Fathers and Memory

A woman I dated in college later gave a female friend the self-published autobiography of her dad. Mr. H was a complicated guy, something my old love seemed to indicate by her inscription on the inside cover of her gift:

Fathers!

If “Fathers!” meant he was narcissistic, she was right. The long account of his life mentioned his two children in only one paragraph. Their mother received a little more coverage, but the self-preoccupied writer failed to get their correct divorce date. He missed by a couple of years!

Dads and moms are on my mind because both my folks were born in November. I therefore offer you a few thoughts on how we remember people.

For example, I had several of Milt Stein’s baseball caps, but recently threw out most of them. I saved them after his death, all still holding his scent. His unique human fragrance was the whole — the remaining all one could then retain of his physicality. Now, lacking that redolence, they mean less to me. So long as I keep a couple I am satisfied.

My father’s electric razor held his presence, too; in the bull dozed bits of beard and the detritus of flaked skin. They reminded me of my face momentarily next to his in an embrace, the roughness of his after-workday epidermis, the substantial musculature of his body, the manness of his being.

I’m not alone in this attachment to aroma and sensory memory. My friend Mel, after the abrupt death of his wife, kept all her clothing for a time — and for the same reason.

We all remember people in photos, but our search for such vanishing wisps of creaturely residue recalls a closer closeness. Scent, sounds, and strands of hair are the evidence of physical nearness beyond what can be seen. They retrieve the touch, sonority, and smell of the other. In this we recapture the animality of our senses and the story they tell us of our past.

Mel agreed to be interviewed by me for an oral history late in his nine-decades-or-so of life. He was something of a father figure after my dad died in 2000; one generation younger than Pops, but still not young. So I have his voice, as well as a similar four-hour video interview I did of my father.

My treasure chest also includes not precious stones, but audios of a few of those who meant and mean something to me. Among these are my adult children when they were little. Mom’s spoken words own a place there, too, coupled with a bit of her singing. Though she never acquired vocal training, the tape displays undeveloped talent.

Jews, among others, remember people symbolically with illumination, lighting a Yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of a death. They also memorialize the name of the departed by giving it to an offspring whose birth happens soon after. Thus, the name does not die, despite Goethe’s assertion that “names are like sound and smoke.”

The usual explanation for this practice is the parents’ hope that in receiving the name of an admired family member, the child will emulate in life the virtues of the deceased namesake. To a certain extent, too, it is believed the soul of the loved one lives on in the child who now bears his name.*

All this, of course, takes no account of any convoluted feelings we might have toward parents. But these memorials assume a kind of idealized love for (and from) one’s guardians. Such emotions are baked into the cake of the connection between any small child and his sire; any small child and his mum. Therapy deals with the complications, but the remembrance remains.

Judy Collins created a different tribute to her father in a semi-autobiographical song. She emphasizes the sentiment, not the factual details, in her short introduction:

 

A prominent physician with whom I went to Chicago’s Mather High School dedicated his life to medicine because of the early death of his dad to cancer. Such stories aren’t hard to find.

When my best school friends and I established the Zeolite Scholarship Fund at our alma mater, we gave awards not only in honor of deceased and living classmates, but recognized several surviving teachers. They all appeared grateful to be recalled 40 years or more after we graduated.

The most touching story I know about ways of remembering involved two “star-crossed lovers,” no longer young as in “Romeo and Juliet,” from which the leading use of those words derives.

When their relationship came to its inevitable end, the woman told her beloved she would never wear a particular dress he favored; at least until such time as they again met. Only later did he emerge from his stupefaction and realize he too had reserved shirts he connected to her; and — so he said — purchased for her. Until then he didn’t grasp why he hadn’t worn them any other time. His unconscious alone kept the secret.

As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

—–

The top image is Salvador Dali’s Portrait of My Father. It is sourced from http://www.Wikiart.org/ The Missing Painting is the work of En-cas-de-soleil and comes from Wikimediacommons.

*The quotation regarding Jewish naming practices comes from http://www.Kveller.com/

The Ups and Downs of Living in the Past

The conventional wisdom about “living in the past” tells us the place is a toxic sinkhole to be visited sparingly, if ever.

I’d say this is often true, but not always. In my last post I described the value of “living in the present moment.”

Not today. Let’s look back. Start with the upside of spending time in

THE PAST

THE THERAPEUTIC USE OF THE PAST:

Psychodynamic psychotherapy allows us to observe repetitive patterns of our historical behavior, the better to recognize areas we need to change. History is grist for the treatment mill. The close examination of our life course permits the discovery of unresolved relationships and misfortunes. Historian George Santayana advised us all to keep hold of our bygone experience:

When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

My friend Henry Fogel put the same message a different way: “I like to make new mistakes.” In other words, don’t replicate the old ones.

When we recall prior examples of resilience under the duress of a painful present, we can also boost our confidence. Knowing we came through earlier challenges reminds us of what enabled our survival and recovery. Those capacities are likely still within us.

POSITIVE REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST: 

The past can be a sweet reminder of loving relatives and friends, triumphant moments, hurdles surmounted, and what has been good about life. In those who are middle-aged and beyond, remembering the youthful beauty of your sweetheart can spark continuing attachment, even though you and your love no longer resemble springtime flowers. In the elderly or the infirm, positive memories sustain one in the present, especially when a limit exists now on what might be experienced and accomplished. Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXX ends this way:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

THE NEED FOR A COHERENT STORY: 

Most people value their own story to make sense of the life they are currently living. It binds them to those with whom they have marched together through time. It tells them what they valued and what remains of importance. No wonder amnesia sufferers are so distressed. Their self-definition has been lost along with their story.

One cannot doubt, however, that the past can resemble the sinkhole mentioned earlier, if used to foreclose present opportunities. What is the downside of living too much in the long ago?

VICTIMHOOD IN SERVICE OF THE EGO:

A focus on the past allows some people to claim a status they would be unable to achieve in the present. I treated a woman of about 40, disfavored by nature and fate. Testing revealed her intellectual limits. She was neither physically attractive nor graceful. Worse still, her early life had been one of abuse, neglect, and rejection. Life’s unfairness to her historical-self was what she focused on, to the point of telling new acquaintances of her bad luck soon after meeting them. They fled, thus further confirming her sense of unique disadvantage.

One day I questioned her about the extremity of her beliefs. After once again acknowledging how fortune’s wheel had been unkind, I asked if she thought perhaps there were also others who met similar tragedy. “No.” What about in the history of the world? “No.” Not even Jesus or victims of genocide or torture? “No.”

In coming to grips with this, I wondered what advantage she found in the belief she was the most unfortunate person ever. I concluded this attitude allowed her to claim a distinction she could not otherwise attain. In effect, she prided herself on her disadvantage. Such a manner of living caused her to continue pleading her case with every new acquaintance, always failing to obtain the friendship and validation she wanted. In her own way, she gave it to herself in the ever-present litany of woe she called up daily. Her ego was thus bolstered.

AVOIDANCE:

Yesterday may appear safer than today or tomorrow. Whatever happened at a distance tends to be less acute. The past will not change and holds no surprises. Even if it is a dark place, no new demons arise. You know the territory. Indeed, one becomes quasi-friends with those demons. Stay put, some people think. They rationalize their stasis as a wise avoidance of fresh pain and heartbreak, humiliation and failure.

Psychotherapy helps a willing client recognize the cost of such an escape into yesterday, thus encouraging a return to human contact in spite of the risk we always face in our effort to live full lives and attain happiness.

POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS:

This condition is not a voluntary choice. One who has witnessed a murder or shocking death, or been threatened with the same, can be triggered by reminders of the event into a visceral return to tragedy, sometimes unable to tell past from present. They then re-experience the awfulness and are re-traumatized.

The worst example known to me of such repeated reliving – due to brain damage and not PTSD – was an elderly women about whom I heard the following. Her memory was so compromised that each morning she awoke believing her long-deceased husband was alive, and proceeded to search for him in desperation. The nursing home staff then had to inform her of his death. Thereby she was newly stricken every day. To the good, actual PTSD can be treated, as this woman’s condition could not.

TREATMENT STUCK IN THE PAST: 

Significant focus on the past is a necessary part of many psychotherapies. Still-tender wounds and long-nursed grudges must be grieved. How much your history remains a central topic is up to you and your therapist. At some point life has to be lived, because we cannot repurchase our yesterdays. Cognitive behavioral therapies try not to delay such a reentry into life. Remember, there is always more self-examination possible, in or out of therapy. Even Socrates – the man who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” also lived his life.

As Kierkegaard wrote, “Life is understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” No one ever understands everything about himself, past or present, including this writer.

Understanding is but one part of human existence. The driver’s seat in the vehicle of life faces forward, just behind the windshield and steering wheel. Rearview mirrors are less prominent. The rules of the road tell us to consult the latter only on occasion.

The second image is Brassai’s 1936 photo, Les Escaliers de Montmartre. The following photo was captured by  Alfred Stieglitz in 1894. It is called Venetian Canal and was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Looking Through Another’s Eyes: More on How Things End

The death of a parent compels attention. Last week I described how my mother’s end allowed me an enduring and touching memory after a difficult history. But I’m not her only son, and my brothers hold different images, early and late. You should know of one I witnessed. To set the stage, I’ll say more about the Stein household we all grew up in, all with our particular vantage points.

Imagine Milton Stein forever working one of his multiple jobs and Jeanette Stein overmatched by raising all of us on her own. Sibling rivalry became inevitable. We all wanted more time and attention and a different kind of time and attention.

From dad, a focus on us as individuals and our specific interests and talents would have been welcome, instead of the distracted and generic love of a man in motion: about to leave for work, at work, back from work, or worried about making a living. He designed his life to prevent a “Second Coming” of the economic hardship he’d endured in the 1930s.

Mom’s life had no such organizing principle to supply ballast. Perhaps as a result, her internal turmoil wasn’t contained. Relating to her was a tightrope walk.

The challenge of dad’s early life was exceeded by mom’s catastrophic upbringing. Her father Leo: a charming, alcoholic bon vivant. Her mother Esther: a suspicious, hard of hearing woman who cycled between vicious criticism of her children and a claustrophobic, suffocating love of them. Perhaps worst of all, the family’s frank poverty allowed my mother only enough money for a candy bar at high school lunch. Malnutrition made her an easy target for tuberculosis, while the clan’s economic desperation and social chaos stole any sense of value other than her physical beauty.

Her papa and mine abandoned her, each in their own way. To grandpa, drunken outings grabbed him; for dad the need to work. The turmoil of a childhood household with lots of little kids left an ill-equipped mother at the helm; exactly where my mother found herself again, this time assigned the role her mom played years before.

The frustration and anger boiled over at us rather than her parents or her husband. Routine comparisons occurred. “Why aren’t you more like ______.” We all heard this and sometimes thought ourselves the least favorite child because we didn’t know the game permitted no winners. What you did well didn’t count for nearly so much as what you didn’t or did wrong.

Jealousy grew, each boy short-changed. But our mother could also be extraordinarily warm, your fiercest defender against the outside world, and heartbreakingly sad, as she struggled with her own parental and sibling relationships. Only later did I realize I got the best of both of my folks, their adored only child for most of my preschool years.

Maturity was required of me as the oldest. Job #1: take some pressure off my parents and be a protector of Ed and Jack.

Eddie was an active, eager, smart little guy, while Jack as huggable as could be. Like all younger brothers (Ed is four years my junior and one year older than Jack), Eddie wanted my time and companionship; more perhaps because of dad’s absences and Ed’s quick displacement by Jack as the youngest. But, of course, big brothers don’t have the time or want to give it. I’m sure my rejection hurt.

Our temperamental differences made things harder. I was scholarly and reserved, carrying the family banner through academia. He was active and devilish, the kid who rushed in and sometimes made a mess. We didn’t always get along.

Yet there were moments when I did the right thing. Though I was no fighter, I took on our next door neighbor when the older boy pushed Ed around. I didn’t win, but the point was made. My mother said my opponent now had a hard time combing his hair at the place on the side of his head where I landed my most forceful blow. Later an older kid from the local parochial school harassed Eddie. This time I wound up on my back. I am not in the Boxing Hall of Fame.

Superman, starring George Reeves, was one of the most popular American TV shows of our youth. Reeves (not the late Christopher Reeve) starred as the handsome, muscular hero who every little boy emulated. He fought for “truth, justice, and the American way” as the idea was understood in the 1950s. Thus, TV provided an iconic image even more potent than the comic books we read, while the alley behind the house gave you a playing field to enact whatever heroism might come to mind.

Eddie showed some particular compassion for me in the alley. I was in the seventh grade. The sport was a two vs. two touch football contest. In trying to elude a tag I dodged to the right – and slammed into a jutting garage abutment. The right side of my head made the crunching contact. I knew the contest was now no game.

Eight-year-old Ed saw me – saw what I’d done to my ballooning forehead and my blood-filling, closing eye – and wept.

When Ed and Jack got older we played in summer softball leagues in Chicago and Evanston. Ed became a fine first baseman and a power hitter who once hit three homers in a single contest. Jack, the best athlete among us, was a gifted, strong-armed, left-handed outfielder; fleet afoot and capable of slashing line-drives to all fields. He went on to become an award-winning amateur body builder and a successful business man. These were the guys you wanted on your side.

Not everything in Ed’s life came as easily as hitting a long ball. School was a hard place despite Ed’s intellectual gifts. The rules chaffed. Trouble beckoned. The wrong friends, the kind your folks tell you to avoid, weren’t helpful. Some of them would later die of their own recklessness. Accidents, suicide, murder, drugs? In a wild crowd everything is possible. The coin of a life – the heads or tails of it – turned in the air.

Finding your way is rarely easy. Ed managed – through intellect, hard work, and courage – to shed the bad influences and create a wonderful business as a home remodeler of artistic sensibility and refined craft. He is a devoted husband and father; a smart, generous, and decent man who you still want on your side.

Somehow, though full-up with sadness, the death of our parents meant an escape from the adult version of the crazy-making sibling animosity my mom never stopped fomenting. Such losses don’t always result in closer sibling relationships, what with fighting over estates and bequests. But in our family everyone played fair and reconciliation came in its wake.

Ed, Jack, and I figured out that being friends, not only brothers, was desperately important. That grudges, regardless of the cause, needed setting aside. Love, after all, matters more than just about anything. The things binding us – our memories of the folks, the time together growing up, and a desire to live by the Golden Rule – became more important than our differences.

One afternoon in our childhood, while I played in the backyard, Ed was indoors watching Superman. When the program ended, he decided the day begged for a solo flight. A white towel mom must have tied around his neck made a makeshift cape. He pushed open the window facing the backyard and got out on a ledge perhaps 12-feet off the ground, preparing for launch.

By the time I noticed him, Ed knees flexed like Superman preparing for take-off. I yelled for him to stop. He hesitated. But how to turn him around and back into the house? Before I could get upstairs Ed might crash.

A sewer manhole cover lay below the window, the place where Eddie would land, not the more forgiving grass. Mom didn’t answer my frenzied shouts.

I got underneath the ledge, braced myself, and asked Ed to jump into my arms. He didn’t take much persuasion. We both survived.

Fast forward now.

My mother lay unconscious in the hospital. She had a living will, with Ed assigned the power of attorney for healthcare. She’d told us she wanted no extraordinary measures. Mom told us all, over and over after the death of our father, she wished to die.

My brothers and I visited the hospital daily. Ed arrived first on the day in question. Mom’s physician entered her room. He wanted to perform an invasive, long shot procedure. No matter what mom might have asked for, the M.D. knew Ed had control. A conversation ensued. The doc tried to persuade Ed, then talked of Ed’s responsibility to the woman who raised him, guilted him and guilted him and guilted him. At last the “healer” ended his assault and threw up his hands, the indictment now delivered, the verdict of “bad, ungrateful son” rendered. The unstated implication was that mom’s money was more important to Eddie than her life.

Eddie walked out of the room. I’d entered the building minutes before and was strolling toward him down the hospital corridor. At a distance he was still my brother Ed; still a handsome, put-together man’s man with a steel core of toughness that could withstand anything. Wrong. He broke down in my arms.

Most of us could have rationalized conceding to the medical man. Jeanette Stein was now silent, the M.D. was not. Ed put her first, not himself.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing lots of courageous people, folks I met in my practice and elsewhere. Still, there are never enough.

When I think about Ed’s story, Ed’s last stand in defense of our dying mother, I recall his effort to be Superman at the backyard window.

I wonder, did I have to break his fall? In the last moment, Ed Stein – the real Superman who sacrificed a piece of himself in a hospital room – might have been able to fly. Yeah, compared to that, flying was easy.

——————————

For the most part, the images should be readily identifiable: two of my parents, Ed Stein in a photo I took of him hitting a double in a softball game, a cartoon of Superman, Jack Stein, the entire family around 1960 (with Jack, Gerry, and Ed from left to right), and Ed and the author in our backyard. Unfortunately, you can’t see the area of the intercepted Superman flight, which we are facing. Our garage, behind us, stands between us and the alley separating Talman Avenue from Washtenaw Avenue.

A Grateful Goodbye: The Importance of Endings

Old relationships leave a variety of marks. Dark and light, faint and bright, on the surface and below. Some fade quickly, others remain: the wistful, the love sick, the haunting. Endings matter. They impact how you remember past passions, family, and friends of all kinds.

Therapists talk about grieving, but what comes after? Is more yet to learn?

We grieve close-up, but understand at a distance, needful of time’s passage to tally the score and figure what happened. In the brightness and intensity of proximity our emotions get in the way of reason and perspective.

The people who have reappeared as memories in my life sometime took new forms, offered new lessons. One, who lived on a pedestal far too high, became more narcissistic and closer to earth with time. I understood her only after a while. But an old girlfriend is one thing, a parent something else.

Though as a little boy I was “the cream in her coffee,” mom and I lived at odds most of her life. Over time I learned to master the largest part of my animosity, fulfilled my responsibility and visited the folks without incident. She knew I came out of duty more than admiration and said so in her 70s. “You love me, but don’t like me.” I could not deny it.

Age mellowed mom some. The cutting edge of her double-sided compliments was duller, the clever complaints more effortful, less acid. After my 88-year-old dad died in the summer of 2000, mom (81 herself) was desperately unhappy. She’d long since given up on friendship, not wishing to risk closeness. The wounds of her childhood remained unaddressed. Much as Jeanette Stein could be a tough person to deal with, the emotional devastation of an alcoholic father; a paranoid, smothering mother; youthful poverty and teen-aged tuberculosis – these were her most faithful companions. They alone, along with her three sons, represented the only “relationships” left with dad gone.

In the last six-months of her too-long life (she daily prayed to my father and her mother to take her) I visited her every week. Preparation was required. I donned my armor suite, readying for the joust: criticisms aimed at me, the kids, the wife too; none of them present for the “fun” of seeing her again. Mostly I kept quiet, carried on conversation about the TV shows she watched, my brothers’ lives, searching for “safe” topics, and whatever else might pass the minutes with as little incident as possible.

The last time we talked wasn’t a remarkable event. While mom was her usual critical self, at least she was not at her worst. The next week Mrs. Stein didn’t answer the phone call made from the retirement facility’s reception desk. I took the elevator to her room, but no amount of knocking got a response. The facility manager opened her apartment for me. We discovered mom sitting upright with a cooling cup of coffee tableside. She never regained consciousness.

Not an unusual ending, then, but I haven’t told you what happened two weeks before: the second to last time I talked with her. My mother suffered from lots of physical pain even when she escaped invasion by one of her frequent headaches. Not this day. She felt “pretty good” and offered me a lightness of spirit I’d not seen in decades. We laughed. She was at ease. Her cleverness had no ill intent. The time together was an unexpected joy for me, almost a miracle: one of the most extraordinary days in my pretty interesting life. The kind of day you want to capture in a bottle and take home with you; the more poignant and precious because you can’t.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, has described us as having two “selves.” The experiencing self and the remembering self:

The experiencing self is the one that answers the question (say, during a painful event): ‘Does it hurt now?’ The remembering self is the one that answers the question: ‘How was it, on the whole?’ Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.

Kahneman continues, “The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living.”

Yet this is not the whole story, as the psychologist also tells us. If you are having surgery, your memory will be influenced by the “peak-end rule.” Both the extent of pain at its peak and the level of suffering at surgery’s end affect whether you will think back to the procedure as awful or no big deal. A benign ending can transform the experience.

Endings are like boomerangs – they keep returning. Seventeen-years this month have passed since mom died. It has become easier to “live” with her ghost and be more sympathetic to her tragic life. My brothers and I get along better and the family jokes I tell do not have the bitterness of the past.

That last good day lasted just a couple of hours. Not long, but it didn’t need to. Some people get nothing of value when relationships end. The things unsaid remain unsaid on one or both sides; the finish finishes, at best, in discontent, at worst in horror. You think you will have more time and then it’s gone. I was lucky to see my mother once again beautiful and gay, happy and happy with me.

It was not enough for the teen I was once, but by then it was enough for the adult, surely more than I expected or imagined possible.

It will do.

——-

The top photo is my mother as a young woman. The Suit of Armor is from the Carnegie Museum of Art, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Daniel Kahneman quotes can be found in his wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

What Does It Mean to be “Psychologically Minded?”

A good observer of the human condition notices some fellow creatures who don’t get it. Several are obtuse. Many can be described as too logical. Others naïve or unworldly. More than a few don’t think through what they do and why, dismissing opinions different from their own. Their certainty of everything betrays their awareness of nothing. Large numbers can’t recognize the obvious ingredients in their complicated emotional stew.

They don’t even hear the stewpot boiling over.

I’d characterize such folks as lacking a certain “psychological mindedness.” This is my own term of art, not a phrase with a definition understood and accepted in the field of mental health. Still, I’ll try to describe what constitutes such a state of mind and why it might be useful to us. If you are psychologically minded, several of these qualities will be characteristic of you:

  • All your decisions are not understood by you. Mystery resides in everyone. We are each some combination of genetic programming, the formative influence of our parents, education, experience, and choice. Emotion and reason both play their part. Should you be so unwise as to claim understanding of all your motives, you are mistaken.
  • Illogic troubles your thought process and you know you aren’t alone. You don’t insist your every idea is structured like an architectural work of art, nor hold others to this standard. Were logic alone in charge, you’d be a robot. We arrive at some of our most vehement opinions intuitively and only then find justifying reasons with blinding speed, a process invisible to the internal eye.
  • You are aware mom and dad were imperfect and don’t dismiss their effect on you, for good or ill, probably both.
  • You don’t believe your achievements are the singular product of your special genius and effort. We are interdependent, all of us: impacted by the color of our skin, the economic and social circumstances of our birth, the presence or absence of societal and political unrest, the power of love and loneliness; and by a helping or dismissive hand, not to mention the accident of our appearance. You are on board with John Donne’s poetic truth, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” As my friend, Life in a Bind, suggests, “you think about yourself in the world from a slightly more distanced stance than others do, and with a longer lens stretching back into the past.”
  • You know grieving takes its own time and is best done with one or more faithful witnesses, not by the toughness required for bullet-biting; or burying sadness in perpetuity. Others are not advised by you to “get over it.”
  • Unfairness, you think to yourself, can be subjective and therefore a matter of perspective.
  • To a degree you know the danger of being hostage to the opinion of others.
  • You don’t “blame the victim” by asserting you’d have been smarter in a difficult situation: made a better choice, demonstrated more resilience, or maintained a higher moral standard. Without experience in the same circumstance, in truth, you cannot predict what you’d have done.

  • You recognize your lack of “all the answers.” You are humble in the face of the things you don’t understand and accept the need to learn more. You grasp at least a bit of the human necessity for continual transformation as you age and face unexpected situations requiring new solutions.
  • You don’t reflexively condemn others when something goes wrong, instead demonstrating occasional willingness to look into the mirror. Nor do you make automatic assignment of blame to yourself, realizing, at least, the cost of doing so, even if you cannot yet stop.
  • Once in a while you ask, “Why did I do that” or “Why did I say that?”
  • To paraphrase Life in a Bind again, psychological mindedness permits insight into mind traps: the alteration of perception when gripped by defenses like projection. What feels real emotionally may not be true.
  • To your dismay, you are cognizant of the human capacity to rationalize almost anything, murder included. Perhaps it has dawned on you that you too rationalize. You regret another painful truth: even wonderful and wonderfully talented people possess a dark side.
  • While some challenges are uncomfortable to face, you believe avoidance of a direct glance or assertive action might be a costly life strategy.
  • You are a part-time observer of yourself, not obsessed with yourself. You are neither totally inward-focused, unable to get out of your own head; or totally outward-focused – mindlessly “in the moment” – never reckoning with who you are. You agree with Socrates (“The unexamined life is not worth living”), but not so far as to spend all your time in examination, avoiding action and risk. If you cannot yet venture forth, your realize you must find a way.
  • You either play or wish to learn how to play.
  • Self-righteousness is something you avoid.
  • You understand that openness is double-edged: the pursuit of intimacy means guaranteed risk in search of potential reward. You opt for openness, at least in theory.
  • From time to time you think about your default tendencies. Perhaps you are inclined to approach or avoid, argue or make peace, court danger or play it safe, etc. On occasion you even think your strengths (and the penchant to overplay them) are your weaknesses.

If you recognize several of these qualities in yourself, you are a good psychotherapy candidate, assuming you muster the courage to gamble something great for something good. Your psychological mindedness is now and again misunderstood by friends who do not view the world with the nuance you do.

Keep going and growing. The world then becomes a bit more explicable and your understanding of yourself enlarged. The planet will take on colors never noticed on the black-and-white globe you used to inhabit. Your perspective may also attract new acquaintances.

Some will think you unnecessarily troubled, others conclude you are wise.

No free lunch.

Choose.

The image of The Human Mind comes from Wikimedia Commons via Flicker. No author is identified. The second Wikimedia photo is a Psychic Apparition. It comes from the collection of Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums, from a series called Psychic Photography From a New Angle.

Who Helps You Grieve?

You lose a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a spouse or a parent. Death, breakup, estrangement – all terrible. If you are wary of a therapist, who helps you grieve? This tends not to be a thought-through decision. You are in pain, if not overwhelmed. I hope to address here some of the complications of your choice or choices – steer you, too, toward who might be best.

  • Complete Self-Reliance. This is the most challenging and dangerous choice. You have lost a dear person and, perhaps, trust in the virtue of attachment. You fear losing the supportive individual, too, through death, relocation, or misunderstanding; maybe driving them away with your desolation. Grieving alone is a self-alienating process. The parts of you press against each other. Your insides ache, but the world goes by as if nothing happened. Tears are not enough unless they are witnessed by someone sympathetic.
  • A Person in the Midst of the Same Grief. Should a child go to a parent who is also bereft if the child’s father (the mother’s spouse) is the one who is gone? The choice is natural, but the mother has nothing to give. Reverse the situation: should the mother go to the adult child seeking solace when the sting from which the daughter suffers is just as intolerable? Each needs her own support. That said, a parent or an adult offspring might feel responsible and obligated to give aid, and guilty if she does not. Both are adrift. Why do we expect one person to be the life-saving lifeguard when both people are drowning? We go to therapists because they are not suffering our loss. They offer the therapeutic distance the bereft cannot. Only with such remove from personal pain can comfort be provided as needed.
  • Friends or Relatives Who are Judgemental. Some people will blame you. What did you do to drive your spouse away? Why aren’t you going to church and relying on God? You mean you’re not over it yet? You need to move on, start dating again, get a life. Some of these “friends” do not want to consider their own vulnerability to tragedy and devastation. Easier to shun you or blame you. Surprisingly, a friend who has “been through it” might be less sympathetic than one who has not.
  • A New or Potential Love Interest Who Offers Support. Pardon me for being cynical here, but one must be careful of opportunists. Even those sincere in their desire to offer a hand to hold may be unaware of the extent to which they hope for a relationship with you. I’ve seen this opportunism in both sexes. By itself, not necessarily a bad thing, unless your vulnerability finds you making a poor selection of a new lover, choosing the distraction of a rebound romance to salve your faltering heart.
  • A Friend Who is Available For Only Part of the Job. She is a good choice if she is also sympathetic. Such a person might limit contact, but be fully present when able to offer herself. These friends can’t do the complete job of helping you grieve, but a part of it.
  • An Array of Supportive Friends. If you know such people, some of whom might be in your religious community, then you can go to two or three who are free and solid enough to take on a bit of your hurt. By distributing the weight of your pain among a few people, burn-out of any one of them is less likely.
  • A Support or Survivors Group. Especially if you add such a group to the friends with whom you talk, this can provide a means to the end you seek.
  • An Individual Therapist. Again, the various choices are not mutually exclusive. With the availability of a few people to witness your pain and a dedicated professional hand, you now have a system of reattachment to the human community. A counselor has treated other bereft souls before you, the training to help you along, and the aforementioned distance from your loss.

Nothing about this process is easy. No perfect solution exists. Time helps. Love helps. People help. Work helps, too.

The sun has set on your life, but, as Ecclesiastes tells us, the sun also rises.

The first photo is of The Kiel Canal, in the German State of Schleswig-Holstein. Finally, The Sun Rising Through the Clouds, by Moise Nicu, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Good Man is Hard to Find: Remembering Bob Calsyn

Life is a funny thing. It had been a while since I thought about Bob Calsyn, my old graduate school friend. But then I recognized that a post I wrote five years ago was getting visited more than usual today. Clearly, the fifth anniversary of Bob’s death on September 21, 2012 isn’t going unnoticed. He deserves notice and remembrance. I’ve not known a better man.

Memory has a different place in our lives than in ancient times.

The pre-literate Greeks of Homer’s day could not apply the balm of eternal life to their troubled psyches. They had no notion of the heaven Christians believe in, no sense of reincarnation such as Hindus expect, no Muslim vision of paradise, no anticipation of a reunion with relatives and friends who had predeceased them. Instead, death led to a trip to Hades, the underworld, where existence was a pale and not very attractive shadow of earthly life, not something to be eagerly awaited.

Bob would not have liked Hades. He lived for the sunlight, not the shadows.

The life of the pre-literate Greeks was painfully short. Even at the turn of the last century, around 1900, the average American survived only about 50 years. The brevity of our time above ground was certainly known to the ancients.

Greek literature and philosophy point to two driving concepts that motivated those men. (And I speak of men only, because women were extraordinarily disadvantaged, seen as having almost no function other than sex, companionship, rearing children, and producing domestic handicrafts). Honor and glory were what men sought. Honor tended to come in the form of goods, precious metal, slaves, concubines, and the like; in other words, mostly material things or things that could be counted or displayed or used.

Sort of like today, perhaps you are saying to yourself. In our world, honor is conferred by status and material things, too – the size of your house, the amount of money in your bank account, a trophy spouse, the car or cars you drive, a gorgeous vacation home, etc.

Glory (the Greek word kleos) was another matter. It took the form of reputation or fame continuing beyond death. And, since there was no written word, you and your accomplishments had to be sufficiently great to generate discussion, song, and story once you were gone. No one was going to write a book about you, since there was yet no Greek alphabet.

The point being, Bob deserved more than a little of the old-style glory. Telling you his tale once again is the best I can do and the least I can do.

As you might imagine, I have lots of feelings today. If you read this post before I hope you will take another look. And, if you haven’t, then his admirable life will be a fresh experience for you. For those of you, especially my female readers who have been disappointed with my gender, perhaps Bob’s life will give you a bit of hope to keep looking. Regardless, maybe knowing him a little will make you a better person, as knowing him a lot made me. Here is the link: Bob Calsyn