Breaking the Heart of One You Love

My mother said some memorable things. “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?” was among her greatest hits. Another was borrowed from Groucho Marx: in the middle of a less than scintillating party, she might utter, “I had a wonderful time, but this wasn’t it.” Quietly, of course.

Mrs. Stein proclaimed one habitual belief I never quite understood: “Regret is a painkiller for fools.” I gather she was being dismissive of those who looked back in sadness. Though I never took the statement to heart, I regret little about my lucky life. One old sorrow sticks with me, however.

Breaking the heart of a loved one is never harder than when the one is seven-years-old.

“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend) said he isn’t.”

I had learned long before this, the importance of being honest.

I looked at Jorie, but perhaps didn’t recognize just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.

What I valued, however, was her trust in me. Before I answered, I decided I ought not break her trust.

“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”

I can still envision her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.

This was not the last time I caused pain to someone I love, but was the first time I remember doing so to any child of mine.

Welcome to the real world, honey; the place where things aren’t always as they seem or as we would like them to be. A place where hard reality trumps fantasy; a place where someone who “loves you to pieces” breaks your heart into pieces.

That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead to save this little person from the pain of a message amenable to postponement.

Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was a Socratic dialogue possible — a perfect sequence of questions leading her to the same truth without hurting her so much?

A change of the subject, perhaps, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?

Or, should I have lied? “Of course Santa exists, Sweetie.” And then left her open to potential ridicule of friends, as well as some doubts about whether her dad was trustworthy.

Janet Landman, in her book, Regret: the Persistence of the Possible, likens regret to the dilemma of coming to a fork in the road and making a choice. You walk down the chosen path for a while, before you realize your selection isn’t quite as good as you hoped. “I probably should have gone the other way.”

No matter which road you chose, “the persistence of the possible” is present. Nothing in life is perfect, but in your imagination the alternative remains idealized. Only in your mind – in the world of abstraction and fantasy – does perfection reside: the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect result, the perfect performance of whatever kind.

And, for me, the perfect answer to a simple question.

Sometimes in life no ideal solution is available, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. We never know the alternative from lived experience, nor return to the moment; because, as Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” With the passage of time, the river changed and so have you.

No, you cannot un-ring the bell. No do-overs when it comes to the knowledge of whether Santa is real.

We must live with the inevitable heartbreaks when they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain whether a different road would have made all the difference or none at all.

One can only accept the terms life allows. The metaphorical contract we sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at birth grants no escape clause from hard knocks. Not, at least, while life goes on.

I still wish I could have protected Jorie from the terrible knowledge I delivered on the near-Christmas day; not just about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think back, it isn’t knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, but from the pain of life itself.

Such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also be compensated by beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.

Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.

The good news?

Our love abides.

———————-

The second image is of a Young Ashaninka Girl in an Apiwtxa Village, Acre State, Brazil. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons and the work of Pedro Franca/Ministry of Culture. This post is a reworking of one I wrote several years ago.

On Receiving Recognition: Is Attention a Good Thing?

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If you’ve ever wanted attention, this post is for you. Receiving recognition as an adult is meaningless but important. A contradiction, you say? Perhaps not. The wish for the spotlight is like a dry sponge inside of us hungering for a drenching. There are more noble human qualities. Still, attention is intoxicating and addictive. Almost everyone wants acknowledgment, except the master meditators and the Stoics.

The desire for status leads us to do awful things. Other people are used as stepping-stones on the way to greater height.  Accolades have no real value, yet we suffer in their absence. In the latter sense only — the manner in which they capture us — resides their importance. Recognition and prestige are significant on a personal level, but are meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Fame benefits one person and only one; and — the joke goes — lasts 15 minutes. Not much bang for the buck.

The philosophers tell us we are misled if we seek applause, potentially even corrupted by our desire. Better, they say, to be honorable, courageous, and kind than to be well-known. Here is what Marcus Aurelius wrote:

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.

I now care less about getting good notices than in my youth, but not to the point of total indifference. Should I ever reach full maturity, my ego will be effaced and applause won’t matter at all. Like when I’m 400 years old.

I raise the issue since I am newly honored by receiving the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. I will admit, I was pleased and amused. I know it was offered sincerely by the wonderful blogger Spacefreedomlove. I am tickled because it is one of the fun things bloggers do to entertain themselves, say thanks, increase their readership, and bring a smile. Over analysis of this writers’ chain letter? Perhaps. I am simply grateful for a small tip of the cap from someone I appreciate, as she does me, from our writings and commentary and an ability to make each other laugh and think. She is a peach.

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WordPress reminded me, a few days before, that my blog is six years old. Toilet trained, vaccinated, and ready to start first grade. Earlier in this “career” I received the Beautiful Blogger Award. 

Despite the doubtful evidence of the photo in the top right corner, I was once absolutely beautiful. Way back, I was known everywhere as a stud muffin, trailing crowds of admirers behind me. I had to fend off women with an electric cattle prod. Then I woke up.

Gorgeous or not, I’m sure one of my reasons for blogging is to get attention. Not the only reason, however. I began with the clear idea of leaving a piece of myself (or at least a few electronic footprints) for my children and potential grandchildren. I never had the talent or grandiosity to believe I would transform the world or deposit a permanent mark on the planet. Talent often fuels grandiosity, leading to a vain pursuit of a satisfying level of recognition. Vain because, like money, there are always people with more of it, leaving the seeker bummed out.

I’ve been modest in my aims, in part because I had an early awareness of my limitations, which helped me to accept some things in life. To paraphrase Arthur Miller, we all try to scratch our name on a block of ice during a sweltering mid-summer day. Unlike his Death of a  Salesman character, Willy Loman, however, I don’t care that the autograph is not inscribed in stone.

My grandiosity does extend, nonetheless, to the pleasure I get in giving an occasional speech. The neat thing about oratory is you receive immediate feedback. Even before the applause, you sense whether you quieted the crowd and won their focus. Laughter tells you about the quality of your humor. Tears report back if the heart has been touched.

Blog post feedback, however, says less and does so later. Even if you get lots of “likes” and comments, average “readers” are said to spend 96 seconds attending to a blog post. I’ve had sneezes that lasted longer. A discouraging statistic, for sure. Inner necessity drives me, but I am not indifferent to being read. I suspect I would not journal forever were the words a secret.

Back to the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. The conditions of the honor required me to post the picture of it up top, nominate a few bloggers to receive the same distinction, and answer the seven questions below. First to a couple of bloggers who inspire me:

Three Worlds One Vision. Rosaliene Bacchus is a fierce defender of the dispossessed and disadvantaged, not to mention our fragile planet. She has lived in three countries on two continents and experienced more than her measure of hardship. She will not make you laugh as a rule, but may motivate you to march in the name of something good.

The Empress and the Fool. I might be the only man who reads about this teacher’s journey through the medical and emotional trial of trying to produce a baby. Her writing is lovely and she is on her way to an offspring. No newborn has ever been more loved ahead of its vault into the daylight.

Now to the seven questions I must answer:

Who is your favorite public figure? This was a tough one. I don’t admire many public figures. That said, I will give you two.

  • Senator Elizabeth Warren. A super bright, bold, sincere woman who seems to say what she believes. Should she make herself a candidate for President, I will reconsider, since that would suggest she isn’t smart enough to refrain from putting her hand in the ultimate political meat grinder. Running for President pretty much guarantees your judgment is poor.
  • Jonathan Kimble “J. K.” Simmons, the big, bad, band guy in Whiplash. He can play any role, from comic to kind to cruel. He is getting his due, at last. However meaningless, it would be difficult for him (or any of us in the same spot) not to care.

What do I like most? After removing love from the picture, classical orchestral music. Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart and many others are on this lover’s list.

Do you follow trends?  I had to look up the 2014 list of trends. Only numbers two, four, and 10 rang a bell. I was afraid to find out what #6 was. I guess that answers the question.

1. Bae
2. Benedict Cumberbatch
3. Turnt up
4. The booty
5. Yik Yak
6. Man buns
7. Kimye
8. Normcore
9. “Frozen” mania
10. Ice Bucket Challenge

What do you do when someone gets angry?
If I’m on my game, I wait. As I ponder, I’m trying to decide what part of the rageful message I can agree with, thereby getting on the other person’s metaphorical side of the table. Confrontation is out. I slow things down and make sure my emotions are in check. If none of this helps, it is best to suspend the discussion for another time or walk away.

What have you loved most?
Without question, my children and my wife, as unlike as those loves are. How remarkable that a thing named love takes such different forms as the love of a spouse and of a child.

Do you have causes?
The Zeolite Scholarship Fund, a college scholarship program I began with seven of my high school buddies in the year 2000. We are in the process of closing down. Everything has a beginning and an end.

What quality do you admire most.
I learn more from those who are honest, critical, and direct with me than those who are kind. Honesty — including honesty with oneself — takes courage and risks disapproval and the loss of recognition. Many self-interested souls get plaudits, but the honest whistle-blower gets forgotten if he is lucky, despised if he is not. Truth-telling integrity is a thing more important than the status I mentioned at the start. So let us finish where we began, although I hope the topic still resonates after you read this. The words are those of T.S. Elliot:

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.

A Christmas Story: Telling the Truth and Breaking the Heart

Was she seven years old? I don’t remember my eldest daughter’s exact age when she asked the question:

“Dad, is Santa Claus real? Nicole (a friend in school) said he isn’t.”

I had learned long before this, the value and importance of being honest.

I looked at Jorie, but perhaps could not see just how invested she was in her belief in Santa.

What I could see, however, was that she trusted me. And, in the few moments before I answered, I quickly determined that I could not break that trust.

“No Sweetie, he isn’t.”

I can still see her little face melt into a waterfall of tears. I comforted her as best I could; so did her mom.

It was not the last time that I caused pain to someone I love, but I think it was the first time I’d done this to any child of mine.

Welcome to the real world, honey; the place where things aren’t always as they seem or as we would like them to be. A place where hard reality trumps fantasy; a place where someone who “loves you to pieces” tells you something that breaks your heart into pieces.

That was a long time ago. I’ve wondered what else I might have done instead; something to save this little person from the pain of a message amenable to postponement.

Should I have said, “What do you think, Sweetie?” Was there a possible Socratic dialogue — an artfully crafted sequence of questions leading her to the same truth and not hurt so much?

Could I have tried to change the subject, to avoid the answer and let her continue to believe anything she wanted?

Or, should I have simply lied? “Of course there is a Santa, Sweetie.” And then left her open to the potential ridicule of friends, as well as some doubts about whether her dad was trustworthy.

Janet Landman, in her book Regret: the Persistence of the Possible, likens regret to the dilemma of coming to a fork in the road and making a choice. You walk down the chosen road for a while, before you realize it isn’t quite as good as you had hoped. Eventually you conclude, “I probably should have taken the other path.”

It really doesn’t matter which road you choose. Nothing in life is perfect. But in your imagination the alternative remains idealized. Only in your mind, in the world of abstraction and fantasy, does perfection reside — the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect result, the perfect performance of whatever kind.

And, for me, the perfect answer to a simple question.

Sometimes in life there is no ideal solution, no right path, only a bunch of imperfect possibilities. And, of course, we never know what it would have been like to choose the other road at that precise moment. Because, as Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” Meaning that with the passage of time, the river has changed, and so have you.

No, you cannot un-ring the bell. No do-overs when it comes to the knowledge of whether Santa is real.

We must live with the inevitable heart breaks, whenever they come. In the one life we have, we can never be quite certain what would have happened had we lived it differently.

Ultimately, one can only accept the terms life allows. The contract we (metaphorically) sign by having the audacity to take our first breath at the moment of our birth allows for no escape clause from hard knocks. Not, at least, while life goes on.

I still wish I could have protected Jorie from the terrible knowledge I delivered so innocently that day, not just the knowledge about Santa, but about life. Indeed, as I think about it, it isn’t the knowledge from which I wish I could have sheltered her, it is from the pain of life itself.

But, such things are not in our power. Life will have its way with us. If we are lucky, we will also have the compensations of beauty, joy, friendship, laughter, learning, and love.

Jorie and I lost a little innocence that day.

The good news?

Our love abides.

Unfaithful and Feeling Guilty: Now What?

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Infidelity happens. I’m not condoning it, but humans are known for mistakes, and this is simply another example of our fallibility. Still, what should you do if you have realized the error and broken off the affair? Assuming that your spouse or significant other doesn’t already know what happened, should you confess?

Let’s add two more conditions to the hypothetical situation that I’m describing: first, that you feel guilty; and second, that you have no intention of ever violating your partner’s trust again. Let us further assume that it is unlikely that your spouse will find out about the affair from someone else.

This, in other words, is one of those moments between you and your conscience. I’ve counseled people who felt so guilty that they believed they had no choice but to confess. I’ve also treated people who didn’t tell, believing that they would injure the spouse unnecessarily.

Sometimes these affairs are very old. I remember the first patient who reported a situation such as this to me. The infidelity had actually happened years before. It had gone on for a few months, then ended. The man had been faithful ever since and, it was clear, had every intention of being faithful from then until the end of time. But he felt terrible about what he had done and couldn’t shake the feeling despite the passage of time.

One consideration that such a person needs to take into account is that, for the spouse, the event is new when it is uncovered, even if it happened years ago. The wound happens at the moment of discovery or confession and doesn’t exist until that time (assuming that no STD has been communicated). But once the indiscretion is revealed, the emotions of anger and sadness are triggered, as is the sense of betrayal, and the lack of trust. Even if the infidelity is 100 years old, it typically feels to the injured party as if it happened today. And the long climb back to marital accord now begins, with no guarantee that the summit will be reached and good relations will be reestablished.

So, what if you don’t tell your spouse? Will your guilt last forever, undiminished? That depends on an enormous number of factors, including your religion (if any), your anxiety that your husband or wife will eventually find out (no matter how unlikely that might be in reality), your need for forgiveness/absolution, your ability to rationalize mistakes, your own capacity to forgive yourself, and so forth. If you need absolution and have a religious background, confessing to a priest, or fasting and prayer on the Jewish “Day of Atonement” might be helpful, depending on your particular faith. Therapists sometimes also serve the role of unofficial confessor.

If you were hoping that I would give you a clear answer, a “right” way to handle this situation, I undoubtedly have disappointed you. I frankly don’t think there is a right or wrong way in this type of case, at least not in the abstract. There are only ways that work better or worse; well, less well, or poorly; and it will depend not only on your own psychology, but the psychological makeup of your spouse. Thus, a solution that might be effective or useful for one couple, might be awful for another and lead to the end of the marriage.

Best, of course, not ever to be unfaithful. But, as I said at the start, these things do happen and, when they do, can have an overwhelming emotional wallop on all concerned. How you handle it shouldn’t be automatic. Much depends on your decision.

Choose wisely. As carpenters like to say, “Measure twice, cut once.” And know that the news will “cut.”

The above image is called Pashtun Couple by Arsalan Khan, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Tricks of the Trade

Some quotations require no comment. Here is one from a legendary baseball player of the 1950s and 1960s:

“Some people are so busy
learning the tricks of the trade
that they never learn the trade.”

–Vernon Law (Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher)