fool ourselves when we fall short; to minimize the everyday fibs, moral compromises, and inconsiderations; to show kindness, be forthright, go out of our way for others. To do what is right when no one is looking.

On the other hand, if we want to find out if our morality goes the distance, then we have to be tested — confronted with something difficult and costly, if not dangerous, if not horrible in its implications, as in the examples I’ve given you above; and until then, be humble, not knowing exactly what we would do.

Being a “nice person” is easy enough … until the chips are down.

Most of us won’t ever know the answers to the kinds of questions I have posed, that is, what we would do if actually faced with them.

Best not to know, I think.

The photo above called Choices, choices… is the work of Duncan Lilly, originally sourced from geograph.org.uk, sourced for this blog from Wikimedia Commons.

Experience and Memory

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The last Canadian World War I veteran, John Babcock, is dead. He passed away at age 109 in Spokane, Washington on February 18, 2009. Frank Buckles, also 109, remains the sole surviving American veteran of the “War to End All Wars,” according to The New York Times.

With Mr. Buckles inevitable departure, we will all lose contact with what happened in Europe between 1914 and 1918 within what is called “living memory;” the contact that can only come from the direct experience of the world-changing event that shaped the lives of many of our grandparents or great grandparents. Our only available sources of information will then be in the form of books, stories that the survivors told to those still alive, old silent movie film of some of the battle action, recorded reminiscences, journals a few of the combatants kept, accounts from war correspondents, and the like.

All of which leads me to think about memory and experience. And why understanding them is important.

Experience takes a number of forms and, when the experience is past, it becomes a memory. Simple enough on the surface, but not simple at all.

First, there is the “living” of the thing, actually participating in an event. In the case of Frank Buckles, that meant driving an American Army ambulance in France during the conflict itself, witnessing the carnage, hearing wounded men cry for their mothers, making and losing friends, feeling the “pee-in-your-pants” terror of it, getting shot at, carrying a gas mask or perhaps being exposed to poison gas, ministering to the wounded, jumping into fox holes—eating, drinking, and sleeping it all. But once Mr. Buckles returned home from the front, his time there had become a memory and was now different from the actual, in-the-moment intensity of the lived-experience, an intensity that nothing in his long life after the war could match.

At another level, more removed, there are the spectators to events. We all achieve the status of “watchers” when we attend a sporting competition. We see and hear a good deal of what is happening, even if we don’t ourselves play in the game.

At even more distance from the event are those who watch at home. They will miss some of the “atmosphere” of “being there” unlike those of us independent of TV cameras, who will see the event naturally, in the way it unfolds in real-life (without the mediation of a cameraman or the interruption of commercials). And the “at-home” audience will not experience the same roar of the crowd, the heat of sun on skin, the faces of the beer vendors, and the thousands of movements and sounds of the athletes and spectators that the cameras and microphones do not record.

More distant still from the actual experience is a radio broadcast, where one’s imagination and memory of events like the one being reported tend to fill in the blanks where no visual representation of the event is present. At a further remove might be a newspaper account of the game or a friend’s description of what happened from his memory of being there himself.

Experience is one thing, memory another. Memory can only approximate the event itself and can alter or fade with the passage of time. Remember your first kiss—all the thousands of sensations happening all at once—the rush of being alive, the smell of perfume or aftershave or the person’s natural scent, the touch and texture of skin, the moistness and softness of lips, your own heartbeat, body against body—firmness, roundness—the moment before and after, the placement of your hands, the color of your partner’s eyes and their expression in those same moments? Now, as you think about it, however good your memory, I think you will admit that remembering is not the same as living it.

At least in the case of memories of things like your first kiss, you have an advantage over others’ understanding of that experience because it was yours and not theirs. It becomes a good deal harder to relate to the experience of others, especially if they have lived through something wholly unlike what has happened in your own life. The most dramatic examples I can think of come from those who have experienced severe trauma. Take the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, Magda F., from the Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust Testimonies quoted by Lawrence Langer in Holocaust Testimonies: the Ruins of Memory, as relatives implored her to talk about her experience:

And I looked at them and I said: “I’m gonna tell you something. I’m gonna tell you something now. If somebody would tell me this story, I would say ‘She’s lying, or he’s lying.’ Because this can’t be true. And maybe you’re gonna feel the same way. That your sister’s lying here, because this could not happen. Because to understand us, somebody has to go through with it. Because nobody, but nobody fully understands us. You can’t. No (matter) how much sympathy you give me when I’m talking here, or you understand…you’re trying to understand me, I know, but I don’t think you could, I don’t think so.”

And I said this to them. Hoping (they) should never be able to understand, because to understand, you have to go through with it, and I hope nobody in the world comes to this again, (so) they should understand us. And this was the honest truth, because nobody, nobody, nobody…

Those of us who are the children of Americans who survived the Great Depression got a little bit of this kind of understanding, I think, in late 2008, when the economy fell off a cliff and looked like it was going to continue falling and possibly repeat the Great Depression. We’d heard the stories our parents or grandparents told, we’d read the history books describing the period between the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the beginning of World War II, but we hadn’t lived in a period anything like that. Now, we were getting a taste of it, even if, for most of us, it was only a taste and not the whole meal. Now we know more, and better, what it was like for our elders (and what it is like for our fellow Americans who are losing their homes along with their livelihoods right now).

Sergiu Celibidache, the Roumanian symphony conductor, put very well the difference between direct experience and some form of pale attempt to duplicate that experience in a different time and place. Celibidache believed that it was impossible to accurately render the transcendant impact of musical performance except in a concert hall. He thought that recordings were a fraud, because they attenuated this experience and altered it, didn’t duplicate the physical and aural sensations present sitting in the hall, listening to the full dynamic range of sound as that sound was being made in the same acoustical environment as the musicians themselves. Therefore, Celibidache refused to make recordings for most of his career. And, in the days before anyone ever considered the possibility of experiments in virtual reality, he said that “listening to a recording is like making love to a picture of Bridget Bardot,” the gorgeous French model and actress of the 1950s and 1960s.

Adlai Stevenson II, as I’ve quoted elsewhere, captured the impossibility of fully communicating an experience he’d had to those who had not yet had that experience in a 1954 speech (made when he was 54) to the senior class of his alma mater, Princeton University:

“…What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable. The laws, the aphorisms, the generalizations, the universal truths, the parables and the old saws—all of the observations about life which can be communicated handily in ready, verbal packages—are as well known to a man at twenty who has been attentive as to a man at fifty. He has been told them all, he has read them all, and he has probably repeated them all before he graduates from college; but he has not lived them all.

What he knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty boils down to something like this: The knowledge he has acquired with age is not the knowledge of formulas, or forms of words, but of people, places, actions—a knowledge not gained by words but by touch, sight, sound, victories, failures, sleeplessness, devotion, love—the human experiences and emotions of this earth and of oneself and other men…”

So, put another way, for example, no one who hasn’t been in love can know what love is; no one who hasn’t experienced discrimination or fought against it can really understand it fully; no one who has only watched a travelogue about the countryside really knows what it is like to be in the country; just as those who observe from the sidelines and never have played the game cannot completely grasp the clichéd expression about “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

No, life is about the living of it, not the reading about it or the watching  of it. And, so too, it is about knowing that you don’t know fully about the experiences you haven’t had. It is about knowing that you can only approximate a real and complete appreciation of another’s life; knowing that some of those things the other has witnessed or lived through are frankly unknowable without their experience; knowing that the depths of human personality, emotion, and incident are infinitely great and that one can only approach the deepest point in knowledge and understanding even as we reflect on our own live’s through the lens of memory; and knowing that the death of the last veteran of World War I robs us all of some element of connection to history and, therefore, to the forces that shaped us, our parents, and their parents.

Life is infinitely humbling, fascinating, terrifying, and touching. I imagine one could live a dozen lives, some in one gender, some another; some straight, some gay; some black, some white, some yellow; some married, some single; some in this time, some in the future and the past; some here, some there; and still not achieve the richness that is possible.

But, of course, we only get one, so far as anyone knows. That means we must get on with things.

The day is short and there is much to do.

The photo above is of Frank Buckles with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates on March 6, 2008 by Cherie A. Thurlby of soldiersmediacenter, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Rumor

What do you think of people who spread rumors? Are you one such?  Rumor mongers are certainly not thought of in a kindly fashion. We call them gossips or tale bearers, not words of praise. And how about those people who relish the rumors, listening avariciously, almost licking their lips at the prospect of some juicy gossip?

The best, most visually evocative description of this kind of person comes from The Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil. Here it is in Robert Fagles’s translation:

Rumor, swiftest of all the evils in the world.

She thrives on speed, stronger for every stride,

slight with fear at first, soon soaring into the air

she treads her ground and hides her head in the clouds.

She is the last, they say, our Mother Earth produced.

Bursting in rage against the gods, (Mother Earth) bore a sister

for Coeus and Enceladus: Rumor, quicksilver afoot

and swift on the wing, a monster, horrific, huge

and under every feather on her body–what a marvel–

an eye that never sleeps and as many tongues as eyes

and as many raucous mouths and ears pricked up for news.

By night she flies aloft, between the earth and sky,

whirring across the dark, never closing her lids

in soothing sleep. By day she keeps her watch,

crouched on a peaked roof or palace turret,

terrorizing the great cities, clinging as fast

to her twisted lies as she clings to words of truth.

If you are so inclined, the next time you are about to spread a rumor (or listen to one), reflect on that image of eyes and tongues and mouths and ears.

They are all yours if you want them!

Are You Narcissistic?

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Have you ever been called a narcissist? What does that mean? Let me offer you an image that might help you understand it.

Imagine that you are standing in front of a mirror, but at some distance from it. You can see yourself, but you can also see a great many other things around and behind you. Now envision yourself walking toward the mirror.

If you get close enough, you will see only one thing: yourself. It is not necessarily that you are indifferent to whatever else might be behind and around you; rather, you are so taken with your own likeness, that you become unaware of other people nearby and how they might be faring.

That is narcissism: a fascination with and almost exclusive focus on yourself. The word comes from the Greek myth about an unusually attractive young man named Narcissus, who falls in love with his reflection in a pool, not aware that he is looking at his own image. Inevitably he perishes because he cannot get over this preoccupation.

At the extreme, too much narcissism becomes a Personality Disorder. That means it is a pattern of behavior and internal self-involvement that is rigidly pervasive and leads to problems in relating to others. People who suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder tend to lack empathy for others; they are grandiose in their inclination to overestimate their worth. They usually assume that others will not only share in this high appraisal of their value, but treat them accordingly. Indeed, they expect to be admired and take that admiration as an entitlement.

The word insufferable comes to mind.

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Such people believe that the rules that apply to most others might not apply to them because of their special qualities. Nor do they clearly see the injuries that they inflict on others; or show empathy even when such injuries are brought to their attention. If you are useful to a narcissist, able to help him advance his agenda, then he will probably want you around.

At the moment that you are no longer of value, however, or have been replaced by someone deemed better or more useful, you are in danger of being set aside or discarded.

The narcissist tends to have fantasies of great achievement or idealized love and exploits others. And when his behavior fails to lead to the result that he believes is his due, it is rare for him to fully recognize and take responsibility for that failure. Without that awareness, circumstances and other people are blamed, and he is likely to continue on the same unfortunate path indefinitely.

And to answer the question posed in the title, given the blind spot just mentioned, if you are narcissistic, it is unlikely that you will so identify yourself.

Initially, you might find such a person dashing, enormously self-confident, and appealing, perhaps even a visionary — definitely a big personality. Closer and more frequent contact, however, begins to reveal the dark side. Loving someone else is difficult for the narcissist, who is already in love with himself.

Do you need an example?

At least as he has been represented in the press, the Governor of South Carolina will serve that purpose. Obviously, one cannot diagnose him or anyone else on the basis of news accounts, but they suggest that he might fill the bill.

He is said to be taken with himself, preoccupied with his achievement and appearance, and fancies himself (and his South American lover) as sharing some sort of idealized, almost mythic love. Meanwhile, in the course of his affair, the wife and kiddies back in the States were set aside; even his responsibilities to his constituents were ignored, as he took secret trips to visit his girlfriend, leaving South Carolina without anyone in charge while he was away.

I suspect that you know some people who are pretty full of themselves and might have some of the other characteristics I’ve mentioned.

Want to change them?

Good luck.

Personality Disorders of this kind are not easily altered. Indeed, such people rarely see the need for treatment — their reflection in the mirror looks more than good enough to them. Self-awareness is not one of the narcissist’s strengths.

No, change won’t come easily.

A better question to ask yourself would be the following: why would you WANT to be with him?

The painting at the top of this essay is Narcissus by Francois Lemoyne, from 1728, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second image is Caravaggio’s take on the same subject (1594-1596), from the same source.


How to Grieve, How to Live

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You might think that grieving is not an uplifting topic. But there are ways in which that is precisely what it is.

We start with the pain of loss, specifically a loss of something of value. If you lose a penny, you won’t much care. But if the loss is of something of great importance to you, you will care greatly. The pain of loss points to the value of the thing that you have lost; and the value you place on a thing points, at least potentially, to the pain to which you are vulnerable.

What are the things we value? A job, a relationship, friends and family, a promotion; our physical-self, which can be defaced or damaged… many things: money, status, a good name, a pet, and power, too. Take your pick. You decide what is important and whatever is inside the basket in which you put your emotional pain or your vulnerability to such pain — that item has value.

Grieving involves opening yourself to the pain. Now, you might think, “It must be only a recent loss that causes the hurt.” But the heart has no clock attached to it, no timer reading off the digits of distance between you and the loss; so, if you had a difficult childhood, you might still be holding the pain inside even though it is decades old.

Not only must you open yourself to the pain, but you must do it with a witness, a listener, someone who cares and who is present, who is “there for you.” This is necessary to reattach you to human contact — to life, to intimacy — rather than closing off and pulling away from people. And in this sharing — this openness, this talk and tears and gnashing of teeth — the pain eventually subsides. It’s a little bit like kneading dough — you continue to work it until it changes. The story of your feelings will be repeated by you, if necessary, dozens of times in different ways, until the emotions are changed and the excruciating intensity of the loss passes.

How long does this process take? Six months to a year would not be unusual, although it can be longer. The first anniversary of the loss is often especially hard; so are birthdays and holidays in the first year and sometimes beyond. But if you do not do the grieving “work,” the process can be extended and a sense of melancholy or a lack of vitality can follow you relentlessly.

To grieve doesn’t mean you will forget what you have lost. And, indeed, if it is a loved one, certainly you will never forget and you will never be untouched by the memory. There is a dignity in this. We honor the loved ones who are lost in this way and perhaps they live, metaphorically speaking, inside of us. As the Danes say, “to live in the hearts that you leave behind is not to die.”

But “how” to do this grieving — that is the problem. If you have lived your life trying to be tough, you will find that the toughness might prevent you from doing the emotional work that will allow the grief to end. If you maintain that “toughness,” you might find yourself living as if you are numb, or displaying a sunny disposition totally at odds with what is felt deep inside, in the place where you have buried your hurt. And if you have deadened yourself enough, you will have a hard time “living,” since you will be closed-off to feelings. Joy, abandon, and spontaneity will be harder to achieve. Instead, the time ahead of you would be better called “existence” than “life.”

But perhaps you are afraid that if you allow all the pain to come out, you will be overwhelmed to the point of being unable to function. And, indeed, this can happen, at least temporarily. Or perhaps you are afraid of what others might think of you if they see you without your typical emotional control, and you are afraid of their negative judgments.

And so, grieving involves having the emotions without the emotions having you; accepting them and not struggling with them; metaphorically speaking, it is like driving a car with the radio on, but not so loudly that you are overcome by it. In other words, you will have the emotions but still be able to drive — still be able to lead your life.

To do this you must open the pain in a place that is safe and in a way that it is neither deadened or perpetually out-of-control. You must hold the hurt not too tightly and not too loosely, but gently, since it is precious; not walling the emotions off or letting them carry you away from active life for days at a time. Part of this is simply allowing yourself to be human, to honor the injury, not judging or trying to change what you feel (the change will happen by itself if you allow it), but permitting yourself to do what our mammal relatives do — to lick your wounds (metaphorically speaking) and accept the support of others, whether they are friends, lovers, relatives, or therapists.

And, in the end, if you have grieved and have the courage, good luck, and time to continue the human project that we all have been given, you are likely to heal enough to venture forth into the world, again putting yourself into the things and people you hold dear, risking injury once more, not hiding from the dangers that life brings, but also experiencing what is good in life — all the things you still value.

You will be alive again, and the grieving process will have led you there.

The above image is The Grieving Parents, Kathe Kollwitz’s 1932 memorial to her son Peter, who died in World War I.

Hope For the New Year: Old Words After a Tough Twelve Months

Its been a tough year, but not the first in human history. These old words from the great nineteenth-century Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson seem just right:

“Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Give us courage and gaiety and the quiet mind. Spare us to our friends and soften us to our enemies. Give us strength to encounter that which is to come, that we may be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath and in all changes of fortune, and down to the gates of death loyal and loving to one another.”

Unloading Your Therapist: Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Ending a relationship is difficult. Most of us have been on the receiving end of a relationship “break up” of some kind. We know that it doesn’t feel good. Indeed, we know that it can be taken as a rejection (and often that is exactly what it is). Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop some of the same people who decry the insensitivity of those who unceremoniously “dumped them” from doing the very same thing, in the very same way, when they wish to be free of seeing someone else ever again.

With that in mind, here are a few guidelines for thought and action, and some examples of what people do, when and if it comes time to end a relationship with a therapist. Today, I won’t be talking about the sense of loss or sadness that sometimes accompanies therapy’s end. I’ll leave that weighty topic to another time.

1. The “I’ll call you” strategy. Usually, this is delivered by phone message. The patient probably has an appointment with the therapist and cancels it, adding that he will call to reschedule. Experienced therapists know that many people will attempt to end the therapeutic relationship in this way. It avoids a face-to-face conversation which the patient might imagine as uncomfortable, and it avoids actually giving any reason for terminating therapy. It leaves the therapist a bit in the dark, not knowing whether the predicted call will ever come, and probably not knowing what the reason is for the decision to end treatment.

2. The “end of session” termination. Patients often wait until the end of the therapy session to say something of importance, in part because it is uncomfortable or they don’t want to discuss it in any detail, at least not yet. This method of termination has the advantage of being done face-to-face; what it doesn’t do is to allow the two parties to process the reasons for that decision and discuss any concerns. Without some time to talk, the therapist cannot be helpful to the soon-to-be-departed patient, or find out much about the client’s reasons for his decision. Without knowing what those reasons are, its hard for the therapist to learn from any mistakes he might have made, anything he did (or didn’t do) that made the patient uncomfortable, etc.

3. The “no-show” departure. Some individuals who are receiving counseling decide to end therapy by simply being absent from their next scheduled appointment. This is rude, of course, and also risks that the therapist will charge you for the time even though you didn’t come to his office (most therapists expect 24-48 hours notice of cancellation in order to relieve you of the obligation of payment).

4. The “nasty phone call” ending. While this is a rare event, sometimes people want to hurt the therapist because they believe that they have been hurt or neglected by him. They leave an angry phone message and avoid any chance for the therapist to find out why they are hurting, just as they make it impossible to come to a more amicable resolution of the issues at hand.

5. The “I need a break” message. It is, indeed, sometimes appropriate for patients to take a break from treatment. It can get too intense for some, who realize that taking a breather might be helpful. On other occasions, the complications of life outside of the counselor’s office make continued therapy difficult for the moment. However, when giving the message that you “need a break” is simply a way of leaving therapy, with no intention of return, it doesn’t allow for any closure to the relationship, or any of the benefits that such closure provides (which are described below).

6. The “best” way. Whether you have been seeing the therapist for a long time or a short one, the issue of termination is an important one. It is appropriate for you, even from the start of treatment, to ask how long it is expected to last. If you are finding counseling unsettling or unproductive at any point, it is best if you discuss your concerns with the therapist as they happen. Since many people who enter therapy have a hard time with being assertive and direct, it might well be tempting not to talk much about anything that you believe the therapist doesn’t want to hear, and simply to end the relationship unilaterally. Unfortunately, you and the therapist are short-changed if you do this.

Ideally, your concerns should be expressed early in a session, when there is sufficient time to talk about them. Be prepared for your therapist to ask you why you are thinking of ending treatment. You might be surprised that the therapist agrees with you. Alternatively, you might be persuaded if he makes a good case to continue for a while. But if you are certain that it is time to end things, be sure to hold your ground. A good counselor should accept this without trying to make you feel bad about your decision.

Once an understanding is reached about ending treatment, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it must end at precisely that moment. You and the therapist might decide to taper-off sessions or to have at least one additional session to sum up the history of your work together and to say “goodbye.”

There are several reasons for having just such a final session. First, it should allow the two of you to review what you have accomplished, how your life has changed, and what you have learned. Equally, if nothing or little of value has occurred, it can give you the chance to inform the therapist where treatment went wrong. Therapists should be grateful for this information since it allows them to learn, adapt, and improve so that they can help those patients who will follow you into their offices. And, a last session gives the therapist time to point out treatment alternatives or refer you to other available therapists who you might wish to consult.

Finally, a good therapist who has known you for a bit of time usually has some very nice things to say about you, about your courage, wit, grace, intelligence, and the guts it took to look your problems in the face and try to change your life. The last session also gives you a chance to say “thank you,” if that is something that you believe appropriate. The counselor will usually let you know that he would be grateful to hear from you again, just to know how you are doing. And, the door is almost always open if a return to therapy is required.

So, therapy, even when it wasn’t as helpful as you had hoped, can and should end with an expression of respect and good wishes for your future well-being. You will usually feel good about being direct in doing what you believe is in your interest, and having the self-confidence and respect to tell it to the therapist face-to-face. Your therapist will be grateful too, in almost all cases.

No losers here. Only winners.

“Not Invited,” “Picked Last,” and Other Small Tragedies of Childhood

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f5/Rejection.jpg/240px-Rejection.jpg

Unless you were an unusually charismatic or talented child, you know what it feels like to hear about a party to which virtually all the other kids were invited, and realize that you weren’t; or to be the last person chosen for a team of your peers, and chosen only after even the marginally talented athletes were picked. And then, if worse than that is possible, to be assigned to play right field, the spot on the baseball diamond where you were expected to inflict the least damage to your team.

Or, if you are female, you might remember trying to join a group of girls engaged in conversation, only to find them falling silent upon your approach, and then being told that the conversation is private.

Humiliation, embarrassment, sadness, and chagrin, call it what you may, that feeling lingers. And it lingers long enough, dear reader, that you are just now probably thinking of an example of it from your own life.

Bummer.

Most kids don’t want to stand out from the group, but want to be a part of the group. And to be the last one chosen, or not to be invited at all, makes you stand out in the worst possible way. Your secret is out.

Until the moment of your “unchoosing,” you probably only suspected that you were a lousy athlete or an unpopular person. Now, not only do you know it for certain, but so does everyone else.

It can even happen to adults. I’ll give you one rather singular example. The event occurred at a staff meeting of a psychiatric hospital. The psychology section was having an election for the offices of President and Secretary. Two people were running for the former office and only one for the latter. It was the custom to ask all the candidates to leave the room when the vote was about to be taken, since the election was done by a show of hands.

The Presidential election was quickly completed. Now came the vote for Secretary, presumably a formality, since the only person who wanted the job was unopposed on the ballot.

But things were not so simple as they seemed. The candidate for Secretary wasn’t well-thought-of by his peers. And so, someone nominated the just-defeated candidate for President to run against the solo petitioner for the unfilled office. Sure enough, the previously unopposed gentleman was defeated.

It was the only time in my experience that I ever heard about or witnessed someone lose an election in which he had been running as the sole office-seeker moments before. And you can imagine how this turn of events must have struck the man who had left the room thinking that his ascension to the office of Secretary was just a formality. Playing right field would have felt good by comparison.

No, no one wants to stand out in that way. You don’t want to be the kid who brings the worst gift to your friend’s birthday party. You don’t want to wear clothes that are different from those of your friends, or outdated, or too big, or too small, or too worn. You don’t want to be the kid whose mother cuts his hair. And, if you are female, you don’t want to be the only one who “isn’t allowed” to wear makeup or lipstick, or have one’s hair done in the latest style.

Clearly, all the psychic injuries inflicted during childhood don’t happen at home. It’s a wonder that there isn’t a medic on the playground to deal with the walking-wounded. The resilience of little children indeed must be impressive to permit us to survive and flourish despite the hard experience of our youthful innocence.

So, the next time your son or daughter comes home looking a bit sad, perhaps you will find a way to encourage him or her to recount just such a fresh defeat on the playground that is sometimes also a battleground or a forge in which a young personality is shaped. And, if they do, remember your own hard time when you were your child’s age. It just might make the moment a bit more poignant and allow you to “be there” for your precious offspring in the best possible way.

The above image is called Rejection by Mjt16, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Beautiful and Smart, But Unlucky in Love: The Reasons Why

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I have treated many beautiful women who reported a history of bad relationships: unfaithful boyfriends or husbands, frank physical or verbal abuse by their partners, or a loss of interest by the men from whom they most wanted that interest. There are lots of reasons for this. Here are a few:

1. If you came from a home where you were neglected, criticized, or abused, your self-worth is likely to be less than what it should be. Recall Marilyn Monroe: famous, beautiful, and talented, but insecure and unlucky in love. A woman with the background I’ve described often looks for approval from someone who unconsciously reminds her of the person who failed to love her as a child. It is as if the unconscious mind is still looking for the thing never achieved before (love or approval), and it only has value if it comes from a similar person. Since the parent in question was neglectful or critical, the chosen substitute will likely be that way as well, providing the woman with another chance to win loving attention. Given her poor choice of a partner, the sought-for affection and approval are no more likely than they were in childhood.

2. Whether male or female, if you moved too often as a youngster, the insecurity of being the new kid on the block is hard to shake. You may also feel the never-ending need to prove yourself. Once again, insecurity can lead to choosing someone less good and kind than you deserve.

3. Are you too needy? Are you dependent upon your boyfriend or husband to make decisions for you? Are you unable to support yourself financially? Can you bear to be without a boyfriend for very long? Do you need regular reassurance you are “the one and only?” This gets old. While that reassurance will temporarily calm your fears, your lover will almost surely tire of it, leaving you insecure if you don’t ask repeatedly for confirmation of his devotion (or him feeling put-upon if you do). As with a number of the concerns mentioned above, therapy is suggested if your self-worth requires an ever-present escort who constantly bolsters you; and a tendency to lose your sense of self in the relationship, forget about your friends when with a romantic partner, and give-in to the new love-interest for fear he will otherwise leave you.

4. Is your beauty (or sex) all you believe you have to offer? There are tons of gorgeous, sexy women out there and, unlike you, they won’t age! (Or at least it will seem so, since, as you get older there will be a new cohort of young females who eventually will look preferable in purely physical terms). Although men can be pretty primitive in their response to the physical characteristics of women, qualities like wit, kindness, intelligence, good humor, and integrity grow in their value to all but the most unenlightened men. As someone once said, “Beauty fades, but stupid is forever.”

5. If a man shows interest in you too early, are you turned off? It’s true that there is an element of gamesmanship in dating and mating, but don’t choose the intrigue of a man who is hard to get and miss the devotion and decency of another.

 

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6. Are you entitled? Do you believe your boyfriend or husband should keep you on a pedestal, shower you with gifts, and buy the best house in just the right neighborhood? Do you value money, status, and material things too much? If you do, a well-grounded man will tire of you or avoid you. One who is less secure or less enlightened may simply become weary of your demands for “more,” and instead seek a woman who is less self-involved and shallow.

7. Are you a good listener? I hope so, because relationships demand this. If you aren’t, your partner will not feel understood. Unless you respect the differences between yourself and your lover (which very likely were initially attractive), you will find the relationship works poorly or not at all.

8. As I’ve said before on my blog, sexual interest and enthusiasm are necessary parts of a good relationship. Abandon them at your own risk. However, this is not to suggest you should have sex simply because your partner wants (or worse) demands it.

9. Do you allow yourself to be demeaned in public by the man you are with? I always ask marital couples seeking therapy what attracted them to each other. One male I recall said, “She ‘shows’ well,” about his beautiful wife. The words and tone were demeaning, in no way a compliment. Indeed, the man might have said the same thing about a show dog or show horse. The lovely lady remained silent. A more self-respecting woman might have walked out of the room.

10. Do you have a drinking or drug problem? Does your male friend? How do you know you don’t? Just because friends and acquaintances drink as much as you doesn’t mean you can avoid the alcohol or drug-driven downside of heartache, arguments, and a bad end to the relationship. Read up on alcohol abuse to get a sense of where you stand: http://www.alcoholscreening.org/

11. Do you wind up with men you feel sorry for? Not a good choice. Do you give in to men who pursue you relentlessly, even though you aren’t enormously attracted to them? Again, this is not destined to lead to a successful match.

12. Do you believe you can change the man you are with? A miraculous transformation is unlikely to occur. Meaningful alternations in any of us take their own time and much painful effort. As the old therapy joke goes, “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “One, but the light bulb has to want to be changed.” Take a measure of who you are with while you are still capable of being objective, which means your evaluation needs to be done early in the relationship. Once your heart takes over, rational judgments are either too late or altogether impossible.

13. As a father two two career-minded, married daughters, I applaud independent women who forge careers. But just as a man needs to remember his wife and children require attention, so do women in high-powered careers need to live by the same rules. If you are neglectful of your partner, mentally or physically exhausted by the work you do between 9 and 5, and consumed by issues related to your vocation, the relationship is at risk.

14. Are you too critical? If you experienced or observed a fair amount of criticism growing up, it is easy to become like the person who did this. Indeed, we are often at risk of becoming the thing we hate, or of normalizing the unfortunate characteristics we observed in our parents because we had no other family to compare them to. Compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and acceptance are needed in any good relationship, and in large quantities.

15. Do you expect your boyfriend or husband to fulfill your life and make you happy? No one can really do that for you, although having a companion can be worthwhile and important. But a relationship will not solve all problems or make life perfect. Don’t expect it to. The weight of that expectation is more than most lovers can bear.

16. One final point, and a sad one. If you are smart and beautiful, and especially if you are professionally accomplished, there are men out there who will be intimidated by your competence, intelligence, authority, and attractiveness. As a result, you might have to generate more than the usual amount of effort to find a good match. Unfair, but true.

In closing, I should say that making a good choice of mate, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, is challenging. But there are a lot of good people out there (albeit fewer men than women), so if your history shows a pattern of failed choices, its best to look in the mirror and ask why. And, if you can’t come up with an answer or change your pattern even though you are aware of repeating the same mistakes, therapy often helps.

This post has generated one very heated and critical comment. You might want to read it and see what you think: Dealing with Online Criticism of that “Bald, Ugly, Old” Man: Me.

The top photo is of Marilyn Monroe, a cropped frame from her 1953 movie, Gentlemen Prefer Blonds. The second image is of Céline Du Caju, Miss Belgian Beauty 2006, taken by Eddy Van 3000 and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Happens in Psychotherapy?

What does psychotherapy do and how does it do that? Good questions, and even some therapists might have a hard time answering them. Of course, some of the goals are obvious: reduce depression, have better relationships, eliminate anxiety, enjoy your life more, and stop worrying. But what are the elements that get you there? I’ll give you a sense of some of the factors that permit those goals to be achieved.

1. Trust. Many people entering treatment have trust issues: they trust too easily or not at all, usually the latter. Trust will start with the relationship between you and the therapist. Simple things: does he listen? Does he understand? Does he seem interested and dedicated? Is he dependable? Does he care? If the answers to these questions are “yes,” then it will be a bit easier to begin to trust others. The experience of a benign relationship with one person can open you to the possibility that this experience can be achieved elsewhere in your life.

2. Validation. Many people coming into psychotherapy having been told that they should “get over it,” that they “shouldn’t feel that way,” that they shouldn’t complain or “whine;” or having been ignored, dismissed, or criticized too often when trying to express themselves. Some folks believe feelings are unimportant; others might state that it is not “masculine” to feel too much, and so forth. As a result, many new patients have so buried their feelings that they are alienated from themselves and don’t know whether it is appropriate to think or feel as they do. A good therapist creates a safe place for talking about such things (trust again), and gives the person a sense that there is value in what they feel and think. Over time, this action, by itself, can help improve self esteem and reduce sadness and alienation.

3. Grieving. If one has not had supportive relationships (with people who are both trustworthy and validating), the sense of loss or absence contributes to sadness, and sometimes to depression. The relationship with the therapist allows you to express the emotions related to loss (both sadness and anger) to someone who listens patiently and shows concern. As you process those feelings of loss, your sadness should gradually diminish. The therapist serves as a witness and again, as someone who validates your pain. Grieving in isolation too often contributes to the feeling of disconnection and alienation from the world. Grieving with someone who cares reconnects you to one of the things that can be good in life: human contact.

4. Learning new things. Any good therapist needs to provide some guidance and tools that enable change. This might come in the form of helping you learn and practice new social skills (including acting these skills out with the therapist), assisting you in changing how you think (cognitive restructuring) that helps you reduce self-defeating thoughts, training in how to be assertive (again with role playing in the therapy session), or meditation.

5. A change in perspective. A good therapist will provide you with new ways of thinking about the world and about your life. Since he can see you from the outside, he is more likely to see you in a way that you cannot see yourself.

6. Facing things, not avoiding things. We all practice avoidance some of the time, and some of the time it is a useful thing. Unfortunately, many of us practice it all too much. We distract ourselves from pain and avoid challenging situations. We can use food, TV, shopping, sex, drugs, alcohol, the internet, and computer games to get us away from whatever it is we can’t handle. We worry about problems rather than coming up with a plan of action and taking them on. We don’t ask out the pretty girl for fear of rejection, or say “no” to people who want to befriend us for the same reason. We stay at a “dead-end” job because of our insecurities. And, of course, unhappiness is the result.

A therapist can assist you in identifying the patterns of avoidance, help you to gradually become able to tolerate anxiety (by use of such things as cognitive restructuring, role playing or meditation) and give you tasks that gradually increase in difficulty so that you reduce avoidance and begin to take action that works.

7. Acceptance. By acceptance I am referring to acceptance of the nature of life and the discomfort that comes with living; acceptance of the fact that being open to life allows you to experience satisfaction and joy, but also opens you to pain; and awareness of the temporary nature of most of that discomfort. The more that you take life on its terms, the less you will be trapped by it.

Remember playing with the Chinese Finger Puzzle as a kid, the cylindrical woven structure made of bamboo, open at both ends? You put your two index fingers into it, but when you pulled hard to get your fingers out, you became more stuck. Only by releasing the tension and moving your fingers toward the center of the device, did it collapse and no longer held you tight. Life is a lot like that to the extent that we must stop engaging in behaviors that only make us more “stuck.”Acceptance allows you to free yourself, at least somewhat, from what is distressing about life.

8. Valued Action. If you are caught in the struggle with your emotions, or focused on avoidance of pain, what is good in life will be hard to achieve. Therapy can help you to think about the life you would like to lead, the life that is consistent with your values, and help to relieve you of the habits that keep you so wound-up that you don’t have time to think about what it is you would really like to do, and what it is that would lead you to a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. What is your true self? Therapy can help you find out and encourage that person to exist in the world.

The description I’ve given you is based, in part, on my experience in life and training, especially training in such therapeutic approaches as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based behavior therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and psychodynamic psychotherapy. Other therapists may have a different view of what is important and how to help you get to the point that your life is more satisfying and less fraught with depression, anxiety, or chronic relationship problems. But here, at least, I hope that I have given you some sense of direction and some reason to be hopeful about the possibility of change in your life.