The Need for Escape

The sense of being trapped may be a universal experience. Think of the small child who tries to wrestle out of his parent’s protective arms. The teen who hates curfew. The high school grad who can’t wait to leave home.

Other examples come to mind:

  • The suffocating boyfriend from whom you must free yourself.
  • The hated boss.
  • The stifling career.
  • The moribund marriage.
  • A restrictive religion and its too many rules.

Why are we so offended by the stickiness of things, of being like a fly on flypaper? Why do fences shout “Jump”? What is it about walls that beg us to climb, even as recreation?

  • Our ancient ancestors, the hunters and gatherers, needed to keep moving to find food and shelter. They profited by sensing and staying away from those animals and humans who menaced them. We inherited their survival tendencies. The complacent and trusting souls who acted otherwise and perished didn’t pass on their genes.
  • The instinctive man inside of us habituates quickly: he gets used to things, becomes restless, gets bored. Dissatisfaction is built into our nature, the better to thrive and survive. Were we satisfied by a single meal, with no recurring hunger, we’d starve. If sex so “blissed-out” cave-dwellers after one or two couplings, you and I would not exist.
  • The passage of time creates urgency. We don’t lead infinite lives. Want to be an Olympic star? Don’t wait until 30 to start practicing. The desire for love, too, means you must dive into the swim while your sparkle still can catch the eye of another aquatic creature.

The grass always being greener, where to? When? The five-year-old doesn’t run away because he can’t make a life on his own. The abused spouse with the ground-to-bits self-image holds her hopeless spot for fear worse awaits her elsewhere. The dissatisfied employee stays put in an economic depression. We all know out-of-love couples who remain married for the children, the worry of being vilified by co-religionists, and the thought of owning one dollar, where they used to count two.

We sometimes stay when we should escape and leave when we should hesitate. I’ve done both. How do you tell whether flight is best or portends even worse? A few things to consider:

  • Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman states, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”
  • Psychologists remind us that experiences, not things, have more lasting value internally and are more positively remembered than buying one more material object.
  • We cannot escape ourselves entirely. One’s innate temperament makes a significant contribution to happiness.
  • What we choose to focus on and whether we set impossible goals also factor into our sense of satisfaction. These are within our control. The long-term practice of mindfulness meditation has been associated with happiness, as well.
  • Research suggests Midwesterners who believe life will be better in California simply because of the weather tend to discover fair weather, like almost everything else, gets absorbed into the background. Not only climate, of course, is subject to habituation: think money, a new car, and today’s Christmas toy – the new delight turned stale; closeted before the weather warms. In the absence of other factors that might sustain a sense of well-being, we return to our set point, a basic and more or less enduring emotional state.
  • A richer neighbor will always be a happiness-wrecker if $$ are the measure you crave. Above $75,000 per year, your moment-to-moment, experienced well-being doesn’t improve much.
  • On the other hand, more money does tend to increase life satisfaction: your opinion of your life when you stop and think about it. And, up to about $75,000 yearly income, moment-to-moment happiness does increase.
  • Ask yourself what is your default tendency. If you tend to change jobs quickly, for example, then the next question becomes, how is that working? If you are prone to stasis when dissatisfied, the same question must be answered.
  • Are other lives involved in your decision? Maybe moving to a new house is best for you, but will it work for the spouse and kids?
  • Try to predict how you will feel about your choice in five months or five years. We tend to be poor at “affective forecasting,” the ability to gauge the emotional consequences of our actions. Still, an attempt is required.
  • A 2017 paper by Blanchflower and Oswald suggests we reach a low point to our happiness in midlife (around the early 50s). Thereafter, in general, we rebound – major life change or not.
  • You will do better to know where you are going, than just the situation from which you flee.
  • Those prone to anxiety and worry tend to exaggerate the danger of taking a risk. Judgment is questionable when angry. If you can, wait for a cool moment to make a decision.
  • Who are you? What are your values? How do these translate into life as it is lived?
  • Is there more than one way to achieve the result you want?
  • You might ask yourself whether your internal life requires attention. The externals – other people, your job, your living conditions – are less in your control.
  • If you expect utter and permanent transformation following your leap from a stuck place – well – you could be expecting too much. Remember, though, nothing in life is permanent and one can do worse than reach for the beguiling flowers still in bloom.

One last thought: we get no free lunch. Staying and going – except in extreme circumstances where life depends on it – each have a cost. Sometimes the decision is easy, often we struggle. Some doors remain open a while, others close with a rush. None of us get this right every time. Indeed, even knowing whether there is a “right” road can be challenging, since we only know with certainty the chosen path, while the other avenue lives in an idealized state within our imagination.

We’ve all read stories about the courage of people real or imagined, and the fixedness and quiet desperation of others. Those lives may provide guidance, but making choices presents a challenge unless you are an inveterate risk-taker or so frozen in place that no heat wave can de-ice and free you.

We each have only this one life. Try not to die with too many regrets.

The top image is the Vatican Museum Staircase as photographed by Andreas Tille. Next is James Jowers’s L.E. Side. These were sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Finally comes a Space Escape Grunge Sign, created by Nicolas Raymond and available from: www.freestock.ca

A Dozen Ways to Avoid Regret (and a Warning about Endless Therapy)

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When we suffer regret we are, by definition, occupied with the past. We lament things we did or didn’t do, time lost, vanished opportunities. Perhaps, however, it would be useful thinking about how to avoid regret going forward. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Recognize life’s limitations, learn from failure, and don’t stop trying. Anyone with imagination can think of several possible lives to lead, places to go, experiences to pursue. If  you are honest you can even envision a different spouse or children, no matter your great good fortune in those you have. Thus, the world is like a candy store in which only so much consumption of sweets is possible, to borrow a metaphor from Haruki Murakami and Forrest Gump. The earlier you recognize this the more you are forced to refine and narrow your choices. Moreover, you must reach for some of those candies without ever having tasted them and before obtaining experience in how to grasp each one artfully, a guarantee of mistakes. We can only learn from disappointments and try again. Live your values as best you can: dive deep into those few candied heaps of life you deem worth the effort in the short time permitted. Don’t end your days saying, “I should have” or  “Why did I waste my time on … ” Or, worst of all, “Why didn’t I?” Michael Jordan, basketball hero, said:

I’ve missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games.Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

  • Improve your choices. Moving through life, take stock, reflect. Write down your analysis, perhaps every five or 10 years. Look where you’ve been, where you are, and where you would like to go. I’m talking about what career you might still pursue, what you’d like to learn about, how much of yourself you hope to devote to relationships, what personal characteristics you still wish to alter, where you’d like to live, what you’d like to see, and the legacy you might leave behind. No one can do everything, be everything. Too much candy, too little time, too much indigestion.
  • Since we can’t invent more hours, we are left to determine how best to spend our allotment. If you hope to become World Champion in the art of perusing and responding to tweets, stop reading this now. You are wasting minutes you could devote to your curious focus on 140 characters or less. For myself, I watch TV/video less than an hour a day on most days, except for those in the baseball season! Why? Because I value the time spent in the company of fine novelists, historians, and ancient philosophers more than what is on the tube. Some of this might strike you as elitist, but no. Literature isn’t automatically “superior” to TV, film, or theater. I’ve simply made a choice: my personal preference. You can find superb TV shows if that is what you believe is a good use of your day. I’m suggesting you think through choices. Assuming you are mature, the most satisfying life possible for you will be a life designed by you — not a consequence of habit or the persuasion of advertising, the boss, or friends. Quiet consideration of how you spend your waking hours is essential to the success of your plan, especially if you are not happy.
  • Be active, take risks, always seek to grow. Some of these endeavors will assume the form of self-disclosure and vulnerability, some the shape of honest self-reflection, some the act of trying new things. The courage to know yourself and then be yourself is never easy. The ground is shifting under all of us. Move, don’t sit still. Reinvent yourself, at least a bit. Proceed, don’t rush, but live with intensity. Walter Pater wrote:

To burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

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  • Be wary of bucket lists. I’m referring to the postponement of activities until late in life, the things you want to do before you begin residence below ground. Several problems come with delay: a) you might not live long enough. b) if you are forever looking forward you won’t live in the moment and experience joy in the now. c) bucket lists assume excellence at predicting what will bring fulfillment in 10, 20, or 40 years. We are poor at this. Research on “affective forecasting” (being able to predict how life events will influence our emotions) affirms the weakness. Richard Posner, in his book Aging and Old Age, puts the dilemma of anticipating our future self this way. Say we sentence a 20-year-old to life in prison. Are we punishing the same person when he is 65? That is, does a man change over time? Possibly deepen, mature, give up old hobbies and take on new ones, learn more; become enriched and transformed by love or literature or experience, turn grateful or embittered, for or against life? Unless we can predict the manner in which events and people will work on us and how we will work on ourselves, we might realize a long postponed trip to Paris would have been better in life’s springtime; or, in my case, a Chicago Cubs World Series victory would have meant more to me at 20, when I lived and died by the team’s fortunes, than it did in 2016. By the way, I didn’t plan on morphing into a less avid fan. I simply changed.
  • Regret can be a result of idealization. As Janet Landman observes in her book, Regret: The Persistence of the Possible, this emotional state is akin to the aftermath of a decision made at a fork in the road. We reach the divide and must choose. Proceeding down the chosen path, past the time of easily retracing our steps, we think: “I was mistaken. The other way was better.” But really, do we know?  We only understand the lived experience of the choice we made. The other avenue is easy to idealize because it exists in imagination, because we didn’t encounter the imperfections one can only suffer by a different choosing. Do you wish to spend a lifetime lamenting a mirage?
  • Ask whether there is another side to losses, mistakes, and missed opportunities. I am not Pollyanna. Few who read my writing regularly would think so, I suspect. I will say, however, that I have learned far more from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” than from any other source. Not every mistake can be rationalized, not every loss offers even close to equal compensation in some other form. But before you devote the rest of your days to regret, take a few moments to seek what can be learned from life’s hard and unequal distribution of pain. Perhaps you can create some good out of your awareness of those things you did or didn’t do, the words you said or didn’t say, the chances missed and the poorly chosen roads endured — if not for yourself, then for someone else.
  • Remember that research says you will be happier if you take newfound money and buy a cup of coffee for a stranger than if you use the gift for yourself. King Midas wasn’t a happy guy, was he? Take a hard look at your desire to gain triumphant, towering status and wealth.

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  • Be careful how much time you spend looking back. I am on thin ice in saying so. A good therapist begins with history. The untying of binding emotional knots is essential, often requiring discovery of how they came to be, where they remain, and more. Danger exists, however, in believing every knot requires attention, every cognitive or behavioral change demands agonizing soul-searching. Some will loosen with the passage of time, others aren’t too important. CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) is able to master many without endless and wrenching historical probing. Meanwhile, weigh the time spent on a backward focus versus possible gains from attention to the now via action. Curtail whatever retrospective view isn’t essential to making a satisfying life. Is this avoidance, cowardice? Only sometimes. Psychotherapy in-depth encourages a seemingly perpetual return to the bottomless gorge of your memory-distressed soul until you dredge up every dark thing at its floor. Sometimes we must put an end to reruns and begin a new season in the installment series of our lives. Your therapist might urge digging deeper. He may be correct. I’m here to say — on reflection — my patients sometimes knew when to stop when I didn’t.
  • Is there room for gratitude? Such a sentiment is hard to summon in the midst of despair, maybe impossible. The practice of routinely reminding yourself what is good can, nonetheless, diminish sadness much of the time.
  • Time is always moving forward and doesn’t permit time-travel for do-overs. Those facts set the stage for regret. Not because you made horrible mistakes, but because you are human and were thrown into a set of unalterable physical laws (as are all of us). The best way we can deal with what nature offers is to make good use of the present and plan for the future, even though the person for whom we are planning (our future self) may not be as thrilled as we hope with the baton we pass him. Regret is inevitable because our genetic inheritance keeps us unsatisfied, always seeking more and better. Those early humans without such ambitions — those who were easily satisfied — didn’t survive, nor did their offspring become our ancestors. Evolution enabled the perpetuation of our forefathers’ genes in the form of their progeny, but offered no guarantee of joy in our status, our mate, or our job. Regret, therefore, is built into who we are: restless creatures still driven by the biological imperative to behave in a way that increases the chances of our genes surviving, even past our reproductive years.
  • Learn to forgive yourself. You cannot do everything, you will never be perfect, you will disappoint and injure others, your imprint on the planet will (unless your last name is Will Shakespeare or Hawking or Beethoven) be small. We are always learning and forever changing course. Do your best, try to do better, and leave it at that. Life is punishing enough for most of us without volunteering for the cross and offering to hammer in the nails, to boot. As a Christian colleague occasionally told her patients, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”

You need the wood, too. Take the timber and carve a sculpture or draw a lovely image or build a house; or burn it to keep yourself and another good human warm. Leave the job of summing up your life to history, assuming history cares.

In my book that is enough.

The top painting is Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet. The second photo is Sunset Over the Vercors Mountains, Seen From Grenoble by Guillaume Piolle. Finally, Sunrise with Reeds in Winter is the work of Benjamin Gimmel. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Insecurity and Our Preoccupation with Appearances

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We try so hard to make a good impression, don’t we? No one enjoys a disapproving audience. We dress well, hide our inner turmoil, and smile. We comb our hair, clean our clothes, and wash pretty often. Why do we care so much about the opinion of onlookers?

The simple answer: because it was historically dangerous to be unattractive, unsuccessful, and unliked; dangerous to survival and damaging to our chances of finding a mate. Most importantly, those historical facts continue to influence how we live today. They have major implications for the type of person we seek in a partner; why we compete in business and games; why loneliness feels so terrible and why personal insecurities are widespread. Let me explain.

Evolutionary psychologists think about us in terms of the qualities that enabled our survival through thousands of years. Of course, our long process of descent from prehistoric ancestors required them to complete two missions: staying alive until sexual maturity and making babies who lived beyond them. Whatever innate preoccupations and skills enabled early humans to meet these two criteria were passed down in their genes as part of the never-ending chain of life, like a relay race in which the baton has now been given to us. The inborn talents or defects of those who didn’t survive didn’t get handed off. Those folks aren’t our ancestors.

Now, you may be saying, OK, but I’m pretty smart and I make my own decisions. I don’t need to be like people who lived in caves and wore animal skins.

Not so fast. Think about anger. It helped our forefathers defend against attack by enemies and hungry carnivores. You live with their capacity to defend yourself. And some of us blow-up at those we love, commit murder, and make war.

Or let’s say you are a guy. Remember back to your childhood when girls were yucky? Then one day you had an erection. I doubt this was a well-reasoned and much-desired gift you put on your Christmas list — unless your parents were more liberal than mine, that is. Not everything you do is a matter of thoughtful choice, unmotivated by Mother Nature.

We are wired to survive and to mate with a member of the opposite sex who is capable of producing and supporting a new life. So whom do we choose? A woman at the dawn of human existence had to be especially concerned with finding a man who could defend her and provide for her when she was pregnant and vulnerable. Evolutionary researchers believe several qualities signaled such ability: physical strength, intelligence, stamina, the capacity to work in groups, leadership, etc. Thus, when a woman is in the market for a man rather than a fling, she is influenced by her ancestors’ inherited tendency to find one who can make a living and create a safe residence. Yes, I know women are no longer uniformly dependent on men, but the ladies’ genes didn’t receive the memo.

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What about physical appearance? Women notice handsome men as much as men recognize the beauty of the fair sex. Unlike men, however, who place physical appearance at the top of their wish list, attractiveness is further down her tally of desired attributes in a permanent sexual partner. Why? Again, because of the historic vulnerability of women carrying and bearing their children. A female can only afford to be picky about noble features and hot bodies if she has a choice among men who first can accomplish the things she and her future children will need. Thus, a lady cannot allow the luxury of opting for surface qualities over those more essential to her safety and her child’s well-being.

Men are more likely to be motivated by just one thing: a healthy and fertile appearance (which is correlated with youth and beauty). Nature permits them to indulge themselves because the physical cost of producing a child will be borne by their partner. As the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow said, “There is no such thing as justice — in or out of court.”

Of course, few of us think about these things when we are on the prowl. Remember, too, I am simplifying the story for the sake of brevity.

Now, on to the origins of insecurity. Competition is built into the system. Should you want the most attractive female (the best potential mom in evolutionary terms or the hottest mama in your feverish dreams) you must stand out from the crowd of other men in some way suggestive of your superior ability to be a provider. Thus, men have historically tried to make lots of money (even more than necessary to live), achieve high status, display their excellence in the performance of an activity (business or sports) and impress with their intellect and cleverness. Men size up the competition to get the best of them. Insecurity — the preoccupation with where you stand in the pecking order — necessarily follows.

Females compete for males as well. The cosmetics and fashion industries thrive on the genetically fixed desire to catch the eye of a husband. Again, however, when out shopping you aren’t likely to think, “those jeans will improve my chances of getting my genes into the next generation.” Instead, you say to yourself, “Wow, those jeans look good on me.” Only people like me think of genes, not jeans. And, if you repeat similar questions often enough — what looks good on me, what doesn’t, how do I compare with the others — the insecure background of one’s thought becomes the norm.

Earlier I said it has been historically dangerous to be unattractive, unsuccessful, and unliked. If humans of antique times couldn’t find a sufficiently enterprising and healthy sex partner, that person’s genetic line would end. Those who didn’t make friends found their chances of survival on their own were poor. Thus, whether looking for a mate or a group affiliation to increase their odds (against other tribes, animals, and nature) they needed sensitivity to any word, expression, element of body language, or deed signaling another person’s disinterest, dislike, or disaffection from them; in addition to those indicators communicating they were welcome or pleasing to the crowd. Unfortunately, the ability to determine how they were coming across to others required a preoccupation with other people’s opinions: a recipe for insecurity and self-consciousness. Those who didn’t care how they were being received didn’t hand down their genes successfully.

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How does loneliness fit in? A soul contented in his isolation didn’t mate. Women and men satisfied just with the company of their sexual partner reduced their chances of survival compared to couples who had alliances with others. Individuals who were happy when alone, therefore, didn’t pitch their genes forward into the next generation. Men and women discontented when by themselves, however, would have wanted to join up with other creatures. Since group participation increased the chance of surviving, procreating, and raising a child, their unhappiness when separated from humans is a quality we now have: it motivated them to take an action useful to staying alive.

There are other factors beyond evolution influencing you today. Your upbringing, your own life experiences, and the individual set of incidental personality traits nature handed to you. But, back there somewhere is the long reach of the instincts that survived the evolutionary relay race. The ways in which we react, think, and act are more determined by the successful tendencies of our ancestors than (I suspect) most of us consider or believe.

In short, having a mind drawn to thoughts of both friends and strangers comes naturally. Our preoccupation with status and money, even though it can create misery, is a quality that long ago began to improve the chance of survival and is still in us. We operate according to a program written by nature on the men and women who lived here an eternity before we jumped out of mom’s womb.

The aim of evolution was never to make us happy. We can only challenge ourselves to deal with the insecurities and preoccupations it deposited in our genes. Those instincts don’t always work well in a world that, for the most part, is much different and safer than the natural state of man’s life, described by Thomas Hobbes as “nasty, brutish, and short.”

In our search for satisfaction we must grapple with a biology that often makes us discontented and wary, replicating what our ancestors did to live. Understanding this gives us a better chance of remaking ourselves the best we can to suit not their time — but ours.

The top image is Toilette der Venus by Peter Paul Rubens. The second painting is The Persistent Suitor by Frederico Andreotti. The cartoon was created by Welleman and is called Lonely Guy, Shadow as Friend. All come from Wikimedia Commons.

Why We Compete and What We Compete For

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Much as you might wish to, you cannot avoid competition. But why do we compete? For what do we compete? Here are some answers:

  • The Simplest Answer: We’ve been programmed — hard-wired — by evolution. Those who survived times of limited resources and danger out-foxed the ones who didn’t. The law of the jungle is still evident even among baseball fans grappling for a batted-ball hit into the stands  — a thing, after all, of little real value. Our ancestors were the fittest in the battle for survival, at least if their survival led them to seed the next generation.
  • Glory (Kleos): The ancient Greeks wanted to be recalled in story and song. This was a time before a desirable afterlife had been conceived. Then, as now, the idea of living forever was attractive. Put your name on a tall building, write a book, win the World Cup — they are all the same. Of course, eternity is a long time to last.
  • Desirable Mates: If you triumph in competition you have a wider choice of sexual companions. Again, this was hard-wired in our ancestors long ago, but still drives us. Appearance motivates men more than women. Surprise! The evolutionary explanation is that the proper array of physical features gave prehistoric man the signal of a female’s capacity to give birth and nurse children. Man was driven to produce hardy little ones who would carry his genetic material forward. Thus, he needed a healthy mate.
  • Money, Status, and Power: These are tied to the previous three. We also think (wrongly) that large amounts of such items will make us much happier than the next person. Materialism per se doesn’t, but having the capacity to win those material things registers on the female radar screen more than a man’s good looks. Women are inclined by evolution and instinct to be drawn to those men who can fend for them and future children; not the guy who is passive, weak, deferential, and unaccomplished. In part this is thought due to the prehistoric woman’s physical disadvantage in protecting herself and her children, as well as finding adequate food and shelter when the children were small. The bodily cost and vulnerability of pushing out the next generation is greater for the fair sex than for her mate. No wonder she has been programmed to attend to different things than he does.
  • Triumph Over Aging and Death: Men, in particular, try to keep proving they are strong and virile, the better to keep decrepitude and demise at bay.
  • To Give Yourself Purpose: Striving is compelling. Competition is one of the answers to the question of what to do with your life.
  • Distraction: Games are a way of entertaining oneself — pouring excitement into the vessel of passing time. The joy of the contest is well-known. The male’s achievement of public notice in winning a game, excelling at the guitar, or writing a best-seller is also like the peacock’s spread of his feathers during the mating season, giving him added allure.
  • The Perks of Victory: To the winner go the spoils: a gorgeous home, the latest technical innovation, attractive clothes, etc.
  • Enhanced Self-image: Who dislikes applause? Victory boosts your self-esteem. Only if you place high enough in the race, of course.

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  • To Win Friends: Have you ever witnessed what happens when a third child joins two who are playing well together? One of them is frequently the loser in the game of attaining primacy. Feelings are hurt. The value of friends is also based on the survival instinct. Those ancestors who lived “solo” had a more limited chance of survival against aggressive animals, drought, injury, and famine. We observe such team participation in business, sports, defense of your country, and raising your family.
  • Tradition: Some of us carry on practices encouraged by our forebears. Responsibility to those caretakers and ancestors, as well as their encouragement, contributes to continuing a parent’s business, joining the military as did a father and grandfather, or simply playing touch football as was the family’s habit.
  • Personal Growth: One way to feel better about yourself is to meet a challenge. Overcoming insecurities is a kind of contest between you and your fears. Mother Nature is your fearsome opponent when climbing a mountain. There is no trophy for reaching the top, but your sense of achievement doesn’t require one.
  • Caring for Your Children: The offspring need food, clothes, education, and a safe neighborhood in which to live. Moreover, the kids represent your posterity if they seed the future with your genes by having little ones themselves.
  • To Defy the Appearance of Age: Well, we try, don’t we? In effect, we are competing with our younger selves. Our tools? Comb-overs, hair-pieces, hair styles, body-building, cosmetic surgery, and the like. Our duds attempt to disguise the increase of natural defects as the body declines. We even fool ourselves with names: the grandmother who requires that she be called “Nana,” not grandma, for example.* “All is vanity,” says Ecclesiastes.
  • The Race Against Time: Here is an opponent we cannot beat, yet we make the effort. Most of us do our best to cram as much “life” into the unforgiving minute as possible.

As I hope is evident, some of the motives instigating our yen for competition and achievement continue to work on us well beyond the point they are useful. Seventy-year-olds getting cosmetic surgery — really? Acceptance of the inevitable is not popular in the West. We listen to our genes and, as a result, buy the jeans 15-year-olds think are hot.

You might argue with the reasons I’ve given. There are certainly others and many of us try to fight our programming. Nonetheless, evolutionary psychology research points in the direction I’ve indicated. We have many motives and are often quite unaware of them. All that said, if you stay on the surface of things in your attempt to understand yourself, you will miss a lot. Most people do.

Inevitably, though not for everyone, competitive activities are scaled down; at least if we are paying a little attention to what the clock, our bodies, and the world are telling us. And yet, as Dylan Thomas declaimed, “do not go gentle into that good night.” Competition is almost inescapable even to the last.

Maureen O’Hara, the late Irish-American actress of the mid-twentieth century, said this about herself:

“There have been crushing disappointments. But when that happens, I say, ‘Find another hill to climb.’”

Good advice, even if the hill is a small one.

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*I am reminded by my wife that some “Nanas” do not want to be associated with their mother-in-laws. Thus, there will never be more than one “Grandma Stein” in my family, namely my late mother. 😉

The top image is Jose Luis Nunez bouldering in Ton Sai Beach, Krabi, Thailand. The picture was taken by Mr. Nunez. The second photo is of Anna Stoehr, AUS, competing in the Boulder Worldcup 2012. It is the work of Henning Schlottmann. Both images come from Wikimedia Commons.

Mick Jagger is Right: On the Elusiveness of Satisfaction

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Early in my life, as I lay in bed in the brief dreamy but not dreaming moments before sleep, I’d think up a short list of things I wanted. These were experiences or objects or abilities I believed might make me happier — improve my life in some significant and permanent way. The list included learning to drive a car, having a girlfriend, being as good in science as my friend Steve — those sorts of things.

While I never became the world-famous scientist Steve Henikoff is, I achieved much of value both on and off the lists I imagined when I was 10 or 15. Later the practice of making nighttime aims fell away. No, I didn’t get A’s in all my school work or win every girl I fancied, but few people do.

I discovered goals on a list are a bit like the candy in a PEZ dispenser. The candy is spring-loaded into its container. As soon as you remove the piece at the top, another piece is pushed up to take its place. So long as the dispenser holds more candy, one morsel is replaced by the next. Just so, as soon as you check-off an item on your goal list, another pops to the top.

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We don’t seem to remain satisfied. You eat a meal, but before long you get hungry again. You have sex, but, however wonderful, you won’t remain ecstatic forever. You eat a piece of chocolate, but it’s not so fulfilling as to satiate you. More is usually required. Robert Wright, the Princeton psychologist, talks about this in his lectures on the subject of Buddhist psychology. Moreover, he says, this is part of the reason people are so often dissatisfied with the way things are.

The Buddhists call the experience (and much worse catastrophes) dukkha or suffering. To them dukkha is the central part of life. In their view, emotional pain is caused by grasping for things we don’t possess, the endless wish for fame or money or acclaim we don’t have, or holding tightly to those same things for fear of losing them. The Buddhists contend our misconception of how to live contributes to dissatisfaction and anxiety. They point to a path away from unhappiness and toward acceptance instead of grasping, contentment with our lot in life, and living in the moment. In effect, they tell us we are trying to fill up a pail with a large hole in it and can never make our lives whole in this way.

There should be no surprise people make poor choices of how to live. We see it all the time in acquaintances, but perhaps less often in ourselves. Research concludes we are not good at knowing in advance what things or activities will offer happiness — give some lasting satisfaction. In fact, psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Charles Wilson coined a phrase for this: “miswanting” or desiring things that won’t provide the emotional benefit we expect. Dukkha here we come.

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Perhaps even worse, because the mind drifts so easily to what is wrong in life, we try to keep busy and distract ourselves. We fail to take time to focus on the problem of “miswanting” or any other self-inflicted emotional wound. We stay on the treadmill of misguidedness, heading in a direction that hasn’t worked in the past and probably won’t work in the future. Kate Murphy describes our discomfort with quiet thought in a New York Times article of July 25, 2014. Rather than the painful job of self-reflection, we choose to stay too busy to think, ignore how we are hurting ourselves, and don’t consider a big change of direction.

Look around you. Just about everyone wants more money, a more satisfying intimate relationship, a better residence in a new place, a fancier phone, different clothes, a better job, a nicer office; but soon after an item on the list is achieved dissatisfaction returns.

Robert Wright says this is no accident. Indeed, he points to the work of evolutionary psychologists who believe evolution is the culprit behind our discontent, broadly speaking. He is not trying to make light of the genuine wrongs in the world, but rather to look at why human existence is generally so difficult — even for those who are not suffering from stretches of terrible luck or misfortune.

Wright uses food and sex as examples in the set of lectures he produced for Coursera, the free online source of university level education from some of the best instructors in the world. Wright says evolution (or Mother Nature) has set us up to be unsatisfied much of the time.

Remember the chocolate? Wright states if you are a chocolate lover, at the end of having a bite you are going to want more. Your satisfaction is temporary. Why is this? Evolutionary psychologists like Wright believe our distant ancestors (early men and women) discovered fruit was sweet and tasty. Those who enjoyed and ate it regularly were more likely to survive than those who either couldn’t find any fruit, didn’t care for it, or didn’t seek more. The survivors produced children who had the same genetic makeup and also enjoyed sweet things. In other words, evolution favored those who ate (and eventually learned to grow) fruit.

256px-ChocolateThe twist in the story came when candy was created in India, over two centuries ago. Later on, man would find all sorts of ways to add sugar to his diet and the products sold in groceries. The irony of this survival story is that the same affinity for sweetness, once widely helpful to our distant progenitors’ survival, now contributes to a USA obesity epidemic.

Now think about sex. Ancient humans who had sex one time only and were so overwhelmed and permanently fulfilled by the experience aren’t our ancestors. Had everyone been like them our species would be extinct. Indeed, we can assume the genetic line of those who had little interest in sex vanished. We are the progeny of a group of humans who enjoyed sex, weren’t perpetually fulfilled by it, and kept looking for more sexual opportunities, as most of us do. For the same evolutionary reasons, we are alive because those primitive humans also had feelings of affection toward mates and children, wanted to protect them, and thus increased the chance the kids would live to reproduce themselves.

In our twenty-first century world we continue to pair with others to survive, mutually protect each other, and teach our children how to manage the same life project. You might think you are making money just to get a nicer car or a bigger apartment, but the evolutionary scientists would say you are preoccupied with such things because signs of status and power made our ancestors more appealing as mates. Those who were more desirable, more able to protect their mates, and thought more physically fit had an increased chance of passing forward their genetic “stuff” to another generation.

If you believe men preoccupied with “hot” women are shallow, remember that appearance drew our ancient ancestors to one another. Those who chose lovers who looked healthy — capable of bearing and nursing children in the case of females — were more likely to reproduce and raise kids who grew to do the same thing. Thus, it became automatic for people to consider surface qualities. We come by our shallowness honestly! Mother Nature is the real culprit.

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Wright makes the point that the evolutionary process aims at only one thing: getting your genetic material into the world of the future. Evolution is not inclined to make us happy.

Indeed, Mother Nature sometimes fools us into doing things that aren’t going to make us anything but miserable. Consider how desperate we can become thinking the next job, promotion, or mate will generate everlasting bliss. Alas, once achieved, the satisfaction and happiness are only temporary. Another piece of PEZ pops to the top of the PEZ dispenser and we expect the next target will be the key to joy.

Sometimes the characteristics fostered by evolution are terrific. They have, after all, kept our species alive. Curiosity, competitiveness, and intelligence are great (leading to medical progress, higher living standards, and the Internet), but too often our evolutionary residue contributes to weapons of mass destruction and the self-protective jealousies or ethnic/racial hatreds we find all over our troubled world. Again, individual men and women are making some very bad decisions, but Mother Nature (aka evolution) is complicit.

If you put the Buddhist and evolutionary perspectives together, you get something like this. I’ve oversimplified what follows, but I think you will get the idea. The Buddhist view will be in bold print, followed by the evolutionary explanation:

We get too attached to things. Our ancestors needed things (tools, food, shelter, etc.) to survive.

We are afraid of losing things. Same as above.

We grasp for what we don’t already possess. Appearance, status, and power increase our chances in the mating game.

We fret about the future. Early humans who anticipated difficulties had a better chance of ensuring survival.

Just as we work hard to acquire things, we try to get and keep the most desirable mate. We are programmed to look for healthy partners to increase our chances of creating, nurturing and protecting a new generation.

We get attached to people and it pains us when we lose them. Our ancestors formed groups for self-protection and survival. Evolution contributed to our desire for human contact, affection, and reliance upon others.

Most of us never figure out the “PEZ dispenser” nature of life: that the things we want won’t make much permanent difference (unless they are healthy food, protective shelter, and other essentials), whatever temporary good feeling they generate. We’d be better off accepting the mantra-laden Rolling Stones song, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, as the matrix of living. Once realizing this, Wright and the Buddhists say, you can begin to change your personal path in the direction of more acceptance, less grasping, and reduced concern with either gaining what you want or losing what you control. You will be less worried and dissatisfied, more able to take joy from things as they are or at least accept whatever happens. No one suggests this path is easy, but the alternative will make your life worse.

Should you believe that is a negative message, here is some news. Those Buddhist monks who are expert meditators are among the happiest people on the planet — so brain research tells us. Meanwhile, the USA, a land of wealth, is only tied for 14th in overall “thriving,” with just 57% of us describing ourselves in that way.* Nor do you need a religious conversion to Buddhism to improve your sense of well-being from moment to moment. But most of us benefit by becoming less grasping and attached — reaching for a permanent solution to existence when the problem is the reaching itself and the expectation that such a solution is possible.

So what do you do with all the above to make your life better? Here is a start. Make a list of the things you pursued in your life: material objects, status, money, romance, children, and so forth. Then ask yourself how much lasting happiness each one gave you once it was achieved. If you have been “miswanting,” maybe it is time to stop the treadmill, get off, and reconsider the path you are on.

Think about it.

*Click to see the complete 2010 Gallup Global Wellbeing Ratings. One-hundred-fifty-five countries are included.

The top photo is Mick Jagger. The second image is a Hello Kitty PEZ dispenser, taken by Deborah Austin. The Chocolate photo is the work of André Karwath. It is followed by a picture of Buddhist Art taken in Sri lanka. Finally, Gustav Klimt’s Der Kuss (The Kiss). All but the first of these are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Are We There Yet? The Problem of Boredom

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The closest I ever came to murder (don’t worry, not close) was on a visit to Cambridge, MA. I’d posted an ad in Harvard Yard, searching for a companion to share the expense of my car ride back to Evanston, IL. Within a few days a pleasant-enough young woman and I set out for the Midwest. The plan required us to stop at the University of Michigan, where she was to begin grad school. I would then continue to Northwestern University on my own.

The 750 mile trip from the Boston area to Michigan takes about 13 hours, plus stops along the way, and more time if you decide to break it up over two days, as we did. It is not an interesting ride. After you get out of Pennsylvania, long stretches of flat ground and bland horizons dull your senses and stretch the time. The conversation didn’t enliven things unless you count the growing disquiet inside of me. A disquieting disquiet: rage.

Indeed, whatever my companion said or didn’t say (I can no longer remember any details) I became ever more irritated with her. As we closed in on her campus, I couldn’t bear being with her for five more minutes. Had Ann Arbor been just a few extra miles, I’d be doing hard time in a Michigan prison for murder. My imaginary plea to the judge? “The car ride, sir, was the cause. The boredom just got to me.”

Irritability and anger, not to mention disgust, are among the characteristics of boredom described in Peter Toohey’s excellent book, Boredom: A Lively History. The book is an easy read and relatively brief — the better, I assume, to avoid boring the reader.

Toohey tells us boredom is adaptive: it signals that we need to get out of the situation we are in and on to something less “toxic.” I’m sure you can create your own list of boring situations, probably not so different from those identified by the rest of us: watching someone else’s home movies, waiting in line, monotonous lectures and sermons, repetitive work, and the like.

I can actually identify the most boring day of my life. I was a college student, just having finished my junior year. The place was a non-air conditioned metal-stamping factory, the site of my summer job. 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 them you never got better and the assignment never changed. You just did the same thing interminably: for eight hours, five days a week, while swimming in a river of sweat.

I started by clocking-in at 7 a.m., which meant I had to awaken at 5 a.m. If I stayed out late the night before, I paid for it with the extra-strenuous effort alertness required. You know the sensation — each eye lid seems to weigh 600 pounds and even Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t have the muscle to keep one open.

The summer was hot and the factory absorbed everything the sun could give it. Water was essential to avoid dehydration. Nonetheless, it was peculiar to be drenched in perspiration at 7 a.m. even in a building where the thermometer registered over 100º Fahrenheit. Dutiful as ever, I did my best to keep from buckling. Three hours must have passed before I looked at the wall clock. Seven-fifteen a.m.! It seemed impossible.

Like a bad science fiction film, time had come close to stopping and eternity was nearer than the end of the work day. A second look at the clock revealed it was actually 7:14 a.m. and two muscular-looking gremlins were working to push the minute hand back.

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What produces boredom? Peter Toohey points to predictability, monotony, and confinement. He cites research suggesting low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine can make one “boredom-prone,” needing to stir up excitement and break some rules in order to escape the internal torpor. Unmedicated children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are thought to be short on this substance. Consequently, they are at risk of misbehavior, alcohol or drug dependency, and criminal conduct. Extroverts are more boredom-prone than introverts, needing the external stimulus of an eventful environment to avoid the stolid state of stupefaction.

Even so, everyday boredom is something all of us encounter. A 2009 on-line survey sponsored by the website http://www.triviala.com/ found Britons complaining of six hours per week spent bored. But Toohey suggests another kind of boredom, an “existential” condition. This has variously been called ennui, world-weariness, and spiritual despair, and can spill into frank depression.

The existential variety of boredom is present in those who find life empty and meaningless, usually accompanied by a lack of close community or social connections. If you are familiar with French existentialist writers you’ve encountered Sartre, who even wrote a book called Nausea, a fictional riff on the condition. Toohey’s tome argues several historical factors have led to this. He cites the breakdown of religion as a source of life’s meaning and organization, the rise of individualism, and the way in which large cities inhibit the possibility of intimate human contact while shrinking the average man’s sense of importance (the last is my idea, not Toohey’s).

I’d add materialism to the list. We spend far too much time shopping for “things” with the expectation of receiving satisfaction in the package. Habituation happens as often for adults as for a child on Christmas day: having waited all year for a special toy, he (and we) discover that having it doesn’t deliver all that wanting and waiting promised us. Bored, the toy is shelved, while the adult version (say, a new car) loses its new car smell and the first-drive thrill.

Another thought: “wage-slavery” of most modern work may rob us of the sense of pride and control, while reinforcing the notion of being small, disposable people who hardly matter. Contrast this to the old days, when a free man worked on a project he fashioned from start to finish. The act of total responsibility for creation or completion of a job contributed to a meaningful, engaged, and less alienated life, especially when others in his small community depended on his labor and his presence.

Of course, as Toohey is careful to point out, for much of human history the danger of daily existence and the work required to make a living left little room for leisure; and the sheer hardness of life offered minimal amounts of the idle time during which boredom and unsettling self-reflection might metastasize.

Contemporary living presents more entertainment, activity, and distraction than ever, without having eradicated boredom. TV channels and websites beyond numbering, exercise programs and classes — none of these seem capable of erasing the experience or the word from our day and vocabulary.

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Historically, many have looked to travel, sex, and alcohol as solutions to everyday boredom, not to mention getting back to work. Changing one’s routine and reorganizing one’s life can also help. Learning new things, exercise, and performing music are recommended. Communities of friends or association with like-minded people within social organizations provide prophylaxis against invasion by the B word: the sense of time stretching into an empty, endless void. Meditation can be helpful and keep each moment alive. TV doesn’t, by the way. Channel changing should tip you off.

How is it possible that we get bored with a plethora of internet sites to visit, criss crossing tweets, and movies to watch? We have plays to attend, games to play, and great books to read. Still we are bored.

Perhaps an evolutionary psychologist might point at those early humans who sat around and were entertained simply by twiddling their opposable thumbs. They weren’t interesting, didn’t attract mates, and failed to notice the hungry animal about to make them into a meal. In other words, we are not the descendants of early men and women who effortlessly defeated boredom.

Thomas Carlyle, the famous Scottish philosopher and writer, said, “I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.”

I lean toward Carlyle’s view, but suspect I am already too tired to make his goal my own. Exhausted first and bored soon after, the sound you just heard was me yawning.

Top image: A Bored Person by GRPH3B18. Below that is a photo of a Bored Young Girl by Greg Westfall. Finally, the Souvenir Seller, Moscow by Adam63. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Why Do We Collect Things?

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A nineteenth-century man tried to collect every book ever written. No joke.

He came closer than you might think. His name was Sir Thomas Phillipps and I’ll tell you about his quest in a bit.

Possible reasons behind his mission are interesting. Evolutionary psychology suggests early humans — “hunter-gatherers” — “collected” food and eventually those substances required to make and use fire. This increased their chance of survival and the opportunity to create the next generation. Primitive weapons* to fight off animal or human attacks also improved the odds of passing on one’s genes, whether those implements were found or fashioned.

Tools became less crude as some men learned more sophisticated uses of fire, beyond its ability to keep the small community warm at night. It would have been important to safeguard any useful object from loss, theft, or breakage. Those who invented or possessed these items might even have benefited by a boost to status, making them more desirable mates.

Yes, today is very different, but perhaps some of us are still left with the “collecting bug” inherited from distant ancestors.

Our long-deceased relatives were doubtless uncomfortable or anxious without storing food or weapons, nervous about a bare cupboard or the next attack. Thus, perhaps they passed on an unconscious desire to “collect oneself” — to deal with the anxiety over life’s uncertainties by hunting for things to be saved for the inevitable “rainy day.”

Life comes with no guarantees of its length or quality. You and I, therefore, develop ways of dealing with our fears about its impermanence and unpredictability. Often this is the job of instinct, the unconscious, and maybe a genetic predisposition developed long ago — not a careful review of a menu of possible maneuvers to quell our disquiet.

Stashing stockpiles of money might be thought of as a kind of substitute for early human activities aimed at ensuring future survival and relieving worry. Belief in an afterlife serves the purpose, too, whether the result of faith or the psychological need I’ve just described. Creating a book or painting for the ages has a transcendent quality, as well, to the extent that it looks past our lives to something more lasting. So does producing children.

For some, however, the act of collecting objects of no survival benefit appears to be only a pleasant and innocent distraction from routine. Unless, that is, you read a book by the late Dr. Werner Muensterberger.

The author, a psychiatrist, aptly titled his tome, Collecting: An Unruly Passion.

The type of collecting he is talking about is akin to a child’s use of a security blanket — holding a “transitional object” to sooth oneself.

In the course of writing the book, Muensterberger investigated some major collectors. Take the previously mentioned bibliomaniac Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) who set himself the goal of obtaining “one copy of every book in the world.”

Phillipps fell short, but did amass about 40,000 books and 60,000 manuscripts (as many as 40 or 50 per week), requiring over 100 years to disperse after his death.

Of course, this obsession took lots of money.

Left a fortune by his father, he managed to reduce himself to a debtor in order to keep buying. Sir Thomas even cut a portion of his mother’s living stipend to pursue additional purchases. Phillipps’ craze drove his wife and daughters crazy, and put some of his creditors out of business, as well.

When his wife died he sought a wealthy replacement — any wealthy replacement — the better to fund his book hunts. He asked an acquaintance, “Do you know of any Lady with 50,000£ (British currency) who wants a husband? I am for sale at that price.”

Sir Thomas went off the rails, but are there advantages to a less consuming hobby of acquisition?

Sure.

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Collectors functioned to safeguard precious objects, especially before the widespread existence of museums and public libraries, ensuring the survival of masterpieces of the visual and literary arts. Moreover, those collectors who enjoy a work of art or a beautiful book for its own sake (not just its rarity), take pleasure in admiring it. For the collector of recorded music, there is the delight obtained in listening.

One can achieve a pleasant sense of “living in the moment” while pursuing the desired objects — quite “alive” and focused. Collectors and non-collectors alike appreciate the fun of a “treasure hunt,” even if rare baseball cards might not be your idea of treasure. Since men are more often hunters due to the historical differentiation of sex roles, they seem more likely than women to take part.

What’s more, collectors learn a good deal while enjoying their hobby: about the time and manner of creation of objects (like stamps or coins) or the history surrounding them. In other words, a collector can satisfy his curiosity and become better educated.

For some of these individuals, the material articles (properly arranged) display a kind of personal style or taste — a distinctiveness achieved for most of the rest of humanity by the cut of their hair or the decoration of their residence, the cars they drive or the clothes they wear.

Then there are investors who only resemble collectors. Unlike Sir Thomas Phillipps, they sell or trade their acquisitions for profit.

Of course, there can be a downside to collecting without limits, as Phillipps’ mother, wife, kids, and creditors could report, if only they were around to do so.

The potentially addictive quality of acquisition should be apparent, with the desired object being like a drug, providing a temporary elation which subsides rather quickly after the “loot” is obtained. The chronic restlessness of a Phillipps-like personality needs to speed back to the hunt.

The covetousness of this sort of person — for whom too much is never enough — cannot be calmed for long. The objects are not valued as works of art to be enjoyed (even if you call the beer can in the hobbyist’s beer can trove a thing of beauty); rather, they are pursued in order to “have them.”

Psychologically, Muensterberger might say, the “thing” functions like a cell phone carried by an anxious person for the purpose of providing reassurance or control in case of an acute anxiety attack; or like an amulet or rabbit’s foot thought to guarantee magical protection from injury.

Often, he believes, the collection becomes a substitute for relationships, at least the potentially intimate kind. For Muensterberger, the pathological collector finds relationships too unreliable, unpredictable, and precarious.

In stark contrast, material items are more controllable and permanent. They will never let him down, move away, reject him, or die. In an uncertain world, the collector achieves a sense of mastery by his success in accumulating objects, even if the domain of his mastery may be trivial (as in match books or bottle caps).

I’m reminded of an old acquaintance, a fellow phonograph record collector who focused on a limited number of classical instrumental artists. But unlike the other hobbyists I have known, this man continued to buy LPs (long-playing records) in spite of staggering family medical bills, his wife’s distress over the expense of his avocation, and their mounting debt.

She rationalized this by saying, “Well, I suppose it is better than if he had a mistress or was alcoholic.” The spouse did not know, however, that her husband craftily arranged new purchases to be mailed to the homes of some of his friends, and paid in cash or untraceable money orders to prevent his wife from finding out. Later the discs were smuggled into their abode when his mate was away.

Those of you who are fans of Harrison Ford might remember the beautiful German archeologist pursuing the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The wooden cup of Christ falls into a crevasse during an earthquake, triggering the damsel’s attempt to retrieve it. Indiana Jones warns her that she is about to lose her life by reaching for the cup, frustrating his ability to hold on to her.

Sometimes, I suppose, the saying, “I can’t live without it,” is true. And live she did not. The gorgeous blond stretched for the Holy Grail until she slipped from the hero’s grasp.

The next time you find yourself at a garage sale, an estate sale, or an antique shop, stop for a moment. Where did these things come from? The same thought might occur to you as you visit the vanishing world of used book and CD stores, or their virtual replacements on Amazon and eBay. There are only two answers:

  1. People bought them and the same people have decided they want to sell them. Some might be collectors whose interests have changed, others simply in the business of making a living or clearing space.
  2. The children or heirs of the collectors are doing their best to get rid of the burden of “stuff” left to them.

With regard to the second answer, unless we are talking about fine art, those objects probably aren’t the inheritance the kids were hoping for.

*If you are old enough, you might remember the old saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” Parents of my folk’s generation encouraged their children to say this in response to name calling.

The top image is a photo of vinyl phonograph records by Burn the Asylum.

The second image is the Vanitas painting by Franciscus Gysbrechts (1672-1676). Such paintings were particularly common among artists doing “still life” in the Netherlands and Flanders in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were symbolic, in that the items depicted generally were reminders of the brevity of life. Musical instruments, for example, signaled that the sound was made and quickly left “not a trace behind.” The globe was also a reminder of the human condition and the skull of one’s mortality. Watches, smoke, hour glasses, and the like served the same symbolic purpose, suggesting the passage of time. Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.