How Much Do You Think About Your Future?

“What dreams may come?” wondered Hamlet as he considered whether “to be, or not to be.” The potential of an afterlife of nightmares stopped him short of self-murder. For the rest of us, the time beyond today is either ignored, dreaded, colored in unending rainbows; or maybe even calmly planned.

Experience suggests that whatever comes will include both good and bad; and depend, in part, on how we approach it.

One’s individual weather forecast depends, to a degree, on his history and inborn, genetic disposition. Yes, there are born optimists or born pessimists. Guess who has more fun?

Cognitive behavior therapists help the latter group’s struggle with catastrophization. The counselor trains his patient to recognize the error within the terror of anticipated disaster when little realistic likelihood exists. The worst of life is best encountered in the moment. Don’t pour worry over yourself, like a sticky syrup mucking-up every day. “Borrowing trouble” comes at much expense, killing our ambitions before they begin.

When we do think past the horizon, some of us mistakenly focus on only half of what must be done to raise our prospects. It is not enough to quit an awful marriage or job, despite the immediate relief of departure. What comes after? Ask how you deposited yourself in a swamp? Envision a destination and a plan of attack. None of this is easy.

I know people who need a permanent set of attached binoculars to check out next steps. Some take bodily risks. Think prodigious drinking, eating, or drugging. Nor do I speak of the ones who simply deny their self-abuse. Too many possess the “talent” (or curse) of shutting off their brains when offered a drink or walking into a restaurant: an unconscious, dissociative process like a selective amnesia. A hour earlier they intended to pass by the cocktail or the quarter-pounder with cheese. Faced with the devilish dilemma, the brain takes a vacation — temporarily closes-off a sliver of awareness. One might think of it as the sky on a clear day, but for one cloudy portion.

The future is a trickster. His opening act makes us believe we own an unused bank vault full of years. For those who do survive, unlived time is most often neither so wonderful or terrible as we imagine. Humans hedonically adapt. After a period of euphoria we tend to move back to our “set point:” our usual level of emotional equanimity or distress. Time’s passage also elevates our spirits from the first awfulness of many seeming disasters. Review your history. You might find lots of misfortune from which you bounced back.

Truth is, we are poor affective forecasters — weak at predicting the emotional residue of our adventures. Psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Tim Wilson tells us this leads to “miswanting.” We guess we will like some choices more than we do when they happen, in addition to “mispredicting” how long strong feelings will last afterward.

You think a $10,000 raise offers sustained joy? Most likely not for long. Simply put, after a year or two, most of us feel about the same as we did before the wonderful or terrible thing happened.

If you dislike the fallible weatherman, examine your prognostic success. In 10-years-time you could be surprised by how much you change and how those alterations complicate your ability to make predictions about what you will enjoy:

While I’m giving crystal ball warnings, beware of “bucket lists.” Other than people like my old buddy Ron Ableman, I knew many who kicked the bucket before they reached the list inside. Another group believed their long-awaited trip to Paris, for example, would have held more enchantment in the springtime of their life.

If you peg your well-being to winning an Olympic gold metal or some similar recognition, reconsider. Someone will win the distinction, but far more won’t. The impossible dream is the graveyard of life satisfaction. Instead, enjoy the process and more probable rewards along the way. A spot on the highest podium while your national anthem plays then will be the cherry on top.

The difficulty of depending on tomorrow for all your pleasure is well-described by Dan Greenburg and Marcia Jacobs. Their funny and all-too-true book is called How to Make Yourself Miserable.

The authors believe we manage the dreariness of our regular duties by looking toward to THE WEEKEND.

Unfortunately …

By Saturday morning you may be vaguely aware that Friday night wasn’t as great as you hoped it would be, but you don’t have much time to think about it because … you are still looking forward to the climax of THE WEEKEND — Saturday night. By Sunday afternoon, however, it is all over. Hope is dead. There is nothing further for you to look forward to, except the gloomy prospect of Monday morning and another whole week of drudgery at a job or school you detest. The weekend — like your life — can at last be viewed in its correct perspective: one colossal letdown, one gigantic anticlimax. On Sunday afternoon you are free to ponder all the great times you felt sure lay ahead, but never quite materialized.

We do need to suppose something better is in the offing — somewhere, somehow — and energize the resolve to get there. All those who trod a long educational road toward a career valued the lofty goal. The fathers of our antique religions realized the worth of a heavenly reward — a world without gravity — for the grave circumstances we ofttimes endure on earth. But, as Greenburg and Jacobs recognized, laughing at ourselves helps too, and sooner.

Just as a predictable joke is never funny, the most remarkable opportunities and joys take you by surprise.

In my own temporary stay on the planet, for example, I never contemplated that I might become a consultant to more than one major sports team. The unsought path just revealed itself.

Sure, I passed through down times and understand more will come, but I find little profit in attempting to improve the distance-vision of the nearsighted man I am. Indeed, if I live long enough, I’ll hesitate before buying unripe bananas. Most senior citizens are wise not to take a mental leap forward. They do well to make every day count.

Nothing is static. Expect sunny days and stormy weather and many partly cloudy skies. The ability to adjust to conditions is a skill necessary for you and me, both.

The largest portion of our contentment comes not beyond our noses, but by grabbing the beauty near at hand.

Of course, I have a surgically reconstructed left knee, so she may elude me.

—–

More on affective forecasting.

The first image, What Lies Ahead, was sourced from Eurotimes.org. The art work that follows is The Future of Statues, by Rene Magritte. It was sourced from Wikiart.org.

 

 

Do You Understand? A Simple Question That Isn’t Simple

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Being invited by a beautiful woman to “knock me up” does not always mean what a virile American male might think. Were a female from the UK making the request, there is a good chance she asked you to come to her residence or awaken her. A man might as easily suggest the same. Achieving comprehension of speech is no sure thing.

In the course of conversation we often ask, “Do you understand?” Dictionaries tell us if the question is followed by a “yes,” real understanding exists.

I say, not so fast. Let me give you another example.

I remember treating a two child, two adult family. The boy was between 10 and 12, his sister much younger. I’d been seeing them all for some time when the household came to their appointment in a state of alarm. The dad wished to talk with me alone. He said his boy had threatened to “rape his sister.” I wanted details, including whether the father had questioned his young man’s understanding of the word “rape.” “Yeah, I asked him if he understood me — knew the meaning — and he said he did.”

I then spoke with the son alone. This gentle but troubled and ashamed boy recounted the incident. I requested him to tell me, in his own words, the definition of rape. The answer was some version of “beating-up” his younger sibling because she teased him. It was a word he got from TV.

Wanting to strike his tiny tormentor was not a thing to be encouraged, but it wasn’t rape. Everyone was relieved once I explained. Comprehension can go wrong in unpredictable ways. Indeed, if you ignore this you are going to create a large number of miscommunications.

First, imagine how often we ask someone, “Do you understand?” or are so queried by our conversational partners. The expression is conventional, polite, and engaging. “Yes” can mean yes, indeed.

Why then does “Yes, I understand,” not come with a guarantee? Here are a few reasons:

  • The person misheard you. Noise in a restaurant, on TV, or outside might have interfered. Perhaps the individual is hearing impaired. Did you mispronounce something?
  • Some people will say “I understand” for fear of appearing stupid.
  • The two individuals in conversation, as in the “knocked up” example, possess different backgrounds: nationality, command of language, unfamiliar jobs, etc. The world of medicine, for instance, is so specialized that not every MD boasts adequate knowledge of another physician’s well-studied sliver of the human body. The same is true of allied health professionals and subdivided technical fields.
  • Differences of experience can encumber conversation. For example, can anyone “understand” being unemployed and poor without “living” this misfortune? Can you fathom the torment of severe illness if never touched by its evil middle finger? How might you acquire the ecstasy of watching your own child born in the absence of being present in the moment itself?
  • If you are youthful can you appreciate the perspective of the aged?
  • By the same token, say you are 75. Will you find yourself capable of dissecting the language of a 15-year-old who was born into a world transformed since you entered in the days of propeller airplanes?
  • A 2013 Reuters/Ipos poll indicated “About 40% of white Americans and about 25% of nonwhite Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race.” Do you believe these circumstances lead either group to comprehend the experiences of the other?
  • Can you adequately imagine possessing towering wealth without being part of the top 1%?

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In conversation, people are searching for meaning, not words. We rush ahead to a conclusion, sometimes too soon. We might even stop listening when others begin speaking!

Now consider how often communications take the form of email or texting. More than a few people hit the “send” button before carefully reflecting on the impact of their message, and how they will feel about having sent their bulletin in an hour, a day, or a week.

What is the best way to achieve understanding on any subject? Be in the same room with your communicant, having first gathered your thoughts. Be careful to require enough time to explain them and the opportunity to find out whether the other person can accurately paraphrase the statement back to you.

This situation offers you several tools to make yourself understood and inform you if your message has been received. You will deliver words, of course, but they can be altered by tone of voice, inflection, volume (loudness), and pace. Body-language, facial expressions, and eye contact are also in your control. As well, you have the opportunity to assess every one of the same elements in your listener as the conversation proceeds.

Should face-to-face communication be impossible, perhaps a phone call will do. Consider, however, the loss of eye contact. Without body-language and facial expressions, the probability of misunderstanding grows. Even skyping usually limits how much can be viewed.

Worst of all is the written word. True, if you are a thoughtful person who is good with language, you can craft your message more exactly than when speaking in conversation. But, once the back-and-forth of an instant-message (IM) or text-message occurs, one loses the opportunity for careful consideration one had in the days of letter-writing. Moreover, you have lost not only the possible message-clarifying assistance of what is observable in the other person’s expressions and posture, but also all the things a telephone still conveys in sound: inflection, emphasis, strain or ease, intensity, urgency, and so forth. Your chance of being misunderstood has multiplied.

A clever old book, How to Make Yourself Miserable, by Dan Greenburg with Marcia Jacobs, describes written communication from a dark but amusing perspective in a section called “Seventeen Masochistic Exercises for the Beginner:”

Write a letter to somebody, mail it, then figure out which part could be most easily misunderstood.

The authors wrote the book well before the days of text-messages, so an update is in order to include the destructive possibilities inherent in those speedy missives. I’m ignoring the limitations of a tweet, but I’m sure Greenburg and Jacobs would address that potential grenade lob, as well.

Sometimes the oldest advice is best: to talk productively about something important or emotionally charged, first take a deep breath and wait. Write if you need to (just to get your feelings out –- don’t send it), speak with friends or a counselor, but slow down before you address the issue with the person himself. Make sure your meeting will allow enough of the day to sort out the details and to ask him/her to paraphrase the crucial points back to you. Beware of the IM or text-message.

If you lived before the Soviet Union collapsed, try to remember when the alarming initials in the daily press were not IM, but ICBM: Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile.

An IM or a text message is a little like that. It might just blow up in your face.

 The top image is called Puzzled Face. It is authored by Christopher Dioux. The second image, Puzzly, is the work of the Wikimedia Foundation. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How To Mess Up a Dinner Date: A Beginner’s Guide to Dating Misery

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You have a date with someone you find enormously appealing. You don’t actually recall the details of how you happened to make the contact. You were at a party, talked to the woman a bit, and discovered her phone number in your pocket when you got home. You’d had too much to drink, so nothing in your memory bank suggests what you discussed. But, when you called her a few days later, she did agree to have dinner with you.

Now what?

Rather than tell you precisely what to do, I will take the opposite stance: don’t do what you read below!

Instead, reflect on the fact that people, perhaps including yourself, have engaged in the acts I am about to describe. These faux pas apply to both sexes. In the game of dating, we are all at risk of being that guy (or girl). Also, note that I’ve exaggerated some of this poor advice for the sake of making it more obvious. But again, don’t do it!

On occasion I will say just a few words about how to approach the dinner date experience so that you actually increase your chances of having a good time. I will highlight these affirmative suggestions by placing them in capital letters and italics so that you can tell them from the disastrous behaviors that make up most of this essay.

YOUR PRE-DATE GAME PLAN:

1. As a first step in destroying your confidence, consider that this woman does not really know who you are. Now, I don’t mean this in the sense that she has very little knowledge of your inner workings and life history. Rather, I’m referring to the chance of mistaken identity. She likely envisions a tall, handsome, witty character with whom she shared martinis, moonlight, and flirtatious banter (or was that the guy named Steve?). Regardless, once you arrive at her door, she is likely to realize two very important things: she is sober and you are not Steve.

2. Continue to ponder the possibility that your muse imbibed too many Cosmopolitans during your initial encounter a few days ago. Now reflect on the fact that your friends have often told you, “Dude, you’re way funnier when you are drinking.” You can now reasonably conclude that your date either does not know who you are or she does, but you looked and sounded a lot better when you both were intoxicated.

3. Having ruminated about the first two items for several hours (to the point of a ruinous case of pre-date jitters), jot down a list of every bad date you’ve ever had. Think back to all the humiliations, all the rejections, and especially the time that you got nauseous at Chili’s. Now extend your attention to your miniscule place in the universe, thereby further reducing your confidence.

4. Remember that one of the potential problems in meeting anyone new is that you can run out of things to say. Knowing this, write down a list of potential conversation topics. Then open your window and scream “Adios blow-up doll! No more inflatable girls for me. I have a date with a real live woman!” Make sure that you are loud enough so your neighbors can hear you.

5. Recalling that your date said on the phone that she loves Thai food, choose a dinner destination based solely on your own palate. Your reasoning? Women don’t eat in front of guys on first dates, right?

6. Remember that appearance is key to a successful first date. At the same time, however, consider that paying too much attention to grooming could be seen as a weakness. The solution to this dilemma? Rely on the words your incarcerated father once told you, that there is nothing to fear when you drench your body for 30 seconds with Axe Body Spray.

  • REAL ADVICE: DON’T DEFEAT YOURSELF BEFORE YOU GET STARTED. TRY TO REMEMBER WHY YOU WANT TO GO OUT WITH THIS PERSON AND REALIZE THAT SHE IS ALMOST CERTAINLY LOOKING FORWARD TO GETTING TO KNOW YOU AND HAVING A GOOD TIME. YOU CAN DRIVE YOURSELF CRAZY WITH ANTICIPATION AND PREPARATION. DO TRY TO LOOK YOUR BEST, BUT, IN THE END, YOU ARE WHO YOU ARE. IF YOUR DATE IS COMPATIBLE WITH YOU, SHE IS NOT EXPECTING THAT SHE IS ABOUT TO GO OUT WITH THE FIRST FLAWLESS PERSON IN HISTORY.

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THE DATE ITSELF:

7. If you are prone to hugging “hello,” go ahead. But remember — you want to make an impression. Therefore you must squeeze your date’s bottom a minimum of three times in quick succession during the embrace. Why three? Because you don’t want her (or him) to think that the first two squeezes were an accident. This will definitely get noticed. If you are a man, it will tell your companion that you are a rude, overconfident caveman. If you are a woman, it will inform your new acquaintance that you are in heat.

  • REAL ADVICE: WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T DO ANY BOTTOM SQUEEZING OF THIS NEW PERSON, UNLESS YOU WANT HER TO CALL THE POLICE OR KICK YOU IN THE GROIN!

8. Upon arriving at the restaurant, realize that you left your list of conversation topics at home and that you have no recollection of what it included. If you are a drug abuser, this is the perfect time to go to the restaurant men’s room and snort a quick line of coke.

9. When you return from the W/C, begin to focus on your facial expression and body language. Your internal monologue should sound something like:

a. “Am I moving my hands too much?”
b. “Did I just scowl?”
c. “Is my eyelid twitching?”
d. “Did I leave some coke on my face?”

  • REAL ADVICE: IF YOU CONCENTRATE ENOUGH ON WHAT YOU ARE SAYING AND DOING, HOW YOU LOOK, AND EVERY CONCEIVABLE INADVERTENT LAPSE FROM SOME IMAGINARY STANDARD OF BEHAVIORAL PERFECTION, YOU WILL BE UNABLE TO ACCOMPLISH WHAT YOU SHOULD BE DOING: ENJOYING THE COMPANY OF A POTENTIALLY INTERESTING AND LOVELY PERSON WHO WANTS TO GET TO KNOW YOU.

10. Back to what you shouldn’t do: be very conscious of the possibility that you may become uncontrollably aroused by the feminine charms of your companion, to the point of levitating the rather low table at which you are seated, thus drawing the attention of everyone in the restaurant. Should this happen, do one of the following:

a. Make no eye contact at all with your companion.
b. Keep your eyes laser-focused on the woman until she asks you if you have a staring problem.
c. Look at and speak to her cleavage, not her.

11. Sprinkle the conversation with the “F” word. You know, “this” and “F that;” “F him” and “F her.” Use the words “whore” and “bitch” enough to give your companion a good sense of your opinion of women. Belch whenever possible. Sneeze on to the femme fatale’s food. Take things off her plate without asking.

12. Your dating disaster will only be complete if you offer Ms. Right some illegal drugs. Carry a full array of products in your brief case. She will consider the offer enormously thoughtful of you.

13. From the beginning to the end of the night tell your heart-throb that she is beautiful, gorgeous, stunning, etc. Ignore her when she implores you to stop. Keep doing it until she begins to scream the “F” word you taught her in step #11.

  • REAL ADVICE: DO GIVE A SMALL NUMBER OF COMPLIMENTS, BUT BE SENSITIVE TO WHETHER YOUR DATE IS COMFORTABLE WITH THIS. WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T GO OVERBOARD. WITH EVERY ADDITIONAL COMPLIMENT, YOU RISK MAKING YOURSELF SEEM EITHER INSINCERE OR TOO ENAMORED OF YOUR COMPANION TOO SOON IN THE RELATIONSHIP. ALLOW THERE TO BE SOME MYSTERY AS TO YOUR FEELINGS, NOT SLAVE-LIKE DEVOTION FROM THE START OF THINGS.

14. Talk politics or religion from an early point in your dinner. Take impossibly extreme positions, always being careful to communicate that anyone who doesn’t agree with you is an idiot. Pick a fight if you can.

15. Do not let your new friend speak. Interrupt her whenever possible. Dominate the discussion. Talk only about yourself. Ask her no questions about herself and show no interest when she does manage to say something. Discuss past girlfriends and how lucky they were to have you in their lives. Praise yourself and your wisdom ad nauseam.

Alternatively, put yourself down at every opportunity. Look to this woman for reassurance. Lapse into a fetal position. Display as much self-doubt as you can. Tell her in great detail about your lifetime of therapy. Make it clear that unless she is falling in love with you, your life will be forever meaningless.

  • REAL ADVICE: NEW RELATIONSHIPS GENERALLY WORK BEST WITH A GRADUAL APPROACH TO SHARING INSECURITIES AND VERY PERSONAL INFORMATION. A FIRST DATE IS NOT THE SAME THING AS WRITING A MEMOIR OR ENTERING THE CATHOLIC CHURCH’S CONFESSIONAL BOOTH AND ASKING FORGIVENESS FOR ALL YOUR SINS. DO TAKE YOUR TIME IN GETTING TO KNOW THIS NEW PERSON.

16. See how many other hot women you can flirt with in the course of the evening. If your date fails to notice, be sure to point out the babes and mention the physical attributes that appeal to you.

17. Keep your cell phone on the dinner table and check it frequently. Text while you talk. Use the phrase “Did you say something?” as often as possible.

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18. When the bill comes, say that you forgot to put enough money in your wallet, but “I will totally make it up to you during the porn flick I picked for later in the evening at my apartment.”

19. At the end of the night, despite numerous signs that your female friend can’t wait to be away from you (including her mentioning that she is going to move to Paraguay tomorrow), make every effort to be a stud. Specifically, try for a good night kiss that would make a plumber proud; or, if you prefer, a surgeon who wants to get deep enough inside her mouth to perform a tonsillectomy.

POST DATE WRAP-UP:

Congratulations! You have not only guaranteed your own loneliness, but managed to give your date a case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Once she recovers she will tell others about you. With any luck, most of the female population of your community will be on the alert, having seen your photo on Facebook. It is only a matter of time before small children will point at you in the street, laughing so uncontrollably that they begin to burp up their lunch.

  • REAL ADVICE: OK, THE DISASTER DESCRIBED IN THIS POST IS A GROSS EXAGGERATION. BUT, KNOWING WHAT NOT TO DO CAN HELP YOU AVOID CREATING A REGRETTABLE EVENING FOR YOURSELF AND YOUR FUTURE LADY FRIEND.
  • MORE REAL ADVICE: ON THE OFF-CHANCE THAT YOUR CONFIDENCE HAS NOT BEEN FULLY DESTROYED BY DATING EXPERIENCES ANYTHING LIKE THIS, THERE ARE SEVERAL STEPS YOU CAN TAKE: SEARCH YOUR PERSONALITY AND BEHAVIOR FOR POSSIBLE SIGNS OF OVERCONFIDENCE, INSINCERITY, OR INSECURITY. VOW TO CHANGE. ASK FRIENDS (AND EVEN WOMEN YOU’VE DATED) WHAT TURNED THEM OFF. FIND A GOOD THERAPIST. ALL THIS TAKES INCREDIBLE COURAGE AND EFFORT, BUT CAN BE VERY INFORMATIVE. AS I HOPE YOU’VE LEARNED, RUINING A DATE CAN TAKE JUST AS MUCH ENERGY.
  • ONE LAST BIT OF REAL ADVICE: DON’T MAKE A DINNER DATE A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH. IF YOU DO, YOU WILL DIE A LOT!

This essay comes from Chapter 24 of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Ruining Your Life.

The top image is a Joker by David Bellot. It is followed by a Goofy Smirk by Bruce from San Francisco. The final painting is entitled The Desperate Man by Gustav Courbet, dating from 1843. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to Make Yourself and Those You Love Miserable

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It is easy to find on-line guidance to a better life. But the recommendations contained on those self-help web sites (and in books that aim at the same audience) have become almost too commonplace to make any impact.

The remedy? Something that is just the opposite: a list of suggestions on how to make yourself and others miserable. Of course, I’m not wishing that you follow these directions. Rather, I’m hoping that some of you who might yawn at still another list of “things to do” to improve your life, will be struck by the things you already do that make it much worse.

Here goes:

  • Regularly compare your material and financial circumstances to others, especially to those who are doing better than you are.
  • Make a list of all the people who have wronged you over the years and try to remember exactly how awful they made you feel. Think about those who owe you an apology. Forgive no one. Let no slight be too small to dwell on it.
  • Carry on a vendetta. Stay up late at night planning and plotting how you might get back at people. Stay angry. Let all your hatred out in blistering, profane, and cowardly “flames” behind the mask of the Internet.
  • Give your children gifts rather than your time. Set no limits on them. Then wait until they are teenagers and wonder why they are depressed or rebellious.
  • Curse the darkness, the winter, the cold, the rain, the frailty of the human condition, and all the other things that you can’t change.
  • Get impatient with the people who are walking in front of you at a snail’s pace, the couples whose bodies and shopping carts block the entire grocery aisle, and the slow progress of the check-out line at the store.

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  • Make no contribution to the betterment of humanity. Assume an attitude of entitlement. Figure out how to avoid work. Idle away your time. Ask “what your country can do for you,” not “what you can do for your country” in opposition to JFK’s 1960 inaugural address admonition.
  • Forever rationalize your dishonorable or questionable behavior or deny it altogether, even to yourself.
  • Persuade yourself that you need to wait until you feel better before you do the difficult thing that you have been postponing. Keep waiting, even if the time never comes when you believe that you can take action.
  • Do not let conversation with your spouse or children get in the way of watching TV. Keep the TV on most of the time, most importantly at family dinners. If possible have a television in every room.
  • Ignore the beauty of a spring or summer day, the newly fallen snow, and the cheerful laugh of small child. Stay in-doors as much as possible, year round.

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  • Allow yourself to be upset by overpaid, under-performing athletes who doom the home team to continued failure. Yes, Cubs fans, this means you!
  • Treat emotions of sadness, tenderness, and hurt as your enemy. Push them away and thereby alienate yourself from yourself. Curtail grieving and try to deaden your feelings to the point of numbness.
  • Work up as much hatred as possible toward opposition political parties. Listen to every talking head who wants to whip you into a frenzy.
  • Expect justice and fairness in all things.
  • Drink too much, drug too much, and spend every extra minute on the web or playing computer games instead of having direct human contact with someone who is in the same room with you. Further distract yourself from your problems by watching TV and listening to music. Escape reality.

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  • Keep using failed solutions to your problems even though they haven’t worked in years, if ever.
  • Behave in mid-life the way you did as a young person; or, if you are a young person, behave the way you did as a child. Do not reflect on or learn from experience which might teach you something new.
  • Use others instrumentally. That is, value them only in terms of what they can do for you. Lie, cheat, betray, and steal from them if that serves your interests. Then wonder why people mistrust you.
  • Spend as much time as possible worrying about the future and regretting the past, rather than living in the irreplaceable moment.
  • Aim low. Avoid the disappointment that comes with high expectations. When the going gets tough, quit.
  • Train yourself to be a miser. Practice selfishness. Hold on to your money as if you expect to live forever and will need every last cent. Make Scrooge from A Christmas Carol your hero.

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  • Judge others less fortunate than you are by using the phrases “he should have known better,” “he didn’t try hard enough,” and the like. Assume that all people deserve whatever misfortune befalls them. Disdain compassion, but remain puzzled when others call you heartless.
  • Indulge in every available excess: unprotected sex, food, spending, smoking, caffeine, etc. Don’t exercise. Ignore medical advice and, even better, avoid going to your doctor. Treat your body badly and then wonder why it betrays you.
  • Be sarcastic, passive-aggressive, and indirect whenever you are injured rather than looking someone in the eye and expressing your displeasure in a straight-forward fashion.
  • Avoid facing things. Give in to your fears, anxieties, and phobias.

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  • Don’t let anyone know you well. Believe that your vulnerabilities will always be used against you. Keep social interactions on the surface. Eschew intimacy and maintain your distance, thinking that this is the best way to avoid personal injury. Trust no one!
  • Assume that the normal social rules regarding fidelity to friends and lovers don’t apply to you. Hold on to a double-standard that favors you.
  • Insist on having your way. Don’t compromise. Don’t consider others’ needs or wants. Assume a position of moral superiority, self-righteousness, and arrogance in things religious, political, and personal.
  • Do everything others ask of you. Rarely say “no.”
  • Try to control people and events as much as you can. Don’t go with the flow. Micromanage. Hover over others. Repeat complaints to them incessantly. Remind subordinates, friends, spouses, and children of small errors, even if they are ancient history.
  • Make no significant effort to better your life. Depend on others to take care of you and make all significant decisions for you. Be a burden.
  • Raise all your children exactly the same way even though it is obvious that they are not all the same.
  • Imitate vampires (who have no reflection in the mirror and therefore keep their mirrors shrouded) by never really looking hard at your own reflection in the looking-glass. That is, never take a frank inventory of your strengths and weaknesses or the mistakes you’ve made. Be like the evil queen in Snow White, whose only desire was that the mirror would tell her that she was “the fairest of them all.”
  • Whenever you talk with someone, wonder what they really mean, pondering the possibility that they find you boring, stupid or physically unattractive.
  • Feed yourself on gossip more than food. Delight in talking about others behind their backs.
  • Value beauty, appearance, reputation, and material success over integrity, knowledge, kindness, hard work, and love.
  • Try to change others, but do not try to change yourself. Take no responsibility for your life circumstances, instead blaming those who have stymied you.
  • Stay just as you are regardless of changing life conditions. For example, if wearing warm clothes worked for you when you lived in Alaska, continue to wear them when you move to Arizona in July.

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  • Don’t forgive yourself. Maintain the most perfectionistic and demanding moral and performance standard even if you are not a brain surgeon. Stay up at night castigating yourself over every imperfection, no matter how small.
  • Make a list of all the things that are wrong with your life, all the opportunities lost, every heartbreak, and the physical features and bodily changes that you don’t like. Stew in your own juices. Salt your wounds. Pick at your scabs.
  • Take everything personally.
  • Permit friends, family, and co-workers to walk all over you. Do not stand up to them for fear of causing offense and disapproval.
  • Discount your blessings. Concentrate on the dark side of life.
  • Never even consider going into psychotherapy. Assume that this is something only for those who are weak and that anyone who needs to grapple with emotional issues in counseling demonstrates a failure of will power and logic.

With thanks for the inspiration for this essay to Dan Greenberg and Marcia Jacobs, co-authors of a very funny, but ironic book entitled How to Make Yourself Miserable.

The top image is Grief by Edgar Bertram Mackenna. The video frame that follows is from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural speech. The next image is Sommerblumenstrauss by A. Gundelach. The following photo by Andygoodell is A Jack Rose Cocktail. The fifth picture is of two children in Bangladesh by Nafis Kamal, while the sixth is called Chicklet-Currency courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. After the image from Disney’s Snow White, is a 1911 photo of Enrico Caruso, the great Italian tenor. All but the Snow White frame are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Misery Meets Reality TV: Queen For A Day

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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.

Do You Understand Me? On the Dangers of the IM

In the course of conversation, serious or casual, we often ask, “Do you understand?” The conventional wisdom tells us that if the question is followed by a “yes” answer, then real understanding exists.

I say, not so fast. Let me give you an example.

I remember treating  a family that included a son and a daughter. I don’t recall the precise ages of the children, but the boy was probably between 10 and 12, his sister much younger. I’d been seeing the family for some time when the parents came to their appointment in a state of more than usual alarm. The father first wanted to talk with me alone. He said that his son had threatened to “rape his sister.” I asked for the details, including whether the father had questioned his son as to his understanding of the word “rape.” “Yeah, I asked him whether he understood what that meant,” the father told me, “and he said that he did.” I then spoke with the son alone. This gentle but troubled and ashamed boy recounted the incident. Then I asked him to tell me, in his own words, what rape meant. And what came out was some version of “beating-up” his sister because she had been teasing him. Where had he heard the word “rape?” “On TV.”

Not that wanting to beat-up his little sister was a thing to be encouraged, but still, it wasn’t rape that he wanted to do, and everyone was pretty relieved once I explained the details to the parents. The point of this is that it isn’t as easy as we think to achieve “understanding” of what we are saying; indeed, if you think it is easy, you are probably creating a certain number of misunderstandings.

Consider how many serious attempts at communication are done in the form of email. Too many people routinely hit the “send” button before they have carefully reflected on how their message will be understood, and how they will feel about having sent that message in an hour or a day or a week.

What is the best way to be understood on any subject, and especially on a subject of importance? Be in the same room as the person with whom you would like to communicate, having first gathered your thoughts; and with the time to explain them and the opportunity to see if the other person can accurately paraphrase what you’ve said back to you. In this situation you will have several sources of information that can be helpful in making yourself understood, and are also available to inform you if your message has been received in the way that you were hoping. You will have words, of course, but also body-language, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, inflections, the volume (loudness) of your speech, the speed with which you utter the words–all of these things, which you can vary as needed.

If you choose not to use face-to-face communication or simply can’t, due to circumstances of time or distance, perhaps a phone call will do. But understand that what you and your partner in conversation might be able to see has now been lost to you. Without the eye contact, body-language, and facial expressions to help you interpret the words you are hearing, the chance of misunderstanding grows.

Worst of all is the written word. True, if you have time and are a thoughtful person who is good with language, you might have added time to craft your written message that isn’t available when simply speaking in conversation. But, once the back-and-forth of an instant-message or text-message communication occurs, one usually loses the time for careful consideration that one had in the days of letter-writing. And you have lost not only the possible message-clarifying assistance of what you can see of the other person’s expressions and posture, but also all the things that a telephone still conveys in sound: inflection, emphasis, strain or ease, intensity, urgency, and so forth. Now your chance of being misunderstood has increased even more.

A very clever old book, How to Make Yourself Miserable by Dan Greenburg with Marcia Jacobs, puts it very well in Exercise #4 from a section called “Seventeen Masochistic Exercises for the Beginner:” “Write a letter to somebody, mail it, then figure out which part could be most easily misunderstood.” Greenberg wrote the book well before the days of IMs and text-messages, so one can only imagine what an update might look like given the destructive possibilities inherent in those speedy missives.

Sometimes the oldest advice is best: when you want to talk about something important or emotionally charged, take a deep breath and wait. Write if you need to (just to get your feelings out–don’t send it), talk to friends or a counselor, but take time before you address the issue to the person himself. And, when you do, if at all possible, do it face-to-face with lots of time to sort out the details. Beware of the IM and the text-message.

And if you are old enough, remember back to the Cold War days when the initials often heard in daily conversation were not IM, but ICBM–meaning Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile.

An IM can be a little bit like that, but might just blow up in your face.