The Age of Social Comparison: When Self-Involvement Makes You Unhappy

We live in an age of entitlement and self-involvement.  A Metra train conductor offered an example last summer:

I was taking tickets and the train was getting pretty crowded. I noticed a middle-aged lady standing near an empty seat. I could tell she was asking a young woman to move a package so she could sit. Apparently, to no avail. So, I walked over to smooth the situation over. The younger woman was gorgeous, maybe 25 or so, and attending to her phone, not the person hovering over her. When I asked her to move the stuff she ignored me. I tried again, same result: head down, as if I didn’t exist. OK, now I bent down so I was harder to ignore and told her she needed to let the woman sit; said the other person had a right to a seat. Finally she talks, in a kind of astonished and disrespectful voice, ‘You don’t understand, I’m beautiful!’

Does her beauty make her happier, I wondered? Are her gorgeous selfies (I’m sure she has a ton) the path to everlasting bliss? Taking them, making them, reviewing them, sharing them, comparing them?

The back-to-back hardships of the Great Depression (1929-1939) and World War II (1939-1945), contributed to a more modest and realistic view of a life worth living: a selfie-less and more selfless life. In 1931, James Truslow Adams coined a soon famous expression capturing something now lost and redefined, “that the American Dream of a better, richer, happier life (be available) for all our citizens of every rank.” Not fame or Midas-like wealth, but “enough” in the reach of all.

Granted, he didn’t include blacks in his vision, but at least his view was independent of constant social comparisons, Kardashianized aspirations, and the belief more is always better: a bigger residence, finer clothes, and social status. Where happiness is somehow attached to what you buy and the ability to turn heads until they swivel. Where college is intended not to enlighten you to the glorious natural world, man’s loftiest thoughts, and responsibility to his fellow creatures, but to learn enough technique to receive special treatment for you and your wallet.

I believe a good part of today’s unhappiness, not including the genuine want suffered by so many, is that a large number of those doing pretty-well want more and more with no end to their wanting. Want for themselves.

Perhaps no limit exists because there is always someone with more. We envy greater beauty, infinite wealth, a bigger house, a superior job when they are not ours. Envy assumes “my life would be better if only …” according to Joseph Epstein. TV, not to mention the internet and other vehicles of voyeurism, show people flaunting their prosperity. We know how much they make for a living, where they reside, and what cars they drive. The “information highway” and its attendant loss of privacy fuels our desire and our frustration.

The question then becomes not how can I get more of what they have (and thereby grab on to more happiness), but does this path lead to my goal?

Christopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore, in a 2010 article in Psychological Science, provided data from 12,000 British adults which supports the notion that comparing ourselves to others is a problem. The authors found that “the rank position of an individual’s income within his reference group dominated the explanation of life satisfaction. “In other words, “satisfaction is gained from each ‘better than’ comparison and lost for each ‘worse than’ comparison.’” Moreover, their subjects tended to make comparisons to those above themselves in income 1.75 times more than they made those comparisons to those below them.

Following the same logic, even if your wage increases by a substantial amount, your sense of well-being might not substantially increase unless the extra salary changes your rank within your comparison group (or unless your paycheck is relatively modest, as noted below). If all incomes go up without changing your rank you would be no happier.

All this envy-induced pain might be justified if it motivated people and led to the prosperity needed to unlock the door to serenity. The problem is, the key doesn’t work. Indeed, international ratings of life satisfaction put the USA high, but not as high as you’d think given our superior wealth. We rank 19th of the 34 OECD countries in the 2017 World Happiness Report.

Psychological research suggests that beyond $75,000 in annual income, you don’t get much hedonic bang for the additional buck. In other words, all the things you would buy with the extra money your neighbor has won’t make your moment-to-moment experience of life much more pleasing unless your income was unexceptional in the first place.

What does this mean at a practical level? In the December 23, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel wrote:

When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the local movie theater, and you saw what was playing that week. Now I can see almost any movie from the entire history of cinema whenever I feel like it. Am I any happier as a result? I doubt it.”

Sound familiar? Similar to kids who are thrilled with their long yearned-for Christmas gifts, we adults put most new material acquisitions on the shelf or use them with little delight after a small passage of time. Warning: if shopping is the way you fill yourself up, this is your future.

The temporary “high” of a new purchase is diminished because of “hedonic adaptation.” Put simply, we get accustomed to things. The momentary excitement of the new possession soon wanes, like the smell of a new car.

Ah, but hope is not dead. The ancient moral philosophers of Greece and Rome recommended less concern with status, wealth, and material things. Instead, they suggested personal contentment would come from knowing yourself, performing social acts of virtue and public good, and friendship. Researchers now recognize the important part friendship, doing good, and being grateful can have on well-being.

The psychologist Csíkszentmihályi offers another path to satisfaction. He points to the capacity of productive and engaging work to produce a sense of “living in the moment:” unmindful of past and future because of being pleasantly engrossed in the present. This is called the “flow” state, one in which you are completely focused at a maximum level of performance and untroubled, positive experience. “In the zone” as athletes describe it. A different path to living in the moment, of course, is the mindfulness meditation of those master meditators who are among the happiest folks on earth.

Social scientists also remind us that married people are happier than those going solo, although it is unclear whether this is due to the positive influence of marriage on well-being, the possibility individuals who are relatively happy are more likely to marry, or some other cause.

Last point: data analysis by Christopher Boyce and Alex Wood in their 2010 article in Health Economics, Policy and Law found a short-term course of psychotherapy is at least 32 times more effective than monetary awards in improving a sense of well-being among those who have experienced some form of injury or loss.

I’ve said enough. I imagine you are scheduling a therapy appointment already.

The top Foto is the work of Catarinasilva25 and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The four paintings also come from Wikimedia Commons and are described in this way on Wikipedia:

The Four Freedoms is a series of four 1943 oil paintings by the American artist Norman Rockwell. The paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—are each approximately 45.75 inches (116.2 cm) × 35.5 inches (90 cm), and are now in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The four freedoms refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union address in which he identified essential human rights that should be universally protected. The theme was incorporated into the Atlantic Charter, and became part of the charter of the United Nations. The paintings were reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post over four consecutive weeks in 1943, alongside essays by prominent thinkers of the day.

What Your Therapist Might Not Mention: How Assumptions about Happiness Cause Your Unhappiness

d4cfa75db406898a2cf6cb8082406d91

I’m about to suggest you challenge your beliefs. Why? Because I’ll bet many of them aren’t working. Yes, you — the guy with the comb over!

Unless you are unlucky, you possess a level of convenience far greater than the kings and queens of history. I’m referring to indoor plumbing, TV, and computers. You have the possibility of air travel, superior medical care, and a better chance of a long life. Are you happier than they were?

Probably not.

Perhaps the route we plot to emotional well-being isn’t the best one.

  • Material wealth (aka, “The American Dream”) is not the road to happiness. Beyond income of $70,000 per year, money doesn’t generate much moment-to-moment improvement in your emotional state.
  • Most people don’t spend money wisely once their necessities are obtained. Research suggests you will achieve more well-being by purchasing experiences over things. Moreover, if you buy coffee for the guy behind you in line you’ll get more bliss than if you order a more expensive drink for yourself.
  • Comparisons to people alive today (in terms of wealth, status, and the things they own) probably matter more to you than comparisons to your ancestors. We are reminded far more than our forebears of our relative disadvantage next to the highly placed folks around us. People tend to compare “up” — to those better off  — more often than “down.” Thank radio, TV, and the Internet for highlighting your disadvantage. No such information sources existed 100 years ago.
  • Once you get something you want (an object, an accomplishment or a baby), the achievement will shortly lose its fascination. Like the kid at Christmas, your new toy soon moves to the shelf. (Warning: Don’t put your kid on a shelf!) The data demonstrate that growing children make parents less happy than they were before the stork delivered them. As to trophies, they become part of the background, not the foreground of your life. The thrill disappears and your level of happiness drops. This is called hedonic adaptation. We live on a hedonic treadmill and find it impossible to permanently race ahead and keep our joy elevated.
  • Rest — many of us want more — is a recipe for disaster. Too much time on our hands permits troubled thoughts to unsettle us.

Put those items together and you will recognize we aren’t very good at knowing what will make us happy. Worse yet, we believe we are entitled to happiness. I doubt that our grandparents believed this. Notions of “fairness” and “deserving” weren’t as common. The idea of being singled out for punishment by man or fate was unseemly to talk about. Being a “man” meant not complaining. Bad things happened. Mistakes were made. Rub some dirt on the wound and get back into the game.

I am not talking here about frank physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, but rather the common ups and downs of life including betrayal by friends, cheating of all kinds, the loss of jobs, non-devastating accidents and injuries, and even illness.

Today we challenge authority for inadequacies routinely accepted as a part of life 50 years ago. We complain about doctors and school teachers. Perfection, or close to it, is expected. Things are supposed to work, not break down. We blame someone else when they don’t perform as advertised. Since everything does eventually wear out — human and machine — we feel cheated. Somehow we’ve lost an understanding of the temporary nature of our creations, the imperfect nature of everything. We are unhappier for believing in permanence and near perfection as the natural state of things — assumptions about what life is supposed to be and won’t ever be.

Denslow's_Humpty_Dumpty_pg_9

Technology has spoiled us. We don’t typically observe our loved ones suffer and die in our homes any more. They are elsewhere, caught in the miracle of medicine. In a world where 60 is the new 40, no one is expected to die at 50, the average life expectancy in the first decade of the last century. We’ve become aggrieved and petulant, demanding someone else make our lives better. We wait for perfect cures and perfect washing machines never requiring repair or replacement, with a guarantee of happiness because of them.

Humanity makes a crucial mistake. We misunderstand a common phrase: “the cost of living.” Ask 100 well-educated people for a definition and 99 will say, “the money a family needs to survive —  enough food and a decent place to live.”

Wrong.

The real cost of living consists of the bruises, injuries, and heartbreaks endured in any life; the disappointments and the wearing away. The need to replace things, change ideas, and say goodbye far too often. The betrayals and violations. The personal mistakes and poor choices. The Humpty Dumptyness of life. The regret, guilt, and anxiety. The tears. The fear of the future and the wish to “do over” the past. The decline and fall of things more personal than the Roman Empire.

I don’t think this is a dystopian view of life, but a realistic one. Much else makes life worth its toll: friendship, love, sports, and books. Or food, art, architecture, and the beauty of nature. How about kindness, music, and sex? Add victory, accomplishment, and learning — all of these are wonderful. Worth, to me, the cost of living and more.

Consider a suggestion: erase all your assumptions about how life is supposed to work, whatever advice your mom gave you, and take a second look. Decide for yourself whether your beliefs are working. Be an iconoclast. Break the graven images in your home and in your head. Start with a blank sheet of paper and challenge all you know. You might need to look for happiness in new attitudes, activities, goals, and people.

One other thing. Give life everything you have. Don’t play it safe in the hope of avoiding a knockout punch.

Life will impose its cost of living whether you take your best shot or not. You might as well get your money’s worth.

The second image comes from page 9 of Denslow’s Humpty Dumpty. It is sourced from Thornamentalist via Wikimedia Commons.

Subtle Predictors of Relationship Success: What Time and Food will Tell You

512px-Daylightsavings

“Time will tell,” but not the way you think. How a person relates to time, not the passage of time, is telling. Immediately telling.

When you ask what kind of partner you need in a roommate, love mate, friend or boss, it’s easy to miss subtle signs. “Chemistry” is insufficient in a long-term love match, however necessary. Nor is it enough that “He’s a sweet guy.” How he relates to time and food is no less important than matters of money and sex, which I discussed just last week. My essay on the importance of cash and the conjugal to relationship success is here.

What might TIME tell you? Years ago, an (East) Indian acquaintance said, “Americans view time as the enemy, while we value time as our friend.” No wonder Westerners are in such a rush by comparison to some South Asia denizens, although I suspect their “westernization” has made time less friendly.

People obsessed with time are over-driven, insecure, fearful of failing or being left behind, unable to relax. They worry time may “run out” while someone else is ahead. Mortality concerns can drive this. The Death Clock’s ticking will not make your life more easeful, although some amount of mortality awareness encourages good use of the time you have.

Meanwhile, the chronically late — indifferent to the hour — display a lack of responsibility and consideration; at least on occasion expecting you to wait, thinking themselves entitled to tardiness. Delay controls others (intended or not), as in the CEO who makes you sit in the lobby long past your scheduled appointment. Lateness is his method of putting you in your place, affirming his dominant position.

Clock-watching has a short history. “On time” arrival only became possible when most everyone had a pocket watch or a clock nearby, and transportation (trains) capable of keeping to a schedule. Even into the tenure of President Lincoln, a precise start for a conclave was impossible if someone were coming from a considerable distance. The phrase “on time” didn’t exist until travel schemes were predictable.

The tyranny of the clock starts from that moment.

Knowledge of how a spouse or an employee deals with timeliness and deadlines is important to any successful home or work situation. A mismatch between two people in their response to time-pressure is like sitting a right-handed person to the left of a left-hander at dinner: they will often bump arms and hands as they eat.

Car trips taken by the time-incompatible couple unsettle both. One races to get to the destination ahead of schedule, while the other sits in fear of his life. Yet a good partner can calm the overstressed clock-watcher, providing the balance he needs: a person with perspective that not everything is a matter of desperate urgency.

Preoccupation with the seconds demonstrates little patience, triggering abruptness or irritation when things don’t move fast enough.

The minutes also figure into whether one can delay gratification. Parents dare not assume their small children will be responsive to the promise of distant rewards in return for good behavior. Most small kids are incapable of waiting the (for them) psychological eternity of a month or a year.

Even some adults find a challenge in the self-scheduling required to achieve long-term goals. They live unfocused lives, unable to structure the day to, quite literally, make the grade in college or graduate school classes, with their payoff of a distant reward. The academic equivalent of the Bataan Death March surely is a Ph.D. program. The Ph.D. Completion Project’s 2008 report on the success rate within 10 years of beginning that trek is 57 percent over all. The best advice I ever received was this, from my dissertation advisor: “The most important thing about your dissertation is to finish.”

Time fools us. We have a bucket list, but might kick it before we get to the carefully considered written items. We assume a dream deferred will be as fulfilling in twenty year’s time as it is today. Heraclitus knew otherwise. “You cannot step into the same river twice.” Why? The river has moved on and you have changed, as well. The guy who steps into the river at 60 isn’t the young man he was at 20, either inside or out. Ripeness is all. The attractiveness of the bucket list items can alter, just as the 18-year-old prom king and queen might not set you afire 30 years later.

Finally, the ability to endure a long delay for worthwhile goal finds the greatest challenge in matters of sex, especially for young people. However much some wish to practice abstinence, remember that our ancestors had strong sexual urges. Those who put off having intercourse reproduced less than those who didn’t. We have been tilted toward the sex act by evolution — sooner, not later. The coitus-deferring cave man is not the ancient father of our tribe.

 

512px-Supreme_pizza

FOOD is more than a necessity. It can be sensual (as in the movies Tom Jones and Big Night). Meals and munching soothe. They are one way to appease internal emptiness, or attempt to do so. Butter and bread (choose you poison) calm the nerves. The offer of sustenance shows affection, from a mother to a child or a host toward guests.

Food (as in lavish dinner parties) takes the form of ostentation: look what I can do! Victuals are a medical intervention — chicken soup, of course! Anti-anxiety and anti-depressant self-medicating edibles can kill you, on the other hand, if you are morbidly obese.

Observe people eat. Speed-diners “chow down” too fast to experience the sensual pleasure of their fare. They attend to the business inside the brain, or read or talk. Their opposites consume slowly, preoccupied with holding court; as if the train (and their audience) will wait for them.

Food for the body builder or the anorexic positions mind over matter to bring the corporeal to heel — to make the flesh do one’s bidding against its wishes. By gaining control of nourishment and the cravings created by the metabolism, one controls or constricts distress, intended or not.

In places where starvation is occurring — think famines — the absence of food causes a severe dampening-down of feelings. In that circumstance, one cannot allow the emotions to gain sway lest they become unbearable. Those who “feel” too much do not survive.

My mother had an unhappy experience in high school during the Great Depression. With only enough money for a candy bar at lunch, food became a life-long preoccupation, well past the time of her malnourishment. Even into early old age she would shop for groceries every day, to reassure herself of an adequate supply.

Food is a dependable friend in an insecure world. Taste and mass quantities will never let you down. The sex-starved sometimes substitute this pleasure for that.

Last, food provides a protection against sex.* I have known female patients who wanted to keep themselves overweight for fear of attracting male interest, with its potential for rejection and heartbreak or sexual assault. Copious flesh was a necessary barrier, the walls of a citadel.

The next time you are on a date, rather than the usual questions, try those that might offer you a secret passage into the soul. Chemistry shoots off skyrockets, looks and “values” are crucial. Still, the things you miss in your dating intake interview will either eat you up on a daily basis or make routine events funny, joyous, and reassuring.

Most of us expect others to know themselves, so we ask questions hoping for enlightenment about mutual compatibility. Self-knowledge, however, is rarer than diamonds. In reality, we learn as much or more from the words unsaid and unknown to the new person himself, not to mention his behavior.

The sex of things is like quicksand, pulling you in. The pheromones intoxicate. The brain’s response to the chemical content of a first kiss says, “She’s the one!” But most of a life lived together is comparatively mundane. Compatible attitudes toward money and time are the breaking or making of affection. Sex and food mean more than pleasure and nutrition. Time and money concerns cannot be easily trumped by visceral attraction alone — in the short run, yes, in the long run… Marriages are for the long run, at least we hope so.

A relationship menu has two columns. One shows all the qualities you think you want: a good provider, a sexy partner, babies, etc. Column B is initially almost invisible, dwarfed by the giant font in Column A. Best to learn how to read the second column before you make your choices from the first.

*For additional commentary on the various psychological forms sex takes, please read this: Sex and Its Functions.

The Daylight Savings image comes from the U.S. Federal Government. The Supreme Pizza with Pepperoni, Peppers, Olives, and Mushrooms is the work of Scott Bauer. These are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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

sc0017ba4c

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sc00186b40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blizzard_Dec12_2010_Minneapolis_“”(MN)

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Make Yourself and Those You Love Miserable

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/ae/Bertram_Mackennal_-_Grief.jpg/500px-Bertram_Mackennal_-_Grief.jpg

It is easy to find on-line guidance to a better life. But the recommendations contained on those self-help web sites (and in books that aim at the same audience) have become almost too commonplace to make any impact.

The remedy? Something that is just the opposite: a list of suggestions on how to make yourself and others miserable. Of course, I’m not wishing that you follow these directions. Rather, I’m hoping that some of you who might yawn at still another list of “things to do” to improve your life, will be struck by the things you already do that make it much worse.

Here goes:

  • Regularly compare your material and financial circumstances to others, especially to those who are doing better than you are.
  • Make a list of all the people who have wronged you over the years and try to remember exactly how awful they made you feel. Think about those who owe you an apology. Forgive no one. Let no slight be too small to dwell on it.
  • Carry on a vendetta. Stay up late at night planning and plotting how you might get back at people. Stay angry. Let all your hatred out in blistering, profane, and cowardly “flames” behind the mask of the Internet.
  • Give your children gifts rather than your time. Set no limits on them. Then wait until they are teenagers and wonder why they are depressed or rebellious.
  • Curse the darkness, the winter, the cold, the rain, the frailty of the human condition, and all the other things that you can’t change.
  • Get impatient with the people who are walking in front of you at a snail’s pace, the couples whose bodies and shopping carts block the entire grocery aisle, and the slow progress of the check-out line at the store.

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/74/John_F._Kennedy_Inauguration_Speech.ogv/mid-John_F._Kennedy_Inauguration_Speech.ogv.jpg

  • Make no contribution to the betterment of humanity. Assume an attitude of entitlement. Figure out how to avoid work. Idle away your time. Ask “what your country can do for you,” not “what you can do for your country” in opposition to JFK’s 1960 inaugural address admonition.
  • Forever rationalize your dishonorable or questionable behavior or deny it altogether, even to yourself.
  • Persuade yourself that you need to wait until you feel better before you do the difficult thing that you have been postponing. Keep waiting, even if the time never comes when you believe that you can take action.
  • Do not let conversation with your spouse or children get in the way of watching TV. Keep the TV on most of the time, most importantly at family dinners. If possible have a television in every room.
  • Ignore the beauty of a spring or summer day, the newly fallen snow, and the cheerful laugh of small child. Stay in-doors as much as possible, year round.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d8/Sommerblumen01.JPG/240px-Sommerblumen01.JPG

  • Allow yourself to be upset by overpaid, under-performing athletes who doom the home team to continued failure. Yes, Cubs fans, this means you!
  • Treat emotions of sadness, tenderness, and hurt as your enemy. Push them away and thereby alienate yourself from yourself. Curtail grieving and try to deaden your feelings to the point of numbness.
  • Work up as much hatred as possible toward opposition political parties. Listen to every talking head who wants to whip you into a frenzy.
  • Expect justice and fairness in all things.
  • Drink too much, drug too much, and spend every extra minute on the web or playing computer games instead of having direct human contact with someone who is in the same room with you. Further distract yourself from your problems by watching TV and listening to music. Escape reality.

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4b/Jack_rose.jpg/120px-Jack_rose.jpg

  • Keep using failed solutions to your problems even though they haven’t worked in years, if ever.
  • Behave in mid-life the way you did as a young person; or, if you are a young person, behave the way you did as a child. Do not reflect on or learn from experience which might teach you something new.
  • Use others instrumentally. That is, value them only in terms of what they can do for you. Lie, cheat, betray, and steal from them if that serves your interests. Then wonder why people mistrust you.
  • Spend as much time as possible worrying about the future and regretting the past, rather than living in the irreplaceable moment.
  • Aim low. Avoid the disappointment that comes with high expectations. When the going gets tough, quit.
  • Train yourself to be a miser. Practice selfishness. Hold on to your money as if you expect to live forever and will need every last cent. Make Scrooge from A Christmas Carol your hero.

File:Chicklet-currency.jpg

  • Judge others less fortunate than you are by using the phrases “he should have known better,” “he didn’t try hard enough,” and the like. Assume that all people deserve whatever misfortune befalls them. Disdain compassion, but remain puzzled when others call you heartless.
  • Indulge in every available excess: unprotected sex, food, spending, smoking, caffeine, etc. Don’t exercise. Ignore medical advice and, even better, avoid going to your doctor. Treat your body badly and then wonder why it betrays you.
  • Be sarcastic, passive-aggressive, and indirect whenever you are injured rather than looking someone in the eye and expressing your displeasure in a straight-forward fashion.
  • Avoid facing things. Give in to your fears, anxieties, and phobias.

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5b/Children_in_Sonargaon.jpg/240px-Children_in_Sonargaon.jpg

  • Don’t let anyone know you well. Believe that your vulnerabilities will always be used against you. Keep social interactions on the surface. Eschew intimacy and maintain your distance, thinking that this is the best way to avoid personal injury. Trust no one!
  • Assume that the normal social rules regarding fidelity to friends and lovers don’t apply to you. Hold on to a double-standard that favors you.
  • Insist on having your way. Don’t compromise. Don’t consider others’ needs or wants. Assume a position of moral superiority, self-righteousness, and arrogance in things religious, political, and personal.
  • Do everything others ask of you. Rarely say “no.”
  • Try to control people and events as much as you can. Don’t go with the flow. Micromanage. Hover over others. Repeat complaints to them incessantly. Remind subordinates, friends, spouses, and children of small errors, even if they are ancient history.
  • Make no significant effort to better your life. Depend on others to take care of you and make all significant decisions for you. Be a burden.
  • Raise all your children exactly the same way even though it is obvious that they are not all the same.
  • Imitate vampires (who have no reflection in the mirror and therefore keep their mirrors shrouded) by never really looking hard at your own reflection in the looking-glass. That is, never take a frank inventory of your strengths and weaknesses or the mistakes you’ve made. Be like the evil queen in Snow White, whose only desire was that the mirror would tell her that she was “the fairest of them all.”
  • Whenever you talk with someone, wonder what they really mean, pondering the possibility that they find you boring, stupid or physically unattractive.
  • Feed yourself on gossip more than food. Delight in talking about others behind their backs.
  • Value beauty, appearance, reputation, and material success over integrity, knowledge, kindness, hard work, and love.
  • Try to change others, but do not try to change yourself. Take no responsibility for your life circumstances, instead blaming those who have stymied you.
  • Stay just as you are regardless of changing life conditions. For example, if wearing warm clothes worked for you when you lived in Alaska, continue to wear them when you move to Arizona in July.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/37/Enrico_Caruso_VI.png/240px-Enrico_Caruso_VI.png

  • Don’t forgive yourself. Maintain the most perfectionistic and demanding moral and performance standard even if you are not a brain surgeon. Stay up at night castigating yourself over every imperfection, no matter how small.
  • Make a list of all the things that are wrong with your life, all the opportunities lost, every heartbreak, and the physical features and bodily changes that you don’t like. Stew in your own juices. Salt your wounds. Pick at your scabs.
  • Take everything personally.
  • Permit friends, family, and co-workers to walk all over you. Do not stand up to them for fear of causing offense and disapproval.
  • Discount your blessings. Concentrate on the dark side of life.
  • Never even consider going into psychotherapy. Assume that this is something only for those who are weak and that anyone who needs to grapple with emotional issues in counseling demonstrates a failure of will power and logic.

With thanks for the inspiration for this essay to Dan Greenberg and Marcia Jacobs, co-authors of a very funny, but ironic book entitled How to Make Yourself Miserable.

The top image is Grief by Edgar Bertram Mackenna. The video frame that follows is from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural speech. The next image is Sommerblumenstrauss by A. Gundelach. The following photo by Andygoodell is A Jack Rose Cocktail. The fifth picture is of two children in Bangladesh by Nafis Kamal, while the sixth is called Chicklet-Currency courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. After the image from Disney’s Snow White, is a 1911 photo of Enrico Caruso, the great Italian tenor. All but the Snow White frame are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Earning Your Life: Teaching Kids the Value of Work, Not Entitlement

http://st4tic.files.wordpress.com/2008/01/workers.jpg

Most of my teenage friends worked in the summer, but I might have been the only one to work every day after class during the last two years of high school.

It wasn’t by choice. My dad, a child of the Great Depression, required it. I protested that it would affect my school work and I think it probably did, but not so much that I didn’t do well.

I accepted my dad’s work dictum, but generally felt put-upon that I, in the minority among the lower-middle class kids I hung around with, had to do this. In the end, it taught me a good deal, as I shall relate to you.

I’d catch the Lincoln Avenue bus and transfer to the Ravenswood elevated train at Western Avenue. This would take me into the “Loop,” that place where the elevated tracks encircle a good part of what is also called “Downtown Chicago.” During my junior year of  high school I was employed at Chicago Band Repair/Ace Crystal Service, my Uncle Sam’s business.

There, I learned to make simple repairs on expansion watch bands, pack and ship glass watch crystals that had been ground to size on a lathe (this was in the days before plastic watch crystals), dispatch those repaired expansion bands, and run errands. The next year I was an “office boy” at David Altman Law Offices on La Salle Street (still in the Loop) doing filing, errands, and running a Multilith machine, the offset duplicating equipment that was used to copy and print large quantities of legal documents.

Those jobs were interesting enough. There were always lots of things to do, little “down time,” and some entertaining people whose life experience was entirely different from my own. At my Uncle’s place at 5 S. Wabash in the Mallers Building I worked with an almost entirely black and mostly female staff in the days just before the major civil rights legislation was passed. At the law office, it was lawyers and secretaries — all white and all white-collar. In both places I fit in pretty well and got treated pretty well.

But it was the summer work at one job that I hated. I was a college student by then, just having finished my junior year. The place was an un-air conditioned metal stamping factory. I had two mind-deadening tasks. One was bending the backs of metal bucket seats using a simple machine. The other was assembling a small gasket. Each job took a matter of seconds. Once you learned how to do it, you never got better at it, and the assignment never changed. You just did the same thing over and over and over. For eight hours, five days a week, while swimming in a river of sweat.

I started by punching in at 7:00 AM, which meant that I had to get up at around 5:00 AM in order to get to work on time. If I stayed out at all late the night before, I paid for it dearly the next day with the extra-strenuous effort that was required to stay awake while performing my deadly dull duties. You know the feeling — each eye lid seems to weigh 400 pounds and sleep beckons more enticingly than the most beautiful woman and more insistently than the most demanding boss.

I recall one day in particular. The summer was a hot one and the factory retained heat. Water was essential to avoid dehydration. Even so, it felt peculiar to be drenched in sweat at my work station at 7:00 AM in a building where the thermometer already registered over 100º Fahrenheit. Dutiful as ever, I did my best that day to keep alert and be productive. Three hours must have passed before I looked at the clock on the wall. It said 7:15 AM! It seemed impossible, but only 15 minutes had elapsed since the moment of my clocking in. Like a bad science fiction film, time had come close to stopping and eternity seemed nearer than the end of the work day.

I so-hated the job that I found another one that summer in order to get out of the factory, where both the duties and the temperature were liquefying my brain. But it was an experience I never forgot, nor the fact that there were men there who did work only slightly more sophisticated and challenging than I did, and continued to do it for the rest of their working lives.

Earlier, during the summer before my second year in college, I worked in the mail room at Edward H. Weiss Advertising Agency. I made about $1.25 per hour. I had a girlfriend named Beverly that summer and she fancied the idea of going horse back riding. One Saturday afternoon we did just that in Lincoln Park. But, to my dismay, I discovered that the horses cost $3.00 per hour. I knew something was wrong if an equine commanded a better wage than I did!

So what exactly did I learn from experiences such as that?

First, that honest labor at whatever level is nothing to look down upon. There are many worse jobs than those I did, but some of mine were bad enough to make me appreciate the men and women who make a living at tasks that provide little room for growth, excitement, or creativity. My hat is off to them and to what they do for their families and their children.

Second, those jobs taught me how to get along with people whose backgrounds were different from mine, in some cases individuals of a different color, sometimes of a different social status (both higher and lower), including people whose parents and grandparents had gone to college (as mine had not) and those who only could hope that their kids might some day be able to obtain more than a high school degree. I came to see the nobility in simple labor; the complexity and skill required to work precisely with your hands; the meaning of craftsmanship, duty, and dedication. I also learned respect for authority even when the authority wasn’t always fair, and the value of being able to make the best of a situation that wasn’t ideal.

I realized, too, that if one had some good fortune — in my case the opportunity to go to college along with parents who encouraged me to become educated and scholarships and fellowships that enabled me to obtain graduate degrees — one should take advantage of it. I saw, up close, that life could be different from what I hoped my life would be, and that the “different” path was one that I did not want to traverse.

And, I have come to appreciate, every day of my life, how lucky I am to do the work that I do. Work that is interesting, mostly in my control (since I am my own boss), and that has allowed me to make a good life for my children; labor that does not always feel like labor, that I do not dread, and that is challenging, enriching, and satisfying to myself and those I serve.

My friend Jeff Carren, who is an attorney, tells me that he has encountered new hires into legal practice (that is, new lawyers) who had never held a full-time job until they became associates at a law firm. And, that they were stunned at the amount of effort that “work” — a new job, any job — requires.

Perhaps then, in light of my experience, you will not be surprised to know that my kids, despite heavy academic and extra-curricular loads, both were gainfully employed part-time during high school. My oldest, Jorie, did her regular stint as a barista at Star Bucks, while Carly did lots of baby sitting. And, both performed full-time summer jobs when school wasn’t in session. They too, have learned the value of hard work and the worth of a dollar earned from that labor; that is, they have learned the one additional lesson of my early life experience — that money does not grow on trees. They discovered, early enough, what it feels like to “earn” a thing — quite a different sensation from having it given to you. And they have, thankfully, grown up without the sense of “entitlement” that is so pervasive in American youth.

JFK put the entitlement issue in quite a different context when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Similarly, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) in the movie Saving Private Ryan tells Ryan to “Earn It” as the latter faces the fact that men have given their lives to save him. That is, “earn” your life by making something of it, so that those who gave their lives for you will not have died in vain.

There is great value in “earning” your life. And, the way it starts is by doing work, “making” a living — in effect, doing what is required to sustain yourself and others.

Parents need to remember that we can let our children down just as much by expecting too little of them, as by expecting too much; as much by overprotection as neglect.

We are not entitled to anything — not you, not me, not our kids. Life can be a gift of opportunity, but there is no free lunch.

It is work, hard and honest labor, that helps to teach this lesson.

Thanks, Dad.

Self-Defeating Behavior and the Path to Loneliness

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/0b/Africa_lonely_kids.jpg/240px-Africa_lonely_kids.jpg

What price would you be willing to pay to feel that you are special? I will tell you a story of one young woman who has paid that price and then some. She is an example of how we sometimes defend our self-image at the cost of our happiness.

The patient of another psychologist, I knew this woman for about 20 years, filling-in for her therapist when he was on vacation. Gloria (not her real name) had a tragic early life. She was victimized by her parents’ verbal and physical abuse and neglect, and became an easy target for schoolmates. Gloria was unlucky, too, in that she was born with slightly less than average intelligence. Making things even worse, her body was naturally graceless and her facial features were less than attractive. But, Gloria could be sweet and socially engaging, willing and able to approach strangers and make conversation despite a long history of rejection.

Even with all her disadvantages and misfortunes, Gloria, now a middle-aged woman, might still be able to have a good and pleasing social life except for one thing: she believes that she is the world’s unluckiest person, the record-setter for having received the greatest misfortune in the history of the planet. Moreover, she feels compelled to report her tale of woe to those people she begins to get to know, very early in her relationship to them. This has the predictable result — they shy away from her, leaving her feeling rejected once more, and adding to her claim that she has been the most ill-treated human in recorded history.

I am not being facetious here; I once asked her to compare herself to various victims of misfortune including those who had been tortured, suffered in natural disasters, lived in concentration camps, or been plagued with disfiguring and painful illnesses. She assured me that her lot in life was far worse than any of them; and, that it was only fair and reasonable to expect people to be sympathetic to her and give her some of the understanding, sympathy, and support she had always been lacking.

Thus, Gloria pursues with a vengeance the comfort and affection that she believes she has coming to her. Her sense of entitlement to this, her insistence that her fellow-man should and must provide this, drives people away from her in her striving for the love she has never had. Of course, her therapist points out to her the self-defeating nature of this strategy, the need first to establish relationships based on something other than the other person’s willingness to listen to her sadness and anger. Gloria doesn’t accept this, unfortunately. The world and the rest of the human race owe her this hearing (so it seems to her), the sooner the better, and it is only fair and just to expect them to deliver what she wants.

Gloria is smart enough to understand that people she hardly knows might not have much patience or interest in accepting her premature self-disclosure. And so, you might well ask, why does she continue to do the same thing over and over with the same bad result? Why doesn’t she try something different?

After much consideration of that question, here is the best answer I can provide. First, Gloria is so desperate and needy, so starved for affection, that it is difficult for her to restrain herself from lunging at the thing she desires whenever she first sights it. But, more importantly, I think the one thing that Gloria values above everything in her life is her self-appointed status as The Most Unfortunate Person in World History.

Now, you might say that you wouldn’t want to hold that particular title. But, think about it. I suspect that this designation gives Gloria the only form of distinction she could every expect to achieve in life. Without it, she is simply a sad, angry, lonely, unattractive, unaccomplished, anonymous person; but with it, she is something special, someone who stands out from the crowd, a noteworthy individual, one in six billion, the leader in her class. And the self-nourishment she receives from licking the wounds attendant to this awful position in life almost certainly provides her with some amount of solace.

I’m sure Gloria would deny the psychological explanation I’ve just provided for her self-defeating behavior and I cannot promise you that it is accurate. But I would ask you this. Do you know people who persist in self-defeating behavior despite all the advice, therapy, or wise counsel offered by friends, relatives, and therapists? Have you sometimes wondered why they do so?

Often the answer isn’t “logical” in that it doesn’t “make sense” intellectually. But, it just might make sense emotionally, as I believe it does for Gloria. If, somewhere deep inside, she doesn’t really believe that she can achieve the life she wants, her behavior suggests that she has found a method, however self-defeating it is, to give herself some of the sense of status and recognition that life hasn’t and probably won’t provide to her.

Gloria was dealt a bad hand in life. Her response to that deal of the cards is instructive. She seems to have chosen a sort of fantasy, a story about herself that compensates her for her misfortune, just as it simultaneously fuels her continued loneliness. But be careful should you wish to dismiss her behavior as “crazy” too quickly. We all do self-defeating things in life.

Before you condemn her, check yourself out in the mirror.

The drawing above is called Africa Lonely Kids by Myfacebook. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.