Advice for Life: Dr. S’s Savvy Suggestions for Survival

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When I was 16 I thought that life would be peachy once I knew how to drive and had a girlfriend. Unfortunately, achieving those two goals did not produce a permanent state of bliss. The first didn’t seem very important once it was accomplished; and the second — well, I regret to say that even love becomes something that one takes a bit too much for granted, except when it is absent.

If I could have given that kid I was some guidance, the list of advice wouldn’t have included those items because he (I) already knew I needed to learn to drive and find love. Nor would I have instructed him to work hard; or about the importance of the almighty dollar, values osmotically communicated within my childhood home. But here is a list of the things I might have offered, even if that 16-year-old version of myself couldn’t have fully understood them all:

1. When your mother told you that “Your eyes are bigger than your mouth” as you looked at a glorious piece of pie, she was on to something: the illusion of appearances. Some things and some people who look good, aren’t good. Or, have no lasting value, only a temporary pleasure that, like the food your mother was talking about, might not be as wonderful as you think.

2. Be quick to recognize patterns of mistakes and stop repeating them. As Bill Clinton said, “When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”

3. Perpetual regret is some version of hell. The first half of your life gives you lots of chances to recover from wrong turns and thereby avoid sentences that start with “I should have” or “I shouldn’t have.” You have the time to start most things over.

4. Hiding, hesitating, and hoping don’t work very well. To get ahead in life you can’t just read about it, imagine it, or worry about it. You actually have to do it. It’s a little like jumping into a cold pool. Once you’re in the water, you get used to the cold temperature and discover you can swim.

5. Don’t fool yourself by rationalizing your misdeeds or denying the real reasons you do what you do. But do learn to forgive yourself for most things. You are human, after all, and mistakes come with the package.

6. Perfectionism will kill you. So will slovenliness. Goldilocks was right about a lot of things: don’t aim for “too hot” or “too cold,” but for “just right.” In philosophical terms it is “the golden mean” — that place between excess and deficiency, between too much and too little of a quality. Some people call it balance.

7. No one cares about you except your mother, and even she has other things on her mind. OK, the first part of the last sentence is an exaggeration, but most of the people you know are too busy thinking about themselves to think much about you. Get over your self-consciousness.

8. You will pay for wisdom. Pain teaches, pleasure not so much. The body gives way in any case. Take care of your body; enjoy it and all the many pleasures of being young. Indeed, don’t take life so seriously that you miss the joy in living.

9. You too will die. Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor, actually hired someone to remind him of this fact every day. The cemetery is full of irreplaceable people. As Gregory Maguire has written, “Happy endings are still endings.” That tends to put things in perspective, so note the truth of it without constantly dwelling on it.

10. There is always someone better (and better off) than you are. There is always someone worse (and worse off) than you are.

11. You can’t have it all. Choose wisely, but remember Einstein’s words: “Try not to be a person of success, but rather a person of value.”

12. Accumulate experiences moment to moment, not possessions. Money and “stuff” are overrated unless you don’t have enough to get by.

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13. Make friends. People are the problem, but they are also the solution. Grudges will eat you alive, so try to let go and enjoy people for who they are, not who you want them to be, unless they are real scoundrels who should then be avoided. Spend more time trying to change yourself and less trying to change others.

14. Be nice. Or, to quote from American Opinion Magazine: “My boy,” said a father to his son, “treat everyone with politeness, even those who may be rude to you. For remember that you show courtesy to others not because they are gentlemen, but because you are a gentleman.”

15. Religion isn’t essential to morality. Some of the kindest and most decent people you will encounter don’t believe in God. But some really wonderful people do.

16. You must change yourself perpetually because of the changing circumstances in any life, not the least of which is aging. Think of life as a moving target, not one that is stationary. It follows that you should always seek to learn more from both study and experience. By the way, the most interesting people you meet will be the ones from whom you learn, by their words or their example.

17. You have to take chances, otherwise you can’t grow. Make the transition from seeing challenges as a crisis to seeing them as an opportunity.

18. Acceptance of the things that can’t be changed and appreciation of the good things you have are both life long tasks. Work at them.

19. Think about how you relate to money, food, time, and sex. Know where your potential spouse stands on each of these before your wedding day.

20. Reproduce. That’s why you are here, but don’t do so to save your marriage, and recognize that raising a child is a tremendous amount of work. Only have a baby if you want to be involved in all aspects of your little one’s life.

21. Overcome the things of which you are afraid. If you don’t they will diminish your life and continue to haunt you until you die.

22. Get to know your parents and, if possible, their early history. Whether by their good or bad example, they have something to teach you. There is also probably at least one person in your family who is so nuts that you want to reach for a giant nutcracker. Try to stay out of his or her way.

23. If you are an anxious or worried person, know that most of the things you anticipate either won’t happen or are survivable.

24. Always treat the wait-staff well.

25. Learn to be assertive. The world can be a merciless place if you don’t. Don’t explain your reasons or make excuses when no one asked. Don’t ask for permission when none has been requested. Someone might just say “no.”

26. Dr. S’s Bonus Item: Almost all the things you think will be the permanent solution to your problems provide only temporary relief. Once you solve one difficulty you are on to the next one, which probably requires a different remedy. Life is about learning that you can take on new challenges, not about finding permanent solutions to a fixed and unchanging set of problems.

27. Dr. S’s Second Bonus: If you want to get ahead, do what President Woodrow Wilson said: “Do not follow people who stand still.”

The top photo by Jonas Bergsten is of a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife, Mountaineer Model. The poster is called Follow the Old-timer’s Advice and comes from the Office of Emergency Management, Office of War Information, 1941-1945. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Stories That We Tell Ourselves

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Therapists hear stories. Tons of them.

Everyone has one.

But the stories that are most important are those that represent the essential narrative of a person’s life. You might have just one such story, one that tells you how you see yourself and your journey through life.

It may not even take the form of a specific tale or recollection, instead describing a view of how your life has progressed.

Perhaps you think you are lucky or, alternatively, unlucky. Maybe you see yourself as a “mover and a shaker.”  Do you imagine a handsome and suave (or beautiful and charming) persona as you look in the mirror? Or someone who is lazy or hardworking or resilient or weak?

But even if there is no story attached to the qualities that you ascribe to yourself or to your life path, the character traits you claim still are central to how you see of yourself, something you refer back to repeatedly.

Nor does the story or characteristic even have to be true. It just has to be something that you believe is true.

An example. An old acquaintance thought of himself as a “lady’s man,” making such politically incorrect comments as this simile: “A woman is like a taxi cab — if you miss this one, there will be another one along in 10 minutes.” He was clever, energetic, interesting, and outgoing, but unremarkable in his level of success and appearance — not particularly tactful either. When a woman rejected him, he was usually undaunted.

This gentleman even had a theme-song, of sorts. It was the soaring horn call from the Richard Strauss orchestral tone poem “Don Juan,” representing the bold, dashing title character he believed himself to be. And so, ever on the look-out for attractive women, he did, in fact, have numerous love affairs. Many ended badly, and he was as often rejected as he was the person who terminated the relationship.

Another person, no less likeable or successful with the opposite sex, might have seen the identical romantic life as a disappointment. But, our “Don Juan” never showed regret, rarely was chagrined for long, and continued to pursue women with the vigor he had always demonstrated.

Well, you might say that our hero had little self-awareness and you might be right. But, the case can be made that he was more satisfied in living-out his romantic life through his chosen vision of himself — through the story he was telling himself about himself — than if he had defined his role in the story differently, or come up with an alternate narrative altogether, especially if it was that of the jilted, luckless lover.

Now, I am not recommending either this man’s approach to women or his less-than-fully realistic view of himself. Nor would I have been pleased if one of my daughters found someone like him appealing. But his view did enable him to have much romance and fun in his life. In other words, he would have told you that it worked for him.

Unlike our friend, I have seen people change their stories over a life-time. For example, from feeling unlucky to feeling lucky, or from being timid and unsure to becoming more bold, assertive, and capable.

It is worth asking ourselves what stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Again, they might not stand up to external scrutiny, but they don’t necessarily have to in order to be useful. We frequently create self-fulfilling prophecies for ourselves, succeeding or failing because of what we believe will happen or who we believe we are. In large part the man in question had much romance because he believed in his “Don Juan” myth. Had he seen himself as an undiplomatic opportunist (something as fitting as his chosen vision), he would have had much less female companionship. Even worse, if he saw himself as a schlemiel.

Was his glass half-full or half-empty? That too is part of his story, and he certainly looked at life with a hopeful, optimistic gaze and focused on what was best in himself, not his weaknesses.

The person I’ve described had many, many friends and had much pleasure, not only with women. He led an interesting life. Even if it is not one you would personally choose, do not be too hasty to judge it (especially after I tell you that he was a loving father).

A great man?

No, but then, there aren’t too many of those.

But he was one who found a useful story.

Many of us do worse.

The above image is Don Juan and the Statue of the Commander by Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard, oil on canvas, circa 1830–1835; sourced from Wikimedia Commons.