The Need for Escape

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

Other examples come to mind:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Have Learned so Far: Life Lessons, Part II

study-for-inner-improvement-1977

Here is a second round of ideas about the process of living accumulated in a lifetime of observation and action — success, error, and reflection. My profession allowed me access to the thoughts and stumbles, ascensions and tumbles of thousands of folks. Some of my learning is crafted into the bits below. I published an essay on January 8 with the same title, labeled Part I. Perhaps there will be a third set after a while. Here goes the second one:

  • “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” Einstein most often gets credit for saying so, but the real author is William Bruce Cameron. So much for justice.
  • “Buddies don’t count,” as my friend John Kain says. He meant we should not keep score or expect perfect equity in any relationship. Close attention to a balance sheet will make us (and our soon-to-be former friend) miserable.
  • Know thyself” is inscribed at the Temple of Apollo. I never met anyone who understood himself completely, myself included. Self-awareness is a “more or less” commodity. We consume too much time preoccupied with what others think of us, analyzing why they did what they did, said what they said. One might more profitably endeavor to know oneself and do good in the world.
  • The ability to start over is essential. I counseled people who made dramatic career changes (from powerhouse attorney to clergyman, for example). I had to evaluate patients afresh to see if I was missing something or misunderstanding their makeup. We must occasionally wipe clean the mirror of our thinking and let ourselves be shocked or enlightened by our unphotoshopped image. As Max Weber suggested, whether we wish to or not, our lives will be influenced by how much truth about ourselves and the world we can bear.
  • To understand yourself you need to know your roots. Our ancestors survived, chose mates, and produced children. We inherited their genes and therefore possess the same urges. These forebears also had to detect who was like them and might be friendly, and who was different and might be dangerous. Fruit enabled survival, so we were handed their love of sweets. The creation of tools further enhanced the chance of staying alive. The ability to form cooperative groups helped, as well. Since they didn’t live long, the genes they delivered to us gave us instincts that worked for what we now think of as the first half of life.
  • A troubling aspect of evolution is that it enabled survival, not happiness. Happiness became the bi-product of human actions only if the emotion helped make sure the kids were born, survived, and thrived. The joy produced by love, for instance, bonded families and increased the likelihood the children would come to generate offspring of their own in time.

even-if-happiness-forgets-you-occasionally-never-forget-it-completely

  • We tend to think in terms of before and after: before and after school, before and after you left home; a first job, the death of someone you loved, a first sexual encounter, etc.
  • We don’t need permission from very many people. Asking “to be allowed” means you will hear “no” more than the guy who doesn’t. Such requests make you the hostage of waiters, your children, and people you will never meet again. Often it is OK to just do what you want. No one will stop or question you. The world, within limits, tends to adjust. A wonderful sense of liberation awaits.
  • We need to evaluate our default (automatic) tendencies. Some of us take action, others wait. Some routinely approach, others reflexively avoid. Our strengths can also be our weaknesses when applied to the wrong situations. Best to apply as needed, rather than by default.
  • Personality disorders cause us to rerun mistakes, like an old episode of a poor TV show. One is well-advised to recognize flawed life strategies — recurring behavior patterns contributing to our disappointments. We otherwise risk familiar and fruitless searches for the wrong people; too many or too few chances taken and, either ignoring tomorrow for pleasure today or focusing so much on tomorrow we miss the glory and opportunity offered by the new sunrise.
  • “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.” Within a group of unremarkable people, you can stand out without being extraordinary. Becoming a big fish in a small pond is easy because the pond is tiny, with little competition, and the other fish are not so fine as you are.
  • There are fewer small ponds these days. Over our history, especially when villages and small towns predominated, we could achieve high status without difficulty. Now we must compete with people all over the globe.
  • The only thing you control is what you do, what you think. The attempt to change other adults is a fool’s errand unless they want to be altered, like an article of clothing needing to be resized. Remember the old psychotherapy joke:

Question: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: One, but the light bulb must want to be changed.

untitled-1993

  • Most selfish people don’t experience much guilt. Those who fear their own selfishness tend to overstate the danger. Even then a self-sacrificing person must care for his own needs. Please recall the airline safety instructions:

If the oxygen mask comes down and you are traveling with someone who is dependent on you, put the mask on yourself first. (Otherwise you’d be of little help to your companion or child).

  • Many folks don’t buy into the belief their choices are as genetically determined as they are. Example:

Maybe you say, “I dress the way I do to look nice.” Well, an evolutionary scholar would tell you ancestors who made a good appearance were more likely to have their choice of healthy, faithful mates and thereby ensure they would create fit offspring. That tendency is “built-in,” so we incline toward concern about appearances well after our biological clocks stop.

  • The average 16th-century man had less information to process in his short lifetime than can be found in a single, daily edition of The New York Times. We must narrow our focus or drown in a sea of real news, fake news, and drivel. Too many of us attend to things of no lasting value.
  • Change can be unsettling. The effort to keep our world exactly as it is, however, can lead us to reduce the size of our lives, resist unfamiliar experiences, and fail to incorporate new people in our circle. Flexibility is a key to life satisfaction. Change is an opportunity to reinvent oneself.
  • Don’t expect sincere apologies any time soon. In 1942 West Coast Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps by the federal government, which alleged potential disloyalty during the ongoing war. World War II ended in 1945. Not until 1988 did the USA formally apologize, citing the real reasons for this disgraceful act against a group which included 62% U.S. citizens:

Race prejudice, war hysteria, and the failure of political leadership.

  • Inaction, stillness, and patience are powerful tools. Passive-resistance has been a major and successful method of changing the world, one practiced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Here is a modest illustration of how passivity can work for you:

When my wife and I bought our current home, we dealt directly with the owner. He proposed a price. I was silent. As the seconds passed he lowered the number a few times. The man assumed my failure to respond meant he’d not reached a figure acceptable to us. The truth was, however, he went below what we were prepared to pay.

evening-magic-2000-jpglarge

  • If you chase people they are inclined to flee. Stop chasing and they may turn toward you or even walk in your direction. Consider this with respect to your romantic life.
  • I had the pleasure of a friendship with a Japanese businessman residing in the USA. His favorite teacher advised him to choose a career that was his second love, not the thing he loved best. Why?

If you do what you love best as your vocation you will discover it becomes a thing you must do, not an activity you choose to do. You may kill the thing you love.

  • Luck is most often defined by happy accidents and near misses: finding a dollar on the street, winning the lottery, that sort of thing. A bigger scale exists. My wife’s maternal grandmother was an indentured servant in Poland. She served on a farm before indoor plumbing was common. When using the outhouse in wintertime she jumped from one cow patty to another to keep her bare feet warm.

In my mother-in-law’s childhood, she and her young friends picked up lumps of coal that fell off passing freight trains to help heat their homes. I can remember washboards and clothes lines in my youth, a day of few washing machines and dryers. In graduate school we used mechanical calculators to compute research results until giant computers became available. The point?

Be grateful for what you have.

  • Think about random events for a moment. The most unlikely event in your life is that you exist at all. Had my grandparents not left Europe at the beginning of the 20th-century, I could have been murdered by the Nazis some time later. Moreover, for each of us to exist as the unique person we are, every ancestor had to meet and procreate with just the mate with whom they did. Had only one made a different choice or perhaps had intercourse on another day, we wouldn’t be here. Others would.
  • I worked for a quirky psychiatrist at a now defunct psychiatric institution. MJ was enormously bright and also quite full of himself. One day he asked me to sub for him at a meeting. I reported back the criticism I heard aimed at him. He was unperturbed. MJ’s only comment was, “A big tree casts a long shadow.” In other words, MJ viewed himself as a big, imposing tree and therefore believed some people were going to take shots at him, be jealous, etc. I thought to myself, “You really are full of yourself.” A second later I realized he was right:

If you are going to do anything significant in life and hold opinions not universally agreed upon, you need to let the bullets bounce off. There will be bullets.

  • In his Politics, Aristotle writes about those who “proceed on the supposition that they should either preserve or increase without limit their holdings of money. The cause of this condition is that they are serious about living, but not about living well.”
  • Aristotle was born over 2400 years ago. Lucky for us, some of the best advice has been around for a while.

The first image is called Study for Inner Improvement by Helen Almeida, dating from 1977. The next one is Even if Happiness Forgets You Occasionally, Never Forget It Completely, a year 2000 work of Hasson Massoudy, followed by an Untitled 1993 painting of Albert Oehlen. Finally comes Evening Magic created in 2000 by Eyvind Earle. All are sourced from Wikiart.org.

Happiness Exercise #2: Mindfulness Without Meditation

Mindfulness has become part of everyday conversation. In case you’ve missed overhearing it, Wikipedia defines mindfulness as “moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, characterized mainly by “acceptance” — attention to thoughts and feelings without judging whether they are right or wrong.” Mindfulness meditation research points to health benefits from living in the moment, neither imagining what is ahead nor preoccupied with the phantoms of yesterday. Yet most people can’t, don’t, or are too busy to meditate. We live as if distracted by flies at a barbecue. The insects are replaced by the latest text message, our supervisor’s criticism, or a baby who just pooped. With all this happening, mindfulness meditation seems indulgent.

Americans, in particular, believe they must be going somewhere, anywhere but where they are. Our country condemns stasis in the name of progress, however ill-defined. Even our anger is directed at action, though it keeps us stuck. Someone who is mindful, by contrast, chooses a destination worth reaching and tends to find the ride interesting if not joyful; tolerable at worst.

Today I’ll suggest three simple exercises to buy you some mindfulness. I’ll be like the grocery employee who offers free samples, hoping you’ll enjoy the product and purchase more for yourself. Best of all, you won’t have to meditate, a procedure you might have tried and given up because of little time or frustration.

First, a word about the meditation I won’t be illustrating. The technique is a means to an end. The goal is to help you flourish and become enlivened, not to get divorced, quit work, or spend your days with eyes closed in a trance. Meditation makes your marriage, job, and everything else less troublesome if it succeeds in producing mindfulness that transfers from a quiet, private exercise to the rest of your life. I will offer examples of a more direct way to arrive at the same state. You aren’t required to choose one path to mindfulness, but life satisfaction can be enhanced by any and all methods that get you focused:

  • Eat a meal alone. Try your home, a park bench, or a restaurant, although the first alternative probably will be easiest. It should be quiet to the extent possible. Turn off the TV and smartphone. Give dinner enough time after preparation. Look at the food. Examine it as if you had a microscope handy. Think about its arrangement on the plate. Appreciate the colors and shapes, the aromas and the temperature. Close your eyes and take a bite. Feel the texture with tongue and teeth. Chew slowly. Sense the taste. Be still. If you do this for even a few seconds, you will have eaten mindfully. Nothing but the meal and its qualities should be in your thoughts. Try not to compare this repast to anything in your history of dining.

Most of us tend to eat at speed. We simultaneously converse, anticipate the end of our lunch break, drift toward the events of yesterday or tomorrow, and pass through multiple disconnected emotions and ideas that start in Cleveland and end in Istanbul in 15 seconds time. The common way of eating is mindless, a term associated with Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer. Fueling the body becomes another job done daydreaming, like shoveling coal into a furnace while our brain is somewhere else. We move to the next task as distracted as when we ate. Our brain buzzes with car horns and flashing neon. Sleep alone stops the light show.

  • Wad up some paper or find a small rubber ball and use a waste basket as a target. You are going to shoot baskets in a home-made version of basketball. The goal is not to become a champion or even to test yourself. Concentrate on the task. Focus on your grip of the ball or its substitute. Let the texture of the projectile inform your touch. Notice how the arm and hand are positioned. Sight the target. Watch the ball fly into the basket or rebound away. Sense your body as you bend to retrieve your throw. You might even hear a joint pop. Repeat. Think of nothing else, not even the previous shot. Care not whether you succeed in scoring. This is about the process and not the product. Slow down so the act fully absorbs you.
  • Find a place free from the press of events. Think of someone you dislike. Consider all the negative adjectives you apply to them. Be as specific as possible. For example, words like hard-headed, foolish, demanding, etc. Now search for a different way to describe the same person, considering terms that are less pejorative but no less accurate. Can you recognize hard-headedness as another way of saying strong-willed? How about substituting optimistic for foolish, or acknowledging that a demanding human sets a high standard of performance?

The idea here is get out of the mindlessness groove and think afresh. Evolution led us to make quick judgements about who is on our side and who isn’t, who might be fun to share a lunch with and who might want us to be their lunch. When sticking to our preconceived notions we are living mindlessly, says Ellen Langer. The habit leaves us encumbered, unable to learn new things or correct errors with facility. Our world becomes a set of automatic answers and inflexible reactions, bypassing thought and reconsideration. Instead, try to look at anyone you know well and find something new about him or her. You might be surprised by what you discover.

I don’t want to overwhelm you. Any of these exercises is informative if done mindfully. No multitasking allowed. Mindfulness should enliven you. Observing the world in a new way is interesting. A fresh perspective is good for your brain and your relationships. Therapists sometimes role play with their patients, in part to give them practice in handling troublesome people, but also to take another perspective. In a difficult bond between parent and child — a bond like bondage — it can be enlightening to take your own role and then switch to the other’s role.

A psychiatrist I used to know often told his patients, “Learn or burn.” He didn’t mean it, of course. He wanted to emphasize their need to save themselves from the self-inflicted errors contributory to unhappiness. Abe Lincoln said:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves…

I’d take Lincoln’s writing out of its Civil War context by writing the last sentence this way: “We must disenthrall ourselves” every minute, every day.

If your life is not what you wish, I’d say mindfulness, not wealth, is the more attainable, more satisfying alternative to the self-imposed slavery of pre-conceived notions and routine thought-spinning. An interesting life is in the mind of the beholder.

The top image is a symbol created by Mmm Daffodils to signify the “wise mind” concept used in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

Yes or No? “What Goes Around Comes Around”

Justice and Law

Many of us comfort ourselves with the notion that life evens out in the long run. The evil go to hell, the good go to heaven. Or, if you are not religiously inclined, “What goes around comes around.” Meaning that eventually justice is done, something bad will happen to those who have done something bad, even if it looks like they are better off in the short run.

Then there are those who believe, usually in conformity to a “religion of prosperity,” that if you are injured by another you probably deserved it, since God would not authorize something that wasn’t in your best interest. Or, perhaps that the Almighty is giving you some sort of test or opportunity to learn and grow that will ultimately be of benefit to you.

Finally, there is a rather large group who don’t believe in any ultimate fairness in this life or the next — a darker view, for sure. They say that bad things do happen, sometimes randomly, and sometimes due to people who are malicious, unscrupulous, self-interested, and so forth. For those with that view, evil deeds will usually go unpunished and there isn’t much you can do about it. They ask the first two groups to defend the view that the world is ultimately just when they read the morning newspaper’s screaming headlines about chemical warfare, ethnic cleansing, and the like. They quote the great attorney Clarence Darrow’s comment that, “There is no justice — in or out of court.”

My own view is different from these. I am not counting on heaven to put things right, although I’d be very happy to be surprised on this point. Nor do I believe in the kind of God who would authorize injury to us on earth. If he exists, and if he is all-good and all-powerful, he can cleverly produce the results he wants without mayhem and heartbreak to we fragile souls.

On the other hand, I do agree with those who believe that many people escape external punishments: prison time, loss of money, that sort of thing. But, in my experience as a therapist and observer of life, I have seen very few people who behave badly on a regular basis and are happier for it. Let me elaborate.

Some of the most destructive people I’ve known are quite unhappy. Their self-interested actions discourage others from being close to them, so they have recurring relationship issues. Those who gossip too much (we all do it some) cause others to mistrust them. Then there are the promise-breakers, who also cause friendships to end. All these imperfect humans are usually clueless to what they do that injures others — perhaps even surprised that they obtain the reputation of being dangerous. If they are powerful or wealthy or beautiful, some people will stick around them hoping for a payoff. But that is not love or the kind of companionship that most of us want.

Would you really want to be the Mafia boss who must live in fear of arrest, imprisonment, or murder by someone close to him; who must have a body-guard or two around his palatial estate? Would you trade places with a person without a conscience because he has figured out how to lie, cheat, and steal his way to prominence? Do you imagine him capable of any real intimacy? Is money or property that important to you that you’d emulate his life if you could? Or perhaps you’d love the life of a gossip who works hard to believe that everyone loves her, but knows, deep down, that her relationships are shallow? Yet she is blind to the destructiveness that causes others to shy away from anything that is more than casual.

I don’t think you’d choose any of those ways of living. Nor do I imagine that it sounds appealing to become someone so self-interested that you trade the joys of friendship and sometimes even the good feeling that comes from self-sacrifice for the temporary personal satisfaction of selfishness.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned guilt. There is a lot less guilt out there than most people think. Most of us are pretty well able to rationalize the injuries we cause to others. It often goes like this: “He did X to me, so that means I can do Y to him.” Well, no, actually, unless you want to lose your own honor and decency, which usually comes in the process of trying to right the scales of justice or get revenge.

Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum

Here is an extreme example of losing your soul in an effort to extract revenge for a horrible betrayal. The speaker is Martha Nussbaum, Professor at the University of Chicago, in conversation with Bill Moyers:*

I wake up at night thinking about Euripides’ (play) Hecuba, a story that says so much about what it is to be a human being in the middle of a world of unreliable things and people. Hecuba is a great queen who has lost her husband, most of her children, and her political power in the Trojan War. She’s been made a slave, but she remains absolutely morally firm, and she even says she believes that good character is stable in adversity and can’t be shaken.

But then her one deepest hope is pulled away from her. She had left her youngest child with her best friend (Polymestor), who was supposed to watch over him and his money and then bring him back when the war was over. When Hecuba gets to the shore of Thrace, she sees a naked body washed up on the beach… She looks at it more closely, and then sees it’s the body of her child, and that the friend has murdered the child for his money and just flung the body heedlessly into the waves. All of a sudden the roots of her moral life are undone. She looks around and says, “Everything that I see is untrustworthy.” If this deepest and best friendship proves untrustworthy, then it seems to her that nothing can be trusted, and she has to turn to a life of solitary revenge. We see her end the play by putting out the eyes of her former best friend (and murdering his two young sons), and it is predicted that she will turn into a dog. The story of metamorphosis from the human to something less than human has really taken place before our very eyes…

One part of the message here, clearly, is what can happen to you if you become like the thing you hate, as Hecuba does when she murders Polymestor’s innocent children and puts out his eyes.

I’m guessing, though, that an outcome without punishment for the murder of Hecuba’s son might not be satisfying for some of you. Surely something should happen to Polymestor. And, just as surely, we need to have some sympathy for Hecuba, even if killing the kids does go over the line. She did, after all, first go to the local authorities to seek justice and was spurned. Perhaps you imagine the sweetness and closure that would come from revenge. Or perhaps it is simply that it is not right that Polymestor get away with this.

Two possible remedies. The first one comes from my wife, who wishes that the bad guys could have just one minute of self-awareness. She thinks that to see themselves as they really are for just 60 seconds would be a fit punishment in most instances. As I see it, though, the insight that would come in that short time might be worth the pain it cost and actually increase their chances of leading a more satisfying life. Still, my wife has no superpowers that I know of (I may get in trouble for saying that) and so her ability to create the justice she’d like isn’t going to happen.

Ah, but I have a remedy, too! It’s pretty simple. The punishment for most of the folks who specialize in the garden variety hurts of everyday life — the lying, the cheating, the broken promises, and the betrayals that don’t have a criminal penalty — doesn’t require either a super hero or any equipment. It is simply to let these malefactors continue to live the messed up and unsatisfying lives they seem intent on living.

*The interview excerpt of Martha Nussbaum comes from Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas, published in 1989 by Doubleday, pages 447 and 448.

The top image by ElmA is called Justice and Law. The photo of Martha Nussbaum is the work of Robin Holland. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Long Road to Becoming Rich

Most of us are raised to believe the path to happiness is a simple one: get a good education, obtain a high status and well-paying  job, find the love of your life, have children, stay healthy, and do good in the world.

But what if you have done all these things and you are still not happy?

My friend “Rock” has given me permission to tell you his story. And his tale sheds some light on what can prevent life satisfaction and how you can find it after all.

Rock was a charming, active, and extraordinarily bright and curious little boy, the second of his parents’ two children. Both mom and dad had to work at a time when most middle class American families did well enough on a father’s salary alone, well enough to permit the mother a life at home raising the kids and keeping house. As a consequence, Rock was a “latch-key” child before the expression had been invented, coming back from school to an empty home, passing the lonely time until the after-work arrival of his parents.

The modesty of the family’s material life was no small annoyance to Rock’s mom, who was disappointed in her husband’s limited capacity as a bread-winner. Unfortunately, “Al” Adelstein had no defense against his wife’s repeated verbal assaults. He could do no better with his limited education than work in a hat factory. Purchasing a home was out of the question given the family’s finances, so Mrs. Adelstein faced the further disappointment of living in an apartment when most of her peers owned homes.

The spillover of her episodic avalanche of unhappiness and anger sometimes fell on little Rock.

Not only did he witness his mother’s tirades at his dad, but he discovered she had enough discontent left over to criticize and disapprove of him. Cruel pranks were not out of the question either, as on the day mom and son were waiting for a baby sitter. But, Mrs. A unexpectedly disappeared before the sitter arrived, driving the small boy to a near-panic state, believing he had been abandoned. At last, his mother emerged from her hiding place, laughing at the “joke” she played on her terrified child.

Nonetheless, our boy did surpassingly well at school.

After skipping a full year in grade school, he was to be the only National Merit Scholar in the group of nearly 600 unusually bright, motivated, and accomplished students who comprised the Mather High School class of 1964.  He placed second in both the City of Chicago and Illinois State Science Fairs, and went on to acquire degrees from three different Ivy League universities, the last of which produced a combined Ph.D/J.D., that is, simultaneous doctorates in Economics and Law.

In high school, he would sometimes say to me he hoped to achieve something great in his life.

But life is funny about such things, and our friend didn’t become famous.

Instead he went on to be a full professor and (for a time) Chairman in his Department of Economics at Wesleyan University, wrote scholarly papers (about 30 or so of these), gave talks nationally and internationally, and taught with passion and intensity, winning the first ever teaching award given by a school founded in 1831.

And just  to give you a sense of the scale of his achievement, he spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, a place associated with names like Einstein and Oppenheimer.

But still, on some days he thought back to his high school wish to do something great and wondered if the really great thing would ever happen. Because, you see, nothing in the accomplishments I’ve mentioned — accomplishments that seemed so impressive to everyone else — was very satisfying to Rock. And the feeling of discontent he carried with him from childhood into the life of a university professor never left him. This, despite the good education, the high status and well-paying  job, the love of his wife Sandy, two adoring children, and the excellent health of all concerned.

He was, perhaps, a bit like Virginia Woolf’s Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse; like him, an academic; like him, unhappy. A man who had:

…a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is arranged in 26 letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q… But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance.

For Rock, like Mr. Ramsay, there was always one more letter just out of reach.

…because, in effect, he had not done the thing he might have done.

It wasn’t something Rock talked about much, even to his closest friends. For him, like most men of our generation and before, the “athlete’s creed” is honored: don’t complain, don’t look back, just rub some dirt on your “injury” and keep playing the game — mind over matter, and the heart (and the hurt) be damned.

In the summer of 1998, my buddy and I took a long road trip from his home in Connecticut to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It was the fulfillment of a childhood wish of two middle-aged baseball fans who were also two life-long friends.

And, it was a time to be together and talk.

Really talk.

When I’m alone with someone for a while, I often ask, “If you could have dinner with anyone in the history of the world, living or dead, who would it be?” You get some interesting answers. Jesus is mentioned a lot. Great writers and musicians are named along with other famous people of various kinds. But, Rock’s answer was a little bit different.

“Well, if I could really have dinner with anyone, I’d like to have dinner with my mother — I’d like to think she would believe I’d turned out pretty well in life.”

You see, Rock’s mother died just after he graduated from college, so she never knew about some of the items on his long list of achievements, although his Science Fair and National Merit Scholarship awards, not to mention his admission to M.I.T., all happened well before her death.

Our conversation didn’t stop with that question and, as our time passed on the road, I got to know more about Rock’s home life — the turmoil I related earlier.

One story in particular stands out.

In order to get to the University of Illinois campus at Champaign/Urbana, where the State of Illinois Science Fair was held, Rock had to carry his science project and take public transportation. While it was a bit of a chore, the return trip was sweet. Imagine, at age 16, you have placed second among all the potentially eligible students in the State!

And so it was that he walked in the door of his parents’ apartment, feeling pretty full of himself, beaming at the thought of his triumph; feeling what you feel when you are young and the sun is out and the day is glorious and your adrenaline is flowing and you are on top of the world.

His mother greeted him.

“How did you do?” she asked.

“I finished second in the State of Illinois!” he enthusiastically answered.

“Why not first?”

Before Rock and I reached the Hall of Fame, it was clear to both of us, I think, that the “great thing” he hoped to achieve would never be great enough to make him feel whole. And the roots of his unhappiness were to be found in the circumstances of his early life with his parents. Not even a Nobel Prize or a plaque in the very Hall of Fame we were to visit could have cured the sense of being insufficient to win the approval of his folks.

As the therapist he saw soon after would say to him, “The heart has no clock on it.” Meaning the injuries of childhood wait for us to attend to them. The wound is sometimes as fresh as the day it happened, even if 30 years have passed. And so, at last, the “athlete’s creed” was set aside through the hard work of therapy, and he was able to feel good about an adult life that, all along, had been good objectively.

My friend is one of the Zeolites, a small group of high school buddies — all members of the same park district softball team of years past — who created a college scholarship for the disadvantaged kids at our old school. And Rock has donated more money to it than just about anybody, as well as traveling from Connecticut to Chicago nearly every year to be with us and to be present at the scholarship ceremony, as many of the out-of-state Zeolites are.

He is a smart, funny, and decent man, a man of enormous emotional generosity, warmth, and good will.

Best of all, Rock’s story has a happy ending. Because, in fact, in the aftermath of therapy, his wife Sandy helped him realize the “great thing” was something he’d actually achieved long before.

Not the kind of greatness he expected to lead to fortune and fame, but the kind that sends generations of young people into the world who are somehow different and better because of his influence, and who even today frequently return to Middletown, Connecticut to let him know he was the teacher, the one teacher, who made a difference in their lives.

In 2007 we honored him at the annual dinner of the Mather Class of 1964/65 for the difference he made in the lives of the Zeolites and our class’s effort to make a difference in the lives of a few of Mather’s recent graduates. In addition, he received an engraved paperweight as a token of our affection and esteem.

Although he has given the scholarship an awful lot  of money, he is not wealthy in any conventional sense.

Rather, he is rich in the hearts of all those students whose lives he has touched.

He is rich in the love he has for his family and friends.

And he is rich in the love and respect his family and friends have for him.

It should be no wonder then, the inscription on the paperweight with which he was presented reads:

Rich Adelstein

…the noblest Zeolite of them all…

From the Mather Class of 1964 and 1965

And the Zeolites

May 4, 2007

The photo above is of Rich and Sandy Adelstein.

Old But Useful Thoughts: a Stoic Guide to Life

The Stoic philosophers have gotten a bad rap. I know, this problem isn’t exactly as pressing as the unemployment rate, the deficit, and our military involvement in the Middle East.

I therefore beg your indulgence and hope you will read further. It just might influence how you think about life. The BP oil contamination can wait — and you can’t do anything about it anyway —  so don’t let it get the best of you, a point the Stoics would surely make.

The “bad rap” is largely the result of how we understand the word “stoic.” We define that word to refer to someone who is indifferent to emotion, deadened to pain, hardened and impassive; someone who has “killed” his feelings. But this is not what Zeno, a third century B.C. Greek philosopher had in mind when he founded his school of philosophy.

Rather, the Stoics saw that emotion could become extreme and destructive. They therefore looked to find some balance between head and heart, with the passions held in check.

More importantly, however, Stoics turned their attention to the importance of a person’s own behavior and inner life, seeking to help the individual find equanimity and satisfaction in life (in part) by not overvaluing the inessential, external things and events that crowd in on him. According to their line of reasoning, it is important to distinguish what is virtuous and important that is controllable from what is trivial and outside of one’s control. Then, by giving a paramount position to clarity of thought and self-reflection, one may achieve freedom from the excesses of anger, self-pity, jealousy, suffering, and anguish, as well as an overall sense that life hasn’t “played fair” with us.

Professor Luke Timothy Johnson has said the following about the contrast between the world view of a man like Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic “philosopher/king” of second century Rome, and our own way of thinking about “the good life:”

Marcus Aurelius was obsessed by the transitory character of all existent things. We (by contrast) take our institutions for granted. We think that life is long. We assume that we should be healthy. Marcus Aurelius spurned pleasure and sought duty. We are driven by the notions of feeling good, and the pursuit of happiness is often identified with the pursuit of pleasure. Marcus Aurelius identified freedom as a call to virtue and duty, whereas in present day America, we often think of freedom as the most radical form of individualism and doing what we like.

The Stoics would say that most of us are not free. Rather, we are slaves to making money, accumulating objects, and creating or defending a reputation. For them, “living well” didn’t mean living in the lap of luxury, but living simply, concerned with improving oneself and one’s conduct toward other men.

For these philosophers and like-minded people of today, the ups and downs of life, the illnesses, the job frustrations and relationships disappointments, and the calumnies of the jealous, not to mention death itself, are all seen as simply “in the nature of things.” Acceptance of what is “natural” and what is a normal part of the human condition is key to a Stoic’s way of taking the world as it is, not as one might wish it to be. If a Stoic is approached by someone who has suffered a reversal of fortune and is asking “Why me?” he would likely answer, “Why not you.” (Or anyone else, for that matter).

Stoics such as Seneca and Epictetus believed that by leading a virtuous life one could achieve happiness, regardless of what external misfortunes (including death) happened. This is surely farther than most of us would go, but that way of thinking does tend to normalize and minimize certain events that we consider to be “tragic.”

Those of us who live in Western Civilization run the risk of thinking that our happiness depends on how well our kids do in school (and whether they attend the “right” school), our next promotion or job title, the approval of our “betters,” making a certain amount of money or achieving an advanced social rank, and a gorgeous house in a fine neighborhood. The Stoics would say we are much too concerned with external things (rather than focusing on trying to lead a virtuous life). And, interestingly enough, contemporary psychological research tends to support the Stoics: those with tons of money are only somewhat more satisfied with life than those with just enough for the basic necessities.  Put another way, it is the striving for things outside of ourselves, the struggle to defeat or avoid the inevitable disappointments of life, that robs one of peace of mind.

In effect, the Stoics are saying that we pay too much attention to external things of little “real” value, and that in so doing we create our unhappiness, having chosen beliefs which lead us into the pain we seek to avoid.

Take an example. A parent wants his child to obtain a graduate school level education from a “good” school. The child, however, may not be of an academic bent, and doesn’t seem destined to achieve this goal, although he is otherwise a decent young man. And so the parent frets, feeling disappointment and frustration. Meanwhile, another parent, who has a similar child, doesn’t place so much value on this particular direction and doesn’t see it as an essential path for his child to follow. The first man is unhappy, the second is happy. The unhappiness is the creation of the first man’s opinion about things, it does not reside in the thing itself.  The parent is troubled because of his attachment to an idea, something that is external to him and is inessential for his contentment or the well-being of his son, however much he might think otherwise.

Now, you might think that the Stoic is unambitious and that he doesn’t try hard enough (or encourage his kids to try). Regarding the latter, I suspect that a real Stoic would value knowledge and learning and encourage the same in his child, but not make it a cause for desperation and the wringing of his hands. So, while not completely “hands off” the practical things of life, he achieves some distance from pain by thinking things through.

The Stoics desire to live in harmony with the way the world is, rather than to struggle against it. And, here again, they strive to improve themselves — their moral and intellectual state — rather than the state of their bank account or their rank in the pecking order of social and business life. In the words of Epictetus “…as the (working) material of the carpenter is wood, and that of (a sculptor is) bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person’s own life.” Thus, the philosopher attempts to attain a state of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom; and always turns back to such thoughts in a constant effort to improve himself and practice what he preaches.

Interestingly, Stoics were also way ahead of everyone else in matters of social justice. For them, slaves were seen as the equal of other men, and women were thought to have just as much capacity for rationality as men, views that were unheard of in the ancient world.

And, as you might have noticed, the Stoics were not so far off from the mindset of Zen philosophy. In particular, both recommend living “in the moment,” being aware of the transitory nature of most things that make us unhappy, and the fruitlessness of spending too much time looking back (usually with regret or nostalgia) or looking forward (often in anxiety or the uncertain hope of a better future) while the unrepeatable present moment passes by.

Here are a few quotations from three of the great Stoic philosophers. Best to read them individually and think about each one, rather than to blow through them quickly. Who knows, one or another might change your life.

“But what says Socrates? ‘One man finds pleasure in improving his land, another his horses. My pleasure lies in seeing that I myself grow better day by day.'” (Epictetus, CLIII)

“If you are told that…one speaks ill of you, make no defense against what was said, but answer, ‘He surely (didn’t know) my other faults, (or) else he would have mentioned (those as well)!” (Epictetus, CLXIX)

“What wouldst thou be found doing when overtaken by Death? If I might choose, I would be found doing some deed of true humanity, of wide import, beneficent and noble. But if I (am) not be found engaged in (anything) so lofty, let me hope at least for this…that I may be found raising up in myself that (quality) which has fallen; learning to deal more wisely with the things of sense; working out my own tranquility…” (Epictetus, CLXXXIX)

“(I learned) from Alexander the Platonic, not frequently to say to anyone that I have no leisure; nor continually to excuse (my) neglect of duties…by alleging urgent occupations.” (Marcus Aurelius, I.12)

“Every moment think steadily…to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts. And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and all self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee. Thou seest how few… things are (required), …which if a man (has in hand), he is able to live a life which flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods; for the gods on their part will require nothing more from him who observes these things.” (Marcus Aurelius, II.5)

“Do the things external which fall upon thee distract thee? Give (yourself) time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around (by external events).” Marcus Aurelius, II.7.

“Or is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. (It is) the abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of those applauding hands.” (Marcus Aurelius, IV.3)

“Do not waste the remainder of thy life in thoughts about others…For thou losest the opportunity of doing something else when thou hast such thoughts as these: ‘What is such a person doing, and why, and what is he saying, and what is he thinking of, and what is he contriving,’ and whatever else of the kind makes us wander away from our own ruling power.” (Marcus Aurelius, IV.4)

“…By all means bear this in mind, that within a very short time both thou and he will be dead and soon not even your names will be left behind.” (Marcus Aurelius, IV.6)

—“In the morning when thous risest unwillingly, let this thought be present — I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world.” Marcus Aurelius, V.1)

“Let it make no difference to thee whether thou art cold or warm, if thou art doing thy duty; and whether thou art drowsy or satisfied with sleep; and whether ill-spoken of or praised; and whether dying or doing something else. For it is one of the acts of this life; it is sufficient then in this act…to do well (with) what we have in hand.” (Marcus Aurelius, VI,1)

“The best way of avenging thyself is not to become like (the wrong-doer).” Marcus Aurelius, VI,6)

“…Keep thyself simple, good, pure, serious, free from affectation, a friend of justice, a worshiper of the gods, kind, affectionate, strenuous in all proper acts. Strive to continue to be such as philosophy wished to make thee. Reverence the gods and help men. Short is life. There is only one fruit of…this life — a pious disposition and social acts. Do everything as a disciple of Antoninus. Remember his constancy in every act which was conformable to reason, and his evenness in all things, and his piety, and the serenity of his countenance, and his sweetness, and his disregard of empty fame, and his efforts to understand things…and how he bore with those who blamed him unjustly without blaming them in return…” (Marcus Aurelius, VI, 30)

“Let not future things disturb thee, for (you will) come to them, if it shall be necessary, having…the same reason which now thou usest for present things.” Marcus Aurelius, VII,8)

“Is any man afraid of change? Why? What can take place without change?…Can anything that is useful be accomplished without change?…” (Marcus Aurelius, VII,18)

“The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.” (Marcus Aurelius, VII, 61)

“No longer talk at all about the kind of man who a good man ought to be, but be such.” (Marcus Aurelius, VIII, 16)

“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others…” (Marcus Aurelius, XII,4)

“How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life!” (XII,13)

“If it is not right, do not do it. If it is not true, do not say it.” (Marcus Aurelius, XII,17)

“(Good men) should not be afraid to face hardships and difficulties, or complain of fate; whatever happens, good men should take it in good part, and turn it to a good end. It is not what you endure that matters, but how you endure it. (Seneca, On Providence)

“Among the many splendid sayings of our friend Demetrius there is this one…’Nothing,’ he said, seems to me more unhappy than the man who has no experience of adversity.’ For he has not been allowed to put himself to the test.” (Seneca, On Providence).

“You are wrong if you think anyone has been exempted from ill; the man who has known happiness for many a year will receive his share someday; whoever seems to have been set free from this has only been granted a delay.” (Seneca, On Providence).

“What is the duty of a good man? To offer himself to fate…The soul that is earthbound and sluggish will follow the safe course; virtue takes to the heights.” (Seneca, On Providence).

“Inside (of yourself the universe has) given you every good; your good fortune is in not needing good fortune (to be happy).” (Seneca, On Providence).

“Revenge is an admission of pain; a mind that is bowed by injury is not a great mind. The man who has done the injury is either stronger than you or weaker; if he is weaker, spare him, if stronger, spare yourself.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“All of us are inconsiderate and imprudent, all unreliable, dissatisfied, ambitious…all of us are corrupt. Therefore, whatever fault he censures in another man, every man will find residing in his own heart….So let us show greater kindness to one another.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“No man will ever be happy if tortured by the greater happiness of another.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“The greatest outcry surrounds money: this is what brings exhaustion to the courts, sets fathers against children, concocts poisons, hands out swords to assassins and the legions alike; this is what wears the stain of our blood; this that makes the nights of wives and husbands noisy with quarrelling, and the crowd surge against the benches where the magistrates arbitrate; because of money, again, kings grow savage and engage in plunder, overthrowing states built by the long toil of centuries so they can rummage for gold and silver among the ashes of cities.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“…in the future have regard not only for the truth of what you say but for the question (of) whether the man you are addressing can accept the truth.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“…so long as each one of us prefers to trust someone else’s judgment rather than relying on his own, we never exercise judgment in our lives but constantly resort to trust, and a mistake that has been passed down from one hand to another takes us over and spins our ruin.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“Human concerns are not so happily arranged that the majority favors the better things: evidence of the worst choice is the crowd.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“For as far as pleasure is concerned, though it pours itself all around us and flows in through every channel, charming our minds with its blandishments, and applying one means after another to captivate us wholly or partly, who on earth, who has any trace of humanity left in him, would wish to have his senses tickled day and night and, abandoning the mind, to devote himself to the body?” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“For if a man has put himself beyond the reach of all desires, what can he lack? What need does he have of anything external, if he has concentrated all that he possesses in himself?” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“In my case, if wealth slips away, it will deprive me only of itself, but you (who value wealth too highly), will be stuck dumb, you will think you have been deserted by your own self if it leaves you; in my eyes wealth has a certain place, in yours it is center-stage; to sum up, my wealth belongs to me, you belong to yours.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“I say that wealth is not a good as it is, since something that is found among wicked men cannot be called a good; for if it was it would make men good; as it is, since something that is found among wicked men cannot be called a good, I deny it this name. But that it is desirable, that (it) is useful and confers great benefits in life, I do admit.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life.)

“It is truly said…by Curius Dentatus, that he would rather be a dead man than a live one dead; it is the worst of evils to depart from the world of the living before you die.” (Seneca, On the Tranquility of the Mind).

“Nothing, however, delights the mind as much as a loving and loyal friendship.” (Seneca, On the Tranquility of the Mind).

“Small is the part of life that we really live. All that remains of our existence is not actually life but merely time.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life).

“…the greatest waste of life exists in postponement: that is what takes away each day as it comes, that is what snatches away the present while promising something to follow. The greatest obstacle to living is expectation, which depends on tomorrow and wastes today. What lies in the hands of Fortune you deal with, what lies in your own hands you let slip. Where are you looking? Where are you bending your aim? All that is still to come lies in doubt: live here and now!” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life)

“But those who forget the past, ignore the present, and fear for the future have a life that is very brief and filled with anxiety…Their very pleasures are fearful and troubled by alarms of different kinds; at the very moment of rejoicing, the anxious thought occurs to them: ‘How long will this last?'” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life)

“No man is crushed by misfortune unless he has first been deceived by prosperity. Those who love her gifts as if they are theirs to enjoy forever, who wish to be highly regarded because of them, lie prostrate in mourning whenever these false and fickle delights abandon their vacuous and childish minds that know nothing of any lasting pleasure: but the man who has not become puffed up by happy fortune does not collapse when there is a reversal.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life)

“When you have lost one who is most dear, it is stupid indulgence to grieve endlessly, but inhuman hardness not to grieve at all.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life).

The above image is of Marcus Aurelius.

Misery Meets Reality TV: Queen For A Day

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/John_Collier_Queen_Guinevre%27s_Maying.jpg

How much of others’ misery can you stand? How much of their success?

Television has an answer for us, but more about that a little later.

According to Dan Greenburg and Marcia Jacobs in How to Make Yourself Miserable, it is essential that your life should stay within the “Acceptable Failure Range,” lest you lose your friends. Exceeding that range in either direction — too much success or too much unhappiness — will alienate some people. Or so the authors say, tongue in cheek, in this funny old book.

Although I don’t know of research evidence to support this notion, I suspect there is something to it. It is easy enough to fall into the shadow of a friend who glories in his attainments and reminds you regularly of all his achievements.

If the old saying, “Misery loves company” is true, one must be careful about being too full of yourself and your good fortune around friends.

Similarly, many people fear that others will tire of their tales of unhappiness and woe. They anticipate causing their acquaintances to experience compassion fatigue and shun them. This expectation leads some of the afflicted to avoid discussion of deeply personal injuries, or to speak about them only infrequently. Indeed, our society encourages an upbeat, “can do” attitude and expects us to “move on” perhaps more quickly than we can easily manage.

Faced with unhappiness or life crisis, it is interesting to observe how a person handles it. Some find relief in talking about it and appreciate patient and supportive listeners. Others do not want to speak or think about it, turning to distraction or to a very small group of confidants. Taking your cue from the person in distress is best.

If you can handle difficult and painful conversations, you are a very good friend indeed. And, if there is a practical and specific kind of assistance that you can offer (running errands, preparing meals, driving to a doctor’s office), you will provide more help than if you simply say “let me know if there is anything I can do.”

As a society, we seem to have an ambivalent relationship to disaster. When it happens to someone else, it can be fascinating. No wonder that TV stations use a motto to describe how to determine the first story on the news: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

When the calamity is in Uzbekistan, it is one thing. It is then easy to keep our distance: it is both out there, thousands of miles away; and “in there” — inside the TV set. Moreover, when the media inundate us daily with so many tragedies, each individual one loses its impact.

So-called “reality” no longer seems quite real.

Unless it happens to your brother-in-law and it becomes quite something else.

In the 1950s and ’60s, there was an old TV program called “Queen For a Day.” A forerunner of the ubiquitous reality TV of today, it featured “real people” (only women) telling the MC the profoundly unfortunate circumstances of their lives and usually breaking down while doing so. Ultimately, each contestant was asked what she would like if she won; this usually took the form of medical equipment or household appliances.

An applause meter registered the studio audience’s approval so as to choose the winner. Sort of like a latter-day Roman Colosseum, the virtually all-female spectators determined who among the lady “gladiators” got a “thumbs up.”  The program was some form of “see if you can top this,” with each contestant effectively hoping to surpass her competitors in terms of desperation and heartbreak, often describing diseased children and extraordinarily bad luck.

Once the “Queen” was crowned and perched on a makeshift throne (to the tune of “Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March #1, which you know as the processional music to which you graduated high school), she received not only the requested item, but a carload of other things, perhaps including a vacation.

One can only imagine what the losers felt like, having once again been consigned to the anonymous trash heap of human misery. Perhaps they thought, “Wasn’t my life bad enough?” Almost certainly, failing to win added to their already long list of disappointments, despite a few consolation prizes.

The TV writer Mark Evanier called this program “one of the most ghastly shows ever produced,” further finding it “tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting and utterly degrading to the human spirit.”

Of course, there was nothing demeaning about the misfortune itself. But, the fact that these women had to parade it in front of a national audience — a group of strangers — all in the hope of some material reward (however, necessary), was lamentable. Indeed, the discomfort of the contestants was not disguised.

Many of today’s reality TV “stars” require no such financial incentives to lay bare (sometimes literally) whatever is most personal in this more shameless moment in the history of civilization.

Having said all that, should you dare, you can watch various episodes on youtube.

The image above is John Collier’s Queen Guinevre’s Maying (1900) sourced from Wikimedia Commons.