Returning to Therapy, Renewing Friendship, Starting Over, Fixing Things …

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The holidays are a time of both fond and aching remembrance of those who are absent: an estranged family member missing from the celebration, a once close friend silent, a therapeutic relationship over.

Ghosts.

Perhaps then is it time to begin again?

Our century is a “time vacuum.” You can buy everything except a 25th hour in the day. A lack of time combined with distance puts relationships at risk. Friends are more digitally available, but offer less physical presence. Gone are the school days providing hours of contact with our playmates and extra time together in the neighborhood.

Relationships beg for attention, but speak too softly to be audible in a world of carnival barkers pretending to be wisemen. The torch-carrier who wishes for human closeness might bring a spark, but lack the wood. The lonely woodsman hopes for a lightening-strike because he has no flame. Waiting comes and friendship goes … disappears.

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Funny how much effort we put into the maintenance of things and how little into the feeding and care of friendship. Time is set-aside for routine dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, mending, and replacing. The days are scheduled: Saturday means washing clothes, Sunday stipulates mowing the lawn, Monday is for watering plants. We get absorbed and stop thinking, a human condition to which we are all subject and which we all need.

Dutiful honor paid to the numbing maintenance routine blinds us to the implication of the toll taken on everything in the world, including our affections. All man-made things need renewal. Just as in the old days when mattresses were supported by ropes which needed regular tightening (as in the expression, “sleep tight”) so must the unseen cords binding us to each other be tightened. The unseen is easier to miss, the seen can’t be ignored. Habit takes over.

Our attention to physical things can be trancelike, done without consideration. Experts, handymen, and service contractors are available when we don’t know how to do the fixing ourselves. You take the car for repair or you go to the Apple Store for a new computer. E-mail might remind you the auto needs attention with a “tune-up special.” The computer signals its unhappiness by running slowly. Your spouse tells you marital counseling is necessary.

Who speaks for friendship and its tender sensibilities? Who speaks for a return to therapy?

Actually, the friend or the therapist might. I would call old patients on occasion, far from everyone and far from often, to see how they were doing, especially those who I thought (a bit like a car) might need a tune-up.

I understand however, I was not typical. Moreover, as I say, I didn’t do this often. Yet possibility exists in taking action, breaking with the customary. As Carlo Maria Giulini, the great symphony conductor said of himself, “I am an enemy of routine.” Thus, his performances almost always were full of intensity, never “phoned in.”  Possibilities exist if we envision the world anew.

Most of us wouldn’t think about letting the house get too cluttered or dusty, the sofa too frayed. We stretch in the morning, exercise before or after work, and check the iPhone. Not to mention performing the job for which we are paid and caring for our kids.

Frayed feelings are invisible. Emotions are hidden. Therapists are not psychic, friends even less so, and counselors can become surprisingly obtuse after their workday is done. The smoke detector does its electronic whine when the battery needs replacement. Distressed friends usually don’t give the same decisive alarm.

We take care of what is observable. Most of us want to look nice, want our residence to be welcoming. We try to keep things as they are: attractive. If I wear a hole in my shoe, as Adlai Stevenson II did during his 1952 Presidential Campaign, I get embarrassed and take it to the shoemaker. Friends are usually quieter than unintentionally air-conditioned footwear. Some are like the old soldiers described by General Douglas MacArthur. “Old soldiers never die,” he said, “they just fade away.”

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We assume the permanence of people and things. Marriage takes for granted our mate will remain young, fit, appealing. Yes, everyone understands age is a thief, but that is an abstraction. When the roses are in bloom and the kisses strike fire I dare anyone to really — really — believe the flesh is weak. Might we insist on better care of relationships if we thought they needed the same oversight that our sofa does, a piece of work whose fabric will wear out, whose springs will lose their spring?

My friend Nancy Pochis Bank is a chalk artist. She decorates chalkboard menus and buildings, creates murals — whatever you fancy. Nancy marries beauty to usefulness, making lovely things of the everyday. Many people wonder (and Nancy has heard this) why she employs such a temporary medium for her work, the effortful beauty she creates — knowing her magical product will disappear with the next day’s menu or a new rain?

The mistake we make, I think, is looking at Nancy’s craft as temporary and not realizing that our relationships (and all else) come with no greater guarantee of permanence. They are as vulnerable to destruction as Nancy’s outdoor art is to the weather. Like Nancy in creating her art, we are the art we create, we are the chalk ever-changing because it and we are exposed, vulnerable. Our friendships are, as well. Ignore them and they will be gone. Walk on them (like a sidewalk chalk-drawing) and you leave a mark. She says her work is a reminder to value that which is ephemeral.

Therapists are not identical to friends, of course. The form of contact is both intensified and limited. Counselors tend to require less special-handling than companions, though many patients fear not giving them enough. And, therapists incline toward welcoming you back, even if you left abruptly.

The desire for a second chance with estranged or neglected friends is driven by fond memory. With some you fell into an emotional ravine that hobbled and gobbled you up. Is another try worth the risk? Only you can say. Stranger things have happened than a joyous reunion. Perhaps you can sew your togetherness together anew.

Counselors discourage catastrophizing. Not everything is a matter of life and death and yet, everything is in the sense that it is temporary, as life is temporary. The holidays remind us that another year will end without some of those with whom we began it: work friends, close friends, neighbors, and yes, the irreplaceable people who fill the obituary pages.

You can take this as a dark message and flee or think about who you want in your life and what you can do; whether they are on good terms with you, out of your life, or drifting. The New Year is an ending and a beginning. The cycle round the sun ends. A new spin on the axis offers beginnings only if you make them happen.

The subject of relationship renewal brings to mind these T.S. Eliot lines from Little Gidding, the last of the set of poems he called Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Sometimes we learn things the second time around.

Friendship and therapy can be like that.

The top photo is of German Manga artists Asu and Reami,  known as DuO, at the Comic-fest in Munich on September 3, 2005. The next image is called Morning Fog at the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Both of these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons and are the work of Fantasy. The photo of Adlai Stevenson II won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Photography. William M. Gallagher, the photographer, wasn’t aware at the time he took it that it revealed a hole in the shoe on Stevenson’s right foot.

 

Why the Holidays “Bum You Out” and What to Do About It

We are about to enter one of the darkest times of the year — and ironically are expected to feel great about it. I’m talking about the period from just before Thanksgiving through January 1st, also known by therapists as “six weeks from hell” for a good part of their clientele. But while the therapeutic community knows it is a tough time, much of the rest of the world works hard to look upbeat despite suffering inside.

What’s going on?

1. Fall and Winter. Things are dying. Nature is cold and wet, not warm and bright. Driving takes longer and is more dangerous. Days grow shorter until December 21st.

2. If you are looking for work, you are entering the season of waiting for the New Year when, you hope, job openings and hiring will begin again. Waiting is rarely easy.

3. People have less time for you and you have less time for yourself. Holiday gifts must be chosen, crowds must be endured, parties must be planned, food must be purchased and prepared. Budgets get stretched. Planes are costlier; while airports, train stations, and roads are more crowded. Lines are longer.

4. You dread the fact that you will have to see Uncle Ralph and Aunt Matilda over the holidays. Your uncle will drink too much and make dirty jokes that aren’t funny and your aunt will criticize your homemaking, while you are expected to smile through it all and be a good host or hostess.

5. TV and the Internet shall offer inescapable images of other people having a wonderful time, a striking contrast to your own existence. You can begin to feel that you — you alone — are out of the mainstream; and that the world really doesn’t care. This will be particularly hard to endure if you are without someone who recently was important in your life or if your social options are limited.

6. Many therapists go on vacation at this time of year (“Those SOBs!”), leaving their patients feeling abandoned.

7. You might begin to ask yourself where the year went, reflecting on all the things you hoped to do that somehow didn’t get done. The media will remind you of New Year’s Resolutions that you failed to enact and encourage you to make more of them.

8. Much about the holidays involves shopping, surely one of the emptiest, most soul-slaying activities ever invented. Yes, it can give you a “sugar rush,” but it is one that usually leaves you emptier after the thrill of purchase is over than you were before.

9. New Year’s Day — especially if you failed to get a date for New Year’s Eve — offers the possibility of capping the season in a truly miserable state. You will have a full 24 hours with nothing to do but reflect on your existence, compare yourself to all those people in sunny California having a good time at the Rose Parade, and look in the mirror and realize (to quote Dan Greenburg and Marcia Jacobs in How to Make Yourself Miserable) that

…every year you get to look less and less like the little kid with the diaper and the banner across his chest and more and more like the old guy with the beard and the hourglass and the scythe.

What to do?

First, realize that there are tons of people like you who are suffering silently — who don’t want anyone to see them in their unhappiness at a time of the year when everyone is “supposed to be” happy, and when lots of people are faking it.

Second, remember that if you don’t have someone to spend the holidays with, many people will be welcoming if only they are informed that you would be open to an invitation. Yes, it can be embarrassing to admit your lack of holiday plans, but it could lead to having a nice time.

Third, find activities to fill your day, even if it is organizing your photo collection. Shelters and soup kitchens where you might volunteer will remind you that there are usually people who are worse off (and more cut-off from the world) than you are. And you could discover, as some psychologists suggest, that giving does actually feel better than receiving, and make you feel better at a difficult time of year.

Fourth, if you sense your mood dipping as you enter this period you might consider calling your MD and asking for antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication. Most general practitioners are comfortable with prescribing these if they know you well. Many of the antidepressants can take a few weeks to have a positive effect, but the anti-anxiety drugs generally have a more immediate impact.

Fifth, recognize that the holidays will pass and that you’ve probably endured them (and things that are worse) before.

Sixth, if your mood typically plummets during the dark months, you might be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. The use of a “light box” to provide you with the full spectrum of light found out-of-doors can provide relief. Have this possibility evaluated.

Seventh, avoid relying on drugs or alcohol to deal with the holiday blues. Whatever immediate benefit they might provide, they can quickly make things worse. Take care too, that your nutritional intake not be thrown out of whack by too many parties and big dinners; perhaps also, your exercise schedule. Get back on the track in all senses.

Eighth, make a list of those things that you are grateful for. Things you take for granted — the health of your children, the roof over your head, a good book, and even a single friend — can help you reframe your current condition.

Ninth, take some time to plan activities for January and February. Once the “low-grade frenzy” of the holidays is over, there may be an anticlimactic let-down. Without preparation and a return to normal social contact, the weather-challenged months of the early part of the year can be much too quiet.

Finally, you might want to read a portion of a benediction by William Sloane Coffin. Take it as a holiday wish for you, whether or not you have religious faith:

May God give you grace never to sell yourself short.
Grace to risk something big for something good.
Grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for
anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.
So may God take your minds, and think through them.
May God take your lips, and speak through them.
May God take your hearts, and set them on fire.
If you know anyone who might benefit from reading this, please do pass it on. For most of you, clicking on the Facebook icon makes that easy.
The top image is The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The second comes from a Wikimedia Commons post of a 1910 New Year’s Post Card by Frances Brundage.

The Difficulty of Facing Reality: When Hope is the Problem and Not the Solution

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We are in the season of hope, but in the midst of despair.

“Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my!”

The holidays tend to make one almost embarrassed to be hopeless; and hopelessness is described as something to be avoided in any season.

But sometimes, having hope is a problem — the problem — and giving up hope, facing reality, leads to possibilities.

All of us have had the experience of hoping for a positive outcome or event that wasn’t realized. We hoped to win the game, the job, or the romantic partner only to come up short. “Wait until next year” is the rallying cry of Cubs fans and human beings everywhere in the face of disappointment.

As the saying goes, “hope springs eternal.”

But sometimes hope is destructive. If you are in a terrible job with a sadistic boss, hoping for him to change is likely to keep you paralyzed, rather than triggering action to find a new place of employment or a new career.

If you are married to an alcoholic, abusive spouse, believing his apologies and promises to do better will keep you in the center of his bulls-eye, a target within easy reach.

Has your parent spent your whole life ignoring what you do well and trashing you over what you do not? Trying to win his praise might be a waste of your time, as hopeless as booking a trip to Mars for your next vacation.

In a rocky relationship? Some people hold on to the fantasy that if they can find just the right words and behave in just the right way, they will succeed in pleasing their spouse into being more loving. Others think having a child will make the marriage better, and live in that hope.

And then there are those who have been rejected by a lover, but continue to carry the torch of love into the dark night of the soul long after the loved-one has moved on.

I cannot say that hope is futile in each and every example I’ve given.

But it is often something of a fool’s paradise; nothing more than a castle in the air.

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What I’m talking about here is a passive, inactive, timid hope that waits too long by the phone for the suitor to call. Not an active but reasonable hope that searches and schemes; defiantly claws its way forward and claims what it wants.

Beyond a certain point, passive hope anesthetizes you when you need the pain to motivate action; and need it to force yourself into the risks required to get what you want. As such, hope in these situations serves as an excuse for inaction.

All the while, life passes you by.

Thus, hope can keep you in a dead-end spot — the pipe-dream of an imagined future, while enduring a terrible present. I wouldn’t say that an imagined future would be a bad place to be if there were no ways to change the present. But, if you are ignoring things you can do to make your life better, than a servile hope is little more than a fairy tale.

Are you hostage to hope or perhaps, do you hope for the wrong things?

Such as?

A short list:

  • A life without problems.
  • Winning the lottery.
  • A new luxury car or great wealth.

Why not hope for these and similar things? Because there are no lives without some problems, lottery winners often report a less wonderful life than they expected; and treasurable objects beyond the basic necessities don’t seem to generate much lasting satisfaction. They are like the rapidly dissipating “new car smell” that most find so attractive and so temporary.

The overriding point here is that hope not only battles with despair, but also with acceptance of reality — acceptance of the terms life allows, followed by a commitment to change what it is in your power to control, instead of simply “hoping for the best.”

Such acceptance does not come easily. Admitting defeat is almost always difficult and painful. Grieving is thought by some to be unmanly and by others unnecessary or a hindrance to progress. But it has a cleansing function, one that allows most wounds to heal.

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How do you know whether you are holding on to too much hope? One way is to look at how you deal with defeat and whether you can bounce back and embrace change. If too many situations find you stuck, waiting and wishing for something outside of yourself to intervene — a kind of deus ex machina — then you are vulnerable to the immobilizing influence that hope can have. If you’ve been at that dead-end job for years or in an equally dead relationship for an equally long time, it might be worth considering what you are waiting for and why you have not acted.

Do you fear that change could bring something worse?

Sometimes it can, but not all gambles are foolhardy.

Do you live in a future your friends think to be unimaginable while the present slips away?

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, we are told that the entrance to hell is inscribed with these words:

ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE

Ironically, it is just that directive that might be the way to a new and better life.

Heaven can wait.

Stop hoping for its quick arrival unless you have explored everything else that is possible.

Try — try hard — to create a heaven on earth.

In that possibility there just might be something worth hoping for.

The sculpture at the top is called Allegory of Hope, a 1776 work housed in the Catholic parish church St. Nikolaus in Oberndorf am Lech in Bavaria, Germany, photograph by GFreihalter. The second image is Job’s Despair by William Blake, from 1805. Finally, a 19th century painting by Taiso Yoshitoshi after the poem One Hundred Aspects of the Moon by Lady Ariko-no-Naishi. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Courage For the New Year

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Many of you, I suspect, have had a tough time over the holidays. Perhaps lonely, perhaps worried about what the future will bring. Many all over the world are yet unemployed or underemployed. Things have been difficult.

I offer you, therefore, an audio excerpt linked below, from a late 1941 speech given by Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during most of World War II.

I hope that it will provide some solice and some reason to believe that a better future is possible.

Things were particularly dark for England in 1940. All of continental Europe had been conquered by the Nazis and night after night, the great cities of that island nation were bombed by the Luftwaffe, Hitler’s air force. The British Empire stood alone against the Third Reich and expected a land invasion. The United States had not yet entered the War and there was no certainty that it would.

Virtually no one thought England would survive.

But Churchill did and the Nazis were defeated.

In October of 1941, still prior to the USA’s entry into the war, Churchill was asked to speak to the students of Harrow School, an independent boarding school that was his alma mater.

What he had to say applies quite well to those, even today, who might fear that worse is to come in their lives, as well as those who despair over their current condition.

Listen to the first three minutes and ten seconds and take heart.

The entire excerpt is just over four minutes long.

Once you click on the blue link just below this paragraph, look at the upper  right corner of the page. Then scroll down and click on the Speech #33 (incorrectly identified as having been given in November 1941):

BBC Winston Churchill Speech to Harrow School

The image above is Winston Churchill on Downing Street Giving His Famous ‘V’ (For Victory) Sign, June 5, 1943. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.