Love Letters: Da Capo*

It is said that the art of letter writing is dead.

A pity. The age of instant electric communication has robbed us of one of the most touching ways to express the heartache — the exquisite pain — of a love who is out of reach.

Just over 60 years ago, there was a time when only a letter (or a then-expensive telegram) made any contact possible with one’s far-away love.

Such was the case during World War II for my parents.

Spouses in a marriage that ages well tend to retain very fond memories of their early days together. Whenever I see a new couple in marital therapy, I always ask them how they happened to meet and what drew each to the other. If the relationship still has “life,” these questions invariably warm the conversation. The partners have enkindling memories of the “honeymoon” period. The spark of that early time —  “the days of wine and roses” — continues to fuel the relationship they have today.

My father entered the U.S. Army on December 12, 1943 and was honorably discharged in March, 1946. Most of that time was spent overseas, in places like England, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany. The day that he and my mom received the news of his inevitable departure to wartime Europe, she was attending the wedding of her cousin. The tears that everyone thought reflected her response to the marriage ceremony were about something else entirely.

I don’t have any of my mother’s letters to my dad, but only some of those he sent to her, mostly as World War II was dying down. They married late in 1940, so their relationship was still very fresh when he left for the European theater. His April 1, 1945 letter to her still includes a dried out daisy that he picked for her in Paris. His words surely reflected the thoughts of many that day:

My Adorable Sweetie Pie,

This is Easter Sunday and everywhere in this world people have gone to church to pray that this terrible war will soon be over. I, too, hope so for many reasons, but mainly that I can return to you and stay, and that (my brothers) Eddie and Harry need not be exposed to any more danger. Do the folks know about Harry being wounded? I hope not…

It ends:

Do you know, sweetie, that I’m simply wild about you. Gosh, I love you so. Great big kisses and hugs from the lonely husband who loves you.

My dad’s letters frequently tried to cheer up my mother. She lived with her parents for part of this time and they were no love-match. Many people thought that the war would go on for years more. My mother’s only brother was eventually drafted and put in training for the invasion of Japan. That event never occurred, of course, as the Japanese surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs.

Stateside it was well-known that many of the U.S. soldiers were not faithful to the girlfriend or wife back home. My mother must have expressed concerns in a letter to which my father responded on April 4, 1945:

You signed this ‘Your Best Sweetie,’ but it should have said ‘Your Best and Only Sweetie,’ because that is what you are. Does that answer your question? And now to answer your air mail of March 13th. It started with that gorgeous poem about Spring and, gosh sweetie, it gave me goose bumps to know that ‘the day I return will be your Spring.’

Victory in Europe came on May 8, 1945, but my father would remain there until late February of the following year. The time passed slowly for both my parents-to-be, as noted in his missive of June 18, 1945:

I know I could perk up your morale if I came home, but they won’t let me just now. I know, too, how much your heart and body ache for me because I am undergoing the same each and every minute. You are vital to my complete happiness.

My mother suffered from tuberculosis before my folks were married. It would recur again in the 1950s. My dad was mindful of the fragile state of my mother’s health:

Sweetie, you are working much too hard for a little girl who isn’t well and you must cut it out. Gee, I wish I was around to protect you and snuggle you in the thunder and darkness of the rain.

Poor darling, you even talk to my picture, begging me to come home, and how I wish I could answer that I’ll be home in a few hours or days or weeks. But it will be a while yet and we must just be patient and hope and pray it will be very soon. The good God above must see how hungry and helpless we are without each other and I am sure He will answer our prayers soon…

All my love belongs to you, sweetheart, every drop of it.

Dad’s letters talk of many different things: day-to-day life in the army, the problem with officers, places he has seen, family matters, army food and the much better food they sometimes had after Germany’s defeat, gifts and money he was sending mom, the progress of the war, the first Bastille Day after Paris was liberated (at which celebration my father was present), and even references to the children they hoped to have together.

File:Cheret-Folies-Berger.jpg

On July 9, 1945 my dad sent mom a page from the Army’s magazine Stars and Stripes. That portion of the magazine displayed pencil drawings of the beautiful women at the Folies Bergere, a famous Parisian show that included popular entertainment and scantily clad female performers. On it he wrote the following:

This will give you an idea of what the Folies Bergere is like. I’d rather look at you, though.

Not everything my father witnessed brought a smile, however. This comes from October 19, 1945:

We have two colored boys in our convoy, who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper here in Germany, the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent had made it a rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was by now a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.

So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.

On February 14, 1946 the end of the seemingly endless wait to return home was close at hand. By now dad had been 11 days in La Havre, not yet assigned to a ship for his cross-Atlantic voyage:

Well, at least I will be with you soon and I know ‘wonderful you’ are waiting with all the love and devotion a guy could ask for. I love you, sweetie.

On February 26th, after 12 more days in La Havre, he was headed home.

In the mid-1980s, 40 years after these events, I asked my dad what it was like the first time he saw my mother again. His most moving recollection wasn’t their actual reunion, rather it was the first time he heard her voice when he called her on the telephone, just after his arrival in New York. His voice cracked as he remembered that moment and tears came to his eyes.

Soon after that call, he must have written her this post card:

My last letter to you. From now on I’ll tell you in person. Gosh, it will all be so wonderful soon.

My father would have been 100 years old this week.

*This was originally posted last year. I have repeated it (hence the Italian phrase “da capo” or “from the top”) in honor of the 100th anniversary of my father’s birth. Until I posted it, I didn’t realize that it also honors his service in World War II in a week that includes Veteran’s Day.

Love Letters

It is said that the art of letter writing is dead.

A pity. The age of instant electric communication has robbed us of one of the most touching ways to express the heartache — the exquisite pain — of a love who is out of reach.

Just over 60 years ago, there was a time when only a letter (or a then-expensive telegram) made any contact possible with one’s far-away love.

Such was the case during World War II for my parents.

Spouses in a marriage that ages well tend to retain very fond memories of their early days together. Whenever I see a new couple in marital therapy, I always ask them how they happened to meet and what drew each to the other. If the relationship still has “life,” these questions invariably warm the conversation. The partners have enkindling memories of the “honeymoon” period. The spark of that early time —  “the days of wine and roses” — continues to fuel the relationship they have today.

My father entered the U.S. Army on December 12, 1943 and was honorably discharged in March, 1946. Most of that time was spent overseas, in places like England, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany. The day that he and my mom received the news of his inevitable departure to wartime Europe, she was attending the wedding of her cousin. The tears that everyone thought reflected her response to the marriage ceremony were about something else entirely.

I don’t have any of my mother’s letters to my dad, but only some of those he sent to her, mostly as World War II was dying down. They married late in 1940, so their relationship was still very fresh when he left for the European theater. His April 1, 1945 letter to her still includes a dried out daisy that he picked for her in Paris. His words surely reflected the thoughts of many that day:

My Adorable Sweetie Pie,

This is Easter Sunday and everywhere in this world people have gone to church to pray that this terrible war will soon be over. I, too, hope so for many reasons, but mainly that I can return to you and stay, and that (my brothers) Eddie and Harry need not be exposed to any more danger. Do the folks know about Harry being wounded? I hope not…

It ends:

Do you know, sweetie, that I’m simply wild about you. Gosh, I love you so. Great big kisses and hugs from the lonely husband who loves you.

My dad’s letters frequently tried to cheer up my mother. She lived with her parents for part of this time and they were no love-match. Many people thought that the war would go on for years more. My mother’s only brother was eventually drafted and put in training for the invasion of Japan. That event never occurred, of course, as the Japanese surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs.

Stateside it was well-known that many of the U.S. soldiers were not faithful to the girlfriend or wife back home. My mother must have expressed concerns in a letter to which my father responded on April 4, 1945:

You signed this ‘Your Best Sweetie,’ but it should have said ‘Your Best and Only Sweetie,’ because that is what you are. Does that answer your question? And now to answer your air mail of March 13th. It started with that gorgeous poem about Spring and, gosh sweetie, it gave me goose bumps to know that ‘the day I return will be your Spring.’

Victory in Europe came on May 8, 1945, but my father would remain there until late February of the following year. The time passed slowly for both my parents-to-be, as noted in his missive of June 18, 1945:

I know I could perk up your morale if I came home, but they won’t let me just now. I know, too, how much your heart and body ache for me because I am undergoing the same each and every minute. You are vital to my complete happiness.

My mother suffered from tuberculosis before my folks were married. It would recur again in the 1950s. My dad was mindful of the fragile state of my mother’s health:

Sweetie, you are working much too hard for a little girl who isn’t well and you must cut it out. Gee, I wish I was around to protect you and snuggle you in the thunder and darkness of the rain.

Poor darling, you even talk to my picture, begging me to come home, and how I wish I could answer that I’ll be home in a few hours or days or weeks. But it will be a while yet and we must just be patient and hope and pray it will be very soon. The good God above must see how hungry and helpless we are without each other and I am sure He will answer our prayers soon…

All my love belongs to you, sweetheart, every drop of it.

Dad’s letters talk of many different things: day-to-day life in the army, the problem with officers, places he has seen, family matters, army food and the much better food they sometimes had after Germany’s defeat, gifts and money he was sending mom, the progress of the war, the first Bastille Day after Paris was liberated (at which celebration my father was present), and even references to the children they hoped to have together.

File:Cheret-Folies-Berger.jpg

On July 9, 1945 my dad sent mom a page from the Army’s magazine Stars and Stripes. That portion of the magazine displayed pencil drawings of the beautiful women at the Folies Bergere, a famous Parisian show that included popular entertainment and scantily clad female performers. On it he wrote the following:

This will give you an idea of what the Folies Bergere is like. I’d rather look at you, though.

Not everything my father witnessed brought a smile, however. This comes from October 19, 1945:

We have two colored boys in our convoy, who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper here in Germany, the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent had made it a rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was by now a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.

So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.

On February 14, 1946 the end of the seemingly endless wait to return home was close at hand. By now dad had been 11 days in La Havre, not yet assigned to a ship for his cross-Atlantic voyage:

Well, at least I will be with you soon and I know ‘wonderful you’ are waiting with all the love and devotion a guy could ask for. I love you, sweetie.

On February 26th, after 12 more days in La Havre, he was headed home.

In the mid-1980s, 40 years after these events, I asked my dad what it was like the first time he saw my mother again. His most moving recollection wasn’t their actual reunion, rather it was the first time he heard her voice when he called her on the telephone, just after his arrival in New York. His voice cracked as he remembered that moment and tears came to his eyes.

Soon after that call, he must have written her this post card:

My last letter to you. From now on I’ll tell you in person. Gosh, it will all be so wonderful soon.

My father would have been 99 years old today.

I’ve reposted this blog from 2010 in honor of my dad’s 100th birthday anniversary.

On Sacrifice

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

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

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

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

Thus sacrifice involves loss and giving something up.

In primitive societies, it often included murder.

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

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

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

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b3/Adi_Holzer_Werksverzeichnis_835_Abrahams_Opfer.jpg/500px-Adi_Holzer_Werksverzeichnis_835_Abrahams_Opfer.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/45/Michelangelo_Caravaggio_022.jpg/500px-Michelangelo_Caravaggio_022.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do Women Want in Men? Three Different Answers

Freud asked the title question, “What do women want?” even though men had been asking it long before Sigmund’s time. It is not that women are so inscrutable. Rather, if you ask women, men are rather notorious for missing the obvious. And so we, the male of the species, repeat Freud’s question to ourselves: “What do women want?”

To some men, asking “What is the meaning of life?” would be an easier interrogatory.

Keeping in mind that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” this male will try to answer Freud’s question.

But, cheating just a bit, I will divide the challenge into three parts. First, I’ll offer some hints as to what young women want, then those not-quite-so-young, and finally, those who are mature. You can place yourself or your partner in the appropriate age category. Fool though I may be, I’m not so foolish as to demarcate the groups myself.

In each section I’ll also include a bit of advice to men on what to do (or not to do) or some commentary on the category in question.

I should also say that while my comments are based on lots and lots of conversations with men and women, many women will not fit into the broad categories I’m describing.

I. A young woman usually wants someone who is cute, if not handsome and sexy. He should be bold, take the lead, and ideally have a bit of an edge; a man who is exciting and confident. If at all possible, its good for him to be smarter and have a higher social status than his female counterpart or, at least, the ambition to achieve a higher station. He should not be timid or afraid, but more than capable of holding his own ground. Nor will neediness make him more appealing.

Young women are less likely to look at long-term compatibility (values and mutual interests) than the immediate excitement the man provides. These females often want little more than a good time, at least initially. If a man can take them places that they haven’t been to, know things about which they might not be knowledgeable — teach them or dazzle them with something new — all the better.

  • Yes, young man, do go up to the attractive woman and strike up a conversation. No, not with some worn out “line.” Just make contact. You never know.
  • Don’t immediately become slavishly devoted, putting the woman on a pedestal. Many women will view this as pathetic and run away. Why? Because it is pathetic. On the other hand, Woody Allen used to say that the problem with his first marriage was that he tended to put his wife “underneath a pedestal.”
  • It has been said that a man marries a woman hoping that she will never change, while a woman marries a man in the hope that he will. If the relationship requires serious change, it is usually too optimistic to expect that it can be achieved after the wedding day if you have not been successful in obtaining it during courtship. As to men expecting women always to be young, on fire, and totally focused on the man, they need to be both more realistic and more in touch with the fact that long-term compatibility requires sympathetic alteration on both sides.
  • One more word of advice to the young man: sometimes, persistence does pay off.

II. Not-quite-so-young women are usually looking for qualities and relationships that are more lasting. They are less inclined than young women to trade substance for surface, durability for excitement, or maturity for boyish charm. Unlike more youthful females, they do not “short” the value of the long-term — the things that last. Many of the same qualities that attract a less mature female remain appealing to the not-quite-so-young woman, but other factors now come into play more forcefully.

Can the man make a good living? Is he financially secure? Is he funny and easy to be with? Does he listen and understand rather than offering an impatient, abrupt solution to a woman’s problems? Is he egalitarian? That is to say, does he treat women respectfully and as equals? Will he be an involved and caring father? Is he comfortable with himself? Is he good — decent in a moral sense? Can he express affection? Does he share the same values and at least some of the same interests? Will he be faithful? (It should be said that it is not that young women ignore this question, but rather, that if they are attractive enough, they needn’t fear younger women because there aren’t any).

A certain realism usually enters into a not-quite-so-young woman’s thoughts as she considers potential suitors. She might realize that she is “not quite” the woman she used to be (some of this is entirely to the good), that she has some baggage (and perhaps some children), and that her “shelf-life” in the marriage-market will not last forever. (I apologize for saying this, but, it is something that cannot be ignored, however unfortunate or unfair it might be).

  • The 1988 movie Crossing Delancey touches on the issue of social status and intellectual/cultural background. Many a woman in the not-quite-so-young category struggles with this. She might meet a very nice man, attractive and decent, funny and dedicated, but someone not as accomplished as she is; from a different (lower) cultural, financial, and educational milieu. It can be enormously difficult for the woman to accept such a man despite the fact that he is a good match in every other way. In the movie, Amy Irving (who works in the New York literary world) is faced with just such a dilemma as she contemplates a relationship with Peter Riegert (who specializes in selling pickles).

III. For mature women, reality usually intrudes more dramatically. They may wish to be left alone or with their female friends, and might well disdain the idea of seeking male companionship. But, if they are still interested, the answer to the question, “What do women want?” has been simplified. A kind, interesting, and companionable man in reasonably good health with his wits about him can be quite appealing, even more if he has some energy and vitality. Sexual magnetism or prowess are not usually high on the list of requirements. Superior status or financial stability are often less important than before, or no longer of any concern.

The numbers game favors the man — the law of supply and demand applies to this as much as to soybeans and corn — his competitors are dying off faster than available women of the same age.

  • The following story is true. A long-married man’s wife died after an extensive period of declining health. The widower, about 70 but physically fit and active, continued to stay in his home for some time. After a while, however, he decided that maintainance of his property was more than he wanted to do. Nor did he need so large a living space just for himself now that his wife was deceased and his children long since out of the house. So, he purchased a unit in a retirement facility — one of those senior-living communities where females usually outnumber males; the residents are still quite independent and each one has his or her own place. The seniors also have access to a central dining room, an activity director, maid-service, shuttle-bus availability, and so forth. The man had placed his house on the market, but it remained unsold as he moved to his new abode. Months passed. But eventually, the man returned to his home, leaving the retirement facility behind. “Why are you back here?” The man’s answer was simple: “They wouldn’t leave me alone!”

To close, nothing much in life is so generically unfair as the domain of love; or, to put it differently, the fact that “All’s fair in love and war,” means that nothing in those situations is fair. The best and brightest, the most kind and decent people, do not always come out well. But, the good news is that there is more than one possible mate for each of us, more than one person with whom we might share a good life. Since both the male and the female are looking for each other, there is every reason to believe that a happy outcome is possible.

Hang in there.

What It Means To Be a Man: Reflections on the Ides of March

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We hear the expression frequently—“Be a man!” Usually when we are small and usually directed to males. In the context of an admonishment, it typically means to “be tough,” show little emotion, be stoic, have courage, avoid whining.

But, when you are a little older and more thoughtful you might come up with a different definition. The German word “Mensch” (“man” or “human being”) provides us with a starting point.

You will recall that Friedrich Nietsche gave us the idea of an “Übermensch” or “superman.” Not someone who “leaps tall buildings in a single bound,” but a superior creature to whom a new set of life rules applies. Indeed, the Übermensch creates a set of values, discarding those that belong to a world that he rejects and a god that he thinks to be dead.

Goethe, the great German poet, scientist, and philosopher of an earlier time, had something quite different to say about man in his poem The Divine:

Let man be noble,
merciful and good;
For that alone
Distinguishes him
From all the living
Beings we know…

In Yiddish, a language that has German roots, to be a “mensch” means to be decent, forthright, strong, honorable, and dependable. Someone to be leaned on and counted on. A person of principle, with both a good heart and a good head. A fellow to be reckoned with; a companionable individual of integrity, unafraid of self-assertion.

But there is a different version of “being a man” in the popular culture. In my mind, it is associated with the likes of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, as portrayed in the numerous “Western” movie roles they took on; on the political front, George W. Bush probably is a rough equivalent.

This “man’s man” is a tough, intimidating, austere, cocky, unrepentant, decisive, and unflinching he-man who never complains or cries out in pain. A guy like this doesn’t look back. He is the opposite of the “Alan Alda,” version of what it means to be a man, which emphasizes a kind, empathic, more sensitive side of human possibility.

The popular vision of a man is someone who is more into solving problems than dealing with feelings, someone who is “logical,” someone more in touch with his head than his heart. When a woman opens herself to him with an injury, he is prone to offering a solution or trying to “fix” things rather than patiently listening and holding her hand.

This rock-solid, heroic figure is the strong-silent type, uncomfortable with public (and sometimes event private) emotion, and a person of few words; certainly not one given to eloquent speech. He is much more inclined toward action than talk. The “John Wayne” version of a man is well described in the closing lines of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

In any discussion of manhood, one must also inevitably give a nod to “manhood” as it is understood in every day speech; that is, male sexuality. It takes a few forms.

One is simply the ability to be commanding and sexually appealing, to be an experienced and confident lover. Another is the capacity to perform sexually. The problem that follows from this, of course, has to do with the pressure to perform, the anticipated evaluation of that performance, and sometimes the failure to perform.

In old age, both the capacity and interest in such activity have been known to fall away, leaving it to the man and any companion or spouse to determine whether manhood should still be subject to judgment about anything to do with sex. Medicine is perhaps making such considerations irrelevant with the easy availability of Viagra, Cialis, and the like.

On the other hand, a failure of potency, that is, the ability to perform sexually coupled with an inability to foster children, remains a problem in the minds of most such men and one that still lacks a scientific work-around other than adoption or artificial insemination of the man’s wife by someone else, a solution that most males find decidedly abhorrent.

Finally, if you’d like a more Shakespearean commentary on the subject of being a man,  you must read Julius Caesar. Those of you who know the play are aware that Caesar is not the main character, even if he is the title character.

Rather, the story is about Brutus, Caesar’s friend and admirer, who is persuaded to believe that Caesar has become a tyrant and will visit evils upon the Roman people. Others among the conspirators have their own axes to grind against Caesar and seek personal gain by his overthrow. But Brutus agrees to the plot despite the fact that it is against his nature, only because he concludes that the assassination of Caesar is in the best interests of his fellow countrymen, in order to free the Republic from Caesar’s control.

As so often occurs in classical tragedy, the conflict between one’s public obligations and private loyalties is the undoing of the hero, in this case Brutus. And so, the famous murder happens in the Roman Senate on March 15th, 44 BC, 2054 years ago this week, after Caesar ignores the warning “Beware the Ides of March!” There is a fantastic movie rendition of the play starring James Mason as Brutus and a young Marlon Brandon as Marc Anthony, Caesar’s ally.

After Caesar’s death, Anthony is targeted for death by Brutus’s fellow conspirators, but Brutus stops them, allowing Anthony to speak to the people and eulogize the fallen Caesar, only to rally the Romans against the conspirators and ultimately, to defeat them in the ensuing civil war. It is Brutus’s essential humanity, decency, and sense of fairness (all qualities that contribute to “being a man”) that call him to let Anthony speak.

You will recall the words “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…,” so persuasively rendered by Brando in the aforementioned film, that stir the Roman crowd against the conspirators. Had Brutus been less honorable, he would have avoided the risk that Anthony’s words might incite the rabble against them and perhaps even agreed with his co-conspirators to kill Anthony. And, as portrayed by Shakespeare, it is the decision to allow Marc Anthony to live, not the murder of Caesar, that is the proximate cause of Brutus’s downfall.

The play ends with Brutus dead, and Anthony reflecting on who Brutus was and why he was worthy. And, it is Anthony’s words that provide us with a final comment on what Shakespeare has already told us in the play about what it means to be a man.

Please note that the word “gentle,” as used by Shakespeare, means something approximating “true, cultured, and affable:”

This was the noblest Roman of them all:

All the conspirators save only he

Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;

He only, in a general honest thought

And common good to all, made one of them.

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

The bust of Julius Caesar above is to be found in the Musée Arles Antique. The image was created by Mcleclat and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Moral Choices

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

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

1. What is the right thing to do?

2. Would I do the right thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best not to know, I think.

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

Are You Narcissistic?

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

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

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

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

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

The word insufferable comes to mind.

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

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

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

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

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

Do you need an example?

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

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

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

Want to change them?

Good luck.

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

No, change won’t come easily.

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

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